Buried in Queries

I’ve been wading through queries lately. I got behind for awhile and I can tell you, I will NEVER do that again. It’s so much easier when I keep up. As a general rule, I’m going to try and empty my query box a couple times a week, but right now I’m in ketchup mode. I’m up to March 1st, so if you sent one after that, you still haven’t heard from me. I apologize.

Anyway, I am going to be doing some posts on query letters, as my inbox attests to this great need. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start giving you all kinds of “rules” for queries and I don’t have some specific format you have to use. But if you want an agent to consider your project for representation, there are some things to pay attention to. I’ll start with some basics.

Today I’m talking about FICTION queries, by the way.

First, be sure to read the agent’s submission guidelines. They will tell you what they want. Some require you to send manuscript pages (I do), and some will only read a query, no pages.

Ask yourself, What is the purpose of a query? Answer: To get the agent or editor intrigued enough that they want to see more of your book. How do you do this? You’ve got to tell them about the story.

One thing I see a LOT are the queries that tell me about the “theme” of a novel but not about the story itself. “My novel deals with many issues Christians deal with—sin, forgiveness, and redemption.” Uh-huh. So do 99% of all novels, Christian or not. What’s the story? Or they might talk about the characters: “My novel is full of quirky people with unique personalities…” Excellent. But what do those quirky characters do?

Below is a basic template for a query. Please note: I do NOT want you to follow this exactly. It’s not a formula. You’re a writer, after all. But I get so many queries that meander off in a million different directions instead of just telling me what I need to know.

Here’s what I need to know:

a The genre: This is important because it immediately orients the agent or editor to your book. See this post if you need to know more about genre. It’s okay to combine genres in a reasonable way, like “Women’s fiction with a touch of humor.” But avoid the all-over-the-map approach: “My book is a historical/fantasy/suspense romance with elements of a legal thriller.” Yikes.

a About the book: This can be about four to eight sentences (the “blurb”) that tells me the basics of the book but doesn’t try to be a synopsis of the whole thing. You basically want to summarize the first 20-40 pages of your story (the setup), leaving me dying to know what happens next. The best way to learn how to do your blurb is to spend an afternoon in the bookstore, reading back covers. You’ll notice the cover copy doesn’t tell the whole story, it simply gives the setup, maybe talks a little about theme (i.e. what the reader may get out of the book), and makes you want to read it.

a About yourself and your writing background: Please don’t include a resumé or detailed background information, but DO include information that’s relevant to your life as an author, including things like: How long you’ve been writing, how many books you’ve written, any awards you’ve won, any contests in which you’ve been a finalist, any writing courses you’ve taken, whether your book has been professionally edited, whether you have a critique group, if you are a member of ACFW or another writer organization. You may also mention what you do in “real life,” especially if it’s related to writing—you’ve been a journalist or a teacher, for example. If your career is related to the topic of your book, that’s always interesting. And if you have a PLATFORM of some kind, that’s crucial to reveal. I want a feel for who you are and where you might be on this writing journey.

a Something about ME: Yes, you read that right. I want to know why you are pitching ME. How did you hear about me? What is it about our agency that makes you think we might be right for you? Is your book similar to others we represent? If you read my blog, say so. If you heard about us from somewhere, say so. The personal touch is important. You can even open your letter with this as a way of introduction.

Some things to AVOID in your query:

r Saying how great your book is. I’ve read queries that have told me how “exceptional” their stories are and things like that. Never, never, never do that. It’s your job to tell the agent about the book; it’s the agent’s job to decide if they think it’s exceptional or forgettable or somewhere in between.

r Saying that your story is too complicated to summarize. Puh-leeze. This is part of the game. Wanna play? You have to learn how to summarize your story. I’ve had people write in the query things like, “I can’t explain it, you really just have to read it.” Well, no, actually I don’t. Not unless you make me want to read it.

r Try to avoid instant turnoffs, which admittedly may be hard to identify, but here’s an example from a query I read today: “Most of the book is basically character development.” That’s an instant “no thank you.” I need character development, yeah, but I need it to grow out of the story. Another example of a turnoff would be, “My story is realistic because it really happened to me.” I don’t care about realistic, I care about believable, and I care about loving the story. When you tell me that, I immediately see a long future ahead with a writer who doesn’t want to deal with issues of plot or characterization or dialogue because, “That’s the way it really happened.” Ugh, nightmare.

r Avoid hype. I get annoyed when I read queries that go overboard with things like, “Read it… if you dare!” like it’s a movie trailer or something.

