Friday, January 30, 2009

ON Queries about Queries

Yeah, it's one of the things you don't find out til later.

You've written a wonderful book, a marvelous book, and you're getting ready to write the cool acknowledgment page and sign up for an author photo.

Waaaait a minit. First you've got to get an agent. THAT you know. And to snag your perfect agent, you suddenly find out need to write a query letter. A--sales pitch. That perfectly (but briefly) describes you and your book so irresisitibly that you'll have agent offers filling your email and mailbox.

The query letter. In the annals of writing, it goes down with the dreaded synopsis as the scourge.

But hey--we've snagged Wendy Burt Thomas. She has a new book that'll answer it all for us. It's called: The Writers Digest Guide to Query Letters.
(And its not just for novels--it's got info on non-fiction, and short stories, and magazines.)

And we're getting a sneak peek.

HANK: Query letters. We all cringe. How make-or-break is a query letter to an aspiring author's career?

WENDY: Breaking into the publishing world is hard enough right now. Unless you have a serious "in" of some kind, you really need a great query letter to impress an agent or acquisitions editor.

Essentially, your query letter is your first impression. If they like your idea (and voice and writing style and background), they'll either request a proposal, sample chapters, or the entire manuscript. If they don't like your query letter, you've got to pitch it to another agency/publisher. Unlike a manuscript, which can be edited or reworked if an editor thinks it has promise, you only get one shot with your query.

I see a lot of authors who spend months (or years) finishing their book, only to rush through the process of crafting a good, solid query letter. What a waste! If agents/editors turn you down based on a bad query letter, you've blown your chance of getting them to read your manuscript.

It could be the next bestseller, but they'll never see it. My advice is to put as much effort into your query as you did your book. If it's not fabulous, don't send it until it is.

HANK: You know, my first query letter, which I loved, got no no no no from every agent I sent it to. It focused on the main character. The second one--which was about exactly the same book--focused on the plot hook. I think I only changed the first paragraph. And everyone said yes. It was the same book! How do you know you've got it right?

WENDY: That's a tough one. There are a few things that will help your chances of landing an agent. First, make sure your book idea is a match for the agencies you're pitching. Research some of the most recent books the agency represented.

Were they action-oriented (e.g. plot-driven) or character-driven? Your query will need to whet the agent's appetite based on his/her taste - and what they think your book will be about. If your book is plot-driven but your query focuses on sketching out the character, they'll likely get the wrong idea.

Second, learn from the feedback you get. Even rejections can be helpful - and get you closer to an acceptance. If all the agents are saying they like the character but not the fact that you set it in the 1980s, you might need to change that in your query - and manuscript. If they all simply say, "no thanks" without any feedback, it's probably a sign that you need to revise your query (and/or manuscript).

Thirdly, if you get a lot of positive responses ("Great concept - just not a fit for our agency") then don't give up. I think my co-author and I queried 30 or 40 agencies before we got an offer of representation on our first book. I see too many authors give up after trying only 10 or 12 agents.

HANK: What's the biggest lesson you've learned as a full-time writer?

WENDY: Seize every opportunity - especially when you first start writing. I remember telling someone about a really high-paying writing gig I got and he said, "Wow. You have the best luck!" I thought, "Luck has nothing to do with it! I've worked hard to get where I am."

Later that week I read this great quote: "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity." It's absolutely true. And writing queries is only about luck in this sense. If you're prepared with a good query and/or manuscript, when the opportunity comes along you'll be successful.

HANK: Okay, who wrote the bad letters? Do tell.

WENDY: I did! And that was such fun. I've read - and written! - so many horrible ones over the years that it was a little too easy to craft them. But misery loves company and we ALL love to read really bad query letters, right?

HANK: But--there are all these rules.One page. Your own voice. Big hook. Your platform. And then the final rule is--be natural. Ahhhhh...what should writers know?

WENDY: I want them to remember that writing is fun. Sometimes new writers get so caught up in the procedures that they lose their original voice in a query. Don't bury your style under formalities and to-the-letter formatting.

HANK: Full disclosure--my query letter is in this book! And it was really fun to see it. (I didn't let Wendy get her hands on the one that tanked.)

Wendy graciously says she'll come chat and answer your questions! So maybe she can give you some guidance.

And Jungle Red is giving away two copies of TWDGTQL to commenters we'll choose at random.

So ask away--and maybe you'll win answers to ALL your questions!

And how does your query letter start? Published authors--we'd love to know! Yet-to-be-published--have you figured that out yet?

(Thanks to Epicurienne for the typewriter photo!)


  1. Thanks for having me today. I'm looking forward to hanging out with other writers!

  2. Wendy, do you think that we should consider creating different query letters for different agents rather than one letter we call "our query letter."

