Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Here's your chance to turn the tables and critique me!

Here's your chance to turn the tables and critique me!

I'm doing a workshop at the upcoming Writers Digest Conference in August.

These are the handouts for the workshop for writers NEW to the query process.  If you're new, you can really help me out here by telling me (in the comment column) what you don't understand, a term you don't recognize, or anything else that puzzles you. Please don't be afraid to "look stupid" because you're NOT. You're learning and we all learned this stuff, even me.

And if you're wondering, at least three other readers are wondering too.



Effective Query Letters for Writers Jumping in to the Query Pond


1. A query letter is what you send to an agent to introduce yourself and entice her to read your full manuscript.

A. By introduce yourself, I do not mean "Hi my name is Felix Buttonweezer"

B. By entice her to read I do not mean "Hi my name is Felix Buttonweezer, and I've written a book that will knock your sox off!"

C. Avoid the temptation to do something new, innovative or "more sensible" when querying.



(2) The one thing you must do in a query is tell me about the story:

Even in character driven books, someone  (usually the main character) has to want something.

Example: In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen wants to save her sister's life

Example: In every Perry Mason novel ever written, Mason wants justice for his clients.

So, what does Harry Potter want?

Resist the temptation to build the world, include a synopsis (that's a separate document) or tell me EVERYTHING.

(3)  Getting plot on the page: once you know what your main character wants, what's keeping him from getting it? (What/who is the antagonist?)

(4) Getting stakes on the page: how will your main character have skin in the game? What will s/he have to sacrifice, change, give up to attain her goal?
Stakes are why we care.

It's essential to show me why I will care about what happens if you want me to read the book.

(6) Close with "thank you for your time and consideration. (thanks Dena!)


(7) The bad news: this is true for memoir as well.



 (page two)
General tips (there will be examples when needed on the overhead projector, but NOT on the handouts)

1. Queries should run about 250 words, excluding the pages you are asked to send with the query.

2. Don't put your contact info or my name/address at the top of the query.

3. Don't tell me what I'm looking for UNLESS you are querying in reply to something specific like #MSWL

4. Don't tell me you followed the directions. I can tell when you didn't.

5. Some agents like queries to be personalized. I think it's an utter waste of time, but pay attention to whether you need that.

6. Most agents get annoyed if you spell their name wrong. Some of us get over it more easily than others.

7. Don't worry about making mistakes. There is no such thing as the query police nor a black list. The worst thing you can do is not query.

8. Obsessing about following the directions will not make the difference between yes and no.
Personalization doesn't change no to yes.
A misplaced comma will not kill you.

9. There are lots of ways to screw up. The only one that is fatal is bad writing.
Signs of bad writing: homonyms, spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes. Describing women by how they look, men by how they act. Describing any woman as a blonde bombshell (i.e. cliché and BAD ONES)

10. Rejection isn't personal (although I never take it well either.)   

I have to turn down GOOD AND PUBLISHABLE  books that don't fit what I'm looking for, are too close to something I have already, I don't think I can sell, are on a topic I really can't get too excited about, categories I'm not strong in. Every single agent in the world does the same.

11. If you've only revised 10 times, you're barely getting started. I routinely revise 20+ times on my "query" letters (which are pitch letters to editors). 

37 comments:

Kathleen Kalb said...

I love this! I only wish I'd had it two years and a few hundred queries ago. About the only thing I'd add is a word about the infamous NORMAN's, just because they can be so disheartening. But the concrete advice, sensible reassurances, and the reminder that you often turn down publishable work are all so helpful and encouraging. Oh, and you won't tell them -- but we can: read this blog every day.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Treasure chest this

I still feel a Jeffrey Somers addendum is needed. Yes, his query letter was brilliant, but it broke a rule or two. What are the exceptions to the rules?
Jeff used humor which worked for our Queen. I have heard several less shark like agents say “don’t try to be funny”.

