letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 234
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 1
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: steampunk

450+ queries still to go

It’s so much easier in these little updates to talk about what a person should _not_ do in a query — usually based on examples seen throughout the submissions of the week… Why is that? So in the spirit of expressing things positively…


….finish (and polish!) your novel before you begin to query
….address the query to a specific agent (e.g. Dear Ms. Jackson)
….include your name, email address, postal address, and phone number in the body of the query
….be professional in the query
….use plain text
….pitch one book (even if it’s the beginning of a series)
….include in the query package what the agent’s guidelines request (in my case: query letter, first five pages of the novel, synopsis of the novel (as a general estimate, 2-3 pages seems like a reasonable length, and more than 5 starts to feel hefty, imo) — be aware your mileage will vary here
….proff-read before you hit send 😉
….respect those exceptions that prove the rule
….be patient

(not necessarily an exhaustive list)

I’ve seen tons and tons of negative things said about the query system and about query-writing. What are the positive aspects of the process?

24 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. I love writing queries, actually, and often write one even before I jot down the first line of the book. It helps me figure out where my focus lies, which helps tremendously, and I just enjoy the process. With a synopsis or book, you have to wonder what to leave in and what to leave out, but a query is so streamlined that you don’t have any choice but to dig right down to the core conflicts.
    As for the actual submission process – I’m all right with that, too. The process isn’t ideal, but nothing is, and I truly can’t think of a better method. There’s the thrill of excitement when an agent requests more, especially if s/he’s already seen sample pages, and I also enjoy getting feedback, though that hasn’t happened as much. The form rejections (mainly on requested materials) and the wait times are the only real downers, IMO.
    Then again, I only started this process a month and a half ago. Ask me again in a year. 😉

  2. To be honest, I love the query process. It’s a fairly easy way for me to find an agent who LOVES my book. None of the work I have to do — not writing the pitch, the synopsis, or the first five pages is something I wouldn’t eventually have to do anyway.
    As a future client of an agent, I don’t want my agent to have to spend scads of time on non-clients. I want him or her to spend time on me! So it doesn’t bother me that the query system is built to give agents exactly what they need to make quick decisions. Nor does it bother me that agents don’t have time to give me a bunch of feedback. When I’m a client, I’ll want feedback. Now? Now the agents I’m querying owe me nothing!

  3. I think, because you are forced to condense your novel down to a few sentences, you are forced to sit down and think about your novel. Themes, high points, what makes your novel YOU, things like that.
    Wonder how many people sit down to write a query letter and decide that they need to rewrite the book too?

    • I worked hard on polishing my queries, then recognized they weren’t getting me anywhere. The problem wasn’t the writing in the queries, or even that much of the writing of the book. It was the thinking in my head: what the book was “really about” was completely different than what I thought it was.
      The book was (mostly) fine. But specific scenes had to be removed or tweaked, to fix the fact that I was emphasizing the wrong stuff.

  4. Like Corinne, I do the first draft of my query before even writing the novel. It helps me find my focus and describe it succinctly.

  5. I’m not wild about the query process, but what I do like about it is it gives everyone a fair shot. It’s not whom you know, it’s how well you can write a query letter.

  6. I guess if you put the literary gun to my head and make me definitively choose something, it would be that:
    1) the long odds and
    2) the waiting by the mailbox and
    3) the pain involved in failing over and over again have the effect of separating out those who are serious about this versus the person who tries it out on a lark fairly quickly. This business isn’t for the faint of heart or the easily discouraged.
    It is what it is.

  7. Wow. Some of the comments here gave me an interesting insight. I haven’t started the query process yet because I’ve been agonizing over revising my novel for months. Maybe writing a query letter (not sending it just yet) would help me better define my book, which would in turn help me focus my revisions?
    I never thought of the query as being helpful in that way, but I’m going to give it a shot!
    As for the process in general, it is what it is, so why should authors whine about it?

  8. > What are the positive aspects of the process?
    It crushes the spirit of every aspiring writer who encounters it.
    Of course, one of the downsides is that some of the authors who survive it can turn into insufferable asses as a result, but that’s a small price compared to the huge upsides to the process.

  9. Query Pros
    Nothing separates the wheat from the chaff like writing a query. In my case, it boils down the plot and surfaces salient points of theme and character; invaluable not only for the query, but the synopsis, as well.

