Sunday, March 01, 2009

Things to skip in queries for fiction

I'm most interested in the project you're querying me about. I'm interested in what the book is about.

I am not interested in:

1. who edited it;

2. who read it before I did (not blurbs, not your teachers, particularly not other agents);

3. if it was in a contest or even did well in a contest unless it WON. This is the hardest part for authors to really believe, but it's true;

4. how long it took you to write;

5. what your job was or is unless it relates specifically to the book. (In other words, if you're writing science fiction you don't need to tell me you were an insurance adjuster before retiring to write full time);

6. how you found me. (Opinions vary on this subject) To me it seems rather obvious: you did find me. I want to read your query letter. Let's just chalk that up to the universe bringing us together and leave it at that;

7. Excuses or apologies of any kind including but not limited to
A. I know you're very busy and get a lot of query letters
B. I'm unpublished

8. Statements that you've followed the instructions. At this point, I know what I've asked for and I can tell if you've sent it.

Now, you can put all of that IN the query letter if you want. You can put anything in it you want in fact, but it will defeat the purpose of the letter.

I want to know about your book. You've got about 250 words to catch and hold my attention. Why would you waste it telling me ANYTHING I don't really need to know.

The only thing, let me emphasize the ONLY thing, I'm looking at is whether you can write well, and if I think this is a book I can sell. I don't care if you're a monkey from mars, and found me listed in the Agents Who Think They're All That and a Bag O'Chips list: write well, and tell me about a book I want to read.


Margaret Yang said...

It took me a long time to realize that less is more. My early queries were too long.

The query that got me my agent (more than one wanted me) had a hook that was--I am not kidding you--three sentences long. I think I used one sentence for an opening and one for closing.

Five good sentences. It's confident and it works.

Kyler said...

That explains why my phone wasn't ringing off the hook from my last batch of queries. Thanks!

L.C. Gant said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for breaking it down this way! I think a lot of writers (myself included) will benefit from this post. Query writing seems far less intimidating when you look at what NOT to include, rather than what you should.

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

I wish I'd found your blog months ago! What NOT to include is just as important as what TO include! We writers are so inundated with what "should" be in a query that we lose sight of the big picture and ultimate goal - to get the attention of a great agent via our "voice." Margaret's comment above is also priceless. Less is more, less is more, less is more, less is more...

Walter said...

And we all know monkeys from mars who read Agents Who Think They're All That and a Bag O'Chips lists write terrible novels anyway.

BJ said...

Well, I happen to think Janet *is* All That and a Bag O'Chips, so if she thinks she is, it's only right. She deserves it!

TheWriterStuff said...

As they used to say on Dragnet, "Just the facts, Ma'am."

Haste yee back ;-) said...

Door #2, please...

I always wondered if agent/s withing the same agency seek and give their collegues advice on submissions they're currently reading. Ya know, like thumbs up/down/sideways.

Long time ago, I concluded YES! I mean, agents are social people and social people talk, kibbitz, gossip. Kind of like a beehive where everybody's busy and getting along. Obviously, in any office, I don't know who likes who, or shares what with whom, but I suspect opinions are sought and recieved to the point that if you've submitted to one in the agency, you've submitted to all in the agency. Following that logic... a NO from one is a NO from all. I'll repeat... a NO from one is a NO from all!

Some agency state this on their web sites, many don't. With that in mind, please open Door #2. Is there a general protocol amongst agenting types regarding this Door? (I know y'all pass around more than the flu)!

Haste yee back ;-)

Sara J. Henry said...

What about a word limit for queries? It would cut down on your reading time and would force writers to be more concise. The queries I have seen are always far too long - while certain details may be integral to the book, they don't need to all be crammed into the query.

When you ask someone out, you don't tell your entire employment history, your dreams, and exactly what you're going to order for dinner.

A query is not unlike asking someone on a date - you want to give enough to pique their interest, without confusing or frustrating them.

Janet Reid said...

That's incorrect.

I don't share queries I don't like with anyone at the office.

There's no list of people who've been rejected.

In fact, I took on and sold a project one of my colleagues rejected.

Jennifer Roland said...

People actually waste your time with lists of who they know, how they found you, and what they did instead of writing?

Verbal diarrhea doesn't work when you're talking, and it definitely doesn't work when your trying to sell yourself on paper/screen.

Jessica Milne said...

