Wednesday, November 19, 2008

So, read this and tell me what you think about it

The Great American Query Letter
Smoothly crafted letters aren't fooling this agent
by Stephen Barbara -- Publishers Weekly, 11/17/2008

Recently, funny things have been happening in my slush pile. I find myself receiving well-written, correctly formatted, professional-looking query letters from bad writers. Imagine my chagrin: one minute I'm intrigued by a smoothly crafted query letter, the next I'm staring down at a crackpot writing sample. For a literary agent who receives some 5,000 queries a year, this is a disastrous turn of affairs. I feel like those European naturalists who first set eyes on the platypus. Suddenly, nothing is easily classified.

Time was, bad writers wrote bad query letters. Like the Washington Generals of exhibition basketball, these writers hammed up—telegraphed, shall we say—their lack of talent and know-how. They typed their queries on law office stationery; they cold-called your office, asking for the “submissions director” (later referring to this phone call in the letter, as if it had been for both parties a singularly memorable event); they mailed their queries to outdated addresses culled from the 1997 edition of Writers Marketplace; they sent head shots; their return address was a prison; they wrote longhand in red crayon on college-ruled paper. Bad had a look; bad was obvious.

A couple of years ago, dismayed by all these off-base query letters, a colleague created a rather snarky list of rules called “The Query Drinking Game.” The idea was to sit around the office with some cheap beer and an overflowing pile of slush and follow the instructions of the game carefully. Thus: “For any query letter that begins 'Dear Sir or Madam,' one drink.” Or “For any query letter that includes the phrase, 'This would make a great movie,' two drinks; if the author already has casting ideas, three.” We never played the game for fear of alcohol poisoning.

Since that more innocent time, the world has changed. Everyone knows everything, or knows enough to google it. The publishing industry holds few secrets. And so, the outré query letter is no longer the norm. Today we see the heavily work-shopped query letter, labored over, proofread, professionally edited, smart-looking, enticing you to read on to the writing sample. Where, miserably, that throwback, Washington Generals–style badness hits you straight between the eyes again. (Alas, talent can't be found through Google.)

Of course, this situation is not to be blamed on writers. At conferences all over the country, editors and agents offer hyperbolically named “Query Hell!” and “Query Boot Camp!” workshops. Freelancers charge a premium for professional help crafting query letters. Smalltime agents and anonymous editors devote acres of blog space to hectoring writers on the intricacies of the query letter. (My favorite is the agent who writes: “I respond only to query letters addressed to me.” Ah, standards!) Is it any wonder that there's so much anxiety over the perfect query letter?

We are living in a brutally competitive publishing climate, and perhaps it's symbolic of the times that writers have made the query letter the true subject of their literary ambition. On Internet forums, writers sign their posts with frantic updates, such as: “Query letter revised 45 times, 12 partials requested by agents, 6 fulls!” This is new. Evidently the 20th century ambition of writing the great American novel is passé; what one now desires is to write the Great American Query Letter. It's easier to produce than one of those macho, old-fashioned doorstops; besides, you can tell your friends it led to over a dozen requests from agents. Jealous yet?

I realize it may sound flippant to complain about receiving good query letters, but I confess that the dry sameness of these work-shopped, hyper-edited letters is beginning to bore me. (Or maybe I just secretly regret never playing the “Query Drinking Game” when the time was ripe for it.)

Nowadays, I almost always skip ahead to the enclosed sample after a quick scan of the query letter. I figure that my goal is to discover great talent, not run a writer through some Draconian test of his or her ability to follow arcane query-writing guidelines.

So if you're reading this, M.T. Anderson, please know my submissions guidelines are really lax. I accept queries by e-mail, snail mail or napkin. Don't worry about getting my name right, either. We can figure out the details later.

Author Information
Stephen Barbara is a literary agent and contracts director at the Donald Maass Agency.


Dal Jeanis said...

Well, since the purpose of a query letter is to get you to read the sample, then I guess it's working!

Sabina E. said...

i saw that on Colleen Lindsay's blog yesterday. So VERY true.

I need to polish my manucript before I send out queries. Hell, I suck at writing query letters. I hate having to *beg* agents to read my stuff, it's so embarrassing.


