Monday, August 07, 2017

Query Letter help

I've lurked quietly on your blog for years. I had hoped some day to send an email out of the blue with the subject line "My novel is getting published, and I couldn't have done it without you!" But I'm not there yet.

I started querying my novel about a year ago and didn't have much luck. First round: zero full requests out of ten total queries. OK, fine--so I reworked. Second round: one full out of seventeen total queries. OK, fine--I reworked again. But then I got spooked. What if I burn through all the agents in the world with an obviously-flawed letter and manuscript? I'm especially concerned because even with all this editing and help from friends, I'm not convinced my query is actually improving. I haven't sent in that many queries, but the trend isn't great.

So now I can't get past the reworking. I would gladly part with some dollars for a thoughtful/experienced opinion (since I'm too skittish for the forever-public Query Shark). So is there anyone out there who does this well? I've found a few places online, but I don't know if they're any good. I've seen you mention query evals agents will donate for fundraisers--but I don't know how to find these either. Related, any chance chum bucket will open up again? I know it's querying-for-real and not primarily about feedback, but I've been hanging on to my query for you just in case.

The value of QueryShark isn't that you get your query critiqued. The value is you see lots of critiques and figure out how to do it yourself. Read the archives, make notes. Use those notes to assess your query.

It's the same thing you do when you read books in your category: watch how other writers handle challenges, make notes, follow suit.


I get the sense that you think The Answer is somewhere out there, and it's not.  There is no one answer, there is only effort, and practice, and paying attention.

You can't buy what you need here which is honing your ability to distinguish good writing from flabby writing, and interesting, compelling novels from ho-hum novels.  That comes from reading, and writing.

Stephen King famously said "The first million words are practice" and I think he's spot on.

This isn't going to be easy, and the path is never going to be clear.  The best you can do is keep your machete sharp and whack away at the foliage till you clear YOUR path.






30 comments:

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Stephen King and machete sharp are perfect in any post.

The deleted 1st comment was mine. I spelled Stephen wrong. After a weekend of a three year old, a one year old and a newborn my butter knife is pretty dull.

Colin Smith said...

I get it, Opie. You want a practice run with your query before you take it on the road for real. At the moment it feels like you're trying out your brain surgery skills on live patients. There's no going back, no do-overs when it goes wrong. Those agents who have rejected are off the list. The only way I know to do this is to get your beta readers to critique it. Or find other writers who would be willing to give a few minutes to read through your query and offer suggestions. Frankly, that's better than any brain surgeon would get. Can you imagine...?

"So, Felix, how'd I do?"

"Well, that initial incision was okay, but you were a bit sloppy with my medial frontal gyrus, and that incision into my cingulate sulcus was somewhat imprecise. You have a steady hand, though. Try again!"

Did someone mention Stephen King...? ;)

Sharyn Ekbergh said...


Magpie Murders has a wonderful sequence where the same scene is written by an excellent writer and then an aspiring but untalented one.

You can find many examples like that reading Query Shark. I read through every single one and saved the best for future reference.

Theresa said...

Perfect advice for any Monday: keep your machete sharp.

Donnaeve said...

..."(since I'm too skittish for the forever-public Query Shark)"

OP, although you don't like Query Shark's public type of forum, no names are used. The only one proud (or embarrassed) for entering their letter and having it critiqued would be...you. No one would have a clue who you are.

Like Janet said, read all that's in Query Shark first...and who knows, maybe you'll find a perfect example, or at least have read enough that you will become... Query Sharp.

Good luck!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Query Shark archives and beta readers are big help as my esteemed Reefers have recommended. Also, Writer's Digest often sponsors seminars where real agents will review your query and first 5-10 pages. Those can be super helpful, but they are not free. Still, super helpful. Good luck, OP.

Timothy Lowe said...

There's no perfect query letter. What works for one agent will not work for another. Ditto for first pages. When you do get feedback (which is rare), a lot of times it says something different. A few weeks ago, I got "I loved the concept but wasn't drawn in to the story." Then, another. "You are a strong writer but there were elements of the concept that gave me pause. Please consider me for future projects."

Neither of these were form. You can check on querytracker to be sure.

They're not blowing smoke when they say it's subjective. Keep tinkering with the query, keep trying agents. Work on something else in the meantime so you don't go crazy. If it doesn't work out, you can always try a different MS. I know that sucks, but I'm pretty sure almost everyone who is published has been there. A million words sounds about right. So write a lot of them.

