A quick bit of query advice for this Thursday. I know you’ll find all over the Internets that writing qualifications are important. They definitely are if you’re writing nonfiction. But for novels: not so much. Honestly.
Qualifications are icing. They can adjust the calculus in my brain that leads me to request a partial, but they’re far from the biggest factor that goes into my decision. I’ve seen novels from authors with impeccable credentials that I knew I couldn’t sell, and I have sold novels from authors with basically no qualifications.
Lately I’ve been getting lots of queries where the story is described in just a tiny first paragraph with only the barest of inadequate description, and the rest of the query describes the author’s qualifications and/or other extraneous things that don’t belong in the query. Please don’t do this! I like you a lot (really, I do), but for qualifications I only need a short paragraph with the highlights. Please please please focus on your story and what makes it stand out.
Particularly with the tough publishing climate and incredible deluge of queries, I just don’t have time these days to take chances on projects that don’t really grab me in the query. Thus, I’m passing on some of these types of queries, even if it gives me heartburn and indigestion and takes years of my life to do so. I really don’t want to miss anything, but time is tight. Think of my health, people!
Unless you’re a rock star or the pope, I’m not selling you, I’m selling your novel. The query should be focused accordingly.
Valuable advice, as usual. Thanks!
We like you too Nathan! 😉
Queries scare the heck out of me. I think they scare most new writers. I suppose they serve a useful function by keeping less motivated and self-confident writers out of the pool agents and publishers have to deal with if nothing else. Interesting post.
I get what you’re saying, but I think a good example in the future might be helpful to a lot of people querying. And to you, too.
I’ve come across a couple of agents who don’t want the query letter. They say queries don’t really give them the true picture to make a decision. They just want the first 10 or 20 pages. I wish I could remember who they were but it was at least two agents.
I’m sure a lot of agents would cringe at this but it does sort of make sense if you can see within the first few pages whether the writing is polished and it hooks you….
Oh, and to add to that. I know Firebrand just did that query holiday and I believe they said their requests rate was higher than with the typical query.
I’m thinking of your health, Mr. Bransford. That’s why I didn’t query you!
I wish I could query you, but it doesn’t appear that you take middle grade which is a bummer.
Marilyn, thanks. That does sound like great fun! I’m sorry to say I haven’t read your books, but I see you write a genre I love – and now I’m going to have to read them, so I can try to figure out which character you were.
In terms of the blog, sounds like I’d better be safe, and wait – as much fun as it would be.
Anon 5:01, I like that idea. Cut to the chase, see the writing. Just because someone can write a good book, doesn’t necessarily mean they can write a good query.
Just like I could care less if someone can write a good cover letter. I’m not hiring them to write cover letters!
Nathan Bransford says
Anyone who can write a good book can write a good query.
Mira – Or the opposite, they can write a killer query but their writing is a dissappointment when you get the partial/full.
I write memoir that reads like fiction. I’ve never queried any agents. I’ve always been concerned my writing doesn’t have the literary strength I desire for it.
My writing will catch the fancy of readers of contemporary literature. There is sensationalism built in – I don’t talk about my tooth brushing habits, but the parts of my life that make me want to pretend it’s fiction, like how it feels to take offers to get paid extra money when doing massages…
Anyway, the desire to be a bit more sure it has “literary,” Edwidge Danticat strength has compelled me to get my MFA (will be starting at Bennington if I secure funding) instead of query agents.
Aaaaaallll that said, do you have the overwhelming desire to be so kind as to share some insight into querying as it relates to such writing as mine. At some point, I intend to take the step, and I will forever remember what you tell me here, on today. (I sound like a baptist preacher there, right? “On today…”)
By the way, if anyone else has some insight, I’m glad to read it.
Jack Roberts, Annabelle's scribe says
Good news! Thanks for the heads up on this. I always wondered.
Thank you so much for the tips! I really can’t tell you how hard a time I’m having with query letters…nobody seems to have any clear guidelines…
Anyway, awesome post. 🙂
Heidi C. Vlach says
That’s comforting to hear! I don’t have any credentials more impressive than a good mark in high school English lit, and I was just thinking the other day that my query letter looks so much nicer without attempting to talk about myself.
Have to agree with Nathan here. If you can write a good novel, you can write a good query. Not to say it’s easy of course, because it’s not, but the same sort of thought processes that go into writing the good novel certainly apply to the query, you just have way fewer words to do it in. You have a couple of paragraphs to bring the same sense of voice, character, and conflict that you put down in 100k words. Kristen Nelson put up a very good run of posts about the query letter a little while back. It’s good reading for getting the general sense of things.