I can’t make it to WDC this year. I have been twice and Janet’s query seminar is brilliant and she could so kill it as a stand up comic. The woman is genius.

I would love to get my grubby hands on the final version of this handout.

french sojourn said...


I've always loved your comment "you're not beggars at the banquet." It resonates with me and it's always seemed a little inspiring.

cheers Hank

Margaret Turkevich said...

I now understand that "engaging plot with strong female protagonist" doesn't mean a mystery, it's the new Gone Girl. Agents are still searching for it.

sub-genres: I wrote a traditional mystery with many cozy elements (amateur sleuth, small town). I will pitch agents representing crime fiction and traditional mysteries, but not agents interested in cozy mysteries. I respect an agent's genre preferences. It's not a thriller or domestic suspense, so maybe I should pitch cozy agents?

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Not that I'm telling you what to do, or even suggesting that what I am sharing might be added to your substantial list of wisdom...
please, please include successful query samples. Different genres, and authors, particularly relating to familiar titles, I find fascinating and extremely helpful.

And most importantly, especially with the click and send generation of writers who have grown up with screens, instead of countless 8 1/2 by 11 blue pencil rewrites - an on-line relationship with those within publishing does not allow you to be anything other than utterly professional in your approach. A few years back I had my knuckles rapped by a well known agent for assuming such a relationship allowed me to go to the head of the line.

Oh, one more thing. Ms. Reid/Read/Reed, allow me to take issue with one of your points. After almost forty years of newspaper op-ed, article, and column writing, SPELL NAMES CORRECTLY.

In any context when someone spells my first name with 2Ns I immediately warm to the fact that they took the time to get it 'write'.

Dena Pawling said...


1. I think this blog post needs a title.

2. Comp titles.

3. How to end the query.

4. The thing I seem to have the most trouble with is the stakes part. The MC's goal and what bad thing will happen if she gets or does not get what she wants. Maybe expand on that.


AJ Blythe said...


Not new to the trenches, but I wish when I'd been new I could have sat through one of our QOTKU's workshops.

RosannaM said...

This is great info for the newbie. I think even more specifics about the structure of the query would be helpful.
In paragraph one put...logline or no? Other paragraphs what to include.

Use the name of MC or not? Do/do not bother with name of other characters?

bio or no bio
how to end it without sounding like a dork/jerk/fawning idiot
what type of contact info to include and remind them not to use goofy sounding email address

Hope to make it one of these years! (the conference, I meant, but also the Mary Tyler Moore meaning!)

Theresa said...

In the first section where you talk about introductions, could you include an example of what is appropriate?

I think the attendees will find this very, very helpful.

Mister Furkles said...

Okay, here are my recommendations. It may be a load of horse manure but it's my horse manure and I'm sticking with it:

General statement: I once coached swimming. Telling people what they are doing wrong isn’t helpful. There are a thousand ways to get it wrong and just a few ways to get it right. First tell how to do it right then explain, based on how to do it right, what ways to do it wrong and why it is wrong.

P1#1: indent A

Also, You’ve started by telling what not to do. Usually it is better with instructions to start with what to do and follow with cautions about what not to do. Also, you may explain between WHAT-TO-DO and WHAT-NOT-TO-DO that an agent—or perhaps her assistant—will weed out the queries that do not conform to instructions and/or standard query methods.

P1#4: You have written this much simpler in the past. At this point, you’ve left out CHOICE. I think you should rewrite this item the way you usually explain it. What choice does the MC face? What is risk/reward either way?

P2#2 Better to say where it goes first then where it doesn’t go.

You've left out something that is very important: Before sending your query, have a colleague review it to catch errors: usage, spelling, grammar, verbosity, lack of clarity, confusion.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

RosannaM
"You're gonna make it after all."

In my first apartment I slept on a couch like Marys that opened up and lived the Mary-life, or so I dreamed.

Don't know how to link. Cute memory of our generations Mary.

http://video.startribune.com/fans-pay-tribute-to-mary-tyler-moore-with-song-and-a-hat-toss/411991656/

Anna said...

