letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 209
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 1
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: fantasy

Writers who take their approach to seeking traditional publication as seriously as writing the novel itself seem to do an awful lot of research. Not for them the rush to dash off a spurious query lacking in the information it should provide. They do everything possible to give their submission an advantage. But even the most dedicated sometimes misses something.

And then there are those just starting out. They hardly know where to look and are quickly overwhelmed by the myriad suggestions on agentquery.com or the many writer forums, or from their critique groups, etc. — if they are even lucky enough to find such sources. Sometimes there are those that seem to come across agent contact information in mysterious ways (voodoo?) that give no hint or clue as to the best way to start.

The veterans were all new to it at one time, and eventually the new ones will become more experienced. If you could go back in time and share with yourself information about the query process — What is the one thing you have learned that you wish someone had told you when you first began?

40 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. It takes time. And patience, and the willingness to rip the manuscript apart and do the 6 Million Dollar Man deal on it (We can rebuild it! We’ll make it better, stronger, faster…)
    I’m sure I read this before I started sending queries, but you can’t really take it to heart until you’re there.

    • ‘…I’m sure I read this before I started sending queries…’
      Lol, I know that feeling. I’ve found it’s one thing to hear advice, and quite another to make myself follow it πŸ™‚

  2. I submitted my first novel to both publishers and agents at the same time. I was told later that was a bad idea because one of the primary functions of an agent is to find the right editor at a publishing house to submit the manuscript to. By submitting my manuscript blindly to both, I took the possibility of an agent who might like to represent my book to present it to the right editor at a publishing house because the publisher would have already seen the manuscript and said no. (that’s a complicated sentence–sorry).
    If I were to do the process again, I would find a reputable agent to represent the book and not send it to publishers on my own.

  3. Stop worrying
    The best advice I have to any author is to stop freaking out and just let things happen naturally. When I was a technical writer, I gave up trying to query publishers, after one year. I self-published and made more than my previous year’s salary. I thought, hey, I could just keep doing this.
    Now, I just don’t give a shit; I don’t send query letters– I just self-publish here and there. And I’m getting contacted more than ever. As soon as you don’t need the money, Agents and Publishers start coming out of the woodwork. I just ignore it. It’s always like that.
    So… just relax. Write and have fun, and everything will happen from there. The universe works in mysterious ways.

  4. Get a beta reader. My first time around I didn’t have anyone I trusted or liked enough to send my stuff to. I get why people are hesitant to do it but if you make enough online friends and you get to the point where you know someone well enough it’s totally worth the time and energy to let them have a read. And if you’re particularly confident just pluck a stranger off one of the forums or join a random local crit group.
    Every manuscript needs a second set of eyes before querying. Every single one.

  5. No one, not even the most compassionate agent in existence, gives a fig for your writing journey.

  6. There are a lot of things I wish I’d known. I keep a collection of them.

  7. Learn about contract language as well as mechanics like submissions and queries.
    Conventions are not necessary, just helpful. Don’t kill the budget for them. Don’t go to conventions to “network” or meet agents or publishers. That may not happen. If you can’t afford hotel and restaurant bills, try to go for one day if it’s close, and wait until it is close. Go to conventions where this kind of thing is discussed–meaning at least major regionals and world conventions in the genres you write in. For SF & F, things like Worldcons; for mystery, Buchercon. I think there’s several for Romance.
    Don’t allow folks with a narrow view to bully you on your own writing methods and publishing style. I have had folks tell a room full of people at a convention that starting a novel without an outline is like trying to build a cabinet and ending up with a bed. You know, working with truly gnarly material, as any decent woodworker can tell you, this is maybe what *should* happen. That said, it still helps to have some idea of where you’re headed.
    Publishing style, likewise. Some folks insists the only way to get a novel published is to hammer magazine editors constantly until your work gets published, and e-publishers don’t count. This is not the only way, grasshopper.

  8. The money flows to the writer, never to the agent. You don’t get better service by paying up front for services rendered. (Yes, I paid an agent. He did his job, though, and submitted my manuscript to over 60 publishers. It got canned because it was crap, not because I paid. But don’t pay, folks. Bad, bad, bad.)
    That, and please sit on your dad until he understands that sending money to EditInk is flushing it down the toilet….

  9. “Running Spellcheck after you first type THE END does NOT count as the final draft.” πŸ™‚
    As for the query letter itself, I’d say “Be professional, and search out some successful examples to show you how it’s done.”

  10. You’re an artist when you’re writing, and a small businessperson the rest of the time.
    Also: hope your friends will buy your work. Never assume they’ll read it.

  11. Find a compromise between “write what you love” and “write to market”.
    Some sub-genres are a harder sell than others. Surely most people enjoy more than one genre. Pick the one that’s most commercially viable (knowing that the market could change).

  12. In a word, EDIT! That applies to the manuscript, but even moreso to the query letter.
    Write it, refine it, polish it, burnish it, take every possible extra word out, and then start over again. You get one chance, so why not your best shot? Can I make this stronger? Is there a better word, a more succinct phrase? Does this REALLY convey what I want to say? Does she/he care about this? Does this make the manuscript sound better? Why should they read this?
    When you’re all done…the fifth or sixth time…do it again. You might change only one word, but that might be the difference.

