Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Query Quandary

“I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.”

- Vincent van Gogh

Why are queries so difficult to write?

How do I capture the essence of my story? The plot? The voice? Succinctly?

How do design my query to encourage an agent to read my manuscript?

When do I know it’s the query or the manuscript that isn’t working?

As you can infer, my query has not yet garnered requests for partials or fulls. I have a handful of rejections, and don’t want to receive anymore before I fix the problem.

The problem is my query.

I prefer to write the whole darned manuscript than the query to go with it.

In the past when I’ve received requests for fulls, I’ve always wondered if it was because of or in spite of my query.

This time, I received advice from writing friends. It got better.

I suspected it was still missing something.

Did it rely too much on the teen part? Did it reveal too little about the disappearances plot? Did the voice fail to come through? Was I too vague? Too wordy?


I’ve read the advice blogs:

Chuck Sambuchino:

Guide to Literary Agents

Matthew Rush:

The Quintessential Query Experiment


Query Shark

But they’re examples of other people’s queries. They aren’t telling me exactly how to make my story sing in around 250 words.

At least I have the end part about myself right. It’s all the stuff about the manuscript that’s eluding me.

I sent it out, hoping it was enough.

Apparently NOT.

Then I read this post at Jane Friedman's blog:

There are No Rules (Read the comments section too.)

Problem confirmed.

A couple of weeks ago, a well-respected person in the business asked me about my “writing journey”. He asked if I had any questions.

Did I have the courage to ask him for help? Was I overstepping boundaries? Or would I be wasting a perfect opportunity to fix the blasted thing?

I took a deep breath and hit Send:

“So far, my query has received a handful of rejections. I'm trying to decide if the query is flawed or it's something else. I have the query up on a 2nd blog, if you have to time look at it. If not, it's no problem.”

He did.

Rather quickly. (Hooray!)

I heard back with comments. What was working. What wasn’t. Suggestions.

Sigh of relief.

I hurriedly incorporated his comments. Better.

Afterwards, I sent it to my two writer friends who read the manuscript: Winded Words and Edith's Page. Both have been extraordinarily successful with their queries. I improved it based on their feedback.

If you haven’t seen it, now it looks like this:

Thanks for those of you who gave me feedback on my new and improved query, so I was able to tweak it. Your encouragement kept me from quitting writing and burning all manuscripts. (As if.)

I’ve send out another handful of queries.

Now I wait.

And hope.

On the bright side, I just won a Snarky Rejection Contest on Getting Past the Gatekeeper , earning me a one-page manuscript or query critique. Perfect timing!

Here’s my entry:

Dear Wannabe Author,

I see you spent many hours crafting your manuscript, as evidenced by your query, so kudos to you. There are people who are illiterate, so you’re ahead of the game. Pat yourself on the back, Sport.

Unfortunately, your query is suffering from ___ vagueness ___ too much detail. In addition, it’s obvious your manuscript is ___ plotless ___ full of plot holes ___ cliché ___ pointless ___ meandering ___ nonsensical. Regarding word count, your story is ___ too short ___ too long for the genre. Your manuscript has potential, but ___ I hate your protagonist ____ I loathe your writing style ____ the damn thing is voiceless ___ you don’t have a handle on grammar.

Thanks for considering my agency but unfortunately we ___ have standards ___ don’t represent that genre, which would’ve taken you about five seconds to know if you had bothered to read our website for more than our address. 

Of course, another agent may feel differently.

Good luck finding ___ a home ___ a fireplace ___ a recycling bin for your manuscript.


Snarky (Note proper spelling.)

Snarky enough for ya?


  1. I read your revised query the other day so I'm not sure if it's changed again but I'll go look. Meanwhile, your query has put me in a panic because I was taught that the plot outline shouldn't run more than three sentences! Clearly there is a mess of conflicting advice out there. I imagine it comes down to what a particular agent wants to see. My fear is that they don't specify and then you're in the dark. Can find the lightswitch. And if you do, the bulb's burned out anyway.
    Sigh. Nothing to do but keep plugging away. You keep plugging. And I'll take my own advice and keep plugging too.

  2. That of course was meant to read, "Can't find the light switch."

  3. I'm taking it slow with queries but I still don't have a version I'm crazy about. Grr. Good luck with yours! :)

  4. Queries??? I'm not even there yet and already feeling locked in a box with no way of getting out.

    This certain manuscript I'm working on is driving me up the wall. I love the idea and last month I could have written it. Now I'm beating my head with a stick wishing I would have written it when I had it all... now writing feels forced.

    Guess this should be good practice... but I'm clearly not having fun with all this heavy thinking.

    I wish you the best of luck... PS loved the query response back... I'm going to need a laugh when I get to that stage and I'll remember this.

  5. Love your snarky letter to the Gatekeeper.

    I didn't know about your query letter on another blog. I'll go look now.

  6. Great letter, I may just memorise it.

    Good luck with your query letter, by coincidence I got sent this link today, an excellent UK literary mag with tips for getting published.