Perhaps this goes beyond initial querying, but what to do when you get a partial or full request would be so helpful.

1. Do I paste the query before the requested pages (one agent said this helps jog their memory)? Or do I put it in the body of the new email? Or none of the above.

2. Is more personalization expected? I feel like it is.

3. Does the requested synopsis go in the same attached document? At the end of the sample pages, perhaps? Do I include it as a second attachment?

4. Word docs are the proper format, right? Please say yes.

My first joy-inducing partial request said "I'd like to see the first fifty pages." And no instructions in sight. Panic, of course, followed. Then, tons of web searching and opposing opinions were found.

Can you feel the vibrations from my hamster wheel?

Celia Reaves said...

I’m a newbie (though I feel like I’m not since I’ve read ALL of QueryShark - THANK YOU for that!). In the first section, could you give an example of what being enticing might mean? I get that it’s not just saying you’l love love love my book - but what does it mean? I think that’s what I’ll find hardest when I’m ready to query. Soon, I hope.

Craig F said...

I am so bad at writing queries that I am writing a book to fit one. It was a query I wrote for another manuscript but didn't fit it well. That query was possible because John Cusick had a very enlightening post a while back.

It is here:
https://johnmcusick.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/a-pretty-much-foolproof-never-fail-silver-bullet-query-opening/

Maybe someday I'll find a query session and take it but right now I have sworn off writing conferences as a Lent penance.

Erin Price said...

Finally, something I have expertise with. I'm glad to offer my impressions, as a relatively new querier, given how much help the Query Shark archives and this blog have been to me.

Page One, #1/C. I'm not sure what you mean by "more sensible." Surely, following the rules and guidelines set by the agent is the sensible thing to do, and that's generally what you recommend. Do newer queriers convince themselves they're being sensible when they decide to go with some wacky, innovative query method? Maybe change the verbiage there or explain a bit more fully what "sensible" thing people shouldn't do.

#4. When talking about stakes, you might address the tendency of people to use "hero must save the world" as stakes. Personal stakes engage readers, not huge, impersonal, save-the-world-from-destruction stakes.

Page Two, #2. You tell them not to put their own contact info at the top (but might want to emphasize that they definitely remember to put it at the bottom), but you don't mention the agent's contact info. It would be helpful to mention that this isn't an old-school business letter. No need to put the agent's info at the top, wasting all that valuable real estate. Just jump right in.

Suggestion for more #s. You don't spend a lot of time on tips for author bios. I think it would be helpful to mention that you're not interested in hearing a lot about why someone wrote the book, or the book's themes and why they're important to the writer, or their personal history unless it relates directly to the book. Some guidelines about what agents want to see in the bio would be a help.

You indicate that the query is different from the synopsis, but a truly new querier might not understand exactly what you mean. It might be helpful to state explicitly that the query only reflects the first third of the plot, but doesn't get into the back end of the story or reveal the twist at the end.

Regarding agent names and salutations, one of the questions I see float around is about addressing agents if you don't know if they're male, female, nonbinary. I've seen some people (you may be one of them, in fact) indicate that you can say: Dear Janet Reid, in that case, rather than Dear Mr. Reid, in which case you'd be wrong and you'd tick off the Shark which is never good. Addressing that issue would probably be helpful.

I agree with the commenter who suggested talking about NORMAN, and on a related note, it would be helpful to talk about nudges. I always see people asking how soon is too soon to nudge an agent. My feeling is that the answer, for query only, is never, but I'm just a newbie querier and nobody asked my opinion.

Finally, any resources you could offer would be a help. Of course, Query Shark should go at the top of the list. That is a goldmine of valuable information. Seriously, I'm not blowing smoke -- or in this case, warm bubbles??? Any other resources you might direct them toward would be helpful, too. I think Colin Smith's Treasure Chest might be a good one, as well.

Good luck, Janet. What lucky conference-goers these are, to get to be chomped in person.

