Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Query Rant: why you really really really need to understand the rules are there to HELP you

Last week I was alone in the office, catching up on all the tasks that had lingered in to the new year. Vacations are great (and man oh man, I needed that one) but coming back to work is always daunting.  I had almost 300 emails waiting for me. NONE of them are emails I can just discard without reading (I'd cleaned those out the day before.)

I have 30+ full manuscripts waiting to be read.

And yes, I have more than a few projects that will be going out on submission this first week we're back at work full time.

In other words, this is not the time to be sloppy when you query.

Here's the example from the day I was in the office: A writer with several published books and a goodly number of articles is looking for an agent.  He's querying me.  That's great. I'm delighted to get those kinds of queries.

Unfortunately, the query had no information about the new project. None. Not category, not word count, not plot, let alone anything else.

Most days I'd probably have read a couple pages that were included with the query. I'm always on the look out for good stuff.

Most of the time this guy would have been ok.

Not this week. Form rejection.

I just wasn't in the mood to take the extra time. Might I lose out on something? Maybe. At that point I didn't much care, I just wanted to get my inbox under 300.

And here's your take away on this: you don't know when those busy times hit an agent. It could be now like it is for me; it could be next month, it could be after summer break.

You follow the guidelines so no matter when an agent reads your query s/he has the material she needs to decide about moving ahead with your project.

A savvy querier understands there are ALWAYS more good projects than there are slots on agents' list to take them on.

A savvy querier understands the guidelines are there to help her, not trip her up.

A savvy querier understands that following the guidelines especially when s/he thinks s/he doesn't have to/shouldn't need to is really really smart.

Be smart.


Cindy C said...

I'm still not ready to query, but I have a hard time understanding why people don't follow the guidelines. That seems like the easiest part of the process--follow the directions provided by the person you want to impress. Of course, I think this same thing every time I sit down to grade my students' assignments.

Amy Schaefer said...

Face palm. Writing a good query letter isn't easy, but not including anything about the project? Interesting strategy. And by "interesting" I mean "terrible."

Anonymous said...

You're last line about thinking they didn't have to was exactly what I thought. If nothing was provided on the new project, it seems the querier decided his previous successes would speak for themselves and carry him to you on a tidal wave where the both of you would then frolic in the surf, drink Mai Tai cocktails and share a laugh or two at the antics of the goofy seagulls.

I bet he will wonder to the end of time why he received that form rejection. Lordy, I'm too paranoid to assume anything.

And, as an aside, your description of your first of the year busyness has settled me down as I've been in a bit of a hold pattern since before the holidays.

Ellipsis Flood said...

So the bottom line is that while the writer's not a beggar at the banquet of publishing (who said that again?), neither is the agent.

It all boils down to that feeling of being too good for the rules, which is almost never the case, especially when you think you are.

Colin Smith said...

OK, I wasn't going to say anything today but...

The ONLY fault I can find with Stephen King's ON WRITING is toward the end where he's giving advice on how to get an agent. To sum up, his advice goes something like this:

* Get some publishing credits (e.g., stories in magazines)
* Start writing your novel
* Look up agents in literary guides/mags (e.g., Writers' Digest)
* Write to agents in your genre giving them your publication credits, a brief idea of what the novel you're working on is about, and offer to let him/her see samples of your work.

Maybe that worked in 1999, but today? Now, my edition of the book is not the very latest, so I hope this section has been updated. If not, I fear people may actually listen to Stephen King rather than go online and research what agents want now. Mr. King's advice in the rest of the book will really help you write a novel. But when it comes to querying, from what I understand, his advice will guarantee a form rejection.

[Actually, as a sidebar, I'd be interested to know how much querying has changed even since the turn of the century--a question for another day, perhaps.]

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

You nailed it E Flood.
Every time I pull into the shopping center parking lot there is some yahoo who always parks in the fire-lane in front of the drugstore to run in to pick up a script. (Usually there’s a line so the car sits for quite a while.) It’s a no parking zone, yellow curb, signs everywhere but that driver thinks the rules do not apply to him/her. The arrogance and entitlement of that kind of thinking ticks me off.

