Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Mumble-Jumble a Query is Not

I wish I had to power to sit on the shoulder of every new writer who was about to query me and whisper, “Learn how to write an effective query letter before querying,” in his or her ear.

That’s smug and the exact answer I’d expect from an egotistical literary agent. Didn’t you recently state on a writers’ board that you rejected 99.9% of the queries received? I hate writing queries, so why should I spend so much time on something I hate doing when my effort is going to be deleted anyway?

Maybe you have a point. But then why even try to get published in the first place if it’s such a chore? Maybe you should answer that one.

Sure. That’s easy. Why does publishing need gate-keepers? Why can’t I just send a novel or book to an editor and let him/her decide. How come I’ve got to jump through hoops to get published?

I’m biting my lips here. I want to say I don’t make the rules, but that’s what you’d want me to say, right? Isn’t that what everyone says when they get backed into a corner? But instead, I’m going to answer by saying, why don’t you just bypass us gate-keepers and query an editor directly? Whoops, I said the word, “query” didn’t I? Sorry, it just slipped out.

No—no query! I just want to send my manuscript to someone and let them judge if I can write or not. I don’t what to have to write a dumb query too. Just tell me how to do that and I’ll leave you alone.

Okay. Just put the manuscript in a box and send it. No one’s stopping you. Publishers’ addresses are listed in market books. Just put it in a box and send it.

Can’t you be more specific? You think I could do that? And get that smirk off your face.

Now you’re asking questions? I thought you had all the answers—that you didn’t need anyone—that you just wanted to deal directly with publishing with no dumb query, no dumb agents, and no dumb hassle?

Okay, okay. I’m going to do it and I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Don’t bother. I’m already about 99.9% sure how it will turn out.

Man, are you going to be ticked when I get a contract.

No I won’t be ticked. There’s always that .1%. But if you'd just spend a little time and learn how to write a simple but effective query letter—do it the right way—the odds suddenly lengthen.

Come on. I wrote my query, sent it to you and you rejected me. Now you’re telling me to do it again and I’ll lengthen my odds? That’s dumb and stupid.

No, it’s not dumb or stupid. Besides, you weren't rejected, your query letter was, and it got rejected because it didn't do its job.

Then why didn’t you say that in your rejection letter? How come you didn’t say my query wasn’t effective? How come you didn’t give me some tips? All you did was send the same canned, form rejection that you send to everyone else.

It's pretty much standard to send form rejection letters, but at least we add a link to information that might help. In our modern age, information is key to just about everything, so we've filled our blog with information. If you had gone there and spent more time, you might have found an example of two query letters—one that’s not effective and one that is. The effective query contains a very simple, but effective, one paragraph synopsis that describes the author's novel being offered for review. Failure to express a novel in a few words is why at least 90% of all queries fail. So my advice is, if you learn nothing else, learn how to break your novel down into one short and simple paragraph, just like the ones on book covers, DVD boxes and just about everything where advertising is displayed.

Don't feel bad about this, however. Because the norm receive in queries, which most writers launch right into, is paragraph after paragraph of jumble-mumble wandering around, saying much about the author and little about the actual novel. It seems most who query have no clue what he or she has written. It's almost like there’s hope against hope that if enough verbiage is thrown at the page that somehow something might stick long enough to enough make enough sense that an agent will want to see a writing sample. However, I use a writer's query letter as an example of their writing expertise; an example of organizational skills, of a firm grasp of grammar and spelling, and the ability to tell a story. What I normally receive, however, is a representation of a novel that wanders, is over-written and contains spelling and grammatical errors, just like the query. What I also see in many query letters is arrogance, stubbornness, and sloppiness--possibly someone who might be a future problem client. It's all right there in that simple query letter if you know where to look.

Put yourself in my shoes for a moment. If a writer can’t explain in a few words what his or her novel is about, hasn’t the query failed the job it was intended to do? Bluntly put, if I can’t figure out what you’ve written, how can I make an intelligent decision. If you cannot write an effective, intelligent paragraph of around 40 words, how can I assume that you can write an intelligent, effective novel of 85,000?

The excuse heard most often is that a query letter is non-fiction and I write fiction so writing a query letter is difficult and foreign to me. Yes. Possibly the first and last paragraphs are kind of foreign. But you can copy that part off our example. The paragraph that explains your novel, however, is creative and very right brain. It’s actually a mini-novel, a short story, micro-fiction, a quick read, or whatever you want to call it. So the non-fiction excuse doesn’t hold water.

The bottom line is you must learn to express your novel in a few words sooner or later so that anyone who asks you what you've written will know exactly what you’ve written without having to listen to an hour of you trying to explain your creation. Your query will be a winner and will have done its job, which is to make whoever want to read your novel, if you can express it in a few words. There’s no magic here. After all, a query letter is in all actuality a business letter between two professionals. It's just an inquiry to see if an agent might be interested in what you write and would like to see more writing.

You might also consider that your query is fine, it's just not what I'm looking for at the time. If you're really curious about this, you have but to write and ask me.


Anonymous said...

I don't have any problem with query letters per se, as I see them as just another step on the road, but here's the thing:

It seems that all Agents are under the impression that writing query letters is a deterministic process. As if all Agents want the exact same thing in their query letters. As if there's some bulleted list of points that need to be hit, and the list is the exact same for every Agent.

As near as I can tell, that the most damnable lie imaginable.

