Query Letters: Why request? Why reject?

Rachel Kent

Blogger: Rachel Kent

I was asked this week, “What is the one thing that makes you request a project based on a query and what is the one thing in a query that makes you decide a book isn’t the right fit?”

I’m sure the answer to this question varies agent to agent, but I’d like to share my thoughts with you.

First off, there’s not a magical item to include in a query letter that will make an agent request the project. There are many things that will cause an agent to request a project. For example, platform size–if you are an author with a large following, an agent is very likely to request your project. Also, if your idea is something an agent knows a publisher is looking for, you are likely to get a request. For me, I think the topic or plot of a book is still most important. If your book is about something I’m interested in and the query grabs my attention, I am very likely to request more even if I don’t have a publisher in mind yet and even if your platform isn’t huge. I still allow the content to speak for itself and then determine after taking a look at the proposal or manuscript if I think I could have a good chance to sell the project. I’m not against taking a few risky projects on, but I mostly like to feel confident that there are publishing houses looking for the type of books I’m representing.

There are also many things that could make an agent say no to a query, but the one thing (two things?) that causes me not to request a project from a query letter is poor spelling and grammar. A query letter should be very clean. It’s only a page long and it represents you and your project. You want it to sparkle! If I can tell a person hasn’t spent any time on their query, I can be pretty sure that that project isn’t ready for representation yet. It’s easy to make silly mistakes when writing anything, so I encourage each of you to have a critique partner read your query letter for you. Query letters are often the gateway to publishing, so spend time putting yours together.

How has your query letter evolved as you’ve pitched your project?

What is the hardest part for you when you write a query? Bio? Summary? Hook? Something else?

TWEETABLES:

What makes literary agent @RachelLKent request a manuscript from a query? Click to tweet.

Find out why lit agent @RachelLKent might request your manuscript or not. Click to tweet.

Query tips! Via literary agent @rachellkent Click to tweet.

Share This:



24 Comments

  • Andrea Cox says:

    Hi Rachel! Thanks for your thoughts on query letters. I recently wrote one, praying before I picked up my pen (like always), and after having done research on the agent I’m sending to and committing the letter to God, God blessed me with the right words to say. For me, this first-ever query letter wasn’t that difficult. But I had a mighty wise God guiding the way.

    The issue I have in anything is bragging about myself. Sure, I wrote the words on the page. But God is my inspiration and gives me half the stuff (or more) that I write. It’s more of a collaboration than just me penning my stories. Hopefully people will see His light shining a whole lot brighter than my own.

    Blessings,
    Andrea

  • Jeanne T says:

    Rachel this was an interesting post. :) It makes sense that queries will be viewed differently by different agents. I appreciate the way you answered the question you were asked. :)

    For me, I haven’t written a query. Yet. I hope to later this year. When I do, the process will be bathed in prayer. I think it’s going to be tricky to get everything I should say on one page. :) I need to remember to be succinct. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  • rachel says:

    can i just say i am shocked and appalled that spelling and grammar are still and issue?

  • What a relief, Rachel, that there isn’t one magical thing. It sounds like as long as I have my t’s crossed and my i’s dotted, literally, the door is open. Or maybe I’m unusually optimistic because it’s Friday and I’m on my second cup of coffee…. :)

  • I have an earned Ph.D in self absorption. BUT, when it comes to humbly pointing out my skills, I get all “huh, what, oh, umm, *I* can write my own name”.
    I had some wiser brains than mine go over my query letter until it looked good AND YET, still sounded like me.
    For me, the hook was the HARDEST and frankly, to get the query and the proposal to where it was worthy of sending, took lots of advice from crit peeps and months and months to hone.
    But of course, it’ll up on some website with my name scrawled out in the file “Queries That Thought They Were Awesome But Weren’t”.

    • Jennifer,

      With all the time and care you put into it, I think you’re query is certainly not going to end up on a “Here’s What NOT to Do When You Write a Query.” You know your story is awesome and you worked like crazy on your query. Now it’s all down to timing. And that’s the part that can make you crazy! But, as always, you are in my prayers.

      And you know The Force Will Be With You Always! :)

  • Rachel,

    Thank you for this post, Rachel. It’s helpful to hear what you look for in a query letter.

    I haven’t finished my manuscript yet, but already I have written several versions of query letters for it. In all honesty, I find the entire process intimidating. I keep reading about how to write one and have taken a webinar on writing successful queries, but I still worry about getting it right. Possibly I am over-thinking it. Ultimately, when the manuscript is ready, I think I’ll just pray, write the query, then let go and let God.

    One thing that has really helped, though, is the post you wrote last week. You asked us to reflect on what was unique about our novels or books and that helped me begin to articulate how my novel, floating in a sea of YA fantasy, has something special to offer. If I can communicate the specific way that my novel isn’t just another story about a teenage girl who has magic, I think I have a shot at selling the story. Thank you for giving me that. :)

    Have a great weekend!

