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The Art of the Query

If you’re trying to sell a book to a publisher, or an article to a magazine, you’re familiar with The Art of the Query Letter. Many of you have asked me to write more about query letters, be more specific about what “a good one” looks like, maybe give examples of query letters that got the job done. In fact, there are several agents who’ve already done this very well on their blogs, and quite a few websites that cover query letters in detail.

I’ve bucked the tide and resisted going into too much detail on query letters, because I view them slightly differently than some of my colleagues in the business. Yes, they’re important, and yes, they’re the first sample of your writing I get to read, so they can make the difference between whether I want to see more—or not. But here’s the problem: a query letter is only an accurate indication of the writer’s ability about, maybe, 50% of the time. Some people will spend a ridiculous amount of time crafting the perfect query letter for a book I’d never represent. Others are clueless about queries but may have a book I’d kill for. So it doesn’t make sense to me to put too much time into telling you how to write that initial query.

I’m more interested in seeing what you come up with on your own. I have pretty specific guidelines on the blog and the website: basically, I want something about the book, something about you the author, and the first 10 pages of the manuscript. As long as you include those elements, I have enough to make a decision, either “no” or “I want to see more.” (You can also go to the sidebar to the right under “Find Posts on This Blog” and click “Query Letters” to find everything I’ve written about them.)

Now, it’s hard to write a synopsis of your book in a couple hundred words, so eventually I’ll be giving you more helpful hints on how to do that. But as for the query, I just don’t see the point in giving too much direction. This is your deal, it’s your shot at impressing me, and so I want it to be yours. Truthfully, I’ve taken on clients based on terrific queries, average queries, or no query at all.

I think it used to be true that a query letter would be a pretty good respresentation of the writer’s ability. But in a strange twist, I’ve noticed that some writers are getting way too good at crafting query letters, when the actual writing in their manuscript is nowhere near ready for prime time. I think the inordinate focus on The Art of the Query is responsible for this. So again, it doesn’t make sense to me to stress the query more than the manuscript itself.

Q4U:
Talk to me about queries. Are you confident when writing them? Do you hate them? Do you have specific questions about them?

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

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!

19 Comments

  1. Carroll B. Merriman on March 25, 2012 at 11:58 AM

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  2. Kathleen on December 3, 2008 at 10:02 PM

    >Thanks for those thoughts, Joe!



  3. Joe Iriarte on December 3, 2008 at 6:08 PM

    >Kathleen, I’m not an author yet, but I’ve always heard that you should go ahead and give spoilers in your query, if that’s where the compelling stuff is. Agents want to know the end anyway–one I pitched in person at a writers’ conference two weeks ago flat out asked me the ending of my book. What I’ve read online is that the plot catalyst needs to be in the first fifty pages, and this is what you lead with in your synopsis, but this doesn’t mean you stick to those first fifty pages–that’s just where you begin.



  4. Kathleen on December 3, 2008 at 5:26 PM

    >This is kind-of a funny question, for me. I feel pretty confident writing them, for the most part. Granted, I haven’t sold yet, but I’ve read so much on agent blogs about them, and I’ve helped turn some other writer’s failing query letters into winning ones. But then, sometimes it’s a lot easier to see the forest when you’re not in the middle of the trees.

    My struggle with my query letter is which viewpoint to pitch it from. I sent you the pitch that’s from the reader’s POV… ie: it doesn’t give away anything that’s not discovered during the first 50 pages, etc. (I’m pretty sure you refused because I should aim for the general market, not CBA, so I’m not asking for re-consideration.) Yet… that leaves out the most unusual aspect of my story. My other pitch is, I think, what got me my partial request… the same day I sent off my query, she asked a question about how our book ideas started, and I commented with mine. Yet this pitch gives away what the reader doesn’t get to discover until 1/2 way through the book.

    But I wonder… what if I’d pitched it differently? ie: Jason was born in Scotland’s past, lives in the present, and has responsibilities in both. Kyra is the woman who falls in love with him. She only wants to be a part of his life and his family… but she has no idea how unusual both are. That pitch showcases the more unusual aspects of the story… but it doesn’t really highlight GMC, which my other does.

    (You don’t have to answer this question… I’m not trying to be sneaky. I’m just posting this, because you asked, and this is a question that I can’t seem to find the answer to!)