    I also got a lovely rejection from a short story competition this week,

    'The standard was very high this year' - Ouch, excuse me but I thought mine was too when I posted it, they might has well have said, thank you but yours was rubbish.

    We will battle on !!

  7. First, congrats on all the progress with your query. I agree with you - it feels easier to write the book than the query to go with it! It sounds like you've had some very helpful input.

    Second, O.M.G!! I love that snarky rejection - too awesome for words! :-)

  8. Congrats on the contest and don't stop querying!

  9. Love the snark, Theresa! You've clearly got that bit down pat! :)

    I had a quick look at the query on your other site - love the concept! Please keep us posted!

  10. The snarky letter rocks. Also I think your query is really good. Practice makes perfect, they say. :)

  11. Writing a query scares me. Fortunately, I'm going to write it and hire an editor to look it over. Hopefully together we can make it zing!


  12. I do think the query is harder to write than the MS. I had my query looked over by some very great people and have yet to send it out once. I want my MS to shine first. lol

  13. I second the above comment. The best query in the world won't go far if there's no request for a full. Make sure those opening chapters are HOT. Maybe Allie's critique will help, she's getting some of them out next week.

  14. @ Judy, your query must be good because haven't you gotten requests from your query?

    Ignore the three-sentence advice. That's probably just for the first paragraph. I have never seen any query that's been successful have only three lines. Go to "Guide to Literary Agents" and click on the Successful Queries section. They're all longer than that!

    @ LR, my advice is to show your query to others and get feedback. I'd be happy to look at it. Matthew Rush is a great place to get feedback from a wider audience. Query Shark too, but less likely it will be posted.

    @ Jen, I know what you mean. In May, I knew exactly where I was going with my WIP. After a long break, it's gotten fuzzier. I wish I'd taken more notes while it was fresh.

    I hope you get back in your groove.

    If you want any help when you get to the query stage, please ask.

    @ Piedmont Writer, I'm glad you like my snarky letter. Thanks for taking a look at my query.

    @ Brigid, thanks for the advice link. I'll take a look.

    I'm sorry about the rejection. At least it was nicer than my snarky one! I'll tell you that it doesn't mean yours didn't have a high standard. There were probably too many good ones. Was it Niamh who put the link from the judge about judging being a subjective business?

    We know it in our heads, but not in our hearts.

  15. @ Shannon, I'm happy to hear you like my snarky rejection!

    @ Elena, I'll keep querying.

    @ Talli, I'm glad you like the query and the snark rejection.

    @ Crimey, thanks for the feedback on the query and rejection.

    @ Clarissa, good luck with your editor and your query.

    @ J.L. Jackson, in theory I don't think the query is harder to write than the manuscript. But then when my query keeps getting rejected, it makes me over think it.

    Good luck when you DO query!

    @ KarenG, I revised my query since I entered your contest. But the pages are the same, and I assume they weren't HOT enough because I didn't make the shortlist. I hope the critique helps too.

  16. I second the I'd rather write the MS than the query. It's 250 words of torture. lol.

    Great snarky query. Congrats on the win. :)

  17. You ladies [and gentlemen] are very lucky to have a community of writer friends to bounce ideas, stories, and query letters off of. Sometimes I feel like I am drifting alone on an iceberg...just me and my computer.

    I've just finished a rough first draft of a memoir about going to college as an adult, but I need a heavy iron to smooth out the wrinkles in it before I can even think about a query letter to an agent.

    I hope to get there in this lifetime.

    Thank you for such a wonderful blog, Theresa.

  18. Perfect timing for this post. I've been rethinking my query, too. Then again, I may just chuck the thing and be done with it...

  19. Writing a queries is the worst!

    I got all of one request with my query, so I know there is something wrong with it too. I'm taking a query writing workshop with C.J. Redwine in a few weeks, so hopefully I'll have a quick ass query after that!

    Good luck to both of us!

  20. The thought of writing queries terrifies me. I'm glad you found someone helpful. I'm also filing all these experiences away for later use...

    The snarky rejection letter was awesome!!!

    I also think the whole premise of your MS sounds very interesting. I want to read the book. Hmmmm, maybe we should start letter campaigns for each other to a publishing house demanding the book be printed because we really really want to read them!

  21. @ Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella), 250 words of torture sounds about right!

    @ Victoria Marie, good luck with your manuscripts. There are a lot of good groups on the Internet. I know more about children's books, but there must be similar places to find exchange partners for memoir. Good luck!

    @ Liz, chuck the query or the ms?

    @ Lisa, I hope the writing workshop helps.

    My query STILL needs work because I received two rejections on the new query today. : (

    @ The Words Crafter, okay, let's gang up on a publisher together.

    Strange day. I received rejections and won a contest. But the contest win may help me prevent future rejections.

  22. I have many problems with querying. So I'm afraid I wouldn't be much help. But I love your snark contest entry! Congrats!

  23. Oh wow!!! You are such a lovely person that this snarky letter is just so freaky!! OH but it's so funny! WELL DONE YOU!!!!!!

    And good luck with your querying!! I really think this new query letters for the Mist Chasers is fab!!!!!

