Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Do the +/=*%! math

A recent query letter informed me that the writer:
 found the [query] process to be backwards. If I was an agent, I think I would want to read a chapter or three, and see if I was even engaged by the author’s storytelling ability. If an author can’t get my attention in that period of time, then that’s their own fault. But if I am intrigued, I could then contact the author, and they could tell me ...[about the book.]
Fortunately the Shark Delay Team works 24/7 so the first response (which Sherwin Williams has inquired about patenting for use as a paint solvent) is now consigned to the ash heap.

And once the Shark Delay Team gave me back my keyboard I'd regained my sunny disposition, I thought let's get some data to substantiate my position rather than just firing off torpedoes of annoyance.

So I read the three chapters that came with this particular query. It took me just over four minutes, because frankly by chapter two I was skimming.

Here's the math:

Four minutes per query. I got 54 queries last week. 54 queries  x 4 minutes each (minimum) = 216 minutes. That's 3.6 hours of reading time. Every week.

Contrast that with reading queries: I read the next ten queries in three minutes. I said no to eight of them, and flagged two to remind me to read the enclosed pages when it's not midnight and I'm not cleaning up singe marks on the keyboard.

If I'd read all the pages with those eight rejected queries, I'd have spent just over thirty minutes (8 x 4), not three.

In other words, I would have spent 27 minutes to get the same results that three minutes did.

Here are some other reasons "just reading the chapters" isn't an efficient query system.
*I won't know the word count. It does no good to read three chapters of a book that's only 40K or more than 200K.

*I won't know the category. I generally don't take on science fiction or women's fiction or anything with supernatural elements. It's not in your best interest that I do, since there are many many other agents more capable than I in these categories.

*I won't know if what I'm reading is a prologue.

*I won't know if I'm reading about the main character.

*Most important: I will have no sense of the plot or characters before starting. And that writer friends is death for you. It breeds confusion. Confusion is NOT GOOD in a query letter. You know how I know that? Cause the QueryShark said so. About 200+ times.

And most important: when a writer tells me that the way I've set up my business practices doesn't suit them, it doesn't take much imagination to seeing how other business practices I insist on don't suit them either.

*No, you can't call the sales department to ask why your book isn't in the local Barnes and Noble.

*No, you can't call your editor to ask why the editorial notes aren't ready yet.

*No, you can't call the six editors who passed on this manuscript to see if they have any suggestions for improvement.

The first purpose of the query letter is to entice me to read your book.
The second is to demonstrate you are not an asshat.

A passing grade is not 50%.


french sojourn said...

s/he should just have sent you the title of the m/s.

nuff said.

Sam Hawke said...

I'm seeing this more and more - people complaining about the process of querying (often in hugely inappropriate places) as though it is inherently broken and they, only they, see the TRUE way it should work.

I just want to shake them. FFS, people. It's really, really not that hard. Just tell the agent what the book's about and give them as much material as they ask for. It's not voodoo. You don't need mad IT skills or a dead chicken or personal connections or some magic software. JUST TELL THEM ABOUT THE BOOK.

Why make this harder for yourself? There are so many obstacles to this process and your chances are really quite low in the traditional publishing world anyway. You're in a marathon against thousands of other runners. Why the hell would you drop an anvil on your own feet at the starting line when there are easy anvil-free lanes right next to you? You wrote a freaking BOOK, you can write a short email.

Anonymous said...

Confusion is NOT GOOD in a query letter. You know how I know that? Cause the QueryShark said so. About 200+ times.

This is my favorite "because I said so" ever. Especially because it doesn't come with the heaping plate of resentment that "because I said so" usually does: Query Shark lists the reasons. In screeches and snarls, but lists nonetheless.

This topic reminds me of Chopped. On the show, they talk a lot about why they want to win and, most especially, why they deserve to win. The answers are 90% of the time something like this: "I'm passionate and good at what I do."

So what? So the other competitors aren't? So that's something special about you in an industry that's fueled by overtime and stress? Which makes it an industry you can't survive without an internal driving force, like passion.

Those aren't reasons. They're facts about you. Good things. But not reasons that you should win or even can. Querying sucks for writers because anything where you're standing in line with thousands of other people trying to make an impression on one person sucks. If you can't make an impression, you're a statistic. Yep, going unnoticed sucks. That doesn't make it the fault of the people you're waiting in line to see.

Laura Mary said...

I can partially see a (misunderstood) point here - the fear that an agent could pass on a crappy query, where the pages and the MS were excellent.
However, as you point out, even excellent queries get knocked out if they are the wrong category or simply something you can't sell.

I've always wondered if I'll have it tougher or easier querying in the UK. We don't send query's. You send a synopsis, chapters, and a covering letter which includes 1 short paragraph saying what your book is about.
Do the majority of agents read pages anyway? Or do I really only have that short pitch to hook them?

Cart blocking horses path again. Get back to writing the damn novel Laura.

Claire said...

Even if you privately think the query process should work differently, it takes a special kind of self-destructive hubris to destroy your chances of getting representation quite so effectively. Nobody likes being schooled in their job by someone who's not even in the field.

Sam Hawke said...

Laura Mary - I queried in three markets (US, UK and Aus) and even within those markets people asked for different things. They all present their own challenges.

But still, it always amounts to the same gist - follow the directions about how they want to be told about your book. Whether you agonise over a few paras in a query or a page or two in a synopsis, you're still telling people about your book in the format that they want.

Anonymous said...

Okay so as one of the recent queries up on Queryshark right now I value the Sharks advice A lot. I cannot understand how an individual would even conceive of beginning anything in life, period, with the ideology that: "Hey you need me more than I need you."

That to me is one, insulting, and two just rude. I have been trying to be a writer for like what, 3 months, and already I see that the process is symbiotic at the least. Sure you want to get your book published but the Agents are doing all the work.