DeadlyAccurate said...

I didn't start receiving requests to read The Harrison Files until I had help refining my query letter. I might never have gotten a single request without people to help pound it into shape. One of those full requests led to a major revision of the ending.

I don't believe anyone who can write a good book can write a good query letter by default. They may write better query letters than 80% of the writers out there, but that won't get them to the top of the heap.

Stephen Duncan said...

I think this trend is indicative of two things. The first is, obviously, the internet has made it easier to discover the “how to” in regards to becoming a published author. And the consensus is you need an agent.

The second, and probably representing the greater frustrations of agentkind, is that people are more enamored with the idea of being a published author than becoming a published author. It boils down to impatience and effort. There’s a lot less effort involved (arguably) in perfecting that query than perfecting the manuscript.

Scott said...

I also saw this on Colleen's site first. I'm still kind of shocked by the whole idea that all my hard work on a query letter is - almost - for nothing. Why spend all the time agonizing over a query letter, reading blog after blog on "how to write" a query letter, and then have an agent bypass the letter and go straight to the "submit the first five pages of your manuscript" part of the query? FRUSTRATION!

Lucas Darr said...

Post Summary: In the 21st Century, people can Google query on how to do something and find carefully composed instructions. Thus, the prior vetting process is no long efficient for the Literary Agent.

My 2 Cents: Awesome. Adjust or die.

Marian Perera said...

Ann Crispin of Writer Beware has a post about the pitfalls of helping too much when it comes to query letters.

A.S. King said...

I'd written 7 novels before I could write a decent query letter. I think it was a good progression. Though, a better query letter for #6 would have sold it faster, I guess. Still. This road is my road. *shrug*

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

What was it Miss Snark used to say about query letters and the quality of someone's writing? Wasn't it something like the best writers wrote bad queries?

Unknown said...

Recent "query letter advice" posts I have seen on various blogs/websites involve a "fill in the blank" type of letter template.

It seems as though agents could have a "query form" on their website and request it with the first 5 pages (or whatever they think is a good sample) and save aspiring writers so much time trying to perfect unnecessary query letters.

It would give the agent an apples-to-apples comparison and less stuff to wade through.

Naive, I know, but I would much rather spend the time writing the next book than agonizing over the proper query, and wondering if the rejection was based on the query, or the writing sample.

BJ said...

Professionalism is bad? When did that happen? Granted, the professionalism needs to follow through with the written work as well. And that's what the enclosed samples are for.

A query letter is a business letter, not a work of art. A query letter - like a resume - has a specific purpose and specific requirements. Since not all novel writers are business writers, teaching them to write professional query letters is important. Like resumes, query letters are an introduction to the applicant, who is putting their best foot forward. The real judgment comes with the interview or the writing sample.

To each his own, I suppose. And, from reading your blog, and the blogs of other agents, I really don't think that the days of bad query letters are completely gone... thank goodness for the rest of us, because it means we've got a better chance of catching an agent's attention. :) Seems to me it might actually be safer to play the Query Drinking Game these days, not impossible.

Oh, and that little bit about rejecting letters not addressed directly to the agent? Happens all the time with job applications. If you don't at least look professional, you don't get looked at again. The professionalism is to get your message across with the minimum amount of fuss. Especially in a subjective profession as writing, looking professional is a requirement to get your *writing* looked at, as opposed to your query letter.

DK said...

I think this is great (although I also don't think it's really true). Back when I was sending queries, I would have paid real money for the agents to skip the query and go directly to the writing sample.

Unknown said...

I find this interesting. To me it sounds like many are focusing too much on the query and not enough on the actual work they are trying to sell. Perhaps that same dedication towards writing a query letter should be applied to editing one's work.

Of course, I believe it's important to write a good query letter, enough to catch the agent's attention and not turn them off because it's poorly written. I suppose there needs to be a balance.

Authoress said...

I understand his point. I've been in the forums where writers hash and re-hash and re-re-hash their queries in frenzied mass critiquing fetes, until the final product is more an amalgamation of the rewrites, advice, and influence of the group than it is a reflection of the original writer's ability to write a basic business letter with a good hook.

So, sure. The agent reading the letter isn't REALLY reading a letter written by the aspiring author. Not really.