  13. It should be easy
    If your book is good, the process of getting published will be easy, and 10 queries will yield you an agent/publisher. If this doesn’t happen, your book isn’t good enough yet. Period.

    • Re: It should be easy
      In many cases, you may be right, but there are exceptions. A notable one is J.K. Rowling, who was turned down by 12 publishers before Harry Potter was accepted.

    • Re: It should be easy
      Maybe, but there are variables to consider. Did the query go to the right agents? Is your book commercially viable right now? Agent interests change as well; what didn’t sound appealing last year might be just perfect next year. And from what I’ve read, only 1/12 queries gets a favorable response. Not to mention all those well-established authors who spent years looking for that first publisher. Patience is key, as well as faith in the quality of your own novel. Numbers don’t always tell the truth.

  14. That you don’t have to try to fit the entire book’s plot into the query pitch. All you need to do is entice.

  15. query lessons
    I read several books on how to compose a query and received positive feedback from agents at a query workshop (at the PNWA conference). I thought that meant my query was ready to venture forth.
    What I failed to do was enough research. I took the cookie cutter approach in some ways, instead of really thinking about what specific agents wanted. While I made sure to check their genre list, I didn’t pay enough attention to their client list or to the advice given on their blogs. Honestly, I didn’t realize there were so many amazing blogs or tweets that covered that kind of information when I first started the process. I think I thought that while agents had different interests, they would all want the same type of query (same format).
    But that’s wrong. From what I gather, some agents prefer more concise queries, others want more details, etc. So I wish someone had told me to get to know an agent first. Follow her blogs, read her advice, read books by authors she represents (if you’re not already doing so)… Just, really think about why you want to send your query to a specific agent. And then query accordingly.

  16. I’m sorry anonymous, but I totally disagree with you. Ten queries is giving up way too early. I know SO many authors that hit over a hundred queries before find their agent. Even then, sometimes a manuscript won’t be good enough for editors to take a risk on.
    Does it matter? To me, no. And this is where my advice comes. Don’t EVER stop writing because the first or second or third goes nowhere. Especially the first and second ones because those are generally you’re stepping stones. You’re learning the craft as you go, and in my opinion, writing is the sort of thing you could never stop learning from. I couldn’t be happier that I kept writing after about 200 rejections. I’ve learned so much and agents who’ve requested fulls have given me valuable advice and told me to resubmit on future projects.
    Like I said, writing can be a learning experience if you let it. It shouldn’t be about getting published (not in the first year of writing anyway) People USUALLY don’t sell their first or second novels. Look at Aprilynne Pike. There’s a woman who kept her head up during countless rejections.
    *rant over*

  17. I wish someone had told me to read every single one of these posts. I might not have done it, but my first query letter would’ve been much better if I had.

  18. Don’t bother querying your first book, or even the second one. Query your third book AFTER it has been thoroughly rewritten about five times.
    –Remember the million word rule? You have to write at least a million word of crap before something half-way decent comes (paraphrased)
    Then go back to book #1 and thank God no one except your mother ever saw that dreck!
    Or you do what I did and hope no one remembers your name when you finally query something decent.

  19. As a first-time writer, not only did I finish my novel before querying, but then I hired an expert (writer/teacher/editor) to review and edit it. That gave me a second set of professional eyes to catch the inconsistencies and mumblespeak. I recognize it still needs a bit of polish, but that brought the quality up several levels and made it possible for me to begin the query process with some measure of confidence.
    As a first-time query-er, I sought out agents that worked in the genre of my novel and took the time to see what each one required. Now I’m sure I made plenty of mistakes – that’s all part of the learning curve – but I knew it would help everyone involved if I approached the process with a professional, adult perspective.
    Most artists don’t fail in business because they’re bad artists, but because they’re bad business people. You have to balance both mindsets and recognize when to shift from one to the other. I’ve found a little bit of common sense and common courtesy go a long way.
    I do hope to make a career as a writer. Until then, I’m going to continue writing and approach the publication challenge in a reasonable manner.
    Best to you all.

  20. Put yourself on the page. Yes, you. Not another author, and not, dear god, a dry impersonal business letter. And not what you think you should be, or what you think will sell your book. Oh, lord, no. This is about how you can put personality and expression into the written word. And, yes, it is like going on stage naked, which means you’re much better off throwing back your shoulders instead of trying to hide behind something that covers up nothing. Or, worse, acting as if gee, your not really all that naked. Your faults will shine anyway, so might as well let whatever good points are around show up, too.
    And don’t take it personally if there’s no match — it’s not personal. It just not the right fit of your naked and that other eye sizing you up. So move on to the next.

