Answering Questions about Queries

people with questionsI get mail! My inbox is always filled with questions. Today I’m answering some I’ve received on the topic of Query Letters.

You’ve said on your blog, “don’t pitch a novel unless it’s complete.” Do you feel the same about query letters? Do we only query completed works, or are ideas fair game?

If you are sending a query to an agent, only pitch projects that are ready to go. If it’s a novel and you are not previously published with a mainstream commercial publisher, this means a completed manuscript. For non-fiction, a complete book proposal and two sample chapters will do. (But the more you’ve written, the better.) Think about it: If I read your query and I like it, the first thing you’ll hear from me is, “Please send a book proposal and sample chapters.” If that looks good and I’m seriously considering representation, I’m going to ask you for everything you’ve got. I can’t sell to a publisher without the whole shebang (unless you are multi-published and a proven commodity). You can’t query an idea, because ideas have no value without execution.

What about sending in a synopsis instead of a query?

Don’t do it. Some people send a synopsis and nothing else, not even a salutation or a closing. IMHO, it’s rude and unprofessional. In fact, I received one today. Just a one paragraph synopsis. Nothing about the author. Just a line saying, “Email me if you’re interested in seeing more.” I wasn’t interested, so I deleted it without responding.

I’m curious to know if there are any cliché phrases that you’ve found in query letters that writers absolutely, positively should avoid.

The thing about clichés is that in a few cases, when used correctly, they can be perfect in a query, especially if they make the reader laugh. In most cases, however, since your query is a writing sample, your best bet is to avoid sounding hackneyed or derivative. The best advice I can give about clichés is another cliché: When in doubt, leave it out.

I’ve heard about authors who strayed from standard guidelines and got picked up by a publisher or agent. Some people encourage us to do the same. We’re told to follow guidelines, then we’re told to stand out. I realize our writing will determine if we stand out or not, but what kind of things that stray from the guidelines would catch your attention in a good way?

I don’t expect you to be slaves to guidelines, I just try to offer tips to help you put your best writing forward. With all guidelines (on writing, pitching, querying, etc.) try to see behind the specific advice and get to the basic truth. With a query, the basic truth is that you need the agent/editor to want to see more, or you’re sunk. It’s up to you to figure out how to accomplish that goal. Use guidelines to help learn the craft of writing and the business of publishing… let them go when you don’t need them anymore. I can’t say “what kind of things that stray from the guidelines would catch my attention” because that’s as individual as the person.

Do you accept query letters for books that have been self-published? I ask this because I have one, but I’ve been seriously considering having it edited by a professional, rewriting it and then seeking representation for it.

Yes… no… maybe. It’s a common question these days but there are too many variables. The most important consideration will always be how good your book is, and how well it has the potential to sell. Most agents prefer you query with your next book, not the one that was self-published. But if you really want to give it a shot, I suggest a normal query to agents, including the self-pub information (release date, sales figures). You’ll find out soon enough if it’s catching anyone’s attention.

I know the importance of addressing the letter to a specific person, not just Sir or Madam or Dear Agent, however, even though I feel as if I know you from reading the blog, Dear Rachelle seems far too informal. Is Ms. So and So acceptable to most women who are agents?

Interestingly, I recently read some heated debate on another blog about the “Ms.” salutation. I was stunned to find that a few women seem to resent or dislike the term. Nevertheless, the correct salutation is Ms. Gardner or Mr. Smith. Once you’ve corresponded with the person, you can take your cue from how they sign their emails. I’m always just Rachelle and I’m okay being addressed that way. Personally, I don’t object to people querying with my first name rather than “Ms.” because I go to great lengths to be approachable by writing my blog.

Could you please provide the pronunciation of the word “query” that won’t make agents/editors wince? Does it rhyme with PRAIRIE or EERIE?

Leave it to an English teacher! Potayto, Potahto. Tomayto, tomahto. Your choice. Just make sure you use the preferred pronunciation of the editor/agent you’re talking to. (tee hee) As for me, I couldn’t care less how you say it. As long as you SPELL it right.

Questions, thoughts or comments about query letters?

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  1. I have a completed memoir manuscript. Do I still need to send a full proposal to agents? Or is a query letter enough?
    Thanks!

  2. Ruth Taylor says:

    I selected agents for the ACFW conference in August. Since I don’t know which ones I’ll get for my appointments, I considered sending a query to all of them. I thought it might be helpful to introduce myself beforehand so I can at least introduce myself in person to the agents I don’t get an appointment with and refer to my query. Does that make sense? If so, would it be beneficial to do so?