Joanne Levy said...

Huh. The industry IS hugely competitive and writers are given one page (or less) to shine. That is a much different skill than taking 200 + pages to tell a story. Why would it be surprising or a bad thing for authors to want to put their best foot forward on their query? Would you look down on a CFO who had a resume service write their cv for them? Would the quality of his/her resume speak to how well they could do their job? A business pitch (query) and a novel are completely different beasts.

And what, exactly, is boring? The lack of typos? The good grammar?

José Iriarte said...

I've actually had this thought along the way. A few months ago, Nathan Bransford mentioned that the quality of his query letters seemed to be improving, and suggested that it meant people were taking his advice. I found myself wondering if that was a good thing for him, given that he couldn't take every good query that came across his desk. Didn't uniformly better queries make it harder for him to pick the good projects apart?

I know I've got a good query for the book I'm just beginning to shop around now. I mostly have Kristin Nelson's blog to thank for that, because it gave fantastic advice on how to craft the query. In fact, I'm vaguely bemused by how stressed a lot of writers I know seem to be about the query. Look for the links on the right side of that have to do with query letters, and you're all set.

But the flip side of wondering why everybody doesn't just go there, or to Miss Snark, or to your other blog, or to pretty much every other agent's blog out there, is an awareness that now anybody can. So my carefully crafted query doesn't stand out nearly as much as it would have if I'd managed to write the same thing years ago, without the benefit of all this available information.

I'd be annoyed, except . . . if all this information weren't available to everybody else, it wouldn't have been available to me either. I'm certainly no worse off than before. I'm probably better off, since a lot of people do seem to be too clueless or lazy to look this stuff up.


Thinking about this some more, not all of the things Mr. Barbara writes about are actually indicative of bad writers. Some of them are indicative of not knowing the rules for a community you'd like to belong to but don't. In fact, *most* of these complaints are about not knowing the rules. It seems very possible to me to not know those rules and still be a very talented writer of fiction. So maybe there were good writers who got lost in the shuffle before because they didn't know proper ettiquette, and now their ability to look this stuff up at least gives them a fair shot to stand or fall on their merits as writers.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

I'm delighted to read this post. It frees me from a whole lot of angst about whether my query letter is perfect or not. Now I can concentrate on writing my story.

Adam Heine said...

The Old Conversation

NotYet Author: Why do we have to write queries? Why can't you just read our sample pages or manuscript? Why can't we just fill out a form with Setting, Characters, Genre, Theme, etc.?

NotGonnaBeYour Agent: Because it's the way the industry has to work. There's no other way, so suck it up and do it.

To all those NotYet Authors that hate the query process, I say: this is how you're going to change the industry, by undermining it. If you write great queries and bad novels, they'll have to change things!

Adam Heine said...

Hm, I will add that all the work I've put into my queries, and all the advice and critiquing that went into them, has taught me a thousand things that have seeped into my writing as well. Clarity. Word economy. Tension.

People say that writing a novel and writing a query are different skills, and perhaps they are. But writing a really good novel and a really good query are heavily overlapping skills, I think.

BJ said...

Good point, Mr. Heine. And a well-crafted query letter is *not* the same as a 'fill-in-the-blanks' query letter. In a certain workshop I recently took from a certain talented agent, I was taught that the *real* skill in writing a query letter is being able to say what the novel is *really* about in a concise and interesting manner. And doing this also gets the author contemplating the real theme, the real questions, the real story, and can help the author rewrite the novel with those things in mind.

Bowman said...

As much as I want to write an excellent query letter, I want to write an excellent novel even more.

Sherry said...

You've all completely missed the point which, clearly, is the tragic demise of a sure-to-be classic drinking game.

BJ said...

Ah, it's not dead yet. It'll just take a bit longer before the slush-reader passes out, and he won't be in danger of alcohol poisoning.

In other words, the game will live on, but even non-terminally drunk people can play it now!

Marty said...

The "Great American novel" is a dream that many of us have, yet the truth is that takes hard work to write anything to completion. After finishing what I thought was a damn good screenplay I became frustrated with the process of writing the query letter. Now after the 45th rewrite of what I now know to be a GREAT screenplay I am still reluctant to endure the agony of another query letter seminar.

