Hello to everyone visiting the blog for the first time! If you haven’t already entered, please post your first paragraph in the official contest thread.
While I was away last month, Stephen Barbara, promising young Donald Maass Agency agent and contracts director extraordinaire, published a somewhat tongue-in-cheek article in PW about the writing world’s obsession with the “perfect query letter” and the accompanying rise in query quality, and how in the good old days two or three years ago things were easier because “bad writers wrote bad query letters,” whereas now the obsession with queries results in higher quality queries from mediocre writers.
Several people have asked me about the article, but even before then I have heard loud whispers about whether I’m concerned about the fact that (hypothetically), if everyone writes a good query, doesn’t that make my job more difficult? Am I bringing on my own ruin? (Well, besides this contest)
Nope. Good queries make my life far easier. And in fact, I am pleased to report that query quality, personalization, and professionalism have been dramatically on the rise lately, and I’m extremely excited about it. Why?
Let’s go back to the archaic days of five years ago, pre-Miss Snark, other agent blogs, and before the birth of so many writing websites devoted to quality queries and the publishing process. In other words, Mr. Barbara’s query utopia. In this time, did the best writers really write the best queries? Did they divine the format and spill their talent onto the page?
Or did the writers who had enough (at that time very hard-to-come-by) information to grasp the purpose, intent and proper technique of query letters still write the best ones while some perfectly good and talented writers stubbed their toes because they simply didn’t know what they were doing? I think it’s the latter.
Here’s why today’s brave new query world is good for me. A couple of years ago, as I was reading queries I always had to wonder if the author was a good writer with bad query technique or a bad writer with, uh, bad query technique. I requested a lot of manuscripts that turned out to be subpar because I didn’t want to miss out on someone whose idea I liked but who, I had to assume, just may not have known better.
And in fact, in years past it was very, very difficult for the proud residents of Nowheresville, Indiana to have access to the publishing industry because they lacked the connections, information, and network to penetrate what was then an extremely opaque and insulated publishing world. Well, that opacity had a big ole stiletto punched through it, and the rest is history.
Now even writers who do even a cursory amount of research on the Internet are besieged with techniques for writing queries and guidelines for conducting themselves professionally. This hasn’t tilted the playing field in favor of the mediocre, it’s leveled the playing field for everyone, the talented-but-far-flung particularly. Now that I’m getting almost uniformly good queries it’s much easier for me to spot the best ones without worrying I’m missing out by passing up on the bad ones.
Trust me. It’s still relatively easy to spot the ones with a special zing that, for whatever reason, connect with my interests and taste.
And as for the people who think the query system isn’t worth following, just talk to the scores of published writers who started off writing bad letters, got nowhere, found some information on how to do it the right way, and are now very successful. All that was standing in their way was equal access to the information that is now readily available.
I have no regrets! I am not worried about bad authors writing good queries. There’s no formula for the best ones, and truly good writing can’t be imitated or faked.
Silly question perhaps, but for the contest if you have a prologue set in the 1200’s and chapter one starts in current time, which would you rather see, the prologue first paragraph or chapter one first paragraph?
And thank you for being among those who, through enlightened self interest and general good will toward mankind, share the information.
LOL, I was saying something about query writing when the local utility’s substation blew and left us in the dark for HOURS! No, I don’t remember what it was, but I’m taking the hint and doing nothing more benign than wishing everyone well with their own queries!
I’ve found that query writing is not unlike news writing: You’ve got limited space to say what needs to be said, so you’d better say it clearly and concisely. Does THAT make sense? :0
Great post. Query writing and novel writing are very different, and without blogs like this one, I wouldn’t know how to begin writing a query. So thanks for that.
And wow. I just got a look at the contest thread. 900-some posts in there. Yowsa! You’re going to have a long weekend!
Personally, I think many writers spend way too much time on format and too little time on craft. It doesn’t matter how stellar the query letter is if the ms is subpar.
Yeah, get the name right, yeah, avoid typos and mispellings. Don’t tell the agent what your grandmother thought of it. But make sure that when the agent looks at your ms, it is the best it can be.
I had a pre-published writer harangue me one day about how no agent or editor would read my submission because it was in Times New Roman instead of Courier. I asked my agent and editor about it, and they said, Huh?
I. M. Bitter says
I’ve been thinking a lot about Miss Snark recently. (Boy do I miss her. 🙁 )
So happy that others remember her just as fondly.
