Monday, May 18, 2009

We've terrified the wrong half of y'all

Writers penning query letters fall into two groups: those who are extremely careful to follow the rules, and obsess about getting things right; and, those who don't know (or don't care) there are any kinds of norms to observe.

Blogging agents have terrified the first group. The second group doesn't even know there are blogging agents.

Websites, guidelines, and query workshop have terrified the first group. The second group wouldn't recognize a workshop or a guideline if it was offered to him/her on a clearance rack at Kmart.

Form rejection letters and the dreaded "no response means no" have beaten down many in the first group. The second group don't even know there are such things as form rejections and have a neat trick of saying "get back to me if you're interested" thereby discouraging even agents like me from sending a form letter.

Ever get the feeling we're terrifying the wrong half?
Yea, me too.

If you're reading this blog; if you've read QueryShark; if you've paid any attention at all to the myriad of other agent blogs, chances are pretty darn good you're doing things right.

If you're not, well, you're not reading this post so I'll just say it straight out: quit ruining it for the rest of these guys.


Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

I hate writing query letters. If anything could make me stop writing, it's facing the next query letter.

Dear Miss Editor/Agent/or whatever you are:

Read my dang book! Do it now! I can't wait. You'll like it, I'm sure and if you don't you need to take the cure ...

It's about a murder or two and in it you'll probably find a character like you ...

It tells in words finely crafted the story of revenge quietly shafted (yah, yah it makes no sense, but it rhymes) ...

A victim takes justice into her little hands and slices and dices some really bad mans ... (awful poetry, huh?)

No one suspects her or at least not very much because she's so pretty and a victim most frail. Probably the investigation will fail.

The last of the bad men is faced with a dilemma. Does he confess to save his daughter Emma?

Will there be love between avenging angel and lawman or will his eyes be opened and answers demand? (Pixies shouldn't write rhymes.)

Read my dang book! Read it right now! If you don't read it I'll think you're a ... so what rhymes with now?


Sorry, I'm an inadequate query writer .... My blog is awful too. Eventually I'll drown myself in some muddy river that flows into the Columbia. Alternately I’ll send my pet Scotsman down to Albertsons for cheap vanilla ice cream and eat it out of the carton while seasoning it with tears.

Pablo said...


moonrat said...

you go, janet. true words.

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Janet, Don't worry, we're not terrified, just a little confused.;-)

SundaySoup said...

As they say in Tennessee, "Rules are just guidelines. Kinda like the law." Or maybe just my Tennessean husband says that, but it works for me!


Margaret Yang said...

I try to read blog posts/guidelines/rants in the spirit in which they were intended. The agent wants better queries so she can get better manuscripts so that she can love them and hug them. The agent sees an education gap and she wants to fill it in with helpful information. I get that.

Thank YOU for getting why it can be scary on this side of the desk.

Nancy Coffelt said...

Right on.

I feel that way about rude bicyclists too. Every time I see one blow through a light I think, "That's the reason I got a super-size fountain drink chucked at me that time even though I WAS following the bicycle rules of the road."

I hate it when that happens.

CNU said...

On that day "the Reid's" heart grew three times larger.


(*Oh come was clever.*)


Yeah...bootcamp NYU is brutal before you even submit. I'm sure there are a myriad of others...

Anonymous said...

Oh, I soooo agree. All my queries sound like I'm trying too hard. Yep, like I'm terrified, in fact. They stink!

Kristy Lynne said...

Since you just recieved my query for query shark (I got a confermation mail). I am going to assume you mean me unless you post it just to ask if I am actually literate. :-)

(I'm the scared kind, can you tell)

Sherry Dale Rogers said...

Preach it sister!

Rick Daley said...


While we may quiver in fear as we revise our queries for the umpteenth time, the fear springs forth from our dedication to the craft of writing and our desire to succeed. I think it was Socrates who once said, "It's all good."

I like to think of y'all as blogging teachers who tell us the answers to a test before we take it.

And when "the other half" ignores both protocol and conventional wisdom by emailing bad queries and unprofessional rebuttals to form rejections, it just makes the rest of us look better in comparison. Plus it usually irks you enough to inspire some damn funny blog posts.

Rachael said...

It can be scary on this side of the desk. I'm mortified of doing anything wrong. I double and triple check my query every time just to make sure there isn't anything that I missed. Like a misspelled name or a forgotten guideline.

PurpleClover said...