    Thanks for the links - I'll have read of them when I'm abit more lively!!

    Take care

  24. Oh,the darn query! The thorn in our sides. I'm so glad you got yours all fixed up and pretty! My fingers are crossed that this one will do the trick.

  25. Writing the query is not fun, but I think it's like writing the book, the more practice, the better. Loved the earlier snarkiness. That had to feel good to write.

  26. I LOVE that snark letter! *snort*

    Glad you got some great feedback on your query letter. I hope it garners you plenty of requests.


  27. @ Anne, thank you. I'd like to improve my query record.

    @ Old Kitty, I think the snarky rejection was easy to do because when I read rejections, that's what I believe they say.

    Glad you like the new query.

    After your day, I'm not surprised you're less than lively!

    @ Julie, I hope this query does the trick too. Thanks for the finger crossing.

    @ Roxy, welcome back! It was fun to write snark.

    @ Lola, I think if my snark rejection were my query, I'd have requests for partials and fulls now. If only I could make my query like this in some way.

  28. Yes, love the snark.

    The Friedman blog article and discussion was interesting--there are so many opinions out there, it is difficult to sort through what is a best fit for the individual.

  29. LOVE Snarky's letter. Ha, ha. Queryland sure does take time and effort. I'm glad you've gotten so much good advice.

    Chin up!

  30. Oh so wonderfully snarky! I can see why you won!

  31. @ Slamdunk, you say it exactly. In fact, I saw Nathan Bransford just had a post about conflicting query advice. I'm going to read it today.

    @ Jackee, I have gotten good advice. And then you and Alesa designed such a radically different query letter than mine. My head is swimming with query opinions!

    @ Jennifer, thanks! It was fun to be snarky.

  32. I love your check-the-blank snarky reply. I swear, sometimes getting the rejection letter feels just like that - a form letter where they just checked things off or filled in the blanks! I know agents are busy. But they seem to forget that writers are also busy...and hopeful and anxious and human.

  33. Congrats on winning the competition! As you say, perfect timing. And good luck with those query submissions, I'll keep my fingers crossed for you:)

  34. I am hanging my head in shame! I only just realized you have a second blog. I this minute added myself to your followers.

    I am not familiar with the query letter process yet..but it sounded great to me. Well done for getting that far.

  35. @ Helen, I worry the alternative to the form rejection letter would look more like my snarky letter. Maybe they're sparing our feelings? I think the alternative would be a wait time of many more months.

    @ Olive, thanks. I sent my query to Mr. Snarky a little while ago. He'll tell me what's wrong with it.

    @ Ann, I haven't been advertising the blog, except when I put up a post on it. It's for some feedback from readers, but also in case an agent or editor happens to stumble upon the site. You never know....

    Let me know if you need any help when you do query.

  36. Ah, yes. Queries are so hard, I agree. And you never get to stop writing them -- I just wrote two and THEN verbally pitched my agent. Good times.

    I'll take a look at it when I get home.

  37. I like your snarky letter! :) Queries are tough. I've written queries for three different books now, and my latest query is still not up to par. You'll get there. They usually just require a lot of tweaking.

  38. It took me three months of trial and error to feel confident about my query letter. But I read yours and it's good! I like how you mentioned that being a substitute teacher puts you in that teenage environment, perfect for writing YA. ;]

    Congratulations on winning that contest! It was well-deserved. You had me laughing with your faux rejection letter.

  39. Oh man, that rejection is priceless- a well deserved win.

    Loved it!


  40. @ Elana, you still had to verbally pitch after the query + you have an agent? This business is tough.

    @ Shelley, I think it's THE ONE. But then it's not. So frustrating!

    @ Amanda, the problem with these submissions is it's usually the query + 5 pages, so if the rejection is vague I don't know what they didn't like.

    @ February Grace, thank you. It was nice to win.

  41. I wish I could offer you advice on your query, but mine keeps getting rejected too and I don't know too much about YA, so I'll just keep my mouth shut and wish you the best. Did you know that J.K. Rowling...

    Just kidding.

  42. Ouch, I'd hate to have you replying to a query of mine :-)

  43. @ Missed Periods, sorry you're getting rejected too.

    Rowling only had 17 rejections before she got published, so that never fails to depress me.

    @ Al, I wrote it for Snarky Agent Man. I'd NEVER send out a rejection like that!

  44. Hi Theresa, good luck with the querying process - I'm still finishing up my main WIP but I love to hear how everyone is doing with the next part of the journey! Thanks for sharing your experience and the links. Keep us posted!!! ;)

  45. Wow! This was trully an amazing, educating post! Thank you soo much for posting! :)

  46. Good luck with the querying process, Theresa! I'm sending lots of wishes and good vibes your way. Persistence is the key, but you will get there I am sure.

  47. @ Talei, I hope your WIP is going well. Good luck with your querying when you get there!

    @ Anonymous, thank you. I'm glad you found it helpful.

    @ Julie Dao, thanks for the good vibes - I need 'em. I'll continue to be persistent!