Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Queries: It's not about the details

In my agent travels, I find that most of the questions I get from aspiring authors are about queries. And that makes sense: everyone (including myself) will tell you that your query is an important weapon in your agent-getting arsenal. So, having been told that the difference between publishing superstardom and form-rejection comes down to one page, authors obsessively work on their queries. But that’s not quite right: what they do is obsess. And I think a lot of times they can’t see the forest for the trees. They ask agents what font or paper stock they should use, whether HTML email or plain text is better, or if their bio should be longer or shorter or more personal or more formal. They receive conflicting advice from different websites, agents, editors, author friends, and spouses. And then they have a nervous breakdown.

Ok, that last part may have been a bit of an exaggeration, but I don’t think it’s that far off. Writers, who tend to be obsessive anyway, get downright crazy about query details, and I really don’t blame them. We publishing professionals haven’t helped the situation, what with all of our dire warnings about doing it perfectly or else. So I want all of the writers out there to pay attention: if you’re reading this blog, if you’re paying attention when publishing pros give you advice, if you’re going to good, appropriate conferences, you don’t need to panic. This is the catch-22 of it all: when agents go on and on about bad queries and what-not-to-do, they’re preaching to the choir! Anyone savvy enough to be paying attention is probably doing it right in the first place. I don’t mean that all of you have winning queries that will score them an agent and publication, but I doubt any of your are going to wind up the cautionary query tale that you hear at conferences.

But, the question the remains: what am I looking for, if it’s not all of those little details? What I’m looking for is a unique idea and good writing. I’m looking for an authentic, interesting voice--yes, voice in your query. I’m looking to get a feel for your style in just a couple of paragraphs. I’m looking for you to describe your book, whether it’s commercial or literary or in between, in a way that makes me want to keep reading. In October, I linked to a great query example, the one that Lisa McMann had written for Wake that was recently in Writer’s Digest. It was exactly I’m looking for: it was unlike any query I’d received before (or since). How so, you ask? It was entirely unique to Lisa and her book. It didn’t follow any formula or template. It gave me the information I ask for, but it did so in a way that was different. And I can promise you, all of the successful queries I’ve read have done the same thing.

I’m sure this will spur many questions, but I’d like to have a saner, more humane query discussion with aspiring authors, one that focuses on ideas, narrative, and writing instead of on boring details like font and word count. A little common sense in putting together a presentable query, plus a killer idea and great writing, and you’re all set!

- Michael


  1. Nice! I've been recently watching (and helping) two friends go through the query writing process, so it's been very much on my mind. I've found that along with all the technical obstacles we obsess over, we also fall into the 'book report' trap.

    After spending a whole novel working our fingers off trying to 'show, don't tell' we turn around and do the exact opposite in our queries. It's as if the task of boiling down our beloved book into 2 or 3 paragraphs is so overwhelming, it makes us lose our voice, our craft, and our minds!

  2. No questions here. I actually loved this post! It's something a lot of us writers need to here. Calm down. Just write the query. Stop obsessing. You're doing fine. You can't control the agents or what they feel like taking a closer look at. You can only control yourself and make your writing the best it can possibly be.

  3. A few years ago when I jumped on this bus I whipped up a query and sent it off to a couple dozen agents...and I have to thank my lucky stars that I just stopped what the heck I was doing. It was not the right time for me as a writer.

    It took me a long time--watching the industry, the agents, the writers--to really understand what the expectations are. My first query is an abolute nightmare! But I'm a lot more confident with time and learning.

    I think the greatest lesson to be learned in this job is patience; because with patience, you take the time necessary to learn and do things right, and you don't spazz before you're ready to do those things. That, and there's a whole heck of a lot of waiting in this game.

  4. The crux of the problem is that "word count, font size and specific genre" are far easier to obsess on because their answers are specific and subject to endless debate.

    Original ideas, unique narrative, and snappy writing are far more difficult to achieve.

  5. A question for you regarding queries.
    Are you a non-responder if you're not interested?
    Just curious because that was my experience with you, but I never knew if that was your policy or if you simply didn't receive my query.