Holy mackeral! Thanks so much. I needed a "Finally!" moment. :)

lotusgirl said...

Thank you for pointing this out. Whew! At least I'm in the first half.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

Obsessing and getting it right...

Reminds me of my medical school days and Human Anatomy class.

Now, I had a lab partner who studied obsessivly. I mean he'd read the footnotes on the incidence of abnormalities in cells, bone, muscle, nerve and whatnot till he was briming with facts. (shit like, 2% of the population will exhibit such and such)! And he loved to show off his esoteric, stuffed brain constipated knowledge to any who'd listen.

So, come test day. 50 tags on 50 bodies, 20 seconds to identify the item. He's two cadavers in front of me and he comes to a station that has a single clavicle, (collarbone), and the question is... is this the left or right clavicle. Well, my friend breaks down, screaming wailing, yelling at the professor asking what kinda idiot question is this! See, he knew every muscle attachment to the bone in question, every nutrient foramen, every curve, bump, dip and percentage of malformations etc, etc... BUT, he didn't know the left from the right clavicle -- a very simple question. Of course he missed it and, for him, the rest test was pell-mell downhill.

So, be obsessive, do your homework, knock correctly, quietly, and politely on the query door - while the truly creative will figure a way to kick the FAW-KIN door off its' damn hinges!

Haste yee back ;-)

Tana said...

Some days it doesn't seem to matter whether I'm in that first group. I have manuscripts I can't get agents to use as doorstops, or kleenex or to decorate their slush-pile with.

Josie said...

I've always thought agents should have a secret email or address for the first group as a way to filter out the really bad from the perhaps not-so-bad slush...

Heidi Willis said...

I had a good laugh just at the title of this post!

Laurel said...

This was comforting. Yep, I'm terrified.

That being said, I am way LESS scared feeling like I at least have the power to not look like a complete moron because I don't know how to query. That would feel like going to an interview without knowing what the job was.

At the end of the day, there's still some luck involved. I am NOT a lucky person. But I can up the odds by not relying entirely on luck to place an ill formed query in just the right person's hands.

Thanks for all you guys do to help us get it right.

Yamile said...

I used to live in blissful ignorance of what a query letter was, its function, its many parts, all the things you should avoid including in it, and such. Now, as I finish editing my novel, all these tiny rules keep nagging me like a background voice. I'm grateful I stumbled upon an agent's blog not too long ago. Stressful and scary, but well worth it! I don't want to be part of the second group!

ChristaCarol Jones said...

Hehe, right on.

Man Candy Fans said...

I've never met a *rule* I didn't itch to break. Truthfully, I was only vaguely aware of agent blogs when I wrote my query letter for my 2nd book in Jan 2008. I knew basically what to include in a query letter, having asked a couple of pubs for advice with my 1st book. But I didn't know certain agents didn't like this or that. I'd only just finished the book in Jan 2008 when I got an email from a pub telling me she'd recommended me to her agent. The agent wanted me to query right away. I happened to be in Continental's president lounge awaiting a flight to London when I got this email. Faced with a 10-hour flight and a 2-week business trip, I decided to write and send it on the spot. I didn't have time to get feedback from anyone or obsess. When I landed in London, I found the request for the full in my email box.

If you're terrified, you will likely write a milk-toast query. Be bold and believe in your story. If you do, it will show.

Julie Weathers said...

I'm one of those people who hate writing query letters. They are painful and I don't like pain. I'm delicate, like a flower.

Query letters are part of the world we live in, unless we're someone like Stuart Neville.

However, it is so much better than it was several years ago. Agents, editor and authors post helpful information on writing, query letters, cover letters, synopsis writing and submitting in general.

It's not that hard to find information on how agents prefer to be approached. What really boggles my mind is that most of the "rules" are common sense. No purple fonts. No 8 point font. No horse poop enclosed to demonstrate how accurate your descriptions are. No To Whom It May Concern. No stalking, unless you're at Surrey, and in the bar. No industry-wide CC. No nude pictures, especially not of the agent.

It's a business correspondence selling yourself as a professional and your product to someone who is in the market.

Don Bolen said...

Janet, I am in the first group and very carefully followed all the directions on your submission guidelines... and I also feel beaten down.

I greatly appreciated your almost immediate response to my query in which you said, "This sounds interesting but I'm not the right agent for it. I've taken the liberty of forwarding it to my colleague (name). It's much more suitable for his list".