Four minutes per query. I got 54 queries last week. 54 queries x 4 minutes each (minimum) = 216 minutes. That's 3.6 hours of reading time. Every week.

Janet I am sorry this circumstance occurred. I hope I never waste your time. If I do find myself blessed with your time I hope that its filled with complete concise compelling sentences that have you asking for more.


nightsmusic said...

If you can't tell someone in a query what your book is about, I don't want to read your book. Period.

A query is like a three paragraph synopsis. Your actual synopsis of course, is anywhere from three to ten pages depending on what the agent asks for, but the agent isn't going to ask if your query sucks. Write the query, follow the guidelines, hope for the best. But don't cut your hand off to keep you from eating at the trough of publishing just because YOU think what's expected is wrong.

Anonymous said...

If I do find myself blessed with your time, I hope that its filled with complete, concise, compelling sentences that have you asking for more.

Sorry had to correct my grammar.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I can understand this frustration. Any time I'm called upon to write a cover letter or query letter, it feels very stilted to me. Like "Dear Snookums, I'm/my book is really great and I hope you think so too! Please hire me/love my book/engage in this business opportunity with me. Kisses! Me."

But. It's business and it's what's expected. Nobody's exempt from that process unless they're really really lucky (friends with an agent who wants to see pages, whatever). I'm not going to really bitch about it (I did blog about it, query bitching, but mostly about my shortcomings, not the system's), and especially not IN A QUERY TO AN AGENT.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Holymoly (backs away from the fire til it settles a bit)

Lots and lots of flames and fires here. 2nd writing blog I've read this morning about fires. And it's not even 7 am.

OK. It's morning so bear with my poor math brain.
To read chapters from 1 person it took you just over 4 minutes
To read queries from 10 people it took you 3 minutes.

Hugomongoose difference. Especially considering all of the other reading agents do, which the queen has listed at various times on this blog: new potential clients books, R&Rs of current clients, contracts, etc.

Well, Opie made him/herself stand out from the crowd. But not in a good way.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I think you should branch out.

Sherwin Williams Literary Agency

Color your novel, paint your story and there will be no (blah) walls blocking your success.

Anonymous said...

I read #tenqueries on twitter yesterday, which I haven't done in a while. One agent asks for query letter, synopsis, first chapter. It's amazing how many people can't follow those simple instructions. He often passes because the package is frequently missing the chapter or the chapter is some interior chapter.

Then there are those who don't send a query letter.

This isn't rocket science.

Trust me, you are not a special little snowflake. Even if you are, sooner or later, the sun's going to come out and melt your butt down to nothing.

Anonymous said...

I was talking to Delilah Dawson yesterday and she said something that really hit home.

"Writing tip: If it gets good in the third chapter, cut the first two chapters. Start where it gets good, at the last possible moment.As always, your mileage may vary. But when people tell agents, 'It gets good on page 50!', that's a red flag."

If /you are/ I am a good writer and /your/ my story is worth the telling then /your/ my query should prove as much. The proof is always in the putting. If I can't engage you in 250 words or less odds are I'm not going to be able to do that in more.

Follow the process. That's what I plan to do.

Colin Smith said...

Frankly, I think the publishing industry needs to just recognize my awesomeness and give me the agent of my choice, without all that dreary "querying" and "calling." And then it needs to hand over, on a platter--silver, since I know how strapped for cash it is these days--the publisher of my choice so my agent doesn't have to go through all that wearisome submission process. I suppose we'll then need to re-negotiate my agent's 15% cut because, being MY agent means they have less to do. Maybe 10%? 5%? That should be enough to keep my agent in whiskey for a while.

I mean, it's not like you've been doing this "publishing" thing all that long, is it? How could you possibly know what you're doing?

Glad I could help! :D

E.M. Goldsmith said...

A good query is tough to write. I am pulling my hair out over the revision to my query so that I can improve agent response rate and my chances of ensnaring one of the slippery buggers with my unique story telling charms. It is hard. If you want to go down the traditional path of publishing, writing and revising a query is part of a writer's job, Just the way it goes.

The query trenches are rough but we all must navigate them. No matter how brilliant you think you are, you still have to pay your dues. My father often quoted Mark Twain to me whenever I complained about whatever ditch I was trying to dig myself out of as his way of saying I just hadn't earned it yet.

"Don't go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first."

The truth is the math isn't in a writer's favor in the traditional publishing realm. There are not enough agents for the number of good writers. Best not to offend them by questioning their methods. They are the gatekeepers and the key masters here. They do want to find great writers, but their methods for doing so are tried and true. Best accept it and comply. Be persistent. Keep trying and write that query letter, and follow each and every agent's submission guidelines. And read this blog. Every day.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Perhaps Opie simply thinks s/he has come up with a better way BUT Opie reminds of the times I've driven into the shopping center parking lot and always, and I mean always, there's a car parked in the fire lane in front of the drugstore.
Just picking up a prescription, they claim.
So they wait in line inside the store and block the driving lane outside rather than just pick a space and park.
You know why ?
Because they are entitled, they feel special, the rules don't apply to them.
Guess what?
The rules are there for a reason. Follow them.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

There can be a missing link in an author's brain somewhere between "This novel is fun to write" and "this novel is fun to read." A lot of the time, if I enjoy writing something, I feel 100% sure that it will be enjoyable to any readers. (Sidenote: Thank all the shimmery heavens for beta readers who set me straight.)

With that logic, why wouldn't an agent want to read three or four pages? (Another side note, in case the first one wasn't enough or you have some prejudice against parenthetical side notes: that logic is incorrect.)

Obviously, one huge answer is time. Another is basic economics. There are more authors than agents. There are more books in the market than there is demand for those books. So there must be some hoops to jump through to even out supply and demand. Even if the hoops seem nonsensical, they probably aren't.

Anonymous said...