    Blessings!

  • Great to hear, Rachel. I have only written one query ever and it was difficult to write because I didn’t know how to narrow my book to one single hook. A friend had to help me with that. I think the bigger problem was my book. The plot wasn’t super honed (it was my first book!) so it was difficult to hone the idea of it to one paragraph.

    My current book, however, is something I feel more confident about (after attending writing retreats and reading a ton of craft books on plotting), so it is a bit easier to figure out my hook and paragraph. Cool how that works!

    That being said, like Jeanne, it can be difficult to keep everything at a page!

  • Karla Akins says:

    For me it’s difficult to encapsulate my project in a few words. For some reason it makes me freeze. Pitches that sparkle are hard to fashion. I’m grateful for my crit partners!

  • The hardest part for me is truncating my life and the lives of my characters into a few, short sentences. Then, how to make those few sentences exciting, so the reader (agent, editor or potential audience) will want to know more. As a writer, I find it’s those little details that can make one novel better than another. However, those special details don’t always fit.

  • Elaine Faber says:

    It is hard to convey in just a few words how totally awesome my “cat story” is. Folks in my critique group who raised an eyebrow when I told them about the concept are completely sold on the charm and fun once they got into the story. In the same manner, it is difficult in just one paragarph in a query letter to explain and catch the agent’s attention. But we’ll keep trying and Lord willing, will find an agent willing to ask for more and read until they, too are charmed.

  • Sarah Grimm says:

    Ah, query letters. IMHO they’re just hard. They’ve got to sparkle and tantalize and grab all in 250 words or less. It’s like a teaser trailer on paper.

    The advice about letting critique partners look at it is excellent, Rachel. I’m actually going to a hands-on workshop to let critters help me polish it so it shines tomorrow! So I’ve been working on my newest version. I hope it works. :)

    This time I’m letting people who have not read my book look at it. Agents obviously haven’t read my book, so I really want the feedback from someone who’s looking at what my story is about for the first time.

    I’m excited … and shaking in my cowboy boots. :)

  • lisa says:

    I appreciate your insight and all the comments too. I will be ready to query by the end of this year. I find myself feeling very nervous about the process :)

  • Thanks for the post, Rachel. Sometimes I think I am more afraid to write a query than I am to write my novel.

  • Jim Boutilier says:

    I in no way mean to sound flippant or cynical. However, I do wonder if this level of angst is all that necessary for a query letter. Agents literally read thousands of these things. Yes, you want yours to stand out to separate the wheat from the chaff. But it’s not the State of the Union address. As noted above, good spelling and grammar is pivotal as well as a good hook. But they’re not going to send your query letter to a publisher. They want you work. What’s better: a query latter that reads like it was written by EB White sent with a lousy manuscript? Or a not so great query letter the manuscript of which sounds like Toni Morrison? Anyway, great exchange here. Keep writing!

  • It seems like a no-brainer now that I should have had a critique partner read my query before I sent it the first time. :) Live and learn. Thanks for the tips and encouragement!

  • Lynn Hare says:

    Rachel, thanks for the reminder about attention to detail as our manuscript ideas shake hands with you. Connectedness is important up front.

  • . . . my query letter reads exactly like my novel

    Bam! It starts out fast,

    Flies through the required story info,

    dips into a few poignant moments,

    reaches an arc and “LOOK OUT” here comes the resolution.

  • Funny thing. The first agent I approached with my query asked for pages! Although they weren’t ready to take me on, I, at least, felt my query did its job.

    Later, after giving it some thought, I realized that I always write queries–to myself. I post notes on my computer, on my desk, on my plot board. I’m crazy about mini-synopses.

    Since I write apocalyptic sci-fi that hinges on the fight of good overcoming evil, I need to narrow my creative vision enough to keep myself from writing in circles; hence, the mini-synopses.

    When it came to writing a query for the book…bam! It was right there. Easy speasy.

    Oh, sigh, if everything came so easy. Wish, wish, wish.

  • Arthur Frank says:

    rachel:

    Thanks for the blog post which popped up on LinkedIn

    Much of the info was standard , however I liked the fact that you have listed your publishers on the website. I will search the site further amnd see if there is a match to whom I should send a query. Much of the problem with agency queries is that an agency keeps secret who actually does what, and the query is ultimately misdirected and rejected.

    Arthur Frank
    Holmdel, NJ

  • Lynn Johnston says:

    Rachel,
    I have about decided that sending queries are a waste of time after reading so many blogs about how many agents receive. Realizing that agents get swamped with them, made me feel it would be best to attend a conference first. What do you think? Would a cold-caller type query possibly be overlooked, even if it had interesting aspects?
    As an agent, do you look for familiar names?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *