letters from the query wars

# of queries read last week: 219
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 2
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: YA (1), fantasy (1)

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about how the query system is “flawed”, “broken”, etc. (though there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of viable alternatives suggested*). I also see a lot of conflicting advice online about how to write queries. And not just from agents. Writer forums and writer blogs have a stunning amount of advice — about half of which strikes me as tactics that would never work on me or most agents I know. And it seems like some of it may be backfiring. Too much muddying of the waters when all that’s going on is that people are trying to be helpful (with varying degrees of actual success). Some writers sound resentful, intimidated, upset, frustrated. Others simply ignore the guidelines because “writing a query is too hard.”

Now, I’m not going to say that it’s not hard to sum up the book that the writer has spent months, or even years, producing in a way that will make someone want to read it. I think it’s a challenge. And you should definitely give it your best shot. Because, yes, the query is an important part of the initial submission. It sets the stage for reading the synopsis and sample pages. It can reveal things such as the writer’s background, whether their approach is professional, how they see their novel, and other intangible gut feeling responses.

Here’s a quick guide to the query letter to hopefully demystify it a little more:

* Item 1: Most agents want a personalized query. What does this mean? Well, it seems many of my fellow agents are satisfied with a simple use of their name (painfully obvious example: “Dear Ms. Jackson:”). There are so many queries addressed generically, or to huge lists of cc:ed agents — that this alone will give a query a more professional demeanor.

* Item 2: A bit of info about the book itself. Something like: “I am seeking representation for my suspense novel of approximately 100,000 words, titled THE NOVEL I HAVE WRITTEN.” It could also mention here if the book is the start of a series.

* Item 3: The pitch. This is the hardest part, or at least I think it is. This is where the writer’s voice can come through. And the queries where this happens are definitely stand-out. But it’s tricky. Overwriting it can make it stale or too slick. Dashing it off can make it sound thin. So, give it some attention. All it needs to do, though, is this: make clear the protagonist, the conflict/antagonist they are facing, and any details of plot or setting that are important.

* Item 4: A little about the writer. This is the place for relevant publication credits and background. Notice the word relevant. Don’t just pad it out here. If there aren’t any previous publication credits, don’t sweat it. Just skip to the end.

* Item 5: The end: A closing line perhaps thanking the agent for their time in reviewing the query or something like that. Signed with the writer’s name (don’t make them guess what it is) and including the snailmail address, phone number and email address all in one place.

* Item 6: The part after the end: Here’s where whatever additional material the specific agent being contacted has requested in their submission guidelines goes. For the record, I ask for the first five pages of the novel and a synopsis.

Here’s some links to other agents’ guides to queries:
Agent Janet’s Query Letter Checklist: http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/2004/07/query-letter-checklist.html
Agent Nathan’s Query Letter Mad Lib: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2008/03/query-letter-mad-lib.html

So, there you have it: the “simple” art of writing the query. What aspect of query writing/submitting do you find the most challenging?

*Note: Ditch query letters and read every manuscript submitted all the way through is not a viable alternative.

43 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. query/submission
    Great post and one that clearly outlines what we should include in a query. I revised my query several times and attended a query workshop before sending it out. Hopefully, it helped.
    One aspect I find challenging is the timing of when to send things out. Example – I sent out my query, synopsis and first pages confident things were ready. Two days and a few blogs on backstory later, I made changes to my manuscript – including the first pages. Which means I should have waited to send things out. Because now – I can’t really go back and resend with my revised pages.
    Perhaps I need help with learning how to temper the eagerness of wanting to send with the wisdom of knowing when to do so.

  2. Sorry just posted anonymously on accident.
    Sometimes I struggle with what “relevant” means when talking credentials. What helps and what takes up space? Strictly national journals? English major? Wrote a story once for a middle school newspaper?

  3. It took me forEVER to boil my novel down to a paragraph.
    But I did it. And man, it makes me proud to know I did it. *beams at query letter*
    The synopsis, now, I’m still working on that.

    • Don Maass (how fitting for this blog) helped me a bunch in his Breakout Novel Workbook. I’m sure others have said it too, but the there’s a line in there someting like, “If you can’t write your novel into a paragraph, there’s something wrong with your novel.” It’s an important step and thus a triumph no doubt.

      • Oh, agree 100%. I bought the WtBN workbook several months ago and it helped immensely with the WiP, but that’s wrapping up now and I’m really looking forward to starting the new book with the workbook at hand.
        Especially as I did the Nathan Bransford query letter Mad Lib and fizzled out in the second half….