I knew those asbestos undies would come in handy some day. I'm packing them in my query kit. :)

Janet's splendid rant resonates with me. I teach a college class for our psychology majors on APA style. It's really picky about what should be in italics, where the commas go, and so on. At the first class meeting I tell them why they need to learn APA style:

Rightly or wrongly, for the rest of your professional life you will be judged in part by your writing. When you turn in something that follows APA style meticulously you are sending the message that you can understand and follow a precise set of instructions. You can get the details right. This is the message you want to send.

The same speech applies to querying. When you follow the agent's instructions, you send a message about paying attention to the details. As Janet says, doing otherwise makes you sloppy and inattentive at best, an entitled asshat at worst.

Which face do you want to wear? Choose wisely.


Colin Smith said...

Lucia: Yay! Chopped!! I like to think of Chopped as the culinary equivalent of Janet's writing contests. :)

In fact, I've often thought it would be fun to have a kind of "Chopped Writing Contest" at a writer's conference. Contestants sit at tables in a room with just pen and paper in front of them. At the top of the hour, the MC reveals the five words. The contestants then have one hour to write a 100-word story incorporating those words. The stories are then collected up and handed to a team of literary agents and editors to judge. The best stories are read at the conference, and the winner receives a prize.

Well, I think that would be fun. :)

RachelErin said...

This post makes me feel AWESOME.
Querying is the most human of other competitive, creative, markets I have experience with (theater and academia), and I think that POV will serve me well when I get into the trenches.
I saw a similar attitude among actors, and my cure for the auditions-suck!-give-me-a-REAL-chance mentality was sitting on the other side for a pro show. Even as a student, it took fewer than four hours. I could tell in less than a minute if the actor was someone I wanted to work with. It takes longer to figure out who is the right person for the part, and sometimes there is no part for a truly great actor. Sound familiar?

And writers don't have to wait in sweaty hallways with their competition for the chance at a public rejection!

So, hey, query, over here! I'll treat you write, shower you with love, celebrate with prosecco every time I share you, and write my next book (and the next, and maybe the next) while you're on tour.

Jamie Kress said...

I think part of the problem is brand new writers think most of what an agent does is read queries, possibly while sipping coffee and eating scones. So, they, at least the few I've spoken with, have this impression that it is unfair they get so little of that time when there is so much to go around.

But, the truth is reading queries is not only a small part of the job, but one that is akin to trying to outrun a tsunami (the never ending tide of emails) while rescuing puppies (those chosen projects) from an already flooded shore.

And when you look at it that way, asking for five more minutes isn't reasonable. It's akin to holding the agent's head under water until they drown.

Donnaeve said...

First off, b/c I didn't get in till late to see that Sara Halle won yesterday, so, CONGRATULATIONS SARA HALLE!!!!

And thank you QOTKU for the long list mention, and to Angie for a shout out.

If any of you haven't taken the time to read the Shark's epic rant from about six years ago (the one she hyperlinked to above referencing her Shark Delay team) it is ONE OF THE BEST EVER! It makes me snort laugh every single time I read it.

Some think this post has an OP. Instead, the Shark is using a recent query she received as an opportunity to *calmly* explain why simply reading some pages won't work. There's nothing more compelling than the math to back up an argument.

Sometimes you *can* break the rules - hello, Sara Halle, hello query for PREMEDITATED. (Remember THAT one???) But to do that, you have to know how to...to use a word the Shark just used yesterday...soar.

Anyone's best bet, if unsure of their ability to do that, is to stick to the rules.

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

I don't understand. Why don't you just read the entire manuscript? That's the only way you can really tell if the query's any good or not.

Unknown said...

And this is why it's best to end your query with THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME (not in all caps) because seriously, that's a lot of time to invest.

Dena Pawling said...

Dear Jane Reed litterarary agent. I have chosen you to be my litterarary agent. I attached to this email my 500,000 word fiction novel. Its long so I can charge $34.99 for peeple to buy it. I will call you tomorrow after you read it, so we can talk about how much money Ill pay you. Becuz its $34.99 I think your percent payment shoud be less, right? You will be happy to be a part of this best seller!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Colin, wow would that be one hell of a stressful contest! I spent most of the two days just trying to figure out a story to go with the words. One hour?! But a nice personal discussion over my query with an agent who reps my genre would be a lovely prize.

I think part of the problem is brand new writers think most of what an agent does is read queries,

Jamie, you're probably right, but this boggles my mind. If most of what an agent does is read queries, why would I want one? I want one for what they do after I get one.

Jenny, THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME should absolutely be in all caps. Nothing says sincerity like digital yelling, right?

Craig F said...

At the moment I think the query system sucks too. The reason why is because I still haven't been able to create what I would call a successful query.

I know that I am pushing too hard and trying to get too much info into this particular query. Maybe one day...

Part of the problem is that I have decided to start at a particular place. I have several other manuscripts that I built around the idea of a query but where I wish to start didn't work that way.

Where I wish to start puts a solid footing under the direction I wish to go. I want my series to show the growth of the protagonist and this starts with him as a business man stepped into a huge pile and comes out ahead. The second starts with an assassination plot against him. Eventually it will get to the point that they build something that could change the face of war. They try to cover it up by saying it only works another way but something happens that exposes the true possibilities.

After that I will step off into sci-fi. Hey , if Sanford can switch to sci-fi why can't I?

But first I need to find that successful query. Until I do the whole system sucks.

Jamie Kress said...

you're probably right, but this boggles my mind. If most of what an agent does is read queries, why would I want one? I want one for what they do after I get one.

From the conversations I've had with people the answer is because they can magically and instantaneously create book contracts within days of signing a writer. And since that is such a fast and easy process, it leaves lots of time to read those queries. *please insert sarcasm to your tastes.*

Colin Smith said...