I guess some previously published writers believe they are above the basics. I’ve had a gazillion columns, op-eds and articles published and you know what, I have never parked along the yellow curb. My car may be parked on the line or I take up extra space in the slot next to me but it’s not because I think I have the right, it’s because the stupid stick hit me that day.

Oh, and Donna, I could share a couple of goofy seagull stories but not today. It’s so cold out there, their webs are frozen to the driftwood.

Colin Smith said...

Ellipsis: I think it's a matter of mutual respect. Agents need to respect writers enough to NOT make them jump through unnecessary hoops (or make them feel like they have to jump through hoops) just to get their query read. Writers need to respect the fact that most agents don't just work 9-5, and much of their ms/query reading happens during "off hours." For this reason, writers need to respect basic submission guidelines that are there to make sure the agent sees what s/he needs to see to properly and quickly evaluate your project.

OK. I'm shutting up now. Really. :)

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

"I'd be interested to know how much querying has changed even since the turn of the century--a question for another day, perhaps."

Which century my friend?

The last one was only a few years ago. If you want to know about the previous one I could probably, because of personal experience and age (not quite), relate the changes, but because I promised myself to only comment once today, I will hold off.
See, I already broke a rule.

Colin Smith said...

Carolynn: I meant in the years since 2000. I know, we non-Millennials are so used to thinking of "turn of the century" as 1900+, but, along with using a single space after a period, I'm trying to keep up with the times. :)

And I too broke a rule. I was supposed to be shutting up. Shutting up now. Really Really. :)

Unknown said...

Wow. I know it is so hard for us writers but you agents have it super hard as well. I think I'd run screaming from my desk if I were in your position. Just was very humbled by your work load. Good luck janet! Still amazed you keep up with the blog and grateful.

Anonymous said...

Ah. See? Now I've instilled a bit of paranoia here. I'm blaming Angie.

*stares at Angie*

I mean, honestly? Since when could I ever shut up?

Carolynn, my dear, it's gonna be a cold one here too. I don't think anyone's escaping it. 12 tonight, and wind chill will make it sub-zero something. I just planted pansies too. Will have to cover them.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I intend to start querying next month (once my readers tell me....anything....anything at all) and it's actually a relief to read this kind of thing. My query letter isn't turrible, that I can tell, and especially since I have no publication credits I HAVE to talk about the book!

Anonymous said...


In a former life, I was querying the suspense. It was about a young cowboy who was a cutting horse farm manager. He gets suspicious when several champion cutting horses die under mysterious circumstances and quits to disappear into the rodeo circuit. His boss, who has mob connections, realizes he may have information the horses were being killed for insurance money and they've substituted at least one champion horse, so he hires hit men to kill the cowboy.

It's not that boring, I actually had a decent pitch back then even if it was a terrible query.

This was all taking place around 1990. I was also writing children's books for my youngest and trying to find an agent for them.

I did everything wrong in that query. Dear sir or madam. I listed everything I had and everything I was thinking of writing. Actually, the only thing I got right was the pitch and I included the SASE.

And phone calls and letters came pouring in. I was going broke printing off partial and fulls, shipping them off and paying for the return. Back then I was taking in ironing for extra money,and at $8 a dozen, it didn't pay for a lot of copying on good quality paper and shipping, etc, but I had a dream. I didn't have my posse then. I was participating in a workshop, but my writing was still rough as a cob. The horrible query was getting requests, but the agents were rejecting the writing, and rightly so.

I did land dream agent for the children's book. I actually hung up on her because I thought it was a joke.

I eventually got two new agents in their shiny new agency who didn't think that much was wrong with the book, but could I hurry and get started on another project?

Things happened and I parted ways, most reluctantly with the fabulous children's agent. She was a doll. I stopped writing for years.

Today if I pulled that dear sir or madam crap it would be an automatic delete. Plus all the other mistakes that would have been delete worthy.

Go read the #askagent, #tenqueries, #querytip hashtags on twitter sometime. It drives agents nuts when people don't follow simple directions. You'll also learn the other little idiosyncrasies they don't or do like. One agent would love to see people put in their queries what is their favorite part of writing their book. Who would have guessed?