      • My wife keeps me honest by always asking me, “Describe your story to me in one line”. Not that I would shrink it that far in a query, but condensing it that far to myself actually helps me get a handle on what the story is really about when I’m having any kind of trouble with it.
        And it does seem to be good practice for the paragraph-or-two summation of a query.

  4. A number of agents seem to want more “personalization” than just addressing them by name (reasonable), e.g., mentioning some book they’ve agented that’s similar to yours. I find this frustrating, in that I haven’t heard of 95% of their clients, plus it seems sort of needy to me. Would be interested in your views on that.

    • Mentioning a book on the agent’s client list seems very sensible to me, provided you’ve actually READ the book and it is indeed similar to the story you’re pitching. This shows the writer has taken the time to check out the agent before sending the query. It shows that you are familiar with the genre in which you hope to publish and that you read the authors who publish in that genre.
      Frankly, I can’t imagine why you’d query an agent if you’ve never heard of 95% of her clients.

    I hear so much about what not to put in a query, but I’ve never heard what to put in a query so clearly and concisely before. This is GOLD. Thank you.

  6. Thank you. I’ve been tearing my hair out trying to figure out where I’m going wrong. That was great timing.

  7. Though I’ve read similar posts on query letter writing, it’s always nice to read your advice. Makes for a nice refresher.
    Thank you for your time in bringing these points up 🙂

  8. What aspect of query writing/submitting do you find the most challenging?
    The synopsis. I thought writing the hook for my query was hard, but that ended up being a piece of cake compared to writing a good synopsis in less than one page (which seems to be the preferred length according to various writing advice websites). Mine keep turning into plot summaries.
    I’d love to get an agent’s take on what makes a good synopsis, if you ever have the time. 🙂

  9. Thanks for your super helpful post. I am hoping to be ready to work on my query again soon and your guide is really helpful. Any tips on the hardest part of the query, the pitch, would be appreciated, if you ever have time.

  10. I’m with Fred up above me in the comment, the synopsis is where I really struggle. It is nice to know I’ve been doing it right with the query letter!

  11. Definitely summarizing the story is difficult. Especially knowing that my “voice” is supposed to “come through.” (it seems to me that the sample piece ought to do that, but I guess readers don’t get that far if the letter’s not interesting enough . . .)
    And everybody wants a different kind of synopsis. Some want one page, some want more, and some want a blow-by-blow account of novella length.
    (and they don’t always publicize these requirements: they say ” . . . and a synopsis:” no word as to length.

    • That’s my trouble too. I can summarize the story, but then I loose the voice or vice versa. One suggestion I heard that’s helpful is not to try and get across the entire plot but enough to make the agent want to read thoe 5 pages. That’s why you need a sense of character and antagonist, so you know who you’r rooting for and why.

  12. My summary for my query is on version 18. Just wrote version 7 or 8 of the synopsis, and it’s still flawed. Thought the synopsis was easier at first, until I had it critiqued. I’ve had a terrible time not leaving out something important or misrepresenting the actual text in summary.
    The Absolute Write forum has been invaluable for giving me a clue on what to include, as well as having live bodies I could ask questions.

  13. k.alexander said: funny thing is, there are some things you just don’t learn in school. Went to school for fiction writing..great school, but at the end of the day the side of querying and putting together a synopsis wasn’t covered.
    The truth of the matter is, I’ve had to rely on the internet. Agent blogs in particular. Like you, Miss Snark, J. Reid, Nathan and many others. You guys make a difference. You do.
    Yeah, the query and synopsis is hard in a deliciously excruciating kind of way. Like eating really spicy food. Your eyes and nose are running, but it’s just so good.
    A query and synopsis are like that. You sit down, you get up, you pace, you sit down again, you stare at the ceiling, you get up, you clean your toilet…then something hits you. You break through. That’s the fun part.
    Unfortunately, what you think is sheer inspiration one day is utter trash the next, but it’s getting better. A little tighter, more to the point, provocative. Like going to the gym. If you keep at it, you actually become stronger.
    I will always be a work in progress. We’re just like our main characters, slaying dragons, overcoming impossible odds and obstacles. What a great adventure we are.
    As for now, I’ve done all I can do. Jose Cuervo is calling me from across the distance, “Mommy,” he says. “I am waiting for you…impatiently.” Ha!
    All I’m saying is, has your hero ever gotten it easy?