Lucia: Okay, so my imagination has started running with the idea, making it more like "Chopped" (i.e., with elimination rounds). I've never been to an in-person, IRL writing conference so I don't know how practical this would be. But here's how I envision it (conference organizers take note):

DAY 1 AM: The Appetizer Round. 1 hour to write 100 words. 5 prompt words revealed at the top of the hour.
DAY 1 PM: The judges post the names of the Round 2 contestants.
DAY 2 AM: The Entrée Round. 1 hour to write 100 words. 5 prompt words revealed at the top of the hour.
DAY 2 PM: The judges post the names of the Round 3 contestants.
DAY 3 AM: The Dessert Round. 1 hour to write 100 words. 5 prompt words revealed at the top of the hour.
DAY 3 NOON: The winner's name is posted. Winner submits query and pages to the judges. Schedules a time later in the afternoon to meet with an agent to discuss.

OK, I'm sure that's well over my 3 posts/100 words/vommenter patience limit... :)

Anonymous said...

Jamie, there isn't enough sarcasm in the Known Universe for what you just said.

Colin, addition of elimination rounds is fun. Spread out over several days is definitely good. Doing all three rounds in one day would turn me into a puddle of word goo. "Hello, book has, nice meet. You agent yes? Wants books yes? Pages, here, pages, yes, good."

Elissa M said...

I wonder how many writers go into a book store, pick up every book in the store and read the first three chapters of each before deciding which to purchase?

Yeah, I thought so.

Anonymous said...

Here's Julie being a wet blanket again. We frequently have flash fiction contests right here for free with awesome prizes!

I can't imagine agents volunteering to judge contests at a conference after spending all day long doing panels, blue pencils, and taking pitches, or trying to cram judging a hundred short stories into a couple of hours.

I'm not going to spend a couple of thousand dollars to go to a conference to write flash fiction.

It begs the question. Why do you go to conferences?

Hungry Bob said...

Personally I get exhausted with the querying process because it feels like it's my query writing ability that's on trial, not my writing or storytelling ability, especially when so many agents admit they don't touch writing samples if the query isn't full of wow and pizazz.

Then you read stories like the one on this very blog where a writer had a "phenomenal response" to their query letters, which must mean they have a great novel, right? But then they had a 100% rejection rate based on writing samples, which makes it look like getting requests (which are obviously required to go forward) is based on how well you write a query and little else. Writing and storytelling? Unimportant if you can't write a query.

That said, using a query letter to complain about... the query letter is probably not time well spent.

Colin Smith said...

Oh, Julie Wet-Blanket Weathers! :) Personally, I think it would be fun. Who knows, only a handful of people might sign up to do it. But like I said, I've never been to an in-person, IRL writer's conference, so it might be impractical. What do I know?

An alternative would be to run such an elimination-style contest on the blog. But heck if I'm going to suggest that...! :)

roadkills-r-us said...

From an author's standpoint, the query system sucks.

But (a) it is what it is and (b) if there were a better system, it would probably be in use.

I think another problem is that most authors have absolutely no clue how many other authors are vying for each agent's attention. They also have no clue what an agent does (as several of you have so wonderfully described).

My personal frustration with the query process was that there was no standardization. Do I use snail, email, a web form, or what? (I was thrilled that I never ran across an agent asking me to fax my query.) Query letter by itself, with synopsis, with X chapters or pages, or whole ms? (Yes, one agent wanted the whole ms up front.) What should I include/exclude from my query letter? I know it's a lot of work for the agent, and they need something that works well for them. But it's frustrating on this end. I love that Janet shows understanding for the author's plight. I'm sure most agents get that, but we never see that side of most agents. Janet, thank you!

The most frustrating part of the process was that I never heard back from almost half the agents I queried. At this point, the value of never is "in over two years". For a query. I'd done my research; I was only querying agents who had stated they were looking for what I had written-- YA fantasy (sometimes "with blah blah blah".) Something is broken there.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I'm with Elissa on this one. I barely scan the back cover of books that were good enough to be published before I put them back. Although, I have to admit, I'm an unapologetic judger-of-books-by-their-covers. If you like fantasy, you kind of have to be.

The fact is, there are a lot of authors who are excellent writers and have a hard time writing query letters. That leads to frustration. But if you can't put together a decent query letter with the abundant online resources (and the Shark!), then it may be because you have blinders on when it comes to your novel. And if that's a problem for you when you're at the querying stage, it probably means you shouldn't have gotten past the editing stage.

Anonymous said...

I might be strange, but I quite like writing queries. I don't pretend it's easy and I can knock a perfect one out in an hour, but I do get kind of enjoy it.

When you've spent months, even years, editing a manuscript, tearing it apart, pulling your hair out, a query can be a chance to go back to the positive. What makes the book stand out, whether it's badass female knights, were-kittens, or photographing dead people. It re-ignites the love you had in the first draft when the characters were cooperating and still your friends.

Anonymous said...

Never been to a writing conference before. Since I currently don't have the means to go to one, I have yet to research them in depth. I know only the most rudimentary things about what happens there and why people go (other than to develop skills and meet people in the industry, which this contest would fulfill).

Batting around ideas occasionally leads to fruitful results, even if they start as pointless ideas.

I have no power to even attempt to implement any of this. So, I see no harm in discussing it. And however much I value Janet's opinion, different judges yield different results. So, entering multiple contests that let you stretch your writing muscles sounds entirely beneficial.

Just my take. I wouldn't call you a wet blanket. Just a different perspective. ^^

Adib Khorram said...

Who needs sharks with laser beams when you have Sharks with logic bombs?

Around December lots of agents put up their query statistics for the year, but I think this is the first time I've seen the breakdown of a single day's queries. Wow! I knew it was a lot, but seeing the actual numbers puts my own inbox woes to shame.

It seems to me the query process is, at its heart, about meeting the agent half-way. You write your query well and entice the agent (and in the process prove [a] you're not an asshat and [b] you have some sense of how to communicate your story outside of the pages of the novel, which is essential to a career as an author). You have to bring that to the table. The agent is bringing their expertise and their passion for helping you tell your story as well as you can to as many people as you can.

