Saturday, November 6, 2010

Rethinking the Query--What's Between the Lines?

Posted by Rebecca J. Carlson

Three years ago when I began to venture into the world of book publishing, the query process seemed so unfair. How could an agent judge anything about my manuscript by a few paragraphs on a single sheet of paper? And after all that work of drafting a novel, revising, drafting again, rewriting the ending three times, revising some more, NOW I had this--this HOMEWORK assignment! Write a query letter? Bah.

Now I have a different attitude. What can an agent tell about my manuscript from my query letter? More than I thought at first. But equally important is what the agent can tell about me.

When you  meet someone it doesn't take long to get an impression of who they are. A query letter is the same way. It's a first impression, and it can be very revealing.

Here's a few things I'd be looking for if I were an agent:

1. Is this writer competent enough to draft a good business letter? This includes conventions like grammar, spelling, and formatting. Writers who can produce great novels but who can't write a decent business letter may exist, but they've got to be extremely rare.

2. Can the writer explain the story clearly in a paragraph or two, and make it sound exciting? If the writer can't do this then I'm certainly not going to be able to do it. How will I get an editor interested? How will we sell this book to the public?

3. Do I like this writing style? Is it engaging? Could I read a whole book in this writing style?

What are some other things agents can glean from a query letter? I'd like to see some comments.

When it comes to a query letter, what's between the lines can be just as important as what's on the surface. It's a first impression, and I intend to make it count.


  1. Agh! I hate blogger (it ate my comment). Once again...

    I think a query shows how much of the business a writer understands. Have they looked at all into the conventions of query letters? Do they know to include things like word count and genre? I just critted a query that made a bunch of query mistakes, the typical things that they wouldn't have done with any research at all.

    I'm not sure about the writing style, though. Some queries have lots of voice and some are more business like. Mine tend to the business side, but of course there is some voice in the story description.

    Since so many agents ask for pages with a query, I think that mitigates the voice issue somewhat.

  2. I agree with you. As much as I hate writing them, I think it's a valid entry pass. I also agree with Susan - so much of what a query is meant to accomplish can be learned from a bit of research. The rest comes from our own skills - or lack of them.

  3. Rebecca, you're so right! It seems a query is a good guage of the maturity of the writer (in writing, not age). I feel so young as a writer and I'm always learning new things. Constructing a decent query feels like taking on a Senior project when you're still in seventh grade. But it seems that each time I write one and learn more about the process, I gain a grade level. I'm still shooting for that Senior status, but it's going to take forever!

  4. Sue, I agree that I use a different voice for my queries than my prose, but in both cases I strive for a strong and lucid writing style. Still, I'm more confident when the agent wants to see pages.

    And Jonene, you're probably closer than you think. Much closer than forever.

  5. @Rebecca I think we're saying the same thing. :)

  6. Sue, I really like what you said about the market, too. A good query letter shows you're in the know. I don't think you have to say things like, "Mermaid stories are selling like hot-cakes so you're going to want to jump on the chance to represent my novel ROMANCE UNDER THE SEA." But I think the way you pitch the book can show you understand what the selling points are.

  7. Good points. I think the query is like a window into our stories. I don't find them as horrific as I used to, but they're not the easiest things to write! :)

  8. I think it's kind of like a speed date. Two minutes (or less) to say, "Hey, this is me. This is what I like to write. Am I cute enough? Give me a shot."

    But not in those words. Cause those words would get me a rejection. But you are right, it's a first impression, and until we get over the stage fright of, "ACK! how will I ever be able to tell them everything in one paragraph? This is the worst thing to ever happen to me! Stab me in the eye and let me die a slow, painful death instead of writing this stupid query!" we won't be able to make the impression we want in our speed date/query. Maybe. :)

    Loved the post.

  9. Leisha, you always make me laugh! Is that book of yours finished yet?

  10. Great post. I just stumbled upon this blog, and I'm glad that I did. I agree that query letters are a necessary evil in this world. But even though it seems the only entry pass, it's not. I met my editor and agent at a writer's conference. I can't say enough about attending them. I learned more about the business of writing in two days than I had in fifteen years of querying.

  11. Kim, I completely agree with you on the importance of writer's workshops and conferences. Writers shall not publish by query alone! Even those published (or soon to be published) authors I know who did not meet their current editor and/or agent at a conference DID go to conferences and had met other editors and agents before they landed a sale.


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