  14. I am apparently a query master. A few years ago, I received several full requests for a novel that was not ready. So my problem was more on the writing end of things. I summarize well for some reason. 😀

    Ms. Jackson,
    I love your blog. It is always informative, so thank you.
    I love this entry for today, it cleared up a lot of questions I have had. I have sent you a query myself which is only the third one I’ve ever sent.
    The first two, I sent to other prospective agents were rejected and didn’t provide any feedback, which is okay.
    Your added touches to steer us in the right direction is always highly appreciated.
    Looking forward to your next post, take care.

  16. And, half of those are probably people who didn’t obey item #s 1-6. Can’t wait to send you my query in a couple months when my WIP is sparkly clean 🙂

  17. For what it’s worth (and the price is free) to others, allow me to suggest a little exercise for writing that short “here’s what my novel is all about” paragraph.
    Try writing drabbles…little stories that a limited to 100 words. It’s amazing what happens when you start editing and trimming to get under that limit. You learn to economize and truly focus. Sometimes you’ll re-write and re-write over and over, finding the best way to trim one word.
    However, if you take the same approach to your story summary, you’ll find the best words and most succinct descriptions. No fluff, just business words that tell the story.

  18. What a fantastic post. In particular, I’m glad you said this: “Most agents want a personalized query. What does this mean? Well, it seems many of my fellow agents are satisfied with a simple use of their name.”
    All this time, I felt bad if all I could find out about an agent was their name, gender, and the fact that they represent my genre. For most agents, even ones whose blogs I read all the time, there’s much more I can say without sounding like a kiss-up.

    • That’s one of the things i worry about – that by personlising the query more than that that I run the risk of sounding like Crazy Google-Stalker Person.
      In this case, I feel less is more.

  19. I think I agonize most over the personalizing part… There’s generally a reason beyond “Yeah, so, I saw your name on a message board…” and I tend to want to mention that other than just using the right name, but I’m pretty sure I come across as either an idiot or someone insincere, or worst of all, an insincere idiot!
    I suppose it largely boils down to issue with voice. I keep reading that I should be myself and convey the style of my novel. But I’m a casual person, not well suited to professional communications. I’m the kind of thirty-something who has dozens of tee-shirts with funny graphics on them and not a single thing I’d call a blouse. I’m naturally a nice person, but when I try to be formal, or even just businesslike, on top of it, I feel like a complete poser.

  20. The waiting. Once you’ve gotten a query letter that you think will pass mustard, it’s pretty much just copying and pasting from the master document, changing a few particulars and either trucking down to the post office or hitting SEND.
    It’s the time in between the sendoff and the door slamming shut that really jerks with you. The longer it goes on, the more you start to tell yourself–against your better judgment–that this could be the one you’re waiting for, that maybe the delay in game is caused by your proposal being passed around the office and everyone nodding sagely at just what a great idea it is to rep this novel. You know you’re not supposed to get your hopes up because you know the odds, but as the days go by you start thinking about your first round of mediocre interviews, what you’ll wear for your publicity photos and author portrait…
    Then you get that door slammed in your face, and you start the process all over again, two months older and in no way wiser.
    That’s the worst part by far.

  21. Great post. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  22. I find the synopsis the hardest part. A query I can kinda do – it doesn’t leave me too much room to stuff up. *grin*
    But the synopsis makes me want to stab myself in the eyes with cocktail umbrellas. It’s mainly because I find it so incredibly difficult to get the voice and tone of the novel across in a synop. I try – but it still comes out reading like a laundry list to me.

  23. The hardest part is writing the pitch in the voice and tone reflected in the story. I think I’ve finally figured this part out after eight years of trying–Hey, what can I say? I’m a slow learner!

  24. Thanks for the setup. It is confusing, and it’s not just random people who conflict. I recently redid my query using Noah Lukeman’s style and then last week Colleen Lindsay posted a query dissection that contradicted a lot of Lukeman’s approach. Yours is a bit of a middle ground between the two.
    Honestly, I could be wrong, but I think if the agent receiving my query clicks with the story, I’ll be forgiven if I’ve followed a style that agent doesn’t prefer. As long as, I suppose, I’ve followed a style at all. Yes, it would be nice if there was one standard approach sort of like the manuscript format, but even there people differ on the font or whether to put one or two spaces after punctuation.
    As for me, I may stress about putting a query together, but I believe in the query. I prefer the query with pages, but really, why bother sending my sociological science fiction novel in full only to discover the agent meant space opera when specifying an interest in science fiction.

  25. Great information here. I thought it was interesting that you said it’s okay to mention if the book is the start of a series. I’ve read conflicting comments on this topic.