    I've tried to incorporate some aspect of other books the agent has successfully sold as in, "'Terminated' is a lot like the book 'Murder at the Fluffy Bunny Ranch' in that there is a serial killer on the loose."

    Does this come off as too contrived, or does it give the agent (or the agent's reader) the feeling that I've done my homework?



    Spoiler Alert: In 'Murder at the Fluffy Bunny Ranch' the serial killer was the fox.

  3. Hi Wendy, we're so pleased to have you here today at JRW!

    Could you say something about query letters for short stories? are full-page letters unnecessary for story submission or do you think they're important there too?

  4. Hey Ray!

    Great to see you. I loved the fluffy bunny books, and I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel.

    The first line of my query for PRIME TIME is:

    "Think that annoying SPAM clogging your computer is just cyber junk-mail?"

    Anyone? What's yours?

    ANd Wendy--I've been criticized for not having started with: "PRIME TIME is a completed 85,000 word mystery thriller."

    What do you think about that?

  5. Hi - not blogger, so guess I have to leave this under the Anonymous tag.
    If your work is more character driven, how do you include a hook that will grab an agent?

  6. Thank you for coming here, Wendy.

    The idea of writing a query for fiction scares me into immobility. Yet, I have no problem about emailing bloggers to offer a guest post. Probably because I have a good idea of what they're looking for.

    For traditional print media? Even the prospect querying them makes me freeze.

  7. Ray,
    I think 90 percent of the query letter can be the same for all agents. You're correct in tailoring the other 10 percent to each agent. As you said, it shows you've done your homework and it also might make them think, "Oh good. I liked MURDER AT THE FLUFFY BUNNY RANCH so TERMINATED should be a fun read."

  8. Roberta,
    My disclaimer is always "read the publication's guidelines" but I can tell you that I've almost never used a query letter for a short story. I've sold quite a few and for as many as I can remember, I only included a brief cover letter and the story itself. As you can imagine, the cover letter won't need to be nearly as detailed as a query letter because the work is enclosed and should speak for itself.

  9. Hank,
    I'd love to meet the person who criticized you for not opening with "PRIME TIME is a completed 85,000-word..."

    I'd be willing to bet money that they used to be a journalist. (Inverted pyramid approach. Important facts first!)

    I'm a huge fan of queries with an opening hook. Opening with a word count couldn't save even Stephen King from the slush pile.

  10. Hi, Wendy:
    I have to confess that I am hopeless at writing a synopsis so I am very lucky I got my first agent without a query letter (we met at a writer's conference

    But I have met a lot of writers who could definitely make use of your book. The tendency is to rehash the story yada yada yada.

  11. Wendy, how do you suggest formatting an email query so it looks good when it arrives? Should we try to write it like a traditional paper letter?

  12. Hi Wendy,

    I've written a historical mystery where some of the characters are based on "real" historical figures. Do you think it's helpful to mention the historical background or is it better to just start with the pitch?


  13. Darlene,
    Regarding formatting, the big problem nowadays is with attachments. Unless an agent/editor is expecting your query (and therefore knows it's safe to open the attachment and/or knows to look in their spam folder), your best bet is to just paste your query into the bulk of the email. With that said, you may lose some formatting - depending on your ISP and theirs - so try to use a simple universal font like Times Roman 12 and use spaces b/n paragraphs instead of indentations.

    I always try to be as formal in email as I would on paper.

    Your other option is to send the query as an attachment and then send a separate email letting them know what you sent, who you are, and that you'd be happy to resend it another way if they can't find it in their spam folder or regular email.

    When it doubt, be formal.

  14. Rhonda,
    Am I correct in assuming that your fear about querying for fiction is all based on rejection? (And are we talking novels or short stories?)

    This is the one time I will tell you to EXPECT rejection. Not necessarily every single time, but on some pieces for some editors. If you expect it, and recognize that you can learn a lot from some rejection letters ("I like your characters but the plot needs work"), it's like getting a free critique from a pro. I've gotten enough rejections over the years to wallpaper my entire house. But if I hadn't gotten them and learned from the feedback, I wouldn't have 1,000+ published pieces and three books today!
    If you haven't already read it, pick up Stephen King's book, "On Writing" to learn how even the best in the world get tons of rejections.
    My advice is to write the best possible query, have some other folks offer feedback, perfect it, then just send it in.
    The only way to get over a fear of rejection is to get rejected. (And I'm fine with you getting an acceptance the first time and proving me wrong!)

  15. Hi Nancy,
    It's hard to say without knowing the piece, but I'd so just go with the pitch. I suggest this because too many writers tend to focus on the FACTS of their book (Jenny is a blond hairdresser born in 1960) rather than immediately pulling the reader into the query. If you really feel it's important to mention the fact that the characters are based on real people, do it later in the query.