  10. On my *fourth* synopsis of a since-ash-canned manuscript, my boyfriend said, “Oh, hey, this is great! I finally understand what your book is about!”
    *headdesk, repeatedly*
    So yes, the process has forced me to learn to articulate, in short comprehensible sentences, what a given book is about. I’m still trying to perfect that distillation process.
    Querying required me to study the business and professional aspects of an industry that I *thought* I knew because I’d been a customer for so many years… *sad laughter* …and oh what a mistake that was. Still learning that, too.
    Lastly it forced me to realize that dealing with living, breathing humans in person is a real and necessary part of the job. Thus this introvert had best crawl out of my cave and practice my professional social graces. Three years later, I’m probably a better human being for it, albeit on occasion more grumpy.

  11. The one major positive aspect is a huge one, but its too obvious to discuss – querying could get you an agent!
    Other than that, writers are often introverts, and telling them they have to be salespeople is a shock – though I well understand the logic, you can’t read every manuscript, so someone’s got to sell you on spending the time required to read at least part of one.
    Not only that, agents are (among other things) sales professionals. Imagine telling someone they have to sell something to the people who knock on their door selling things to them.

  12. So, do you ever enjoy any of the manuscripts that you reject? I would assume that there could possibly be a distinction between a personal taste and a product that you feel can sell.
    What catches you the most in a query? Is it the idea in the query? In my own case, I feel like I can write quality wise, but I lack plot and as such get rejected in the query.

  13. Query=PR
    With all the emphasis on the author to do her own promotional work, the query gives me a jumpstart on honing the salable aspects of my work.
    Suzan H.

  14. Those that don’t like the query process should remember that it’s incredibly similar to the very same process that readers use to choose what books they will buy.
    Query process = you send the query to the agents that take your genre and hope it catches their eye
    Buying process = reader goes to the section for the genre they enjoy, scans the titles, reads the back of the book, maybe skims a couple pages and decides if they’re going to buy the book

  15. I think querying is kind of fun. It makes every click on the inbox feel like a trip to Vega.

  16. I honestly don’t think there are any positives.
    Some writers talk about how it helps them improve focus, structure, marketing etc. — but does that mean they wouldn’t work on those aspects anyway? If so, I think the process selects those who are *less* motivated to improve.
    I’d go with first page and maybe wordcount and genre. If that doesn’t wow, I’ve got plenty more work to do regardless of how good my pitch is.

  17. Positive Things
    For instance, with screenplays, there’s no system whatsoever for what to do with your product after you’ve written (and polished) it. No gates or anything. You can enter contests or team with directors or other collaborators on the come-up, or you could move to one of the centers of film production and hope you bump into the right person in the Starbucks parking lot.
    But the novel query process, as much as one may gripe about it, gives writers access to the next step in the publication process rather than letting them flounder and hope for the best.

  18. I write my query after finishing a first draft. It helps me see if there are any holes in the story line. Also it is a lot easier to fix my query right a long with rewrites. It is nice to have them both done about the same time.

  19. Well, I wrote a query and got pulled out of the slush pile by my agent who sold my book to an awesome editor and have now just turned in the last book of my 3 book deal. I did all of this without knowing anyone in publishing, living in a small town, and having no credits to my name. It was just me, my book, and a query letter, and damn if it didn’t work.
    Now that I’m through the woods, I’m amazed at the amount of energy I spent on the query letter part of that equation. The book was way more important. If I could go back and give myself some advice, I would say: Listen up, self, the agent’s not going to be repping the query letter. Fix the NOVEL and maybe we won’t get rejected so much!
    But it all turned out okay in the end, so whatever works, I guess!

  20. query wars
    I write my query before I write my novel too, just to see if the novel has those “selling” points. Doesn’t mean the query won’t (and doesn’t) change as the novel progresses, but I also stop and rewrite the query after major plot changes to see if it still holds water. It’s a good quick test to see if I’m still on track with a good story.

  21. Should we assume that if we haven’t heard from you in a couple of weeks that you are passing on our projects? Or do you respond to each and every query? I see you are rather busy so it would be understandable if you were unable to get back to everyone.

  22. Getting ready to Query…
    Yes, we are getting ready to add our book to the poor Jennifer’s ever-growing query pile in the near future. I have the synopsis written, but plan to sit on it a while and then go back and reread it to see if it works properly.
    We have the book written, but are polishing it in 2nd draft mode. When we feel like its ready, then off it will go. Jennifer is our first choice as she seems interested in fantasy and seems very straight-forward and practical.

  23. question
    When you say 5 pages of the story, or a 2-3 page synopsis, are you speaking in terms of book-size pages or normal, 8.5″x11″ pages? I looked briefly for an answer in other comments but didn’t find anything.
    I just stumbled on your blog today and it has already been immensely helpful!

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