At your suggestion I also sent a e-mail query directed to him. He never responded that he received it or any word if he liked it or not.

So my question, is this the dreaded "no response means no" ?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I'm not terrified, just disheartened some days. Positive affirmation works wonders for this affliction.

I've discovered I love writing query letters. Once upon a time I dreaded writing synopses, but now I love them, as well.

A writer who's damn serious about publication will do everything it takes to make her goals become a reality. Eventually, the not so serious will be culled leaving an open agent field for the rest of us.

I think the key to success in this business is patience. I've got plenty.

Thank you for inspiring the first group to keep at it with this post. :)


Anonymous said...

Writers who are serious about their work will fret at anything. I am hopefully going meet you at BEA and believe me, I'm terrified. Only a madman would jump into the pool when he knows there is a shark in there. I think that your first half are going to be terrified no matter what; we have put a lot of work into both our manuscripts and our query. It is important to us that everything we send out be of the highest quality. We will not settle for second rate when it comes to our art. So yes I am scared, but I am undaunted, I will write a magnificent query letter to go with my magnificent manuscript. My fear is the catalyst that demands that it be so. So to all my terrified brothers and sisters out there. Fear is a tool. Use it well.

Debra L Martin said...

I am terrified, but at least I'm informed thanks to all the agents that blog. I wrote my first query which opened with a rhetorical question. That was bad, but when I did some research and started reading agent/editor blogs, the query was revised and interest picked up.

Thank you Janet and all the other agents out there that take the time out of their day to blog. I for one appreciate every one of you.

Janet Reid said...

Don, I'm not sure if you're aware that Gary Heidt is now with a different agency. Your email may have gotten lost in the transition. said...

That was nearly inspiring in a backhanded, 'well at least they're worse than you!' sorta way...well done!

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU for admitting this! I've been quaking in my proverbial writer's boots ever since I made my first foray into the agentsphere, reading all the vitriol aimed at the second group and thinking that I had somehow been lumped in with them!

Thanks for the honesty! :)

Anonymous said...

I'm one of those writers, and surely not the only one, who really has no stress over sending out queries. Feeling like I've written a decent one is another matter. However, even then I know they don't require perfection. They just need to generate interest.

I send out queries expecting a "no" response. I do my research. I make sure the agent reps what I have written, that they are currently looking for that genre, and any other little specifics about submitting to them. It's not rocket science. It's just a bit of time and effort. I know that, odds are, if I have a concept that interests an agent and my query gives at least some indication that I know something about the craft of writing, they will look at some pages. I know that even in the best of publishing times, finding someone who loves your concept and your writing AND thinks it's saleable is the proverbial needle in a haystack. Odds are, you aren't going to be that lucky. Too many writers, too few agents. They can afford to be choosy.

So, you throw that dart across the slushpile sea and hope you hit the bullseye on the other side, realizing that the target is not only small, but the fucker moves around to! How can you afford to have high expectations? You can't. You have to assume that beautiful little projectile you so lovingly crafted is going to plop into the dark abyss and vanish forever.

If you are good at your craft, you'll hit the target on occasion, sometimes out of sheer luck, but usually because you are getting pretty good at this insanely frustrating, demanding game. Knowing you can hit the target gives one hope that eventually the bullseye will be found. Just build a better dart, take more careful aim, and keep throwing.

I've hit the target a few times. I know with persistence I'll nail the bullseye. I have the patience to win this game. You have to as well.

Ok, cheesy comparison, but you get the point.

Rebecca Knight said...

Thank you so much for this, Janet :). I'm a rule-reader and I do worry whether or not I'm doing things correctly to the point where I can make myself a little nuts. What I'm taking from all this is that if I'm worrying about it.... I'm already better off than half.

So thank you for the encouragement. We appreciate it!

sonja said...

Speaking of Query Shark, I'm in serious withdrawal. I try to remember that you have a job (beyond educating terrified writers). But every morning I check Q-Shark hoping for a fix, thinking *today's the day!*. And it's not even my Q that I'm waiting for!

My name is Sonja, and I'm a shark-a-holic. And I'm okay with it.

Seriously, thank you so much for all the free time you give us (I mean, time-you-are-not-paid-for, not your-leisure-time-- pretty sure that ship sailed some time ago).

Aimlesswriter said...

