Friday, March 07, 2014

Query: how to figure out if it's me or you

 Dear Ms. Reid,

I’ve been querying agents, including yourself, and I’m just not getting any requests for my manuscript. I’ve been reading your blog and it has really helped, but how do I know if the problem is my query, my manuscript, or if I wrote something that no one finds interesting?

I would appreciate any advice you could provide.

Also, I’m just glad I called you Ms. Reid, instead of Ms. Janet, like I did with Mr. Sherman Brooks.

I’m hoping that got a laugh….


Clueless Author

It got a laugh from me, but I delight in tormenting Mr. Sherman, particularly now that he's outside of my throwing range.

Your question is the cris de couer of writers everywhere, and I'm actually heartened to hear you ask. The people that never ask that question are the ones who are generally terrible writers and never going to get better cause they think they're amazing and what's wrong with me that I don't see it.

As for the answer to your question:

Assume nothing from the response/lack of response to queries. I say no to things that are good and publishable every day of the week and about 15 times most Saturday nights in the Chum Bucket.

There are some terrific resources for writers at, particularly the place where you can critique other people's work, and once you've hit a certain number, your own work can be critiqued. AW is not the place to start in boldly. Lurk on the forums for awhile and get to know how things work. There are some very helpful people there (mostly) and the moderators are VERY good at their job.

A writing conference can help too, and there are some good ones that aren't expensive. (CrimeBake!) If you can invest in yourself by attending one, make sure you do one of the dreaded pitch sessions, but DO NOT PITCH. Bring your query and your pages and ASK the agent what you've asked here.  You'd be surprised how often some very simple fixes can mean a big difference.


John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

It's like a high school kid wondering why girls won't go out with him. Really, isn't that what it's like? Maybe I'm just exposing more about my high school years than I should, but there's the whole "Why doesn't she ever call?" feeling to it. If she's just say, "Look, I'm a cheerleader, you're in the AV club," he wouldn't be out of his misery, but at least it would be a different misery.

And like that kid, we all dream of the day when we're rich and successful and think, "Boy, she'll be sorry she didn't go to the prom with ME."

Anonymous said...

Laughing at John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur's comment.

But yes, he's right. It's like that.

Sidebar - personally, I like calling you Ms. Janet - at least when I comment on this blog. The only reason I do that is 1) it's not too chummy, 2) invokes a sense of respect without sounding too stuffy.

. said...

Query Letter Hell at AbsoluteWrite taught me (most) everything I know about how to write queries by critiquing others. Amazing resource. A vibrant and active community of writers

Lance said...

Thank you for this great information. Can you expand on doing the pitch session, but not pitching. Instead, do you ask her to read your query? And wait for her to ask to see your pages? Thank you again.

Craig F said...

Writing a book is the easiest part of getting published.The query is five to six times harder than the book. Very few queries are of the quality of the one for Premeditated so you have to try them out on people before you send them out to Agents.

Like all things the forums with the trolls rampant (you can tell by the one or two names that dominate the last word) can be useful. I don't mean the drivel that call "help" but in their gut reaction and how you respond to it. If you are feeling small it can change it to an anger that will serve you better.

I know a couple of writers who say that they have never been able to write a good query by themselves. I don't know if they are being honest but it is very hard to get good emotional and subject flow in such a small space. I think a lot of agents hit delete if the hook doesn't give them a reason not to. So pay a lot of attention to your query and don't go it alone.

I have never been to a writers conference and don't think I will. Regretfully I have been to a couple of writers groups where trivial people have tried to raise themselves by dropping names and the conferences they have attended.

Tom Andry said...

I'd also suggest local professional writers groups. In my area, there are lots of amateur or hobby groups but also a few groups (the Romance Writers is one the biggest) that have not only published writers as members, but also agents. Joining one of these groups and showing your query to a few people can make a world of difference.

I showed my query to an agent that didn't rep my genre just to get her feedback. Of course, I expected a glowing review but she pointed at a paragraph and said, "I stopped reading right here." She explained why and now my query much better.

Kevin Lee Swaim said...

Well, this was my question. So, yeah, it does feel a little like high school, but I had David Foster Wallace for a year of graduate level writing classes. That got me over my fear of criticism and rejection. He would make people cry and have breakdowns in class....

What I did learn from Dave is that if you don't actively try to identify your weaknesses and try to improve, you usually won't.

So, I'm at the stage where I'm identifying each stage of the book, the POV, the Plot, the description, the characters, scene, setting, etc... Do they work? I think they do, but I've lost some perspective.

The next thing is whether my query is working. Step by step, I'm just trying to see where I need improvement.