    Thanks,
    Ruth Taylor

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  4. Deb Palmer says:

    Thank you for these insights on writing a query. I always find your posts helpful. Soon my book will be polished and ready for publication. I have a specific issue, I would love advice on.
    I have no major publishing kudos to share… yet. My publishing history is all small town newspapers. Worse, I have a huge time gap with no writing experience. Do I list some of my published works, taking the risk it will provide a good laugh? Or is it better to not mention any experience? I know the book has potential. How will I ever get past the query? Thanks very much for any help you can give.

  5. SaraD says:

    I’ve seen several sample query letters that were for non-fiction or magazine submissions, but few that were for the submission of novel-length fiction. Could you point me toward a good example of what you like to see in a query letter for a novel?

    Regarding the “Ms.” abbreviation: I wonder if it was older women (such as I) who objected to it. I was taught to use “Miss” or “Mrs” if I knew the woman’s marital status, and “Ma’am” if I didn’t. Anything else was considered highly disrespectful. When “Ms.” was introduced as a form of address, I had a hard time accepting it. I don’t object to someone who speaks a regional dialect using “Miz” conversationally. I also don’t mind being called “Ma’am”, something I was also taught was a sign of respect. I still can’t help finding “Ms.” offensive. (Too much information?)

  6. I appreciate the way you try to be approachable for all the people who read your blog posts. Knowing that the agent holds the pass-key to editors and publishers, it’s hard not to put the agent on a pedestal. Thanks for your practical suggestions.
    (And the proper spelling is Kwerrie…right?)

  7. I have queried over 300 agents for my missionary memoir Shout for Joy – walking w the God of miracles. One agent signed me for representation but now is suggesting POD which I simply refuse to do. What next? I’ve rewritten the opening 3 times at his request and the closing once. I know my story and work are high quality but since it is a memoir and I’m not famous with a huge following no publisher want it, or so I’m told. Is this true?

    • Carla Day says:

      Hmm…

      I have the very same problem! Although my candid story is a revealing, warts an all plot, with a completely riveting story line – let’s say I haven’t exactly lived a sheltered life – because I am not ‘famous’ it’s difficult to jump into that complex arena.

      Although the protagonist – me – is writing, in part, about the fall out with a twenty-year friend – who is about to become very famous indeed, because I will not exploit his name, and I prefer to write in a mysterious fashion, nobody is willing to take a punt – so to speak – although, the story is captivating on its own merit,

      I feel it’s better keeping the reader guessing, my beta readers are desperate to know who this man is, I won’t reveal. It’s alluring and most definitely daring and positively intriguing. But, I am not ‘well known’ enough for any of that to matter. Surely it is about the marketing of a book. Doesn’t that sort out the sales side, if the story is interesting enough to capture an audience?

      Again, hmm… It’s all a mystery to me. I think, never give up hope and continue to work hard, heed good advice and some day it will pay off.

      • My story exposes a violent Italian household, neglected abused childhood & sixties’ drug fueled run from God that end in jail & dramatic salvation experiences for two NY teens who marry & heed God’s call to the voodoo capitol of the world. Drums, witch doctors dancing in flames, children healed from diphtheria & a church plant that unexpectedly grows from six people to two thousand all b/c the lights went out, is a true story of God’s miracles & faithfulness that is tough to top. And this is only the beginning of a rare missionary success that brings those two NY losers to national recognition in a country over run with missions.

        • Carla says:

          Ooh Blimey,

          Sounds exciting! Mine is laced with armed robbery, buttered with heroin addiction and fuelled with barbaric & psychotic behaviour. Oh did I mention refugee smuggling, and it is linked to a soon to be famous person and its all 1oo percent true!Yet still not enough!

          Ha Ha, what more exciting than that? Ah, maybe, most of my partners dying, yes its true, I’m the original black widow!

          Perhaps we should swap MS’s, yours sound wonderful & intriguing!

          As I said, keep at it, it is also a matter of personal choice/preference & style, and captivating a particular agent at the right moment.

          They are all looking for something unique to them. Something fresh and new, an undiscovered talent and a new story rather than the same old just rehashed.

          I think my story is original, of course it is, it is my very own life story, no body else’s, no matter how bonkers its all mine.

          Happy searching

          CD

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