  5. Crystal Laine Miller on December 3, 2008 at 12:02 AM

    >I think if you learn to write an 150-word book review (like the kind Lin Johnson makes us write for Church Libraries–she is tough and precise about what she wants,) you will master writing these short pieces that introduce your work. Maybe read some book reviews to see how those are done.

    Somehow if you do a review of your own work, you can see where there might be weaknesses in your overall work–which can help in the long run.

    Editors also have first readers (some of them, not all) write a short paragraph synopsis of the manuscript, then point out specific areas, so really, your work will eventually be cut down to size whether you do it or not. You might as well try doing this with your own work.

    I love reading the proposals, but I prefer writing up reports on complete manuscripts. That’s actually kind of fun. If you have strong writing, it shows up on page 1-10, I think, so I think that’s a good way to sort through them.

    Who was it? Mark Twain? who said, “I would’ve written shorter if I’d had more time.”



  6. David A. Todd on December 2, 2008 at 11:27 PM

    >No, I’m not confident with my query letters. There’s no way to know if the rejection is because the query was bad, the book concept was bad, or the book was just wrong for that particular agent or editor.



  7. Joe Iriarte on December 2, 2008 at 3:12 PM

    >You know, I actually feel pretty confident when it comes to queries. I’ve read all the various blogs, and I eventually came to the conclusion that queries tended to be pretty formulaic, and I feel like I’ve learned the formula. Now whether I can *use* it effectively is for someone else to judge, but I feel that I’ve picked up about all I’m going to from discussions of how to write them.

    [personal connection if I’ve got it, like I’ve met them at a conference or I read their blog]

    +

    [hook–what’s interesting about my story, and how provocatively can I phrase it?]

    +

    [description of my novel]

    +

    [why I’m the right person to have written this novel]

    =

    Query Letter

    That’s it.

    (IMHO, of course.)

    These days, I’m much more interested in discussions of craft, and, specifically, what aspects of prose come across as amateurish. Mechanics. I’ve been focusing a lot lately on things like TO BE verbs and -ING words.

    I used to be able to look at my work and see that it was somehow less polished than that of pros, even though there was nothing wrong with my grammar, syntax, or vocabulary. I think I’m getting better about that now.

    But, you know, there was a point where I wanted to know all about queries. I guess it comes down to what you’re ready to learn. Writing good prose takes so much longer to learn that writing good queries does, honestly, so it’s a fount you can return to for more. I think people get in to trouble when they don’t realize that, and when they think they’ve already mastered the prose part. “I’m already a great writer; teach me to write the perfect query.”



  8. Nicole on December 2, 2008 at 3:03 PM

    >Hate them. And synopses. And proposals. Period. They can be learned, polished, done. But I hate them just the same. I even hate reading them written by others. Hate. Hate. Hate. 🙂



  9. Anne L.B. on December 2, 2008 at 10:50 AM

    >Yesterday’s post emphasized being true to who we are in our writing. Shouldn’t the human connection come through in all our communications, even as we respect protocol?

    Publishing is business. Writing is art, whether the genre is acedemic, romantic, adventurous, etc. It seems to me that when business meets art, both utmost professionalism and human connection should harmonize nicely. As in life, the art should pleasantly embelish the business communication without dominating it.



  10. Daniel F. Case on December 2, 2008 at 10:26 AM

    >A few years ago, I took a class on writing magazine queries taught by Ginger Kolbaba, editor of Marriage Partnership and Today’s Christian Woman.

    Ginger said she can generally tell within the first paragraph of a query letter whether the author can write for her magazine. For example, if you’re querying humor, you’d better make her laugh in that first paragraph.

    IMHO, it’s easier to query a magazine article than a book. Even if you can”t fight off the urge to tell the whole story, there’s less to tell. I’ve had successful queries that opened with the opening hook of the article–if it won’t hook the editor, it won’t hook their readers, either. Once the hook is set, it’s easier to sell, IF you’ve done your homework (as in “read and followed the guidelines.”)

    D.



  11. Rachelle on December 2, 2008 at 10:16 AM

    >I vote for the human connection. And I imagine agents/editors who blog would say the same thing. After all, the whole reason we blog is to establish that human connection. Same with attending writers conferences.

    However, the human connection won’t transform a query I’m not interested in into one I am.