It's a partnership, not a one-stop-shop.

If that made any sense.

And as to conferences: I'm by no means a conference expert, but at both writing conferences I attended, I ended up sitting next to agents at meals. Their schedules are full, with pitches and workshops and, of course, conference faculty meetings (these last shrouded in mystery). The agents are exhausted!

HOWEVER, a contest such as the one Colin proposes would work equally well with a different panel of judges—drawn from attendees or local authors, or even those conference faculty/staff who are not doing workshops and pitches and critiques.

I think I'm well over my word limit (and my parentheses limit, too). But I will end with this: Writing conferences are awesome and you should go to one if you can!

Christina Seine said...

*holds marshmallow on a stick near Janet's smoldering post*

Is anyone else shocked that Janet read the chapters AT ALL?

I'm surprised there's not a wee dent in the wall from where the query got thrown.

Speaking of walls, I am in the midst of choosing a new paint color for my living room. Do you know there are approximately 3,479 different kind of off white/cream paint at my local hardware store? After reading this OP's post however (not to beat on them too much, but ...), I think I've come up with a better way to decide. I will have the guys who own the paint companies take turns painting three-foot squares on my wall (for free, of course) and then I can get a much better feel than by just holding up those little swatches. And I just realized queries are the little paint swatches of the literary world. You get a little peek of what it looks like, but also the company that makes it, whether it's indoor or outdoor paint, etc. Sometimes there are even comp titles - brochures featuring the paint in the lovely dining rooms of people with no children. Unfortunately, you can't make cute little bookmarks out of queries.

*eats marshmallow*

Anonymous said...

Many conferences have some sort of short story contest. The difference is the judges have a chance to read them ahead of time, usually well ahead of time and judge the short list.

At Surrey, a man came up to Jack Whyte after a workshop he'd given on historical research and wanted to talk to him. Jack graciously agreed. The man actually didn't want to visit with him. He was on the hook. He had submitted a story to the short story contest and wanted to know why it wasn't chosen. He wanted a critique.

Jack asked him his name and the name of the story.

The man told him.

Jack said he didn't recognize the man's name or the story. He explained there was a committee that sifted through the entries, there were hundreds, they chose the top ones and sent them to the judges for the final judging. The man was livid because the judges didn't read every single entry and give critiques. Nothing in the rules anywhere said anything about this, so I have no idea where he got this impression.

He was still ranting and raving when Jack excused himself.

Colin Smith said...

Adib: Unfortunately, I think having agents/editors--i.e., people who assess writing for a living--judging would make the contests most valuable for pre-published authors. Unfortunately because, as you and Wet-Blanket Weathers point out, agents and editors at conferences tend to be rather busy. :)

Christina: You can if you print them out.

LynnRodz said...

Elissa, great point! I sometimes put a book back down after the first sentence, especially if that sentence runs on for half a page.

Queries are definitely not my forté, so I can sympathize somewhat with OP about writing them, but not the way he wrote his.

Wordsofrablack, in my eyes, you are strange, then again maybe not. I enjoyed writing my synopsis and got it done in no time. After months of not looking at it, it still holds up as ready to go. Wish I could say the same thing about my query.

Janet, love your SDT. I need one of my own.

nightsmusic said...

I kept reading that as STD and wondering why on earth Janet would ever wish to sic that on anyone. But the query conundrum does answer that somewhat.

*Asks Christine for a marshmallow.*

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Yum! Marshmellows.

*Adds latest query draft to rant fire*

S'Mores anyone? *chocolate and graham crackers offered*

Karen McCoy said...

I'm really glad this was answered with a formula, because it's evidence of those who are "formula" writers. They think if they just follow the formula *exactly* everything will fall into place like a neat puzzle tied in a bow.

Unfortunately, when that doesn't happen, instead of saying "maybe there's no formula" they decide to analyze the current structure of things in case they got the formula wrong.

There is no formula. Every journey unfolds in unexpected ways.

DeadSpiderEye said...

This is how naive I am: I became aware that the suspicion that they don't actually read the stuff you send, actually reflects the reality rather than being the product of the paranoia that accompanies persistent failure. To get confirmation I asked around: 'Is this true, they don't read the samples?'.

After a bit of prevarication came the answer, 'Yep, pretty much'.

'So it's just the introductory notes?' I asked.

'Er--yeah, yeah that's right, just the notes and bio'.

'What d'ya mean, "Er--yeah", you telling me they skim those too?'.

'That might be the case, I couldn't possibly comment'.

'So tell me,' I asked, 'is there ever a time when the words eeny meeny get heard being recited?'.

'No,' came the reply, 'that wouldn't conform to standards of best practise, it's ip dip'.

WARNING: I make no claims regarding the veracity of this account, events relayed here may, in part or whole, be completely fictional.

Colin Smith said...

DeadSpiderEye: Like it or not, I believe you have the gist of it. This is why QueryShark exists. Janet knows an agent will not spend a second longer with a query they're not interested in. If they ask for pages, they will only read them IF they get to the end of the query and they're still interested. The point of QueryShark is to help you give your query the best chance of enticing an agent to read your pages, or ask for more.

Janice Grinyer said...

What Elissa M said ("yasss!")

Also, I don't care if an Agent does sit and eat scones and pet cats while reading; if they know their business, they get business done. And if they have a reputation for getting good business done, it's not in the writer's favor to send in a query like above.

Seriously, there are only three names I can think of that could make me change my business - IRS, me, and my partner.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Christina, "...a marshmallow held near Janet's smoldering post"

The best line ever !

Anonymous said...

Thanks E.M. Goldsmith. Good comment. Good advice. And Cards Against Humanity - gotta love that.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I fairly sure that Janet once said the query letter is (in part) used to pitch the book to editors.

When my friends asked me what I was writing I had to engage them before they started yawning. I've files of query letters for the same novel.