I got a rejection, I know it's considered bad form to talk about rejections when you're querying, from an agent I truly thought Far Rider was ideal for. Mea culpa. I mean this seemed like a match made in heaven.

Form rejection but thank all that is holy, it was not a no response means no interest. I followed all the directions to the letters. Well, except for the one agent who faithfully responds to every query in x weeks and has not responded to me, but I did add an extra letter to his name. Oops.

So, I wonder. Was it the query? Was it the story? Was it the handsome pirate? Was it the 147,000 words? (I recently was advised no agent will look at anything over 100,000 words and 120,000 words is stretching it for epic fantasy.)

I don't know why she rejected. It just wasn't for her for whatever reason, but it danged sure wasn't because I didn't follow directions.

Colin Smith said...

OK, so I'm breaking the shut up rule to say...

Hi Julie!

Thank you!! Having been in the query trenches more than once, I am very familiar with the tenor of agent submission requests these days: everything from the reasonable (i.e., Ms. Shark and her ilk) to the--well, let's be kind--not-quite-so-reasonable ("What did you love about writing this book?"). This is why I'm interested to know what querying was like back before communication was cheap and fast. I really do appreciate your sharing. :)

Now back to shutting up.

Andrea said...

Really, Colin, "what did you love about writing this book?" ?
Not come across that one yet, just the "what makes you the person to write it?" Which probably makes sense for non-fiction, but I've seen this question for fiction submissions too. What makes me the person to write this story... well... God told me to write it? Wrong answer?
"Best" guidelines I've come across so far were to write a decent query because "if you can't even take the trouble to write a good query, it doesn't say much for you as a writer."

Colin Smith said...

I know, Andrea. I mean, this is supposed to be a business letter, not the SATs or some literature exam! Sorry, this is supposed to be Janet's rant, not mine.

And I'm supposed to be shutting up. For real now, folks. :)

Colin Smith said...

... except for this quote. From Barbara Poelle's column in the current (Feb 2015) Writers' Digest. I was going to Tweet it, but it's too long:

"Saying an agent only finds a publisher and negotiates a contract is kind of like saying a spouse just buys you a ring and then hangs out with you until you're dead."

Shutting up again. :)

DLM said...

I'm honestly stuck with the conclusion that this guy was querying to see whether Janet was free for lunch. Querying a novel? Not to go for the cheap, vogue snark, but truly this is doing it wrong. It's a little difficult not to leap to the conclusion that Snowflake got a little sure of himself.

Anonymous said...

Well, I thought the question about what did you love about your book was charming. I actually thought it was an awesome departure from "Just the facts, ma'am."

I'm sure it would be no deal breaker if someone didn't put it in, but it was kind of fun to sit down and think about it. I think the agent wanted to hear the writer's passion.

Dear Father in Heaven, I love scouting agents. It's like being at a huge select horse sale and someone says, "OK, darlin', pick a good one."

AJ Blythe said...

"rules are there to HELP you"

Just had that argument with my kids this morning.

Colin Smith said...

AJ: I tell my kids if they behaved properly all the time, and always did the right thing, I wouldn't need to make rules. I think that applies to querying too... :)

AJ Blythe said...

Ah, Colin, if only we always knew what the 'right' thing was *grin*.

Stacy said...

Colin, I had the exact same thought when I first read King's On Writing. For one thing, these days you gotta finish the book before querying. Been a while since he's had to query, huh? :)

Kalli said...

I went a little overboard with the bio section of my first attempt at a query too. I think I got confused, and thought 'why are you the best person to write this novel' meant 'how did you come to be the person who wrote this novel?'

Now I know the answer is 'coz no one else did.'

Although I may not be the best person to *finish* this novel... *trudges back to the MS*

Gingermollymarilyn said...

Ms. Shark, you must have been thinking "Wtf!" That's like driving without a car.

Gingermollymarilyn said...

One agent asked for my favourite sentence. Really?

Unknown said...

This is why I will never, ever send you a query letter because I have read your guidelines and know for a carved-in-stone fact that you do not rep YA. But just so you know, if you did rep YA I would query you. And I love your writing contests.