Ryan Field says
“Even if, for sake of argument, they got past the query stage without having to write one, they’re still going to be asked to condense their work into a couple of paragraphs, whether it’s for marketing/publicity, whether it’s describing the book on their blog or to friends….. everyone has to learn to do it,”
It happens all the time, especially with marketing and publicity. And when you have the skills, it so much easier.
Kimberly Lynn says
I agree that a writer should be able to come up with a decent query letter. I look forward to the day when I can . . .
HA! HA! HA! HA!
Meanwhile, I’ll substitute that accomplishment with a case of whatever is on sale.
“I hate to disagree, but I’ve never seen a situation where a published novelist could not write a query. Even if, for sake of argument, they got past the query stage without having to write one, they’re still going to be asked to condense their work into a couple of paragraphs, whether it’s for marketing/publicity, whether it’s describing the book on their blog or to friends….. everyone has to learn to do it, and I just don’t agree that someone can write a good novel and yet not write a good query letter.”
It’s not that I can’t write an excellent letter…believe me, I’ve written a thousand letters that would probably do just fine.
What I find challenging is successfully capturing the essence, the complicated world, the emotional themes, and touching on all the many characters contained inside my story, while following a “two paragraph” rule.
Anyway, I wouldn’t send such discouraging remarks to an unknown writer. In fact, it’s probably a good thing you didn’t tell me this three months ago or I would have believed you.
Nathan Bransford says
I don’t see how it’s discouraging! I never said it was easy to write a query, but writers find a way to condense their work into a few paragraphs. What’s discouraging about that?
I’ll agree, good post. And, Nathan, I have no idea how you find the time in your day to keep up with everything you have going on. *eyes the contest*
I will say, it truly stinks dirty socks when you DO come across a much better way to improve your query letter, but it’s after you’ve already started querying with an older one and lost out on some perspective agents. I can’t help but always wonder if the new query would’ve given them the interest the old one didn’t, or if it was just the story concept and not exactly the query. It will forever bother me not knowing. one of those things in life. 🙂
Congrats on the marriage! I’ve been consumed with holiday things on top of everything else, I haven’t been able to catch up on all my blogging until recently. Being married is grand… and adventurous in its own right 😀
I’m with Nathan. It’s a hell of a lot harder to write a good novel than it is to write a good query. I mean, it’s not even close. It’s a pain, yes. But if you can carefully craft 100,000 words to make a story truly work… well, two or three paragraphs isn’t really that bad. And if you can’t craft that hundred thousand words then your query letter doesn’t really matter one way or another.
I always worry… and then write something in an hour and wonder why I was so worried. It’s like people who hate needles… the thought of the needle is always worse than the actual prick.
Just my thoughts.
My best, as always,
word verification: rambl (how appropriate for me…)
Julie Weathers says
This post prompted me to get out an old query I sent out for a suspense novel. I cringe now to look at it and had serious misgivings about publishing it on my blog. However, it did point up several important things.
Some agents, including one from Curtis Brown, were very encouraging even though the query was pretty bad.
Some agents, like Nathan, do look at what appeals to them and respond to that and not necessarily the perfect query letter.
Even several years ago, agents responded with form letters or not at all.
Today is an absolutely golden age for writers. There is more information about agents, contact policies, query letters, less than desirable agents, publishing, and just about every other item of interest to a serious writer.
Blogs from writers, agents and editors are a wealth of information if we just decide to partake.
Irene Eng says
For the same true story, does the different format – a collection of vignettes or a single story – have advantage over the other to land an agent/publisher?
Marc Vun Kannon says
>>It's a hell of a lot harder to write a good novel than it is to write a good query.
Not at all. In a novel you have room to spread out, use all the words you want to do what you need them to do. In a query, every word has to do triple duty. And that's only for the novels that can be queried. Some story structures are resistant to condensation and sexiness at the same time.
Ben Esch says
I know when I was doing the agent search thing, I spent a good two weeks getting my query letter together. Granted, I probably should have used some of this time to make the plot a bit more cohesive, but everything worked out in the end.
Like term papers and high school dances, I’m really glad that query letters are behind me.
“Sophomore Undercover” Disney-Hyperion, 2/24/09
I live in New Albany, Indiana, right next to Nowheresville and you will be receiving a query letter from me soon. You'll know it's me because we say "ain't" and "Ya'll" a lot.
My first sentence will tip you off:
"If ya'll ain't too busy for one more query: here 'tis."
p.s. my manuscript is 100,000 words long and I know that for a fact cuz all my cousins got together to help count that high.