Of course this is all just the ‘general’ rule of things. Every agent will tell you that some crappy queries have sparked their interest purely off of one element, whether it be voice or premise or whatever. You can take a chance on doing something different or ‘out there’ as far as queries go, and it just might strike the right note with someone, but your odds are much better if you don’t. All that said though, and I still struggle mightily to come up with decent queries.
Kim Kasch says
I’m Nathania, from San Francisco, with a condo in New York that was built in 1914. I write literary fiction particularly mysteries and suspense but sometimes mix in some historical fiction that has sports and politics woven into the story along with current events. I have a strong narrative voice that would be perfect for nonfiction but prefer to write young adult. And just so you know, I also am not afraid of poetry and/or screenplays. Let me tell you about this project. I’m looking for representation for…
Then would you be interested in ME or my project?…
P.S. I love rockstar (the drink) and I know (who) the Pope is.
Great information as always Nathan. It helps me stay focused through my crazy life of being “Superwoman”.
I wrote down some notes today to keep these ideas strong in my head.
Well, I think that many people who write well can also write a good query, but I’m not convinced that all of them could.
So, I respectfully disagree. Of course, I may be wrong.
But it seems to me the writing skills are different.
A query is business writing. It’s marketing.
A novel is fiction writing. It’s story telling.
Not everyone is going to be good at both skills.
What would Hemingway’s query look like?
Anyway, I could be wrong, but those are my thoughts.
April Hollands says
I’ve actually just been struggling with my paragraph about my qualifications in my query letter: it’s hard to fit them all in but I was worried I’d be selling my novel short if I didn’t back it up with my qualifications. Nathan, today’s blog entry has been really helpful. Thank you.
I’m normally just a lurker on your blog but just thought I’d say… Really very helpful entry today.
I agree with that statement. I know a few authors who have self-published because of that very reason.
Nathan I do have a question…if you can’t answer it, I understand. In the query which would be best?…To give most of the story away or to keep you guessing about areas of the story? I understand you want a good idea of what the story it’s self is, but are you wanting to be surprised at all?
Robert A Meacham says
I salute the clarity of your post. Since my platform is a mere twig, I find hope in your comments.
About the synopsis answer: research shows that every agent defines a synopsis differently. Some as ‘book jacket copy’ that skims the plot and is a page long. Some ask for 10-page detailed synopsis. Curtis Brown’s is vague: ‘send a synopsis’. Would really love your thoughts, or at least a link to a good resource for this question.
You get a lot of responses. Will anyone actually read this? I was one of your “form letter” rejections but believe I fall in to this category.
The problem is; every agent who blogs tells you a different way to write queries. Kind of like taking golf lessons from 4 different coaches, each will be different. I agree 100% with what you wrote above and am working on mine, but it isn’t as easy as some make it seem. Writing or putting a “great” story on paper is the task and joy of all writers. Writing a synopsis to attract others is much more difficult. Am I the only one who thinks this way?
Nathan Bransford says
There is a link on the right side of the blog called “How to Write a Synopsis” that you might find of interest.
Christine Lakatos says
OK Nathan–now I am really confused! I thought the concept and the author were of importance in the marketing of the book! Is is different with non-fiction books (self-help type)? And what does it mean to have a platform? HELP from a new author trying to get out of self-publishing!
Marilyn Peake says
To Mira, February 19, 5:36 P.M.:
Thanks so much, Mira.
ryan field says
anon @7:43…Pub Rants did a post this week about writing a sypop that is excellent.
I hate to write these things so much I have a file just for writing sypops so I can go back and brush up.
Melanie Avila says
This post is wonderful news to me, as I don’t have writing credits.
I have a non-writing platform issue: My current wip takes place in Mexico and I’ve been living in Mexico for the past two years. Is that something worthy of mentioning in my query? Right now I have a brief sentence explaining it but I’m worried some agents may see that as simply padding.
Included in the list of “don’t tell me about yourself” for query-writing: that you love writing; that you’ve been writing since you were a kid; that your friends (kids, parents, grandkids, pets) love your book; that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to be a published novelist; that you have six more novels in the drawer; that your goal is eventually to make a living from your writing full-time.
None of this sets you apart. The goal of the query is to make the agent want to read the book.
Julie Weathers says
“Hi. When I called Curtis Brown to ask about queries, they told me to submit a query and a synopsis.”
I probably shouldn’t be posting because I am tired, but Janet Reid pointed out this thread so I had to read it tonight.
This just drives me insane. There is so much good information readily available.
Just reading an agent’s submission guidelines will tell you, “don’t call.” Further reading will tell you what they do want and, usually, in fairly plain language. There are numerous sites that further break down how to craft each part of the query. This one is one of them, if you just look at the archives.