  26. “make clear the protagonist, the conflict/antagonist they are facing, and any details of plot or setting that are important.”
    Only one protagonist? Only one conflict? These are assumptions. I’ve got at least three protagonists and two antagonists, each pursuing their own agenda independently of the others, that synergize in a variety of different ways. I have yet to see any useful query advice for multi-threaded ‘plots’ of this sort.

  27. Queries
    The middle part, the part where you have to describe your book and make it sound unforgettable in about 300 words is pretty tough. But I think the query is also a measuring tool for the strength of your work. If I can’t sum it up in three hundred words and make it not only clear but intriguing, something is wrong with my book. In fact, until I can sum it up in one solid sentence and make it sound interesting, I haven’t discovered the heart of my story. I’ve written queries at varying stages of my process and have found that as I’ve progressed and made improvements, the query has come a lot easier.
    It’s also a lot of work to do research and personalize but I can’t understand why people wouldn’t want to do everything possible to strengthen their chances.

  28. The hardest part for me is writing the synopsis
    If you could give a similar set of items for writing the synopsis that would be great. I am always struggling with the level of detail I need to go into, the length, etc. Thanks so much.

  29. The act of judging the quality of fiction is subjective; so is judging its potential salability. So whatever system is used to go through slush is doomed to be fundamentally subjective.
    Since most people submitting believe their work is high quality, most of the time you are going to have the rejected saying the system is “flawed”, and the accepted saying it works beautifully.
    The system is designed to do one thing: to accurately pick out the few works of salable fiction from the mass of unsalable fiction. It’s going to fail sometimes, so I guess in that sense the query process is “flawed”. But I can’t think of a better alternative.
    When the query system DOES produce errors, I think it’s more likely to err on the side of snapping up a well-thought sales pitch with too much enthusiasm, before the book is ready. I think all of us have bought at least one book with an awesome concept, only to find that it wasn’t executed as well as it could have been, turning out good instead of great. This can be a worse disappointment than buying a book that turns out to be flat-out bad.
    Errors the other way — great bestsellers being passed over — happen as well. But if such a book gets rejected 30 times before an agent takes it, it can be hard to tell how many times it was revised in between rejections. If the author kept reworking it every few rejections, steadily improving it, and eventually got accepted, then that doesn’t indict the query process; it vindicates it.

  30. Writer forums and writer blogs have a stunning amount of advice — about half of which strikes me as tactics that would never work on me or most agents I know.
    I’ve seen some amazingly contradictory advice, advice that really comes out of left field (“Don’t mention it could be a series, this is a taboo for first time authors”), even advice that is incredibly nitpicky and random, but presented as “industry standard” (as in exactly how to phrase the “my suspense novel of approximately 100,000 words, titled THE NOVEL I HAVE WRITTEN.” part.)

  31. Well I’m glad to say that your idea of a query letter sounds just like the one I have already written and plan to send to you next month. Here’s a question though, in regards to the synopsis do you prefer a detailed 25 page one or a more streamlined 2 page one? If you will answer that for me you will make me a very happy person. Thanks.

    • I’m not a huge stickler when it comes to synopsis length. Mostly because I see the synopsis as a tool that needs to convey the elements of the novel and that can be variable depending on the novel in question. That said, I do think the 25-page one might be over-zealous at the query stage. I’d recommend 1-5 pages for query submissions. Hope that helps.

      • I’ve been away from the computer for a couple of days, so I’m sorry for the delayed response. Thanks for the advise. A 1-5 page synopsis is much easier than a 25 page one. Thanks again.

  32. Thank you for the insight
    For the last several months, I have read query letter suggestions until my eyes have bled. Forum jumping and blog reading has consumed my ‘free’ time.
    However, the downside to all this research culminates in confusing and conflicting suggestions. I was happy and very please to come across this blog while researching submission guidelines. Thank you for your time and effort in helping us slush-pile inhabitants.

  33. Synopsis
    I have to say, I’m most worried about the synopsis. I haven’t completed mine yet. I’ve only queried a single agent that didn’t ask for one. We’ll see how that goes. I am intimidated by the thought of having to condense the story into something short and to the point without losing the voice and pacing of the novel. At the same time, it’s a tough business, and I would never claim that the system is broken simply because I dread one step of the process.

  34. I’m really only referring to one aspiring writer’s blog, but I’m astounded by the very public reaction to getting a rejection mixed with the bitter advice that is doled out afterward.

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