  16. Rayanne,
    I wouldn't go into an in-depth description of your character in the query. It's always better to show rather than tell anyway.

    One suggestion is to read the back cover of some other character-driven books. They do a good job of enticing the reader enough to buy the book, so why not use the same approach to entice an agent/editor to request your manuscript? You can probably do this on Amazon too.

    Remember, stuff still has to happen to your character, so you don't want to spend the entire query just focused on WHO they are.

  17. By the way, if anyone has a writing-related blog, Web site, book, contest, workshop, event, etc., feel free to email it to me:

    I have a blog called "Ask Wendy"
    ( that is based on a column I've written for for four years. It's geared toward writers so I'm always looking for cool writing-related stuff to share. (Just no manuscripts.)

    I am a big believer in writers helping writers when it comes to promotion!

  18. Thanks so much, Wendy!
    Nancy A.

  19. Hi, Wendy --

    Great answers! I've heard a rule of thumb to never go beyond the equivalent of a printed page for a query letter--do you agree? And should writers tell the agent about their OTHER unpublished manuscripts. In fact, what information about the author is helpful to the query versus unhelpful.

  20. Hallie,
    I advise people to stick to one page for a query - two MAX.
    If you don't have any relevant published pieces to mention, I'm not sure I'd mention the unpublished pieces (unless you're pitching a novel series and happen to have the second and/or third completed already). An agent/editor might wonder why the pieces aren't published.
    I think it's valuable to mention contests you've won (or placed in), relevant work or life experience (if you lived with the Amish for 3 years and your novel is set in the Amish community), and any platform you have (blog, Web site, organizations, groups, classes, etc.)
    Platform is HUGE because writing is really only half your job. Marketing your book after it's published is mainly the author's responsibility.

  21. This was fun! Thanks for having me on the blog and for all your great questions.


    Mags Mentionables

    Please email Hank via
    click on contact
    and send me your address!

    (If you don't hear back from me instantly, leave a comment here and we'll connect somehow..
    it just means you were caught in the spam filter.)

    WINNERS of the Wendy Burt-Thomas book will be chosen and announced Sunday--so keep commenting and let's chat--Wendy will be here to help!

  23. Oh, I've got a nice little "starter stack" of rejections, too. :) Most of them are of the boilerplate "thanks but no thanks" variety.

    But I did get one once that complimented what I wrote, then added, "Thanks for submitting."

    But the most fun rejection I ever got was from Mad Magazine years ago. Seeing Alfred E. Neuman on the letterhead is pretty cheery, even for a rejection.

  24. Well, this isn't a question, but I completely understand about people not realizing that as writers, we work hard to achieve what we do.

    love the quote about luck--i'm adding it to my list of quotes. :)

  25. I think the best I got was two rejections on the same proposal. One publisher told me the book was too sophisticated for their readers. The other said the book wasn't polished enough. D'huh? *scratches head*

    - PJ writing as Silver James

  26. This must be rejection week. :) (The Guppies DO run a "Winter of Rejection" contest. Anyhoo ...)

    Editor Chris Roerden is blogging over at Poe's Deadly Daughters about writers' blind spots. Reactions to rejections seem to be a part of that.

    Between here and there, I feel like I've been in group therapy. =:-o

  27. Yes, Penny. I so agree!

    I got one rejection that essentially said "What a great writer you are! But we don't love the plot."

    The next one said "We LOVE the plot! But you aren't much of a writer."

    I burst out laughing. If that doesn't explain shows you, right? It's not you. It's them. And that's just fine.

    Rhonda, you submitted to MAD? I love that fershlugginer magazine.

    Come back tomorrow for the winners of Wendy's book! And there's still time to enter..

  28. Hank -- Some freelancers used to submit to MAD just so they'd receive the rejection.

  29. I used to love MAD and also GAMES Magazine. I think I remember reading that Games folded though, no?

    I like to remind people that editors are people too. (I only know this because I am and have been an editor for mags and newspapers.) So we all have our own tastes, histories, preferences, interests, etc. Just think of all the people who turned down the world's most famous authors' pieces. All the more reason to A) do your homework on agents'/editors' past representation/purchases and B) keep submitting to others.

  30. Jenny Stamos Kovacs and Penny--you're our winners of Wendy's books!

    Please contact me through my website
    and Jungle Red will send you your loot!

  31. Oh--and come back Monday--when we talk About

    How can you...resist?

  32. Congrats Jenny and Penny. Thanks for stopping by. And thanks for having me, Hank!

  33. Wendy--you're great! And so generous to take the time to answer questions and guide us.

    Come back and see us..and good luck with your oh-so-wonderful

  34. Woohoo! I really need this book! LOL. Wendy, thanks for the great advice. Hank and Jungle Red, thanks for the book and for a great blog!