Margaret Yang said...

Is this why you stopped doing Query Shark?

About Me said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kelley said...

You've all completely missed the point which, clearly, is the tragic demise of a sure-to-be classic drinking game.

well, that and he's willing to take queries on napkins...

About Me said...

I feel like I've hit the Lotto. I'm tickled to death that an agent may just skim or skip my poor query letter in favor of reading the samples pages. I could do a song and dance. :-)

SundaySoup said...

Well, Stephen Barbara was only half-kidding when he said his submission policy is lax, even though he sounded like he was joking! I once wrote a thank you to Donald Maass for his wonderful book and how it helped me with my novel. I then mentioned that I wouldn't be submitting it because it was YA (their website said no children's at that time) and the next thing I knew, Stephen Barbara had emailed saying that Mr. Maass had shown him the thank you and he was now on board accepting YA and to send him my query, which I did, and he ended up reading a partial. No offer to rep, but eventually a much revised version of the book did snag an agent and a sale, so no worries there. What I love about this story is how it shows that you can craft and craft and craft, but sometimes luck is what really gets you in the door.

Jake Nantz said...

Someone mentioned that people can have a service write their resume for them, because not being able to write a resume has nothing to do with the job they are applying for. I think this is false logic, and here's why:

A query has to convey your VOICE. From what I understand (and I could be wrong), most agents aren't as turned off by a shitty plot as by a shitty voice. If your query has been workshopped until it's a hodge-podge of four or more different voices, then it does you no good because those voices aren't the one in which YOU write.

See, the resume service analogy doesn't apply because--in this case--how well you can write your 'resume' DOES have something to do with how well you can write overall. The difference is that you can mask being a lousy writer if the people in your query critique give you really good suggestions and help you reword stuff, but they can't write your book for you.

ryan field said...

I guess everyone is entitled to their opinion.

(But I'm seriously hoping he gets a huge batch of queries on a used paper towel and they spell his name with a v instead of a ph)

José Iriarte said...

And addressed to Miss Barbara Stevens. ;)

Sarah said...

Interesting article! I guess if getting published is your top priority, you'd concentrate on the query more than the manuscript. If it takes that much work to make a query stand out, though, wouldn't the person think the manuscript would need lots of work as well?

I had a backwards sort of manuscript/ query experience.

I was working on what I thought were the final round of revisions of my YA manuscript this spring, and had already been playing with the query letter. Then Janet put out the Query Roulette post on this blog. (I guess it was precursor to Query Shark.) So I finished up my query, emphasizing a plot point I'd neglected because the story sounded better that way. Writing my query helped me realize what needed to change in my story. So I spent time on extra research and plot development. I'm still rewriting, but it's been worth it.

Still, it would've been idiotic for me to think that I had a good query, so I should just send out the manuscript and forget the revisions.

BJ said...

Jnantz, I think you're talking to me. I'm the only person who mentioned resumes. But I did not mention using a service. I said it is professionalism that matters in a query letter or a resume, putting one's best foot forward. A person may not be as professional as his resume, but it gets his foot in the door. I said that teaching a writer to write a professional query letter is important.

I also mentioned later, in a reply to someone else, that there is a skill in writing a query letter, and that a well-crafted query letter was not a fill-in-the-blanks letter.

My point in both of these is that, contrary to Mr. Barbara's opinion, I believe that teaching people to write query letters, in workshops, classes, blogs, wherever or whatever it takes, is not a disservice to the writing community. It is simply the passing on of a necessary skill.

BJ said...

I read back, and someone else did mention using a resume service. However, they did not mention using a query-writing service. They, too, mentioned that a writer has to put his best foot forward.

I took from her post that she, too, saw the importance of a professional resume.

And yes, I've heard that agents can tell if a query has been written by an agency, and they will automatically reject such a query. I believe Janet herself said this. I think this falls under the same category as 'fill-in-the-blanks' query letters.

Lehcarjt said...

Nowadays, I almost always skip ahead to the enclosed sample after a quick scan of the query letter.

Then all those hours everyone has put in slaving over the perfect query letter are worth it. What authors have always wanted was to be judged by their manuscript, not by their query writing abilities.

Taymalin said...