***

Here’s an important thing to remember: When I’m reading through a stack of queries, I really really really want to love each and every one. It’s like Christmas and there’s a pile of presents and I’m just ripping off the wrapping, SO excited to find what’s inside, SO ready to love it, whatever it is. Write your query knowing I am primed and ready to love it, then try to give me something exciting, surprising, intriguing.

Remember, a successful writing career can be launched by one terrific query letter.

Send me your specific query questions and I’ll answer them in future posts. I’ll also start posting some samples of actual queries and telling you why they worked.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Books & Such Literary Agency. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!

30 Comments

  1. Edwin on December 19, 2012 at 5:02 PM

    Hello Rachelle,

    I enjoy your posts very much and I have one question. My novel is horror with heavy paranormal elements in it–you mention you handle supernatural but is horror as a genre something you would be interested in looking at with paranormal/supernatural element such as demons?



  2. pixy on April 15, 2008 at 4:18 PM

    >Congrats on being listed on the WD Top Blogs!

    This is a very helpful post on query letter writing.



  3. Your Coach for the Journey, Tiffany Colter on April 15, 2008 at 12:15 PM

    >Grr, I’ve tried 4 times to post this comment!!!

    Rachelle, I heard you were listed among the top blogs on WD, congrats.

    I think this is a great post on queries. I linked to it from my blog today [4/15/08] and really hope some people will take advantage of what you’re teaching. I wish I’d had this kind of lesson from an agent when I was starting out!

    Your Coach for the Journey, Tiffany Colter



  4. Ashley Weis on April 14, 2008 at 7:53 PM

    >Thanks for taking the time to teach us! :o) I love your blog. It’s so informative.



  5. Melanie on April 12, 2008 at 4:58 PM

    >OK, one more question.

    I know the importance of addressing the letter to a specific person, not just Sir or Madam or Dear Agent, however, even though I feel as if I know you from reading the blog, Dear Rachelle seems far too informal.

    Is Ms. So and so acceptable to most women who are agents?

    Thanks,
    Melanie



  6. Anonymous on April 12, 2008 at 7:36 AM

    >cballan-
    Rhyming with “prairie” or “eerie” is exactly how I saw it described on another website.

    Liz



  7. Melanie on April 11, 2008 at 9:24 PM

    >Thanks Rachelle. Now I know. One more nugget of knowledge.



  8. cballan on April 11, 2008 at 6:02 PM

    >Um, could you please provide the pronunciation of the word “query” that won’t make agents/editors wince?

    Does it rhyme with PRAIRIE or EERIE?



  9. Debbie on April 11, 2008 at 4:58 PM

    >Well, as alwasy, I love your info and appreciate ya. AND … I just read on the ACFW loop that YOUR blog has been listed in the June issue of Writer’s Digest. Your blog was one of only seven agent blogs named in the list of 101 Best Websites for Writers! I’m sooooo proud of you. YAY! I think this calls for some kind of celebration.

    Debbie



  10. Robbie Iobst on April 11, 2008 at 4:56 PM

    >Rachelle,

    Congrats! I just read the following on the ACFW loop:

    “Rants and Ramblings was listed in the same Writer’s Digest (June 2008) as Novel Journey! Rachelle’s blog was one of only seven agent blogs named in the list of 101 Best Websites for Writers.”

    Well deserved, Rachelle. I am learning so much.



