Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Query Overview

Some time ago I did a week’s worth of posts on query letters, and for a while now I’ve been putting together (in my head, of course) a response to many of your questions and thoughts on the queries I posted.

One of the reasons I chose the queries I did is because they were all so different, and one of the things I should have discussed in more detail was when they came in. Bella Andre, for example, became a client almost five years ago, at a time when the market was very different and just starting to look for sexy, erotic romances. What was interesting about the comments I received on her query was how many of you would have been so unwilling to take a chance at even looking at her work because you saw it as ridiculous. Clearly you wouldn’t have been the right agents for it. Sound familiar?

I think I mentioned on J. B. Stanley’s that the hook is what really grabbed me and that, again, the timing was perfect. When she submitted to me there were no antiquing or collectibles mysteries on the market. But times have changed and now there are or have been dozens. It’s not as strong a hook anymore, and if her query came in today I probably wouldn’t bother taking a second look (although I’m sure glad I did).

What I saw most in the comments were lightbulb moments that I hope helped all of you. I hope you were able to get a glimpse of an agent’s in-box and see why something stands out for us. I hope you were able to see how very important it is to write a great query and let yourself be seen. Let your voice shine through.

One reader asked how frequently queries like this, or queries that grab us, really come through, and eventually I’ll do another post on query statistics, but to give you an example, I’m writing this post at 9 a.m. on a Saturday and I already have 16 queries in my in-box; all arrived after midnight, and after reviewing them, not one had that special something that made me want to see more. Most of them were well written and most of them followed standard business format, but frankly, none of them had a voice that made me want to read the author forever, or even for 100 pages.

One reader had always been told to write a business letter and wondered if agents had preferences over a business letter versus the letters I posted (letters with voice). And, well, I think all of these letters were business letters. They were professional, well written, and none of them started off with, “Hey Girlfriend.” What made them shine, though, was the voice, or, in some cases, the hook. Remember, publishing is a business, but a creative business, and while we do want professionals and writers who can act professionally, we also want to know that creatively they can distinguish themselves from others, and your letter needs to show that.

I enjoyed doing this series and will collect some more letters from my clients and try continuing it again.



Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Jessica, Reviewing the query letters you and other agents put up is like crack for us writers. We're totally addicted and can't get enough. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Debra is right. I read tons of blogs and I search for every query letter I can possibly find to read.

Jessica, your blog has helped immeasurably! Thank you!!

Anonymous said...

This is for DebraL and anonymous...I'm feeding their addictions.
Just Maggie’s luck! Seven years in a comfortable marriage.One night of shamefully exciting sex. Poof! Her husband’s gone without an explanation.
Did he run off with his secretary Tracy Morgan? Unlikely, she was just a temptation that got out of hand.
Did Maggie’s wanton behavior drive him away? Possibly, Chris had always kept Maggie on a pedestal. Their one night of uninhibited sex might have tarnished her halo.
Did he get tired of the country life where Maggie insisted they live? Doubtful, he seemed to enjoy the quiet after a busy day in the City.
Could her writing be the problem? YES!
Her husband Chris has secretly read about Sarah.
“An undemanding woman, living in the shadow of her puffed up husband, keeping a clean house, being the ideal wife, Sarah gives up her dream of ever becoming a famous writer. But when her selfish husband steps out on her, Sarah cleverly plots his murder. Mouse poison should take care of a rat.”
Authors Maggie and Sarah have a lot in common. But there is one big difference. Maggie is real and Sarah is only a figment of Maggie’s imagination. But both scare the hell out of their cheating husbands.

Anonymous said...

I must agree with the Debra and Anon--it's addicting to read the successful query letters. Even though I'm not anywhere near sending out my manuscript, it's nice to read about the queries and get ideas for when that time does come.

Thanks again for posting such valuable advice!

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Anon, Brilliant! I'm hooked! Give me more, give me more! (Wait - let me just get my pipe ready.);-)

L.C. Gant said...

I can't read enough queries, either. Sometimes it feels like so much of the publishing business is out of my control, and the query is one thing (besides the story, of course) that I can change easily.

Anonymous said...

Geesh DebraL, you are addicted!
12 step program QWA

Anonymous said...

Aside from what you said gets your attention in a query (voice), I also noted that timing also plays a very important part in a query hitting the hot spot for an agent.
Voice and timing. Two to tango.

Scott Daniel said...

While I'm no where near ready to start sending out queries, I'm already torn about how to proceed. I've read Jessica's blog and Nathan's blog. It seems like there's a certain format, a business format, that agents like. But that format seems like it discourages the very thing that Jessica really wants to see ... voice.

I wonder if it might be better to plunge right into character instead of droning out the particular facts about what you're submitting.

When I wrote in the world of print journalism, I frequently got the chance to do feature stories. Now, there are a number of different ways to "play" the opening (or "lead"), but I always thought it was better to put the reader in the story immediately.

I wonder if that holds true for queries? Why not throw the agent right into your world? The boring stuff can come at the end of the query.

Anonymous said...

It’s not as strong a hook anymore, and if her query came in today I probably wouldn’t bother taking a second look (although I’m sure glad I did).

This is the core of the writer complaint, "Why that book and not mine?" Knowing that the answer is "happenstance" doesn't make it easier to swallow.

Sookie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I love the different takes on what should be done and how it should be done. When I first started writing my query letter, I was confused by the conflicting 'dos' and 'don'ts'. Now, I am pleased with my query letter. I don't know if it's perfect, but it's nothing compared to my first draft.

I took all the advice into consideration, and paid a lot of attention to Bookends, since they are on a more modern edge.

When I get published, (I believe in the power of positive thinking) whether I have a Bookends agent or not, they'll definitely get a mention in my dedications, especially since I've learned so much from them.

Anonymous said...

After enjoying the ease of e-mail queries, and the sting of mostly form e-mail rejections (a few mss. still out there), I decided to try an established agent who only takes snail-mail and doesn't have a website.

I didn't know her policy, so I sent her a personal letter and included some magazine clips with a first chapter---and guess what? She requested the full ms. and asked about a series! So maybe going to the extra trouble is worth it...