On one hand, I'd like to have help with my query letters. On the other, if I can't write an interesting query letter, how can I expect to have written an interesting novel?

Writing a good query doesn't guarantee that someone is a good novelist. Nor does writing a bad query necessarily mean that the person can't write well. However, a good query can indicate that the writer has the ability to hook readers.

Someone mentioned that queries which are over-critiqued tend to have a mesh of different voices. That should be enough to send any agent running, because if a writer doesn't have strong enough skills, or confidence, to retain their voice when others critique their story, chances are their MS is just as bad.


Richard Lewis said...

I've always been somewhat baffled by "query hysteria."

A query is basically a sound bite of one's novel. If that requires special skills and tearing of hair, then, um, maybe the writer hasn't torn enough hair and hasn't brought the necessary skills to the novel itself in the first place.

A synopsis, though, is a different beast.

Gary Corby said...

I imagine back in the old days, sending a query letter first was the most efficient and cost effective system, because the post was expensive, and for an agent to receive twenty or thirty bulky manuscripts every day unthinkable.

That was the old days.

You still need a brief, courteous note to say thank you for considering, but beyond that, I don't understand why query letters are required at all. The agent needs some basic information - name, title, genre, wordcount etc - that should appear on the top of the first page of the ms anyway, so why not simply send the ms?

Adam Heine said...

Gary: Because then the agent would receive hundreds of manuscripts a week instead of hundreds of one-page queries, and they'd have to read through all of them to find the gold. The query is (or was) a way to divine where the gold is in a matter of minutes rather than hours.

But like I said, if you want to undermine that system, the way to do it is (apparently) to write great queries and crappy novels.

SWILUA said...

makes me wonder how I ever got an agent. my query-writing sucketh.

Fred Limberg said...

What a cool topic.

I spent almost thirty years in the contracting/construction business, the last 17 as the CEO of a modestly sized company. Writing business letters was my life, and I was damn good at it.

I sold the business and shortly after started writing fiction pretty much full time.

A query letter is very much what someone who posted above described as a snapshot of your work. In different industries a salesman uses all sorts of techniques to get in the door and pitch his or her product or service to the proverbial decision maker.

In this business, we need agents, intermediaries to help get our work to the decision makers. In business it's hard to get to the decision maker and give your pitch. And not everyone who walks into the buyer's office will even get in the big man's door.

That's life. Suck it up.

I say, do anything and use any advantage with query crafting and submitting. If Mr. Barbara is skimming queries and heading straight for the sample pages,good for him. It sounds like an efficient use of his time. I hope more agents are following suit.

Then, if your five pages pass muster, hope your three chapters keep interest high and if an agent requests a full ms, you better hold onto your ass, because you've just passed the first teensy test.

I truly believe if you're good enough, regardless what kind of query you submit, the right people will take notice and then, your story will get read by even more overworked and, in my humble opinion, often desensitized minions that stand between your work (my work too!)and the presses.

I'm not there yet. I know it, but with each rewrite and each bit of advice I get, I'm getting better.

Please...skip to the writing! The query is dead. Long live the query. (This from a guy who once wrote a reply to the BBB that spelled out F**K YOU BI**H along the left margin.)

Business letters are cake.

Story telling is hard.


Kimbra Kasch said...

Bored by the best of query letters - hum. . .

It's hard for a wanna be writer to be sad because SB's queries aren't bad.

Stacia said...

Oh, I love Mr. Barbara. He did a Q&A on AW once, which made me encourage a friend to query him, and they came thisclose to becoming agent/client. I was sad when it didn't happen (although she did find a great agent and sell the book--just as Mr. Barbara predicted she would.) A fantastic, funny man.

I've never really understood the problem with queries either, though, I admit. My own have usually been pretty workmanlike, but they got the job done; it's just supposed to say what the story is about in such a way that the agent/editor wants to read more. The story should really do that on its own, shouldn't it? I guess for literary fiction it's a lot harder, but for genre--which is what I write--the spark is either there in the story or it isn't. MC wants something/does something/lives somewhere. Problem arrives. MC must fix problem. What do your characters do? That's what goes in a query.

I think it's Query Letter Fear, more than the actual thing itself, that makes it so scary and difficult. JMO, though.