  11. canvaschild on April 11, 2008 at 2:13 PM

    >I too appreciate reading these posts, and hope your weekend is peaceful Rachelle. Thanks for caring so much.

    Emily.



  12. Kathryn Harris on April 11, 2008 at 1:00 PM

    >xdpaul said: “My memoir tells the story of a reserved Norwegian-American family who is abducted by aliens, and the challenges they face upon their return to Earth. The story culminates in a fistfight at a potluck, where I finally have to confront my inner demons of coffee withdrawal and lefse envy.”

    Wow, for a second there, I thought we were related, but then I remembered I’m German. 😉

    Just kidding xdpaul, but I thought your “memoir” was hilarious.



  13. Rachelle on April 11, 2008 at 12:01 PM

    >XDPaul –

    I’m no expert. Just a ranting agent with an opinion on everything. 🙂



  14. XDPaul on April 11, 2008 at 10:48 AM

    >If someone is querying a memoir, there is absolutely no need to say “it really happened to me.” A memoir, by definition, “really happened” unless, of course, it is one of a half-dozen discovered “liaries” that have been exposed recently.

    Saying a memoir “really happened” is kind of like saying a romance novel has a love story in it.

    I think the same rule applies to memoir queries. You don’t have to justify how it really happened, but you do have to justify why its story arc is engaging.

    I’ve read plenty of “real” accounts – including police reports, student assessments, even newspaper accounts. Their basis in reality in no way contributes to their status as literature.

    Rachelle is the expert, but my opinion (and that is all that it is, I’m not in the industry) is to pitch the memoir like you’d pitch fiction: “My memoir tells the story of a reserved Norwegian-American family who is abducted by aliens, and the challenges they face upon their return to Earth. The story culminates in a fistfight at a potluck, where I finally have to confront my inner demons of coffee withdrawal and lefse envy.”

    Just a thought!



  15. Tiffany Stuart on April 11, 2008 at 10:48 AM

    >I love learning about all of these stuff, publishing, fiction queried, critiquing. You are helping so many writers be better. Thanks, Rachelle.



  16. Ed J. Horton on April 11, 2008 at 10:43 AM

    >Major Ouch! I made the avoid-this-in-your-query list.

    I appreciate your honest teaching and never miss reading your posts. I’m learning from you and many others, and that’s really important to me.

    Thanks!



  17. Anonymous on April 11, 2008 at 9:33 AM

    >“Another example of a turnoff would be, “My story is realistic because it really happened to me.” I don’t care about realistic, I care about believable…When you tell me that, I immediately see a long future ahead with a writer who doesn’t want to deal with issues of plot or characterization or dialogue because, “That’s the way it really happened.”

    As for memoirs, what tips do you have for writing a query without sounding like the above mentioned “turnoff”?

    If someone has written a memoir that is “realistic because it really happened to me”, that doesn’t mean the author isn’t willing to also make it believable. Nor does it mean the author doesn’t want to deal with plot, characterization or dialogue issues.

    How should someone convey this in their query for a memoir?

    Thanks for your blog and all the helpful information.

    Liz



  18. Jesse McLaughlin on April 11, 2008 at 9:29 AM

    >In your previous post Hot Tips for Conferences, you said “don’t pitch a novel unless it’s complete. Do you feel the same about query letters? Do we only query completed works, or are ideas fair game?

    Elizabeth Jote posted about writers sending in a synopsis instead of a query (don’t do it). Is this something that happens to you as well?



  19. XDPaul on April 11, 2008 at 8:38 AM

    >Mmm, ketchup a la mode. Nummy.

    Oh wait, I read that wrong. Now I know what your guideline point-missing queriers feel like!



  20. Marcie Gribbin on April 11, 2008 at 8:20 AM

    >Ditto to Kathryn’s question. Oh, and also, I need to add… Thanks so much, Rachelle for being so open with your readers about what you are looking for. I’ve found myself reading this blog more often than I read the newspaper lately- and I don’t even have anything in your inbox… yet! The query is the writer’s ultimate nightmare (at least for this writer). This is so helpful!



