Sunday, July 26, 2009

I don't feel bad in the least bit

An increasing number of query letters fail to say what the book is about in any meaningful or compelling way. There's a cursory set up paragraph "hot shot detective must solve crime or face social isolation!" What those letters cover instead are the marketing possibilities for the book.

Let me be clear: marketing is important, but it's not what I want to know about first, or even most.

You MUST tell me what the book is about, and tell me about it in a way that is compelling.

No exceptions.

I don't want to see "film" "best seller" or "niche market" or "studies have shown" anywhere in your query letter for a novel.

If you don't tell me what the novel is about, I will send you a form rejection. I won't waste a moment of regret on it either because I want to work with writers who are prepared, and careful, and meticulous

Of course, the people who are doing this have never read this, or any other blog. They've certainly never availed themselves of the hundred or so examples at QueryShark.

For those of you who are now panicking that you've tried to write a good query, and are afraid it won't show: stop worrying. You'll do just fine. You'll do just fine because these mistakes are by people who aren't trying hard to get it right. These mistakes of are from people who are just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks.

If you want to stick to the wall at my office, you'll need an octopus.


Jennifer Lawler said...

I just signed on as an agent at an established agency a few weeks ago -- after years on the other side of the desk -- and I have to say it's been eye-opening to see what some writers think constitutes a query letter.

Right now I'm full of wide-eyed enthusiasm, but even so I just don't have the time to figure out if somewhere in there a great idea is trying to get out.

I wish I'd spent some time on this side of the desk years ago when I first started out as a writer: the things a couple of weeks here will teach you!

Margaret Yang said...

Did the eight-legged assistant leave you any chocolate, or did she eat it all?

Dreamstate said...

As someone who has been obsessing for months about query letters, synopses, agent blogs, agency websites, and any website that might give me some good guidance as to how to show an agent that I CARE what I am sending, thank you for telling me it will come through.

I might actually sleep tonight.

Amber Argyle-Smith said...

Learning to write effective query letters takes as much effort as learning to write a compelling MS. But the two are not totally independent of each other. I've learned much, from writing what is essentially nonfiction, that I've since applied to writing fiction.

Simple things like pin-pointing my audience. Brievity, etc.

Thanks for the post, Janet,

jessjordan said...

1) I'm sorry that you have to read all of that in the hope of finding the handful of queries that fit. Shame on authors for not respecting their craft enough to do a little research.

2) Thank you for showing all of us that actually DO the research what doesn't work. I like to think that agents benefit as much from the advice they give as we authors do that receive it.

3) But ... I must say this makes me feel better about my chances once I get to the querying phase again. :)

Alissa said...

Writers today actually have it pretty good. In addition to all the books out there, we have plenty of blogs and other online information to help us create killer query letters so there really is no excuse (well, other than laziness) for submitting a horrible query letter.

DebraLSchubert said...

I take back what I said about eight-legged sea creatures. This guy's adorable, plus he's got chocolate!!!

QUERY: "Gorgeous blonde distracts FBI agent from investigating a brothel in order to save his life!"

My latest novel NO DUMB BLONDES IN THIS BROTHEL will look sensational on the BIG SCREEN. Niki Kidman and Leo DiCaprio will be banging down doors to star in this HUGE BLOCKBUSTER HIT. Studies have shown, it's got a great niche market.

It's typed in 9 pt. French Script, because that's the only font capable of fully communicating the depth, insight, beauty, and subtle layers of the story. I'm attaching the ms in a Word Perfect document since I haven't had the money, time (been too busy writing), or inclination to switch over to Word. I'm sure you won't mind, and if you do, I'm sure you'll make an exception in this obviously exceptional case.

I'd list my contact info, but I'm kind of private that way. Feel free to Google me or look me up on FaceBook, MySpace and/or Twitter. When you call to discuss representation (10% rather than 15%, since this is a sure sale), I'll fill you in on more details of the story. Clearly, this isn't the venue to give it all away.

You're very welcome,
Crazy MF Author

Tabitha Bird said...