Off topic, did anyone see Donna's book cover reveal?

Joseph S. said...

E.M. Goldsmith (at 8:35), Your comment is excellent. Everyone should read it.

Craig (at 9:51), I’m thinking of writing the most compelling query imaginable and then writing the novel that goes with it to see if that works.

Jason Magnason (at 8:31), I submitted the first ten pages of a manuscript to a writing competition one year. The critique sheet said the story started too slow. I entered again the following year after I revised the manuscript to start where “it got good.” That time the critique sheet said the story started too fast. I’m searching for my Goldilocks moment with Blue Bell by my side.

Colin Smith said...

Angie: YES!! I'm glad you mentioned about Donna's book cover reveal.

Here it is, folks:


It's a lovely cover. Go marvel at it. Hopefully Donna will let us know when it's available to pre-order. Who knows, maybe a copy will be available for a writing contest..? :)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Donna, your cover. Breathless - so good. I seriously can't wait to read this. The jacket copy is amazing.

Donna- you are an inspiration here.

Sherry Howard said...

Facebook, yes I use Facebook, is full of people asking for help with queries. However, when you direct them to JR's site and recommend studying it, they want a short cut. Usually, the queries they post are so far off that it's clear they haven't even studied how to write one at all yet. It NEVER ceases to amaze me the number of people who believe that lines, rules, or taxes are meant for them, too.

Christina Seine said...

Just got back from the store. *passes out more bags of marshmallows. And Baileys, because we might as well do this right*

Colin: "Wet Blanket Weathers" almost made me snort Mountain Dew all over my desk! *runs and hides from Julie*

And actually, a bookmark made out of a query would be interesting! Actually, a book mark made of Janet Reid's Rules for Queries would be even better. It could be shaped like a shark. *makes and sells these on etsy and makes a million dollars*

PS. Thanks Caroline! =D

And oh my gawd Donna's book reveal! Breathtaking!

Anonymous said...

That cover is beautiful. Congratulations.

Colin Smith said...

Christina: The thing to remember about Wet-Blanket Weathers: who are you going to call on in a fire? Sparky Smith, or Wet-Blanket Weathers? :)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

A little vignette to further illustrate what an agent sees that maybe a writer does not. I attended a writer's workshop this weekend. Part of it included a first page review by a panel of agents (I think there were 7 of them). To participate, each writer provided 8 copies of their 1st page with nothing but genre on it- no names or anything else. The moderator, Chuck, would read the page out loud while the agents read along.

The pages were chosen at random (not enough time to do everyone's). For each page, if an agent stopped reading they would raise their hand. If 3 agents raised their hand, Chuck stopped reading. Then each of the agents would say what worked and what didn't work for them. Only 1 page was read to the end without a single agent raising a hand. Only 3-4 were read to the end at all. I think it was something around 40 1st pages- maybe fewer. Mine wasn't read but still very eye-opening.

Invariably, the ones that did not make it to the end did not engage the agent because nothing happened. The writing might have been lovely but no action. Getting past the query letter is only step one. And the same rules apply. If the agent can't tell what's cool about your story in the query, they stop reading. After that if your first page is too slow and nothing happens, again the agent stops reading. Life is too short, and agents simply don't have more time to give. I personally think Janet Reid has Hermoime Granger's time tuner to get done all she manages.

Rethink your book if it doesn't get going until page 50. That will never make it past the gatekeepers. I am trying to think of my query as a tool- to make sure I can articulate in the strongest possible voice character, conflict, and stakes. It is difficult as I write fantasy, but that's no excuse. Character, conflict, and stakes are what keep an agent reading. I have this on good authority.

Unknown said...

I wish we'd had some of that solvent when we were stripping paint off of the deck!

Sending a Hallmark card and some marshmallows to toast over your keyboard. . .

Joseph S. said...

My jaw dropped when I saw Donna Everhart's The Education of Dixie Dupree cover. There are covers you never forget (not quite plagiarism) - and this may be one of them. And that's the truth.

Since Perry County is just down the road, I better read this book. I could check out any locations she mentions on a day trip.

(By the way there's currently a tuberculosis outbreak in Perry County; and tornados may sweep through there tonight)

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Checking back on the comments I see my blunder. I'm (not I) fairly sure I am dyslexic and my orthography is tremendous. Not to mention my keyboard is French, of all things.

Joseph S. said...

E.M. Goldsmith (Thanks for the opening to let me crow)

That traveling Writers Workshop stopped in Birmingham Friday. Same exercise, except only four agents. In the first 45 minutes eight or nine pages were shot down. It was gut wrenching to see and her the agents tear into the writing (but educational at the same time).

My page was picked at the 45 minute mark. I listened (sorta)and waited. Then Chuck Sambuchino said the most beautiful thing. He said, "That's it. That's the end of the page." The 100 attendees or so applauded loud and long. I was so relieved, and when I got home I was so excited. I even wrote Julie Weathers an email about it. I needed that encouragement.

One of the agents even asked for pages. When I told her it'd be a while since I've got a ways to go on the revision she said take two years if I needed it. She could wait.

Panda in Chief said...

Donna, your cover is beautiful. I can't wait to read this!

I don't know if we get to nominate subheaders, but at the risk of being exiled to Carkoon, I am going ahead. I nominate Julie Weather's line, "Trust me. You are not a special little snowflake."

The queryer reminds me of times when I am teaching or demonstrating some painting technique, and they tell me of a much better way to do this. This thing I've been doing for a really long time. Uh huh.

Help me, I'm melting!

Colin Smith said...


Donna's book is available for Pre-Order!!!

Here's the link for Amazon:


Release Date: October 25, 2016.

Race you to the "Add to Cart" button... :)

Donnaeve said...

Woohoo! Thanks Colin!

Panda In Chief - thank you too! (still scrolling up in case I miss anyone...)