  21. Marla Taviano on April 11, 2008 at 8:08 AM

    >You make me laugh. 🙂



  22. Kathryn Harris on April 11, 2008 at 8:07 AM

    >Rachelle,

    Nathan Bransford had a great post about cliches in query letters a few months back, and afterward, I tossed out what I thought was a great query and rewrote.

    I’m curious to know if there are any cliche phrases that you’ve found in query letters that writers absolutely, positively should avoid.

    Just curious.



  23. Tami Boesiger on April 11, 2008 at 8:04 AM

    >Rachelle, you crack me up. You don’t have any opinions on this matter, do ya? I love it. And thanks for your continued support of writers in this blog. It is so helpful.



  24. Pam Halter on April 11, 2008 at 7:58 AM

    >I always follow the guidelines. But I’ve attended workshops where the author has strayed from the guidelines and got picked up. And encouraged us to do the same.

    Hmmmmm . . .

    We’re told to follow guidelines. We’re told to stand out.

    I realize our writing will determine if we stand out or not, but what kind of things that stray from the guidelines would catch your attention in a good way?



  25. Rachelle on April 11, 2008 at 7:00 AM

    >Melanie, I rewrote the “About yourself and your background” part of the post for you.

    Misti, yes, no, maybe. It’s a common question these days but there are too many variables. The most important consideration will ALWAYS be how great your book is, and that will be subjective. I suggest a normal query to agents. You’ll find out soon enough if it’s catching anyone’s attention.

    Kim, what I don’t want to see in a query is anything I’ve already said I’m not looking for (in my post “What I’m Looking For” listed under Quick Links in the sidebar).



  26. Katie Hart - Freelance Writer on April 11, 2008 at 6:03 AM

    >Reminder to self: For Christmas, do not give Rachelle Gardner socks.

    Unless they are exciting, surprising, intriguing socks.

    🙂



  27. Melanie on April 11, 2008 at 2:00 AM

    >You mean there’s no quick and painless way to write a query?’

    No, that’s not my question, though your tip may make it easier.

    My real question: What can a first-time novelist do to gain your trust in a query? I’m a journalist, but until finalling in Genesis, my last fiction award was a county creative writing contest when I was a teenager. Not exactly something to include in a professional query.

    That said, I’ve been in the newspaper and magazine business for 18 years, roughly half my life. Does that type of background help at all?

    This post is a big help, by the way. The only thing I fear more than the query (possibly because I’ve mocked a few for magazine articles in my day), is the synopsis. No, I take that back. The thing I fear most is actually submitting my manuscript.

    Melanie J.



  28. Misti Sandefur, Novelist/Freelance Writer on April 11, 2008 at 1:07 AM

    >Wonderful tips, thanks! Now, for my query question: Do you accept query letters for books that have been published by a POD publisher? I ask this because I have one, but I’ve been seriously considering having it edited by a professional, rewriting it and then seeking representation for it.



  29. Kim Kasch on April 11, 2008 at 12:02 AM

    >To the Wizardress of Writing Wisdom:

    I love reading all your hints/tips and lessons. FWIW, here’s mine:

    Surprise the reader – even in your query – and you might be thrilled in return.

    I subbed a proposed article to a Christian kid’s magazine and was excited and (yep) even surprised when it was accepted. Why? Because of the title: Vampires and Zombies. Sometimes, I think we try a little too hard to give people what they want or what we think they want. I don’t mean anyone should break the rules for submissions or not follow the guidelines, but I think we need to step outside the box – once in a while. Life is more fun that way.

    So, here’s my question: Are there any topics, genres or styles you wouldn’t want to see in a query?

    (One caveat to add to my query tip: I don’t have any books published – yet.)



I love words.

I love books and publishing and talking incessantly about them.

I love authors and all the intricacies of managing a writing life.

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