MA Hudson said...

Maybe book a pitch session at a conference and ask for feedback on your query, as Janet has mentioned on other posts.
Apart from that, I'd say keep querying and keep working on your next project. It's usually not an authors first book that gets an agents attention. Doesn't mean it won't get published. It just might not be the one that gets published first.

Susan Bonifant said...

It is very hard to figure out that calculus while you're discovering there IS no calculus. Only one thing is true which is that you always, always get better with more and more writing.

It helped me to stop retooling the same material for a while and start a crazy, messy new WIP. I didn't call it a new novel, I just made it my practice work to keep my imagination from nodding off and my skills sharp.

When you go back,you may bring new energy.

Emma West said...

Gotham writing classes offers a class on how to get published that includes a two round query letter critique from an agent. It's pretty helpful. You get critiques from other hopefuls and two very detailed ones from the agent. Plus, the agent actually writes little mini lectures every week on how everything works.

It helped me (in the sense that I understood how to write the best query letter I could). Now when it comes to the book itself, whether the subject matter is what agents want, whether it's original enough, etc., etc., that's a different thing. And in my case, no amount of query magic could help...

Good luck! This is the website for the writing classes: https://www.writingclasses.com/

Craig F said...

Sometimes the best way to both grow talent and confidence is to help others. There are plenty of sites out there to do that.

Critique other people's queries. When you have gained some confidence post responses to those people. Then post your own query and see what others think about it. There will be conflicting critiques but that also helps you learn what fits your story arc.

Danae McB said...

I have learned a lot about good query writing from the AbsoluteWrite.com forum. Sign up (they call it the Water Cooler), go to the "Share Your Work" category (near the bottom), then the "Query Letter Hell" category. There are a ton of stickied posts with tips on what makes a good query letter, and then people are always posting queries for feedback, getting that feedback, and revising. You can learn so much just by reading and then having a go at giving feedback. (You have to post 50 times in the forum, any category, to qualify for feedback on your own query.)

Boris Ryan said...

Querying your ms a total of 27 times is not near enough.
27 times is just the beginning. Getting a full request out of 17 times is good news, it means query and pages are working, not the opposite. You should be encouraged by this, not discouraged.

Are you suffering under the delusion that getting published happens overnight? Many think that, and they need to amend their thinking considerably. Publishing is a slow process which takes hours and sometimes many years to get to where you want to go.

While you continue to query widely and to work on your newest ms, you should look into joining Absolute Write Water Cooler, there you can post your query and have it critiqued while you critique others.

Good Luck!

BJ Muntain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BJ Muntain said...

OP, if your writing needs help, write more. Take courses, attend conferences, read books on writing - not to the exclusion of writing, of course, but learning about structure, character development, and strong writing practices can help. Join a critique group, where people help each other improve their writing in exchange for the same.

Read Query Shark, put your query past your critiquers, ask other writers to read your query.

You can also get editing services, critique services, etc., through fundraising auctions. I find these through Twitter, following agents and editors. They'll post when they're donating a service.

27 agents isn't burning through agents. There are hundreds out there.

BJ Muntain said...

Emma's link: Gotham writing classes

The Sleepy One said...

OP, in the past, I've found conference critiques really helpful. 15 minutes of feedback from an agent or editor on how to get my project to the next (publishable) level was worth the extra money and I learned a lot from the feedback. If going to the right conference for you is feasible, consider it. The real value will be the fellow writers you'll meet and the community you can build for yourself.

Some of the Writers Digest webinars come with a query or 2-page critique from agents, plus the webinar itself can be useful for career development (make sure the topic matches your needs).

Note that in both of these situations (conference or webinar) there's no promise you'll end up with the right feedback, but it's a start.

Lennon Faris said...

OP, while I agree with all Janet said here (esp. QueryShark!), sometimes you are a great writer but you get all tangled up in your own web of worries, advice, and being too close to your story. A good pair of super-fresh eyes can remind you of what you already know.

I had someone look my stuff over when I was having problems with the story. It was tremendously helpful. I would recommend her but I can't do that on the blog here. This is where I link it on my website:

http://www.lennonfaris.com/writing---links.html

(Janet please feel free to zap my comment again if that is not OK!!)

Joseph Snoe said...

I'm in the same boat as the original poster. Well, not quite the same boat. She's paddled a little farther upstream. But reading her comment and Janet Reid's response made my stomach churn. And all the well-intentioned advice in the comments made me want to scream.