Do we need an octopus and chocolate or just octopus?
I hope some of those people throwing stuff at your wall to see what sticks actually send chocolates too... at least you'd have something to snack on while sending them a form rejection letter.

Anonymous said...

You know how some stores have those little plastic cards--like mini credit cards-- you can hook onto your key chain to keep them handy? Whenever you buy something, the cashier scans them and you get points or a discount or some other goodie? I have two of them on my keychain: ABC Liquors and Godiva chocolate. Do I know how to prioritize or what?
Love the blog. I plan to query, very correctly, of course, as soon as my masterpiece is finished.

Loretta Ross said...

LOL Margaret Yang! I was wondering about the octopus and the chocolate too!

T. Anne said...

I don't mean to alarm you but that octopus is about to eat all the chocolate I sent.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Studies have shown that hot shot detective octopii must solve crimes or face social isolation.

With a story so complex, I can't possibly tell you what it's about here - lest someone read my brilliance and run out to steal my ideas from the envelope I mailed myself at the copyright office, you'll just have to request pages if you want to know how Calamari Jones stops the international cabal of cannibalistic field mice. If marketed correctly, such stories have endless film possibilities and are guaranteed best sellers.

I don't have to tell you, it's a fascinating read - all about life and love and the everyday heroics of a meaningful cephalopod compelled to search out the meaning of life while avoiding sharks at all costs... except for the one she's in love with, of course.

(Just in case you're on the fence about the story, I've included an assortment of not at all creepy chocolates for you sent by a total stranger.)

Janet Reid said...

Calamari Jones! That cracks me up.

It frightens the Pink Octopus though..she's hiding in the Godiva bag again.

S.D. said...

The octopus is cute :)

I'm surprised that some people even realize you need to write a query letter to find an agent.

laughingwolf said...

wet liver lips stick to walls pretty nicely, too ;)

Lily Cate said...

I ran into a friend a while ago who, it turned out, was working on a children's book. He was getting quite discouraged, and I was all ready to hear about his pile of rejection letters.
Then I found out he didn't know what a middle grade novel was, hadn't even written the "book" he was already pitching to publishers (it turned out to be some kind of multi media dvd/reader thing. He didn't seem quite sure).
He'd submitted to "everyone".
"Who?" I asked. The answer was, anyone with "publishing" anywhere in their business description. He didn't care if you printed cookbooks or textbooks, you were getting a query about this unfinished, vaguely conceptualized idea of a children's book. Agents, he decided, were too expensive.
Now he's moved on to self publishing, of course, since publishers don't "get him".

Sad thing is, he could have taken a little time to find some information on selling his writting, but instead, he decided to just shoot that same foot repeatedly.

Ulysses said...

An octopus bearing chocolate.
My favorite form of sea life.

suzie said...

hahaha LOL Debra.

Janet I LOVE that picture :)

Funniest thing that happened today in the office: We got a huge thing of flowers and the gift tag read: "I HOPE TO BECOME YOUR CLIENT SOON, THE QUERY IS IN THE MAIL."

At first I was thinking aw, someone sent flowers to their agent and then I realized they're from a would be client which is a little on the weird side.

Kourtnie McKenzie said...

I think I have fallen in love with the octopus holding chocolate.

Thank you for these awesome query tips!

Anonymous said...

Mmm, chocolate ...

London Mabel said...


Anatole said...

Octopus + Chocolate = Adorable.

Also: gimme!

Mira said...

Hmmm, I'm usually one to advocate for writers, but I have to say - people really should put what their book is about in the query.

Really hard to argue with that one.

Nope, you really do have to put what your book is about in a query.

Holly said...

Heh. In order to state what your book is about in a query, first you have to KNOW what your book is about.

I have friendly writer-wannabes "pitch" stories to me all the time (I'm barely-published, but that's apparently enough for most people to think I'm Hot Stuff), and I am continually asking, "So what's it about?"

They give me a description of the character archetype and the type of novel it is.

"But what's it *about*?"

Lengthy recitation of the plot, which I cut short:

"That's what *happens.* What's it *about*?"

Silence. Crickets. Deer-in-headlights.