Joseph S. said...


I just pre-ordered The Education of Dixie Dupree for my October reading.
--Joe Snoe

Donnaeve said...

Angie! Thank you for that... E.M., Julie (wet blanket? sneeyort!) Weathers, Christina, and Joe Snoe! Thank you all!

Actually, Joe, don't I wish I'd known you a few years ago? I only chose Perry County b/c it was a place I could write this story without fingers pointing at me and saying it was MY story. I talk a lot about generally southern things, pine trees, hot afternoons, red dirt. Sound familiar? (I hope...)

Donnaeve said...

Joe - our comments crossed paths. Thank you!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Donna's book is ordered. Will sand the special bookshelf I am crafting for Reider books this weekend. I am so excited. Hey, how do we get our book signed by the author? Donna? :)

Joseph- way to go! That's excellent. I was sort of glad my page was not selected for reading. The agents were brutal but fair. I did give my first pages another harsh reading after.

The one page that was unanimously read until the end at the Atlanta workshop was a memoir by someone who was with Martin Luther King right before he delivered his first "I Have a Dream" speach. I wanted to open and agency and request that book. I wouldn't be surprised if every agent there did not request the manuscript, even ones that did not do memoir. It was that good. It's high standard. Congrats for such a strong first page.

Unknown said...

Warning - off topic alert (aka 11th hour rant)

A few notes on Sherwin Williams.

Who chose their logo? Seriously. I want that job because it seems SO incredibly outlandish.

I mean, the slogan "Cover the earth"? Let's ponder that... So you want to cover the earth in paint? Isn't that bad for breathing? And nature? Like I get that's not what your saying, but if I was a gun manufacturer, would an acceptable slogan be "Shoot whenever, wherever."

And the color choice... Red? Really? As if the cover the earth slogan isn't bad enough, you pick RED? It literally looks like they're pouring a bucket of blood over the world... And no one, NO ONE raised a hand at that board meeting and said "Uhh, I don't care what psychologists say about colors that make you want to buy things... Do we HAVE to use red?"

I just get the feeling if this marketing person worked for another company, they'd have come up with one of these choice slogans...

McDonalds - eat unhealthy, but leave happy.
Gatorade - it's better than water
Nike - Run for your fuckin lives.

Am I taking crazy pills? Does ANYONE else see this and scratch their heads?

AJ Blythe said...

JR, your SDT was the first blog post I read here. No wonder I never left (although it took 4 years of lurking before I was brave enough to post).

While your blood pressure might be high I personally see queriers like that as one less I have to worry about. Mercenary I know, but this is a shark tank after all.

This next comment is for your SDT. Sounds like they need help. Perfect calming for a shark - Shark Massage Therapy! No kidding. Note: when you get to the page I link to either click the article in the contents list on the left or go straight to page 10 ARTICLE HERE

Donnaeve said...

Thank you so much E.M.! I read somewhere there is technology to put the book under a "screen" (maybe sort of like Skype?) and then an author can sign. I don't think I was dreaming...I'll have to check it out!

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Thinking about what E.M. Goldsmith said at 3:49pm:

The "rules" of querying aren't so much a set of rules as they are a pattern. Patterns exist to ensure a best fit.

While the query process feels very unfair to us woodland creatures (due to our extreme competition), it is a pattern that ensures the best fit for a career.

There is a pattern to a book that will sell well:

1. compelling voice 'n' style.
2. immediately engaging pace.
3. intriguing characters.
4. solid, consistent plot.
5. satisfying ending.

Every well-selling (not necessarily best-selling) book needs all five. If you are missing one of the five, your book will not sell well, if at all. Agents know this and they use the query letter, the synopsis, the first chapter-or-three (aka the partial) and the full to determine if a book has potential.

A query letter will display voice 'n' style and hint at intriguing characters. If a query letter doesn't have compelling voice 'n' style and doesn't hint at intriguing characters, why would an agent read sample pages when there are query letters that do hint.

Query letters are a very efficient first step in the process, if a frustrating one for us authors.

Remember, it's not only about your book, it's about your career potential. If you can't nail a query letter, you might not be as advanced in your mastery of the craft as an agent would like.

If your query displays voice'n'style and character, then an agent will look at the partial to see if your voice continues and the pacing engages. A synopsis shows plot and ending, and if everything looks good, a full proves it.

"But you can't judge a book until you've read the whole thing," some apprentice authors might say.

A agent isn't judging a book. An agent is looking for potential. If one of the above five elements isn't there, they'll say 'no, thank you'. If they discover the missing element in your query, why would they need to read the whole book? Four out of five points isn't good enough.

John Frain said...

My "Want to Read" shelf on Goodreads now has one book on it. Maybe some of you guys have heard of it. The title is The Education of Dixie Dupree. Somebody named Everyheart or Everheart ... oh, Everhart, Donna.

I knew I couldn't be first to pre-order, so I had to be first somewhere else.

I'll wait a few days to congratulate Donna. Her smile is stretched so wide, it's closing her ears. Mine is envious, but still a smile.

Janice Grinyer said...

Donna - EYE CATCHING! I would definitely pick up that cover just to see what's inside- Congrats!

And Duchess? Wow. You basically condensed what makes for an eye catching query into one wonderful comment. People take note of the listed five; I did.

Meanwhile, I made venison jerky today. The dog and I are satiated.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Heidi, very well stated.

Cindy C said...

Donna, that cover is beautiful! Can't wait to read the book.

One of the things that stood out to me in Janet's post is the importance of word choice and tone. What if the person who sent this in had said, politely and sincerely, "I don't really understand why agents want queries instead of just reading the first few pages. Do you have the time to explain?" Maybe Janet shakes her head over this poor naive woodland creature, but there's probably no anger or rant. And we still could get the same information in the answer.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Frain 6:28 you are a nice guy. So's your writing.

RachelErin said...