Query letters - The worst part of the business.

BJ Muntain said...

Came across one charitable critique while looking in my bookmarks for something else. Irene Goodman, head of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, does a partial manuscript critique - 3 chapters - each month, in these genres: women's fiction, thrillers, romance, mysteries, historical fiction, middle grade, and young adult fiction. Funds raised go to the Hearing Health Foundation or the Foundation Fighting Blindness.

kathy joyce said...

To me, this sounds like it could be a confidence issue, maybe moreso than a writing issue. I'd send to another 20+ agents. If you're still getting requests for fulls or partials, let that build your confidence. If not, then retool.

I've found it hard to build confidence after rejections by working on another MS. It's important, and I do that. But, I'm also working on articles and short stories. Rewards are quicker (both in terms of finishing and getting feedback), and give me the boost I need for slogging through novel writing.

This group is great for keeping spirits up. Join the conversation!

Cynthia Paige Aaron said...

I haven't reached the point where I'm querying yet, even though I am honing one. I think I've reached the one million words, though. And that number is mostly on my first ms, meaning many edits and re-writes. My two beta readers are keeping me SHARP, and there is always room to improve.

"Keeping spirits up," as kathy joyce said, is crucial for staying in the game.

I always learn when reading this blog. Thank you all for such a supportive community vibe.

Steve Stubbs said...

I don't know if they exist anymore, but I used to belong to a couple of online critique groups in which we would read each other's dreck and see if we could make any helpful comments. Most people were embarrassingly appreciative about the comments I made, but not all. One fellow told me he considered himself an extremely advanced writer and me a verbally challenged bozo who needed to stay with his (my) own league. So not everyone agrees.

Some crit groups are completely useless, so you have to be willing to shop around. If you want to pay, try Writer's Digest. I will give you a free opinion (you get what you pay for) if you send it to me. Good luck.

Matt Baca said...

Sharpening the machete is the plan, though I’m worried it’ll turn out I’m really wielding one of those toy light sabers. So +1 to Kathy’s point about confidence. I’ve been finding some (very modest) success in publishing short humor pieces and short stories, but on the query I still don't trust my ability to tell what isn’t working. It could be agent taste, that the query needs some honing, or the small matter of the entire manuscript!

This was my question for the blog, and this is my first comment. Thanks, Janet, and others for the thoughtful insight and encouragement! There are so many great ideas here. I will resume hacking at this query letter with renewed effort and this huge list of resources. Thank you!

Colin Smith said...

Hi, Matt! Thanks for the question, and for emerging from lurkdom to ask it. :) Congratulations on the publishing success you've had so far (modest or otherwise, published is published). I wish you all the best with your query and novel.

If you want to be added to the List of Blog Readers and their Blogs, just email me the relevant details (see my Blogger profile for my address). And don't forget to check out the writerly gems in the Treasure Chest.

Oh, and watch out for the kale...

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Matt, Welcome... I love it when OPies out themselves.

Dena Pawling said...


Count me as one who will definitely send Janet an email when I sign with an agent, thanking her that it wouldn't have happened without her info and support.

Do you write middle grade? Pete Knapp has an offer going now that he will provide some feedback on your query if you send it in August with a specific subject line. I'd do it myself except my ms isn't ready to query yet.

I'll also agree to take a look at your query if you want me to, as another set of eyes who might have a suggestion or two.

Keep on keeping on. Good luck.

Dena Pawling said...


Clarification. Send query to Pete Knapp by today August 7, not entire month.


Karen McCoy said...

See if you can get a few more beta readers to have a look. Make sure they're fresh eyes. That's my plan if I don't make it into Pitch Wars. I have a full out, but it's very lonely amid the other personalized rejections I've gotten. That hacking thing is definitely true.

Once betas have had their say, this service run by author C.J. Redwine is excellent. I'm only bummed that I submitted to Query Shark before getting feedback from C.J....ah, well.

Claire AB. said...

Hi Matt,

I was like you when I was querying -- super cautious. I don't think that's a bad thing, because I didn't feel there were hundreds of agents who would be a good fit for my project. Those who have commented already have offered lots of good suggestions about maximizing your queries, and Janet's advice is always excellent. I would only echo the person who mentioned Writers Digest. They have a live webinar at the end of August offered by an agent who will give feedback on your query. I've signed up for those webinars myself and they've been very helpful.

Best of luck on your writing and querying journey!