  21. All good advice. I think the biggest mistake writers make is sending the manuscript out too soon. Then you spend a lot of months (years) getting rejected. Take the time to workshop it and rewrite it, and be fully prepared to keep rewriting for editors and agents as you go through the process of finding a publisher. When you have a publishable manuscript then do your homework and keep at it. For me, the three keys to getting published were rewriting, persistence and stalking ;-j

  22. That this could take quite a long time to bear fruit. Twenty years later, that lesson has sunk in so far I’d need surgery to have it removed.

  23. I work at a publisher…so I tapped two acquisition editors to read the manuscript and comment. MUST FIND QUALITY READERS first, not just mom πŸ™‚
    They were the barometer by which I judged it ready to go. I have thought about quitting the day job so they will take it on…this query process is a pain in the arse!

  24. I think perhaps the best piece of advice I can pass on is that you only get one chance to pitch. If you mess it up, sending a second (or heaven forbid, third) improved version will not work.
    You owe it to yourself, for all the hard work you put into the novel, to make it the best query it can be. Get it critiqued, read it out loud, do different versions and see which one comes out best.
    Be patient, sit on it for a couple of weeks and go back to it with fresh eyes. Only when you really cannot improve on it any more should you send it out.

  25. I can’t really say I’ve been a successful author in many aspects, but I think probably the best is set your goals properly. When I started with the “hey, I think I could publish this”, I set out a goal of “getting published”. Sadly, the company went out of business a few years later and left a lot of heartaches.
    So, I’d say try to get “published properly” or at least find something that will last longer than a few months or leave you hanging. It is a (lot) more work, but more worth it.

  26. Start your own publishing company. Faster and less trouble. Take up carpentry, maybe.
    It’s a bit misleading to say ‘more experienced’ with regard to writing query letters. That implies that experience is worth something. Without feedback from the recipient, or any other way to measure the success of what was tried, experience is nothing more than a series of failed attempts. Even success doesn’t help, since there is no way to say why it succeeded.

  27. My very first query was when I was thirteen. An editor for a line of comics I loved was looking for novel-based submissions from fans (work for hire). I figured that I HAD to be picked because I loved to write and I loved the comics. I was wrong.
    The second was when I was eighteen when I sent off an outline and sample pages to a comic book company in a niche market. I thought that since I loved writing and knew the niche well, they should be interested. Wrong again.
    In both cases, I came across the submissions in the course of exploring websites and hanging out on mailing lists. These days I’m so uptight about query letters that I wait on them for months before sending them, just in case I want to make any additions/subtractions! I guess my advice would be it’s not enough to be “special”! πŸ˜›
    …Also I don’t write comics.

  28. Just know that no matter how precisely you follow the rules, research the agents, personalize, and work on your query to make it perfect, you may never break into the industry.
    And if you do, you may be trapped in midlist making a tiny percentage of what you’d dreamed possible.

  29. Get beta readers to tear apart your query letter, not just your ms.

  30. I wish they’d directed me to Critters.org!

  31. Use betas and critique partners for that first novel too. :-/ LOL. And make that novel shine before you query anything. **sigh**

  32. anon of 11:34 wasn’t far off. Getting the agent is the easy part. You just make certain you’ve written a great manuscript (because a crit group and serious beta readers have all said this is the one).
    99% of all writers start looking for an agent too soon.

  33. Study each agent and/or publisher before you send them a query. Know them, know what they want and don’t do a general query and send it out to six agents at one time! Read books from authors that that particular agent works with or books from the publisher you are trying to sparks interest. Just KNOW THEM before you write the query letter that will speak to them.

  34. Enjoy
    It’s a great thing to finish a first book but I wish someone had told me not to get too excited. There’s a lot more to be done, and learned. So be prepared for some more work and make sure to keep your enjoyment and enthusiasm in the writing and the process!

  35. i’ve only sent queries/cover letters to literary magazines, but i wish someone would have told me, when i started, how exactly to address an editor. for example, if you know their name- like Bob Jones- do you write Mr. Bob Jones, Bob Jones, Mr. Jones? if you don’t know their name, do you write “To whom it may concern”, “Dear editor”, or just a nonspecific “hello”? i still haven’t figured this out entirely, and usually put Mr. or Ms. with the last name. no one has commented on it, so i don’t think i’m doing it wrong, but it would be nice to know what editors of all types prefer. they rarely, if at all, include this information on the submission page.

  36. I don’t think I made any horrible gaffes the first time I queried agents, but I know my query was kind of pedestrian. I wish agent blogs had existed the first time I tried going down this road. I got all my information from Writer’s Market and from a book on manuscript submission, and in hindsight, they didn’t give the quality of advice I’ve found online on how to make your query sizzle.
    I also definitely queried too soon. I proofread and had a beta reader, but these days I know that’s not enough.
    There’s also much more information on the craft of writing now than before–or at least, good information is more easily findable. When I was starting out, I would check out books from the library. One or two were good, and many were crap. (It’s odd, but maybe people getting paid to write a book on writing need to fill it up with something, whether it’s any good or not. People putting the information out for free on their blogs seem more inclined to post only when they actually have something to say.)

  37. This is going to take a lot longer than you expect, but you will learn how to write better because of it. Go for it!

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