So kids, did we learn anything from Slush Week? We hope so! Obviously, the subject of query letters is one that makes some authors very tense. I noted a touch more hostility among our commenters than ever before! And I understand. It’s an enormously frustrating process. Even from this vantage point I can see that. Hopefully, though, the exercise helped to further demystify the procedure at least a touch. Here’s what I consider the takeaway:
--For those who weren’t sure, the final tally was 6 passes and 3 requests: Jane, Chasya, Miriam, Stacey, Michael, and I would have passed. Jessica, Rachel, and Lauren would have requested more.
--There’s a lot of okay happening: That was a solid representation of what our inboxes actually look like. One we sort out the queries that make terribly obvious mistakes like addressing us by the wrong names, we’re left with a lot of queries that are very…okay. I can’t remember who said it to me all those years ago when I first hit the slush pile, but: “If it isn’t a yes, then it’s a no.” There’s no “maybe” option with unsolicited queries. We request things, or we don’t. And with the volume that’s coming in and the number of clients we already have, there often isn’t the chance to consider material if you’re waffling after the query. So often you won’t be turned down because you’ve written a bad query but because you haven’t written one that’s great. It’s a fine line but a crucial one.
--Compare yourself to other authors, but not all of them: There was a touch of confusion about our recommendation to compare yourself to other authors, particularly when Miriam had just said not to compare your work to “canonical titles.” “Canonical” is the key word there. We want to know who of today’s authors you’ll be shelved with. The comparative titles should give us an idea of the type of work you have and who you see your audience as. Once you start getting into the classics, well…it’s dangerous territory. You can compare yourself to great writers working today—let’s say you’re writing a novel from multiple point of views that you say is reminiscent on Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. That’s bold, but I’d be on board if the writing bore it out. But if you tell me you’ve written the next Anna Karenina, my response will be, “Oh, realllllllllly?” Keep it contemporary, and don’t be a braggart. Be careful about comparisons to massive bestsellers: comparing your book to successful authors who aren’t the most obvious choices (as in, not Dan Brown) gives us a stronger sense of what sort of book you’re writing and also shows that you really do know your category—not to mention that you’re less likely to be comparing yourself to the same author as everyone else in the slush pile.
--Be straightforward: you want to give us enough information to want to read more. As Jessica pointed out, it could take two single-spaced pages to do that. More often, it does not. Give us a snapshot of what your book is in the most concise way possible while still focusing on what makes it stand apart. It’s a taller order than it sounds, but it is the recipe to success.
--This is subjective: I was surprised when I saw that Michael suggested not to make your query sound too much like cover copy as I’ve given quite a few workshops at conferences where I told people to study just that copy and use it as a model for how to frame a query. That, in itself, is probably enormously frustrating to authors. But the truth is, there’s no such thing as a perfect query, and people respond to different things. It IS a subjective business. Remember that just because one person doesn’t have a positive reaction to your work doesn’t mean the next won’t.
--There are no right answers, only wrong ones. Bottom line: you can screw up a query by being too boastful, rude, silly, gimmicky, or underinformed. Once you’ve avoided all of those things, you have to rely a bit on kismet—whether your letter hits the right person at the right time, whether it sounds like something they think they can sell, if anything too similar has hit their slush pile on the same day, if they already have a project that would compete with it.
At the end of the week, what I can say is that we honestly are looking for those books that break out of the slush pile and grab our attention. The query itself is, as a commenter noted, simply a means to an end. You want to convince us that we want to read more, and we honestly do want to be convinced. So as frustrating and unnerving as the process is, do keep trying.
Any lingering questions still unanswered? Did you feel like you learned enough for us to do this again down the road?