Melanie Savransky said...

Great advice! Could you please consider adding how to get your query (and double-spaced pages!) from Word to email without borking the formatting? I always have the urge to sacrifice a goat before I do that step.

Colin Smith said...

That dress!! And those shoes!!!!

Oh, sorry... not *that* kind of critique... ;)

Nothing new to offer, but some seconds. I second Elise's suggestion to talk about queries that broke the "rules" but are great queries anyway because they do the job of the query, i.e., get the agent to read your pages. You have a couple of great examples of such queries in QueryShark. And maybe underscore that point: A great query is not an end in itself. A great query entices the reader to request pages. When the agent requests pages, the query--no matter how good or bad it is--has done its job.

Also, I second Kathleen's suggestion to talk about NORMANs. Primarily because I've been campaigning for years to have "NORMAN" become an industry-standard term. One that no agent wants to be called. "Oh... you're a NORMAN..." *sideways stare... slowly backs away...* :)

Otherwise, great stuff, Janet. Mind you, I could sit and listen to you talk about querying and publishing for hours, even if you tell me nothing I didn't know. You're a witty and entertaining raconteur. And I say this from experience.

All the best with the presentation! :D

RosannaM said...

Thanks, 2NN's. That made my day!

Sam Mills said...

Craig F you may be jesting about writing a book to match a query, but I recently rewrote one that way. I knew I was a little muddled on stakes, but it wasn't till I tried condensing to query length that I figured out what I needed. I'm now adding rough draft query to my outlining stage!

Danny Walter said...

I'm sure you'll translate this for you students when you get to Tip #3 on page two.

However, I did not know what #MSWL meant.

I looked it up. Now I know.

JEN Garrett said...

I think this handout will be very helpful! I especially like the focus on pitching the manuscript (and yourself, but like a tag - you have to disappear behind your manuscript)

My suggestions are (maybe already suggested) talk about the bio paragraph, and also (maybe) talk about the difference between a cover letter and a query letter (i.e. there isn't one - it's just whether you are putting in the full manuscript or synopsis and sample)

I love the note on format, too, but you may need to explain this is a change because of *email* queries. Snail-mail queries/cover letters are usually the traditional business letter format.

Barbara Etlin said...

Remind them not to attach manuscript pages, but to paste them to the end of the query instead.

Showing samples of successful and unsuccessful queries would be helpful. At one conference, an editor handed out samples of real queries (with details deleted) and asked us to identify the ones that worked. (Query Shark is great for this.)

How long should you wait before you cross an agent off the list and declare him or her a NORMAN?

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

RosannaM
OT
Mary Tyler Moore cont.
I gotta say, the first time I watched the link I had tears in my eyes. Mary Richards was such an icon for women of my generation. That you mentioned her brought back all the feelings I had about "...making it afterall."

It made my day too.

julieweathers said...

My computer crashed and I am on my son's computer. Also, I am babysitting so we'll see if this comment posts.

I disagree about adding comps to the list. At my last conference the panel on queries was split down the middle on whether they liked them. The debate was very adamant and in the end the attendees only left confused on the issue. The best advice was follow each individual agent's request. If they want comps, they will usually say so.

Don't send out 100 queries at once. Send out in small batches so you can adjust as needed. If you are getting no response, you may want to adjust the query. If you're getting responses on the query but rejections on the story, the problem isn't with the query.

Be fearless. Rejection is a fact of life, dejection is a choice. Jack London had over 600 rejections. Zane Grey was told never to attempt writing again in one rejection and yet became one of America's first millionaire authors. His books are still in print though he died in 1939.

As bad as you think a no response means no interest is, it could be worse.

You won't be getting a rejection from Hunter Thompson.

Timothy Lowe said...

Unless in a separate handout, maybe a list of links for further study. Stuff like querytracker, queryshark (if you don't mind plugging your own blog), Jessica Faust's blog, etc. etc. etc.