Hmmm, I think I'm in the first...I try to reread the rules before sending, try to do each individual agent at a time and blah, blah, blah. But there have been times when I just want to say "Here's the story, it is what it is."
I also don't wait for rejection letters. If I get them fine, I'll file them, if not I just move on.
Depends on the mood, how much wine I drank last night and if Mercury is in retrograde.
Please know we really appreciate your blog. It's great that agents reach out to us at all. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Great post Janet! I do find that I'm a little intimidated by the process. I'm about to start querying after another couple of months of polishing, and I'm already afraid I'm going to get blacklisted for doing something stupid.

pegasus358 said...

This was a great one, Janet-- not that all of your blogs aren't good-- just that this one was particularly good. :)

-Beth M.

Unknown said...

Terrified just about sums it up. But not only. Now I hate querying with a loathing that just makes me want to gnash my teeth and rip that page into shreds...And I was such a gentle soul before I started querying.

Alicia Evans said...

You know, I used to get really scared about sending query letters--and I'm just not anymore. I've been reading agent blogs for a long time now and I think I have a pretty clear cut understanding of what's acceptable and what isn't. I take the time to read each agents querying guidelines, follow it to a 'T' and then write my letter. I'm pretty confident with it for the most part. I've been reading query shark and even submitted a query (it hasn't yet been posted and I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not *LOL*) but I'm good.

I know I have a novel that people are going to want to read and it's my responsibility to present it in a way that makes an agent fall in love with it just as quickly as I fell in love with the stories and the characters. That's that really.

The more you stress over it, the less likely you'll send it out...and even when you do it'll read like utter trupe because you're trying to impress.

Look, I'm not a published writer...hell, I'm not even half way finished with my manuscript. But I will be. And I know that the only way I'm going to have any success as a writer is to be myself right down to the query letter. I'm not going to try and be clever or witty (I'm only those things on Thursdays and Saturday mornings). 'This is what I wrote, this is what it's about. This is what I do. Thanks for taking the time to read, take care' after is what it is.

It isn't that I don't care, or even that I'm not apprehensive...there are just some things that aren't in your control.

Happy Querying.

Alicia Evans said...

I absolutely LOVE with jimnduncan said. Brilliant.

Amy Sue Nathan said...

I always say this, those of us reading are probably not the ones who are making the mistakes (anymore). I thought the same thing about the much debated #queryfail debacle on Twitter. The queries being blasted or tweeted probably were written by those who'd never heard of Twittering.

But, on the off-chance that there are always newbies in the fold of online learning -- keep it up!

Liana Brooks said...

I adore you, Janet. I'm working on a query today and this was what I needed to hear.

That and, "Finish editing." But I figure I can edit the query letter along with the last few chapters. The query deserves at least that much time.

Caroline said...

Princess of the Pixies, your query poem cracked me up.

I think Janet makes some very good points. I am also starting to realize that problems writing a query often point back to problems with the manuscript itself. I was struggling with my query because of plot problems. (Another writer asked me, "what's at stake here?" and I had trouble answering convincingly!)

I think once I finish rewriting the manuscript, the query will be much easier. I will feel I'm ready when I can give a good, short answer to "what's your story about".


~Sia McKye~ said...

I've found Agent blogs very helpful. There are so many opinions on how to do this or that but when you look at them all your see a clear pattern. Or at least a clear pattern of what NOT to do, which always helps.

I do appreciate the time Agents use to help aspiring writers. I've also learned an enourmous amount about Agent workloads and that while they have their rules, they are not the enemy, lol!

Thanks Janet.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Dear Caroline,

As Janet knows, my query letter is only partly contrived. I'm sweating over The Whore of Babylon Beach, which is a real change of pace for my partner and me.

We write non-fiction together, and my previous book is fantasy. Fantasy is still my first love.

I've gotten to know some interesting people while researching bits of this. Two of my girls and two cousins have asthma and I spend a lot of time in hospitals (a hospital and medical procedures play a part in the first chapters). There are bits of real conversations overheard in an ER lobby. I met a number of Hospital Security Officers and nurses.

It's not that we're sticking to clinical detail-it's not a medical thriller-but we want a semblance of reality behind what is essentially an improbable story.

I should explain that, I suppose. It's about revenge. Most acts of revenge are done in hot blood; they're poorly planned, and they get you in lots and lots of trouble. What if a talented and smart victim and her associates thought it out and hunted down the bad guys one by one? What would the complications be? How brutal does one become when one seeks a complete personal vengeance? When does personal vengeance become a crusade with public implications?