    I'm happily agented now, so it doesn't really matter. But since we're talking about obsessive writers, I thought I'd ask.

  6. Thanks for all the comments! Glad to be reaffirming, if nothing else.

    Stephen - I think you're right to some degree. It's also easier to tell people to do those things. I can't really explain voice in a concrete way!

    To the Anonymous at 4:59 - We try to reply to all of our queries (and client emails, phone calls, texts, tweets, blog posts, etc.), but sometimes things get lost in the mail, stuck in our spam filter, accidentally deleted, or lost in the shuffle. But since you didn't leave your name, I can't say for sure! (As per our submission instructions, if you haven't heard in 8 weeks, please do send your query again to the person you originally queried.)

    - Michael

  7. When I first began writing queries I focused so much on all the small details that each "how to" told me was important. I soon found my query was so business like that it sounded nothing like me. Once I loosened up and just wrote about my novel the way that felt right, the interest was spurred. I completely agree with everything you said! No questions here!!

  8. Aimee - "don't spazz" Perfect!

    Now I just need to find my anti-spazz gear, and I'm all set.

    Michael - Thanks for the reassuring post!

  9. Great post, and I love her query. That's why I put a link to it in one of my very first posts!

  10. Micheal,

    I read the post in the GLA blog about Wake and have been hoping to ask you a question. I saw that it's 33,000 words for a YA novel, and from everything I've read, that's very short for YA. Is this an example of the voice of the query making you look past word count? Or is word count really not that important.

    I know, it's a little ironic that I'm asking a detail oriented question in a post about just the opposite, but I've really been hoping for a chance to ask about Wake.


  11. Querying is such a nerve wracking process, and you're post is appreciated.

    While sending a query can be a snap, suffering through the silence is tough.

    Silence always makes me bite my nails.

    I so appreciate agents who go that extra mile to send a rejection (even a form one) in the face of hundreds of queries.

    I salute you!

  12. Thank you! It is clear to me that a successful book makes for a successful query. I have been waiting for this obsession with query mechanics to cycle through and I think you are ringing the bell for all of us to take note.

    Something that drives me crazy is a blogsite where an agent suggests revisions to query letters. When an author revises the query (often more than once) to her satisfaction, she will agree to read the manuscript and consider it for representation.

    It's the same book!

    Come on, if the query shows a wonderful and exciting prospect is behind it, then it is a successful query --- because it is a successful book to begin with.

    I guess it is easier to teach query writing than to teach novel writing. But, really, authors should be revising their novels with as much ardor.

  13. Robin - Word count is the least of my concerns, and I had a feeling from the query that the writing in WAKE would be sparse, which it is. If the book is perfect at 33,000 words, why make it longer? (Though the book is actually about 40,000 in its final form.)

    J Martin - Again, we really do try, even if we don't always succeed.

    GhostFolk - Thanks! I do believe that most successful books wind up with successful query letters. And I agree -- more time spent on your novel is always good.

    - Michael

  14. I am one of those writers that come close to a nervous breakdown when writing queries. I actually have one out to you right now that I am hoping comes back with a good response (lol).
    I appreciate any feedback given from the inside. For me, sometimes being a writer is like being the new kid at school. You never know what group is going to welcome you and make you feel like you belong.
    Writing a query is like writing a note to the popular kids. You hope they like you but fear they will laugh at you.

  15. Having been in business quite a while, I've never sweated the font size, appearance, etc. since business format is pretty standard. But the blurb about the book--now that's another story. That's the area where you break from "business speak" and let your voice out.

    Even so I have to wonder sometimes which voice in my head gets to put letters to paper since every revision changes the outcome radically. ;)

  16. I've never once thought about font size or HTML, but like everybody else, I've sweated blood over the content. And the last paragraph has caused me endless grief: 'Thank you for your consideration' sounds so cold and boring; 'I hope to hear from you soon' sounds presumptuous -- and so on.

    It's good to have one less thing to obsess over.

  17. Hi Michael, I loved this post. Although I emailed my query specifically to your email address, I think I may have ended up in spam. Is there a way to find out? Should I wait six more weeks, then resend it? Many thanks for your reply.

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