I'm sure the Reiders would be able to add mountains of ideas here. A writer once had me look at his query. When I mentioned querytracker, he said, "what's that?" Funny how much information doesn't make the rounds, or how many people don't know how to seek it out.



Gabe Szabo said...

If you show examples of good/bad queries, you have to show ones that totally broke all the ‘rules’ and still snatched agents.

Jessica said...

Everyone else has made excellent suggestions, but I had a small quibble:

I think #7 should go at the top or bottom of the page because it creates a small problem. You say "it's okay to make mistakes" but then right before that, it's "spell the agent's name right, ya donut." As someone with anxiety, this would really stress me out as a newbie. I recommend "hey, there's no blacklist! Relax!" as point number one.

But other than that, it looks great :)

Adele said...

Point 1 - Rat-a-tat-tat - You start off with three examples of what you don't want, but you don't say what you do want. Starting off with three mistakes pointed out can be overwhelming for anyone, let alone an anxious newbie.

Again, on page 2 - "2. Don't put your contact info ... at the top of the query." does not tell anyone where to put it. You haven't said "put it at the end". That may not be intuitive for newbies - I can see the rumour going around: "Janet Reid doesn't want any contact information! Ever!"

You once told us that you go through your emails on your phone, so you only see a sentence or two and the sooner you get to the good stuff, the more likely you'll read it. That comment made me see your process in a new way, and it has really stuck with me. Knowing why you aren't supposed to do something makes it easier to avoid the problem - and to extend that knowledge to other situations that might crop up.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

- I agree with those who prefer you lead with what TO do, not what NOT to do.
"Sure, I can easily avoid misspelling the name of the agent/querying in a genre they don't accept/insulting other authors/claiming my book is the next bestseller! Since I have avoided all those mistakes (and obviously, lots of people don't, or the agent wouldn't be complaining), I must have the perfect query and I expect to get a call from the agent any time!"

- Many agents have a blurb on their web site telling what kinds of novel they prefer. "She especially likes: genre bending, character driven, found families, international interest ..." All of these are phrases that describe my MS very well, but these subtler features are not obvious in a 250 word plot description. I have sometimes put this in the query: "My MS might interest you because it has these features." Wrong?

Just Jan said...

Janet, when I got to #7 (page 1), I thought, wait, isn't this handout about all types of queries? I think this would be confusing to those new to the query trenches.

Mister Furkles said...

One thing I forgot to mention: For informal instructions, use second person pronouns. Which mostly you did, and here are a couple more:

P2#1 Your queries should run...

P2#4 Be sure you follow directions but don't tell me you did. ...

P2#9 You can make mistakes in myriad ways. The only fatal mistake you can make is bad writing.

Steve Stubbs said...

Well, I've always wanted to find out what the weather is like in Carkoon.

Under 1. you have great points but they are too abstract. Examples would really help a lot. Tell us what to DO, not what NOT to do. Or tekk us what to DO and follow that with what not to do.

You wrote: "By introduce yourself, I do not mean 'Hi my name is Felix Buttonweezer.'"

My name is not Felix Buttonweezer, so I won't make that mistake. But how should I introduce myself?

You wrote: By entice her to read I do not mean "Hi my name is Felix Buttonweezer, and I've written a book that will knock your sox off!"

I have made that mistake. How DO I entice her? You may have answered this in the following section. Does this just mean to omit the phrase, "I've written a book that will knock your sox off!"

You wrote: Avoid the temptation to do something new, innovative or "more sensible" when querying.

Fair enough. So what DO I do? Does this mean keep it plain & simple? What does "something new, innovative" mean?

You wrote: (6) Close with "thank you for your time and consideration. (thanks Dena!)

You might want to leave off the last. When I first read this I realized I left "(thanks Dena!)" off my closing line.

You wrote: "2. Don't put your contact info or my name/address at the top of the query."