Let me ask an honest question: If Agents have in their heads these magical bulleted list of questions/points that need to be addressed, why can't they be bothered to post their lists somewhere conspicuous? Nothing vague like "tell me about your book", but specific things like "who is the most important secondary character and what makes them so interesting?". It seems like if each Agent did that, everyone would win -- Agents and Writers alike.

Or am I missing something? Is it really a "you must be this tall to ride this ride" kind of thing?

Taire said...

Data is readily available for books sold and books purchased, but very little data is available to predict reader trends. Where are the focus groups? Where is the data mining for marketing? The best we writers get is a vague not on some agent's web page about his or her current interests. What gives? In other industries, the wegie board is not a primary indicator of the next big thing.

I've been told that agents, editors and publishers use their "gut" to make the call on whether or not to go with a book. Gut feelings are definitely valid, but I'd argue that the gut feeling is really a subliminal analysis of the information that is available to you, and unless you are talking to potential readers, that gut feeling is skewed toward the myopic view of an entrenched and beleaguered industry.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

I am not the spokesperson for all Agents nor do I want to be. If you see similarities between query letters, it's because the query letters is a business letter and all business letter use the same format. In college speech class the format was:
. Tell them what your going to tell them
. Tell them
. Then tell them what you told them.

Basically a business letter contains the same monotonous, boring format.

. Why I'm writing
. What I've written
. What are my qualifications for writing it?

This format works for all queries but most who query me spend an inordinate amount of time on the middle part; the what I've written part. All I'm asking for is that you get that part right--show me what you've written.

There's no bulleted list. It's just boiling your book down until the story is a paragraph, or so, long. Not difficult. What I receive on a daily basis is miles and miles of verbiage that show me nothing.

My advice is go to bookstores and read novel descriptions.

Go to a video stores and read movie descriptions.

Go on on a software sites and read the short overview of what a piece of software does.

Not rocket science here. This is done every day. If you want practice in saying much in few words write poetry or go on Twitter and write your thoughts. Whatever it takes.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...


Books are artistic creations and therefore all that surrounds them are dealt with in like manner. The book business is different as are libraries and museums. What has changed over the last few decades is that these institutions originally dedicated to the creative arts have been bought up by businesses dedicated to stockholders and profit and loss statements and therefore art of creating art has become the business of creating profit from what a bean counter considers art. How many techno nerds that you knew in high school could write love poetry--hummm?

As far as gut instinct, it's not too difficult to discern a good read. I pretty much read what everyone reads, so I try to pick books of the type I like to read. I list what I'm looking for here on this blog. These are the types of books in which I have some expertise.

As far understanding what the publishing industry wants and confusing that with what readers want, this is something that the publishing industry will have to find out. My only concern is trying to convince writers to send me what editors are begging for. If I can just accomplish that much, I'll be one happy camper.

Anonymous said...

Just the kind of information I was looking for. However, I was surprised to see two typos.

Anonymous said...

You do us all a tremendous service by making as much information available as you do. The fact that you have to tell people to go READ that information is absurd.

Thanks for maintaining an entertaining and informative blog. I hope you'll keep it up.

Shjya said...

Anonymous- are you serious about the typos? Gift horse- mouth?

By the way, I would have used a semicolon.

Shjya said...

[and I hope you caught the sarcasm]

Anonymous said...

I have to laugh with all the talk about writing the "perfect query letter" It sounds so much like "how to hit the perfect golf ball'. Its simple, the perfect query letter is the one that gets the attention of someone in a position to advance your project. "What's up?" might work, but its not the template for each and every query letter. As an Actor, I quickly learned that I got the job usually by the first three or four minutes in the audition room. Seminars have been done on how to audition..there is only one prize. Did you get the job (in this case the representation or not)

Wylie Merrick Literary said...


I agree that there’s no perfect query, but if you’d read the post you would have realized we are not asking for one. All we ask is that the offered work be properly defined in a few words, no more and no less. I’m sure that if you appeared at an audition unkempt and babbling you wouldn’t get the job. We receive the equivalent of that in most queries. All we need to know is there’s a professional on the other end of the process and that’s not, in most cases, what we see in the queries received.

La Fleur said...

This is great and your post is hilarious! I loved it... And trust me, this was an effective method to explain the dilemma. I will be sure to read it. I have completed wallpapering my bedroom with rejection letters and now need some acceptance letters! LOL

Once again, thanks for the tips.

Claudia Ross

Lisa said...

I'm hooked on you--you are eating my sleep. I love the conversations with yourself. Thank you.

La Fleur said...

LOLLOL... I talk to myself because there is no one to talk to... People ask me why I do what I do...

Sorry, ripped that off from a 1980's song... not that I remember the '80's (clear throat)

Well, I am still working on the query. Now I'm reading Snark. OMG!!! She is hilarious! I love it and I am learning a lot there as well.

Heck, I wish I could do the Matrix Download and learn how to write the perfect query. What writer would not vie for the opportunity to sit at the knee of an agent or editor and learn? Heck, I would. Hey, I'm irritated when I read bad stuff too!

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Hi LaFleur,

There's a great query example here if you want to use it. My wife is a multipublished author and this is the query she uses when she approaches editors, so it works. If you look on the right side under queries it's very easy to find. There's also an example of a bad query--the kind I usually get.

La Fleur said...

Thank you WML. I will work on it today. I'm going to get this thing right if it is that last thing that I do! Goodness, writing the seems to be much easier, and that took 3 years! LOLLOL But I have never been much of a saleslady anyway.

In any case, I appreciate your help and advice. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much. E