I really do sypathise (ugh I've been in the UK too long, neither spelling of that looks right to me), and I know it's not as easy for everyone, but really, I think if you relax a little you'll be fine.

Oh, and I agree with Ann--I dislike "query services"; they're a waste of everyone's time, and they waste a lot of writers's money.

Sorry for being so long-winded. I'm feeling chatty.

Steve Stubbs said...

I'm glad he can see through well-written query letters now, but that just removes the problem one level. The real problem is whether he can see through well-written books. At this point there doesn't seem to be much danger of anything well written being published, but the industry has to maintain eternal vigilance to make sure it stays that way. said...

So. I was at work tonight, and this guy said to me, "I wrote a novel," and he proceeded to tell me how he took it to someone to print and found out it would cost fifteen grand. I sat him down and explained to him that's not the way it works, and gave him a quick rundown on --tada!-- the dreaded query letter. *This is my hand slapping my forehead.*

Ver: doltyes

How does it know these things?

Stacia said...

At this point there doesn't seem to be much danger of anything well written being published, but the industry has to maintain eternal vigilance to make sure it stays that way.

I don't even know what to say to that.

Ulysses said...

I find myself thinking that, given the piles agents have to read through, it could only be a good thing that my query didn't give them a reason to reject me.

I realize this makes it tough for them, but I'm afraid I'm reserving most of my sympathy for myself and have very little left over.

Sheila JG said...

What do you think? Are you having the same experience?

And I second Margaret Yang's question.

Charles said...

eh, call me old-fashioned, but i still think if the query letter sucks, the sample is never that far behind.

if someone were on a job interview and called the person before whom he sat by the name of someone else in the office, should that person expect to hear in lieu of rebuke, "oh, don't worry about that! you'll learn all the names of everyone in the office after you start working here"? hardly. more likely the sound the applicant would hear would be the jarring buzz of rejection.

About Me said...

So if the query letter is stellar, the sample is also fantastic? Not accordingly to Mr. Barbara.

I think it varies, there are bad queries letters out there with good novels, also good queries with bad novels... of course there are the bad/bad combo and the good/good combo too.

The Swivet said...

I like Stephen personally, I must respectfully disagree with him here. I still think good queries are important. While I may received great query letters that had crappy pages attached, I have NEVER received great pages attached to a crappy query letter.

JJ Cooper said...

I figured my query needed to be a concise account of my synopsis. The synopsis a concise account of my novel.

Write a great book and highly polish. Write a great synopsis of your book and highly polish. Write a great query of your synopsis and highly polish.

If an agent wants to skip a polished query, they'll move on to your polished synopsis or first few chapters.

Give your work the best chance it can for publication by following the submission guidelines of individual agents and agencies.


Sissy said...

I hope this is purely a bad timing thing and not a reflection of the query letter I recently submitted to you.

JJ Cooper said...

I think the article was meant to be a 'mainly' humour piece.


Anonymous said...

This was probably an inevitable development. I'm still going to work hard on my query letter, besides the all-nighters I've pulled polishing and re-polishing my ms. I've written historical fiction for teenage girls - crazy, right? So I need a sharp query letter to make the point that I'm not a complete dope. Plus, the exercise of writing the synopsis (short form and long form) after finishing a 110,000 word manuscript was invaluable in helping me "get" the real arc of my story.

I feel for you all (agents), for the loss of the immediate DON'T READ ANY FURTHER signs that helped you move more quickly through your load. But I'm going to keep writing the best query I can, because it's the professional thing to do. Whatever it takes to keep your attention long enough to skip down the email to "Chapter 1: ...".

José Iriarte said...

110,000 words for a YA? Good luck! The message I got with my originally-120k-YA was to cut it down to 80K or so before even thinking of submitting it. Of course, if you're already published, you may have a different response than I did.

tyler said...

seems if you are struggling to write a query letter, and have to spend months and money to workshop it, your time would be better spent trying to figure out a mathematical advantage to winning Powerball rather than trying to becoming a writer. maybe that's mean though.

Sarahlynn said...

I enjoyed the essay, but not the tone.

Smalltime agents and anonymous editors devote acres of blog space to hectoring writers on the intricacies of the query letter.