Excellent advice. On the general theory that DO is more helpful than DON'T I would replace this with, "DO put your contact info ... at the end of the query after your signature line, MOT at the top like some kind of numbnut."

You wrote: "Signs of bad writing: homonyms, ..."

Excellent advice. I would add passive voice, tell and not show, lost performative, characters who suddenly appear out of nowhere, unattributed quotes when the speaker is ambiguous, purple prose, - well, OK, there may be too many to list.

I wish I could attend, but plane trips out expect to be detained in Carkoon throughout most of August. I envy those who can attend.

Good luck.

MB Owen said...

Perhaps a word or two about comps? They are often asked for by agents and just as often wrestled by with writers as to how to use them, and what kind to use.

The Noise In Space said...

I strongly second the addition of positive examples, not just negative (what NOT to do) ones.

Also, the very first point in your list hits on something that's bothered me for years, a rule which I obey but never understood: why, oh why, can't we introduce ourselves with our name in the beginning? Why must we wait until the closing to say who we are? I've seen this rule for years but I still don't get it. We would NEVER begin a conversation that way. It feels a bit like a long drumroll, like "Hi, here's all my information, and my name is...*drumroll* Sarah! Surprise!" Is it meant to protect people from oft-targeted social groups from prejudice, perhaps by making sure the recipient has already read the content and formed an opinion before s/he sees it's from Aftab or Sharonda or Jose? Is there a logic to it at all? I always stumble with introductions, so I tend to launch right into the content. :/

julieweathers said...

I'm eating cereal and wasting time while the munchkin watches a movie. I'll dive back into the murder and mayhem of Manassas in a bit. They could hear the cannons in Alexandria twenty-five miles away, but one unit didn't enter the battle because they were waiting for the sound of cannon and never heard it two miles away. The oddities of acoustics. Gen Shanks Evans. who should have been the Confederate hero of the day had a Prussian aide de camp whose title was barrelito. His job was to carry a small barrel of the general's favorite whiskey on his back and stay by the general's side at all times. (And not lose the whiskey, of course.) I thought of Janet when I read about Shanks. She needs a barrelito.

You can't make up characters better than whet history provides.

Anyway, on to the subject at hand.

I noticed a few calls for Janet to cite queries that didn't work. The problem with these is they are anomalies. They work in spite of doing everything wrong. In order for them to work there has to be an element of magic and it would be very hard to duplicate that.

Years ago, I interviewed a boy who had bought a filly who was all wrong for racing. She had good bloodlines, but as he said she didn't have two legs that matched, she was small, she had a list of faults. But, the filly could run. She won everything in the northwest and became a champion. Lightning never struck for the boy again, but it was enough to buy back the ranch his widowed mother had been selling off to support the family and take care of her and his siblings. Lightning only had to strike once.

There are several places with examples of these queries and I wonder why agents picked them up, but something spoke to them and they guessed right.

In my opinion, it's much better to focus on getting a solid query that will get the most positive responses.

"why, oh why, can't we introduce ourselves with our name in the beginning?"

If you're being professional, and we hope you are, your email should be your name, not Imasexygurl@hootsdotcom.

This is a business correspondence. If this bugs you, put your bio stuff at the beginning, but here's the thing, it's a bump in the road. The agent doesn't care about the name until they know if they care about the story.

Be sure and tell people to study Query Shark for examples of how to get to yes.

And now I am off to finish wreaking havoc. Someone has to do it.

Kelly O'Connor said...

Hi Janet, for the seminar handouts, general tip 2--I have my query formatted as a letter.It would have both your name and my contact information above the query. Does #2 suggest that it be formatted as paragraphs without a heading? Thanks, I am attending and can't wait.

Janet Reid said...

Hi Kelly,
The body of the query does not start with anyone's address. Not yours, certainly not mine.

It starts like this:

Dear Kelly:

Janet Reid is looking forward to seeing you at #WDC18
(and goes on)

Thank you for your time and consideration

Your name
HERE"S WHERE YOUR CONTACT INFO GOES