This post had me thinking about queries ALL DAY. So I wrote one when I got home. It's a significant improvement on my previous three, maybe because I'm almost done with the book?

And yes, I plan to A/B test different versions of the query. Like Angie I will have a file by the time the WIP is finished.

Congrats Donna, I look forward to reading it!

Lennon Faris said...

I'm bummed I had to skim through some of the comments for now, but this is how I think of it: A query letter is like a first date. Or maybe even earlier: when you have that initial conversation. Sure, you won't get the whole person in those few minutes. But a gal can almost always say, right then, if she MIGHT be interested.

Also, I think I read somewhere once that a good query letter keeps on giving - the agent can use it to pitch to editors, you can use it to pitch to your readers. All that angst isn't necessarily utilized just once.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

And DONNA I'll say it again, I LOVE LOVE LOVE the cover. Pre ordered it.

Lennon Faris said...

And Donna - wanted to add my voice to the Reiders' and say again - awesome cover. Congrats and really looking forward to reading it!

Steve Stubbs said...

You have my sympathy. Here is a thought I never see anyone mention. It seems to me one should write the query letter FIRST, after settling on the idea, and maybe after writing the first few pages. Then finish the rest of the project. I say that because if Talented Typist cannot write one page that works, Talented Typist certainly cannot write 400 pages that work. Writing the one page query first is a preliminary test of skill. No query, no skill. No skill, no salable MS. No salable MS and it’s time to start singing that old publishing ballad, “Lulu.com, Here I Come.” It is sung to the tune of an old Roger Miller song. It goes like this:
“Not even close to the bestseller list.”
“Not even close to the bestseller list.”
“Not even close to the bestseller list.”
“But you can self-publish if you’ve a mind to.”
Local writer groups sing it in unison as a warmup.

Colin Smith said...

Steve: Just for the record, check out http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/2015/11/writing-effective-queries.html, and scroll down to Susan Bonifant's 8:19 AM comment, and Lance's 12:48 PM comment. These are just a couple. I think it's a great idea, which is why you shouldn't be surprised that you're not the first to come up with it. Great minds think alike. :)

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Snoe, you are in babe. Awesome. All you have to do now is deliver. And, I bet you will.

Christina Seine said...

Preordered Donna's book and added it to the Carkoon Branch Office Pinterest board (as well as my own "All Booked Up" board). I say we promote the hell out of this book because A) this book is gorgeous and promised to be amazing, B) this group is awesome and C) Donna is awesome. =D

Colin Smith said...

Agreed, Christina--for all the reasons you said. :)

Theresa said...

Beautiful, beautiful cover, Donna. You must be thrilled.

Great post today with useful reminders: follow instructions and don't tell people how to do their jobs. Plus a nice math lesson.

Anonymous said...

Donna, what a gorgeous and evocative cover! And to see it up for pre-order . . . what a rush that must be. Can hardly wait to read it. Congratulations again on the success!

Joseph, congrats to you as well for the compelling first page and request for more!

As for the topic, anyone who thinks it's tough to get an agent to read pages is in for a shock when they try to find readers who are willing to delve in. Agents are looking for something they can sell. I'm looking for something I'll enjoy and am willing to spend my own money on. I am WAY pickier than any agent you'll ever encounter. I'll be judging you on genre and word count and title and cover and even reviews from other readers -- any or all of which might turn me away in under 10 seconds -- and that's before I even get to your description/back cover copy (essentially, your query). Is that unfair? Nope. It's the reality that there are more books out there than I'll ever be able to read, or afford. Millions of them. I'm looking for a reason to skip to the next exciting possibility, so you'd better grab me hard, right off the bat.

Megan V said...

Side note first: Beautiful cover Donna! It's on pre-order :D

Now to OP.

I think many a disheartened woodland creature can relate to the whinging thought of "but if you just read the pages..." Nevertheless:

Writing a novel ≠ an excuse for not writing a query.

Whenever someone suggests writers shouldn't have to write queries (or wish that I didn't have to write a query) I almost always envision the following scenario:

Doctor: Tell me about your baby.
Parent: *Holds up baby* Look! Here's my baby!
Doctor: I'm glad you have your baby with you, but there's a few things I need to know before I add your baby as a patient. How old is your baby? Is it a boy or girl?Name? Medical history?
Parent: Would you just look at my baby? *shoves baby into Doctor's hands*
Doctor: Right—Well—Er—Um—What can you tell me about your baby?
Parent: Look, I already MADE the baby. I shouldn't have to tell you anything. All you have to do is look at it! Isn't my baby cute?

Writing a query that works IS a hair-pulling, nail-biting, sleep-depriving pain in the keister, but it's better than handing your baby over to a doctor that knows NOTHING about it.

Botanist said...

The writer's own words, "If I was an agent..." suggest the simplest, least stressful response.

If you know better then go to it. Become an agent and use whatever business practices you see fit. Good luck.

No need for the Shark Delay Team and no need for math :)

Unknown said...

Congratulations, Donna! I just pre-ordered my copy too.

Susan said...

Holy cow, Donna, your cover is stunning! I know we're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, yadda, yadda, but, hell, I'm ready to read this right now. Beautiful. Congratulations and warmest wishes.

Unknown said...

Donna! Congrats on the book! Holy cow I need to preorder as well!

Very exciting!!!!

Anonymous said...

I want to add: for those of you (none of the regulars over here, I suspect) who think that self-publishing is a way to avoid writing a query, you're only partially right. Because now you have to write a compelling description/back cover copy. Without professional help (unless you pay someone, and hope they get it right). There are a lot of good reasons to self-pub, just as there are to trad-pub. Skipping this step isn't one of them.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

With all the on line, FB and blog buzz I think Donna's book is going to be a best seller before it's even a seller. Couldn't happen to a nicer person or a better writer. Oh, she's smart too and she cusses.

nightsmusic said...

Megan, you made me LAUGH! And it's so true. :)