We're not writing a second Batman or some sort of revenge in Central Park movie retold. When we do query, one of the problems will be to disconnect our story from these over-told stories.

Bits of the story come from sitting in an ER lobby.

We've altered the original events to fit the story, but these are based in things we've seen. There is a female officer in our story. I’ve based her on a real County Deputy that I’ve met. The reality behind Nelly is a very attractive, short blond woman who is full of common sense and rolls her eyes at stupidity. I don’t think she’ll ever recognize herself as the basis for my Nelly.

I introduce her in a short few paragraphs:

“County … twenty. What’s the status on the ambulance?”
A pause and then, “Be advised ETA is seventeen minutes.”
“Call St. Elizabeth’s and tell them I’m two minutes out.”
“Negative, twenty. That’s not …”
“Call them. Call Nell, and call Rape Crisis.”
Nell was Corporal Nelly Vosberg, the night supervisor. Nelly was tall, slender, and pretty, and - in the right circumstances - mean as a zebra in heat.

Everything else we tell about Nelly and her personality are developed through action and dialogue. The real Nelly, I should say, is very nice unless you’re being an idiot.

When Nelly and Robert meet at St. Elizabeth’s you learn more about her, mostly through how she handles things. (My this post is really long. Feel free to stop reading anytime … And I don’t know how wise it is to include all these bits of the story … but I’m sick and bored today, so I’m inclined to write a long post)

It also helps that my writing partner has a background involving internet stealth and security clearances, and that he has a very dry sense of humor. I really strayed from my starting point, and I’m sorry for dragging you all over creation. I guess my point is, my query poem is based on a real story, and I have no idea how we’re going to present this when it’s done. I’m a good writer, except when it comes to a query letter.Come visit my pitiful blog. ... I need company over there:

Anonymous said...

LOL! It's kinda like preaching to the choir. It seems that when you have something to say to a certain group - that's exactly who ISN'T going to hear you. And the people who do hear you don't need to hear you and just obsess about it all. :)

Caroline said...

Hi Princess of the Pixies,

Sounds like you made a pretty big genre switch. I'm looking forward to checking out your blog.


Anonymous said...

Query letters are for wimps. Screw that. Just do a little homework, get the agent's home adress, show up with your MS, a bundle of roses and a box of chocolates, and you're in.


Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

::knock, knock, knock ... ding dong::

Janet looks through peephole.

Janet: Who's there?

Voice: It's the FGI, open up!

Janet: FBI? What do you want? Do you have a warrant? ... Or a manuscript?

Voice: Pizza. I have Pizza... and chocolate ... and roses ... and crystanthumumssss or whut ever they are. And I have peanut butter cookies and Kiona White Riesling ...

Janet: Bill, is that you? ...

Voice: I said it's the FGI.

Janet: I thought you said FBI? What the heck is the FGI???

Voice: Friendly Goats International ... Open up! Let's talk. Better yet, you read, I'll talk.

Janet: Bill, I think your mommy wants you ...

Voice: She's in Pasadena on vacation. ...

Janet: Does the pixie know you're here?

Bill: Sush ... [In very deep voice] I'll be backkkk.

Anonymous said...

I've been the clueless and the frightened at different points. After being clueless and sending out awful queries, I became overeducated and was frozen with fear.

I think it's an evolution of carefully researching, practicing, getting feedback and then querying in small batches so you can address agent questions or concerns in future queries.

Shannon Ryan said...

After studying QueryShark, I was pants-wettingly terrified when it came to sending a query to Janet Reid.

Still, I think having her perspectives was invaluable during the query process.

Creative A said...

Thanks Janet for saying what I've been thinking! The good news about this, I believe, is that we don't actually need to be so scared.

If rules are stressed so much because so many people ignore them, there's not as much pressure about a perfect query as we think, if we are already following the basic rules. After that it's about the meat of our query...the content...

So maybe it is still kinda scary :p

Author Guy said...

If I read agent blogs, I'd say this was probably true, but I don't, so I can't.

It's too bad, because I've achieved something unique, an unqueryable novel! It's a first. I would be famous, if anyone ever heard about it.

At least, I think it's a first. I've never heard of one before now.

Unknown said...

It's just so nice to know what to feed those big bad agent beasties. Feed them the wrong thing they bite your hand off, feed them right and they go all soft and fury.