Now, Dave is considered by some to be the best "litery" writer of the last forty years. But, I can tell you that what looked like genius was the result of a lot of hard work.

There were days when I hated him and his stupid red pen, and I still have mixed feelings about some of his personal behavior, but he taught me that hard work and active learning goes a hell of a long way towards writing a good story.

Lauren B. said...

I struggle with this too. A lot of times you hear "if you're not getting any requests, then something is wrong with your query".

But what if your query is perfectly fine and the problem is actually just that a book with a very similar premise was sold recently and so all the agents know they can't sell yours?

Form rejections would never clue you into that :p Not that agents should be expected to go out of their way to tell you either.

The end result is the same -- you made no headway on this MS and you should move onto writing the next one, but still, it'd be nice to know the problem *wasn't* your writing. Of course this is a really specific scenario and wouldn't we all love to dream that was the reason ;)

Anonymous said...

Hey Kevin! Another great way to get feedback on your writing, at large, is to writer for smaller areas, like niche magazines/journals/online sources/etc. to get not only valuable editorial feedback on your work, but also the truest (harshest!) meaningful critiques from readers - 9 out of 10 times, regardless of the tone of the feedback, it will inspire you to write on!

Laura said...

Everyone has covered the qualitative approach so I'll mention the analytical approach.

Keep your own spreadsheet of potential agents, your rating of them, requested materials, submission dates, and rejection dates.

Some agents request a query only. Some want query + pages. Pick a handful of relevant agents who are query only (and make sure on query tracker they aren't non-responders). If you get all rejections, that's a bad sign. Since they didn't even see pages, that means the query didn't entice them. It's a little sketchy due to small sample size, the fit of agents to your material, etc, but it can help you see if there is a problem.

Kevin Lee Swaim said...

Wow, Laura had me pegged. Maybe it's because she works with data analytics....

I appreciate the help, and I especially appreciate that Mr. Reid bothered to answer my question on her blog. Oh, and Absolute Write is awesome! I can't believe I'd never heard of it, now I'm being welcomed as a new member.

Thanks, everybody!

LynnRodz said...

Kevin, I would call her Ms. Reid and not Mr. I wouldn't mention this, but little things like that irk a lot of agents. (Not to mention a lot of other people, like editors, publishers, etc.)

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Like so many others, I too couldn't work out if it was my MS or my query, though, simply because I love my MS and my character's, I suspected it was my query writing skills.

I did 101 different on-line query sessions.
I read the success stories of others.
I followed agents blogs and read every word.
I opened my queries up for critique and abuse.

Then it occurred to me, you can't be a good writer if you're not an avid reader. So knowing this to be true, I decided to learn from the best.

I googled successful queries.
I googled successful pitches, first lines, hooks etc. and made pages of notes.

I then started all over again, and again, and again... this process actually took almost 6 months; guess I'm a slow learner!

But then, something clicked, I found my first line:

"Twenty-four-year-old MARICA measures time by funerals"

And with that one short sentence, everything else just kind of "happened" -- I even managed to get my QL down from just over 550 words incl. my bio, to 350 words incl. my bio.

I sent out 10 queries over a week period for my WF w/historical & romantic elements and had two replies for partials that same week.

I sent the partials and a few more queries.

As it stands with my new query after just over 1 month:
15 QL's sent
3 partials
1 partial now advanced to full
7 no reply as yet
2 form rejection
1 rejection after 30 page partial

In other words, of the 15 queries I've sent, 7 are still unanswered and 5 resulted in requests for pages. I've never had such a good reply to a query. Oh, and the rejection after the partial, it came with feedback saying the story was very unique & I was “excellent” at imagery & world building but it just wasn’t a right fit for the agent. It finished with encouraging me keep writing and to please send through future work to the agents direct email address - -PHEW! It’s not my MS that sucked!

I don't know if I will get the golden ticket but I do know it's as a result of reading and studying the successful & applying it to my MS with my voice.

I hope this helps :)

Unknown said...

Sorry, the above should have been 3 form rejections not 2.
It's 7.15 am Sunday here & I guess my brain still isn't working at 100%

Unknown said...

I second! It's really pushing me to the next level as a writer, which I had not expected. I had thought it would just be a nice place to hang out with other writers, but I can't believe how much of a difference it's making.

And chum bucket? I've been lurking on your blogs for years--how did I miss that this started up again? Feeling more like a chump than a chum now, but maybe I'll take a shot at being shark bait!

Kevin Lee Swaim said...


MNye said...

How many levels are there to being a writer?. You sit, you write. There are so many idiosyncrasies.'s daunting- the craft-of 'learning to write. Jeeeze.