Honestly, I don't think that agents would have time to share the queries they pass on with others at their office.

That does bring up another question, though. Would you show a query to someone else in your office if it wasn't right for you but you thought it was perfect for them? It sounds like a good idea, but in reality, I don't know how well it would work.
(Imagine getting contacted by an agent that you didn't send a query to saying, "Well, so-and-so gave me this and I'd like to see more". xD)

Kyler said...

Got a request from a biggie, a real biggie today - same day response, and I didn't mention the contest! You really rock, Janet!

Anonymous said...

A question on whether to include something or not:

General writing advice has always been to include in the query credits if you've been published before. I've also seen published writers say include credits no matter what and others that say include only the credits that are relevant (i.e., you write a science fiction novel and published a sci-fiction short story, but leave off the Chrisian inspirational piece).

Here's my problem:

For a long time I couldn't figure out what I wanted to write. My credits are all over the map, and it's pretty obvious when I list them. When I first submitted queries, I couldn't help wondering what an agent's reaction would be to such diverse credits. None of the credits have anything to do with the novel's genre.

Should I leave the credits off entirely because of this?

Steve Stubbs said...

Well, I simply have to ask this question. Suppose Author X discovers that animal that bit him on the ass last month was not an overly amorous female admiring his masculine charms after all but a werewolf, or maybe the better word would be werewolf-ette. He discovers this because when the moon is full he turns into a werewolf himself, which he did not do before being pleasantly surprised by what he misinterpreted as romantic attention. When the moon is new or in any other phase but full he is the same boring schmuck he was before The Incident. Having made this amazing discovery he decides to write horror.

Would that personal detail belong in a query?

I am asking this question in case any werewolf-ettes bite me in the ass. I should be so lucky, of course. But one can always hope.

Pamela Hammonds said...


Just last week my writing partner and I got a request for a full that began with: You sent this to Ms. X in our office and, while it doesn't seem to fit her list, I'd be interested in taking a look at it.

So, yes, it does happen.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Dear Ms Reid:

My book was edited by a pixie
And read by a cute girl from Dixie
Who wasn’t an agent except of pleasure.

It took me ten days, five hours, six minutes
Ten seconds and a ton of dried leave to write it,
And that’s by a conservative measure.

I work with a bunch of cuties.
In my opinion they’re real tootietooties.
I’m a tail wagging monitor
And it’s most fun to monitor Trixie.

I found your address in a little black book.
Some one left it in a secret nook.
In my opinion leaving to be found by a kleptomaniac
Is an act of a maniac.

I know you’re busy and get lotsa letters,
And I swear by Ralph’s fetters I’d never have written
Except you’ll find my novel among the betters.

I write like I poem,
It all comes straight from my dome
And flows onto paper with ease.
I’m a goat if you please.

Expert Tail Monitor,

Bill E. Goat

Marie Devers said...


By day, I write educational materials for students in grades K-12. Is this something I should mention when I query agents with my YA novel?

Also, should I mention that I have an MFA in fiction?

Thanks in advance, and thank you for your blog. I appreciate your humor as much as I do your advice.

J.P. Kurzitza said...

Eee eee. ooo ooo, ahh ahh. Ahh eee ooo eee ahh!

- Mars Chimp

peggy said...

I always save the info I get here Janet, I'm brain damaged and forget easy. Thanks for the reminders and the grin :)

laughingwolf said...

what kinda 'writer' can't follow posted guidelines?

insecure, one would think...

Jessica Milne said...

Thanks for answering my question, PT! That's very interesting, and must have been an interesting request to read! :)

Anonymous said...

laughingwolf, you would be really surprised how many people fail to follow instructions. I've heard it said more than once that the instructions are one of the ways agents triage. Marie, I've wondered the same thing myself and have heard conflicting information. The outcome seems to be that working with K-12 doesn't really count as writing experience, and writing educational materials is much different than writing fiction, so probably not all that important. As far as mentioning the MFA, I've heard yes and no. If you were querying Janet, my gut feeling would be no, she wants to see how well you write, not if you got a slip of paper saying you can write. But other agents really want to see that. Agents are individuals, and have individual likes/dislikes.

Kora Stoynova

Marie Devers said...

Thanks Kora!

All good points.

Thom - - Dr. John said...

Looking forward to pursuing other posts here. Sound, no-nonsense advise is greatly appreciated.