  12. Mama J on December 2, 2008 at 10:12 AM

    >I do know at least one person who claims to have perfected the query, but as far as I know he hasn’t found a book publisher. One of the debates he and I have had is whether it’s OK to put one more “personal” line into the query. For example, if you don’t know the editor, but you have read her blog or picked up a philosophy she resonates with, is it OK to add a line to your query that reflects your familiarity with her material? He says “No, keep it all business,” whereas I lean towards making more of a human connection.



  13. Kat Harris on December 2, 2008 at 9:17 AM

    >I struggle with the balance between what is too much info about the story and not enough info.



  14. Rachelle on December 2, 2008 at 9:03 AM

    >Thanks, Mary. Great example!



  15. Mary DeMuth on December 2, 2008 at 9:01 AM

    >My first queries were atrocious. But I learned, and you can too. I’m pasting an example of a recent article query. If you’re querying about a book, your first paragraph needs to be the hook. The second paragraph explains a bit more about the book (like back cover copy) and perhaps your audience demographic, etc. This is followed by a paragraph about your qualifications and a request paragraph. I have a free query tutorial with examples at http://www.marydemuth.com. Click on FREE STUFF.

    August 28, 2008

    Mary E. DeMuth
    my address and contact info

    Editors Name
    Title
    contact info

    Dear Editor’s Name,

    The wife of a man dying of stage-four cancer gets friendly emails telling her that if she just had a little more faith, God would heal him. Because Jesus is all about making us happy, right?

    And when we came home from the mission field, apparently as “failures,” a friend asked us what we did wrong to discern God’s voice. He obviously hadn’t led us there because we didn’t succeed. Because Jesus is all about our success, right?

    The American view of Jesus has cast Him in our own image and our addiction to happiness and success. He is more Me-sus than Jesus. In a 1000-word article entitled, “Me-sus or Jesus,” I debunk the myth that Jesus is merely after our happiness and success on this earth. I elevate readers’ perceptions beyond the here to the Kingdom of God, and beyond the now, to the plane of eternity. Understanding accurately Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom and heaven helps us move beyond a me-first mindset, freeing us to become the sacrificial, joyful followers He is after.

    My articles have appeared in The Writer, Marriage Partnership, In Touch, and Writer’s Digest. My books include: Authentic Parenting in a Postmodern Culture, Watching the Tree Limbs (Christy Finalist), and Wishing on Dandelions. I have three novels and a memoir slated to release in 2009 and 2010 through Harper Collins. I am the owner of The Writers View, a 1300-member online professional writing group.

    Would NAME OF MAGAZINE be interested in “Me-sus or Jesus”? A 1000-word draft is available upon request.

    Warmly,

    Mary E. DeMuth



  16. lynnrush on December 2, 2008 at 8:47 AM

    >Queries…that’s a tough one. I like them because they are short and to the point. A few lines about the story and that’ll be enough for the agent to decide if he/she wants to know more about the story (and author.) But crafting those few lines….now that’s the tough part.

    I’ve seen many sites on “how to write a great query”…but I tell ya, each one has a different approach. It got so confusing.

    Each agent has what they like, so, I finally decided that I just had to do my best, cover it in prayer, and send it out. It should reflect me and my voice, while giving the basics an agent needs to decide to ask for more, right? Or am I way in left field?



  17. Rachelle on December 2, 2008 at 8:12 AM

    >Kelly, so far I haven’t said that I won’t look at queries. But since my client list is pretty full right now, reading the queries is not top priority. I try to maintain a policy of responding to them within 3 weeks but right now I’m up to about 7 weeks. I read them when I can, and if something interests me, I always ask to see more and we take it from there.



  18. Richard Mabry on December 2, 2008 at 8:09 AM

    >Am I confident when writing a query? Absolutely not. What writer, unless his name is Tom Clancy, feels any degree of confidence when trying to sell their work product to an agent or editor? Like the investment ads say, “Past performance is no indicator of future success.”
    It would seem to me that making personal contact (such as at conferences) would give a boost to a query letter. When an agent or editor sees your name and can immediately put a face and a personality with the query, wouldn’t that make the words on the page have a bit more impact? Of course, if the meeting had been in the restroom or some such circumstance, the impact could be negative.
    As always, thanks for giving us the inside scoop.



  19. Chatty Kelly on December 2, 2008 at 8:06 AM

    >Good Morning! My question is are you accepting queries again? A while back you indicated your quiver was full and you were not taking any new work for a while.

    Thank you!



I love words.

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