Following the Rules: Queries

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Location: Books & Such Central Valley, California Office

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You’ve seen a number of agent blogs and agent twitters talking about query tips and #queryfail. Agent websites are filled with instructions on how and how-not to query. Nearly every writer’s conference offers a session or two on queries and pitching.

It’s enough to make a writer go apoplectic.

If someone had unlimited time and decided to collect all the tips and all the rules from every tweet, blog and website, I’m guessing those tips could fill a book. Or two. And interestingly enough, I’ll bet every single rule will be contradicted a number of times.

So what’s a writer to do?

Here are my own common sense generic rules for queries:

  • If you want to increase your chances of getting that all-important proposal request from your target agent, read the guidelines on his/her website and follow them. This falls into the “do no harm” category.
  • If, on the other hand, you are sending to scores of agents and you don’t want to take the time to individualize the queries and the protocol to meet the agency guidelines, just realize that you may be hurting your chances on a percentage of these. It may be worth the trade-off to you.
  • If you decide to use a query service, just be aware that all those queries are formatted the same and they strip you of any distinctiveness. We can spot them at first glance.  Again, it can lower your odds.
  • Let your query style match the voice of your book. It you write humor, let the query show this. If it is academic, the query needs to reflect that.
  • Try not to be annoying. For instance, opening with a rhetorical question has become cringe-worthy to those of us who read queries.
  • The things that are important, aside from telling us what the story or book is about, are whether you’ve been referred and if you’ve published successfully previously (especially if you have a strong readership or fabulous sales numbers). For me, hearing that you’ve self-published is usually a negative.

Just do the best you can to craft a query that makes it difficult for the agent to say “no thanks.” And let your e-query be only one of many methods you’re pursuing to get an agent or a publishing contract. You also need to:

  • Meet editors and agents in person at writer’s conferences
  • Submit directly to those publishers still open to unagented queries
  • Enter contests judged by agents and editors
  • Continue to connect with published writers who may make introductions

Would I “disqualify” an otherwise excellent query because it did not follow our guidelines? Of course not. Agents are in the business of trying to find bright new talent. The guidelines are just our way of trying to get the info we think we need in order to ferret out the exciting stuff in the most efficient way.

Now it’s your turn: What makes you crazy about this process? Do you find the rules confusing? What has worked for you? Any advice?

12 Responses

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  1. Teri D. Smith says:

    Reading the agent’s blog is a great way to find additional information about the agents. For instance, the tidbit about your dislike of rhetorical questions probably wouldn’t make it on the web’s guidelines, but we’ve learned it here on your blog.

  2. Teri D. Smith says:

    Just thought of a question. Are there any careers for characters they would be an immediate turn off? Careers that are just to hard of a sell?


  3. Bonnie Grove says:

    I agree with all you’ve said – you and I connected, not through traditional query letter, but through another writer who contacted you on my behalf. It was still my job to impress you (hey, did you ever find those socks I knocked off ya? 😀 ), but the contact came through “unconventional” means.

    This industry is so much about relationships. Healthy, mutual, nurturing relationships between all branches of the publishing tree. I’ve found Christian writers to be approachable, kind, prayerful, and helpful. And I try my best to return the favor.

    One thing I would advise anyone just starting to send out those queries is to practice patience. Publishing moves very slowly, and a writer excited to hear back from an agent or editor can go a wee bit bonkers waiting. Fill your time with productive writing, brainstorming new projects, and generally getting on with your life. And ask God to provide balance and perspective. Getting an agent IS exciting and celebration worth, but it is one step in a long journey of steps. And you need balance and perspective in order to complete the journey.

    Bonnie Grove

  4. Lynn Rush says:

    I learn a lot about an agent I might want to query by reading their blog if they have one. I’ve also asked other writers, both with and without agents, about various agents, in an attempt to get to know them better.

    There are a lot of rules out there, and sometimes it can get confusing, that’s for sure. What’s helped me was that I found a couple experienced writers to kind of “mentor” me through it. 🙂

    God’s timeing. God’s plan. I rest in that.

  5. Wendy Lawton says:


    About careers. . . I can’t think of any off hand. It’s not really about those details but how they used in the story. Of course, on a query letter all you get is a snippet so it’s a good question.

    I do know that some editors are tired of books about writers, but just because they see so many. Done well, the career wouldn’t matter. And by done well, I mean that the “work of his hands” is a device to tell us more about the character or to tell the story in a different way.

    Of course it can be a huge plus if the work something distinctive that simply cries out for a story. Think about three successful African American sisters who raise bees and sell the finest honey in the still-segregated South (Secret Lives of Bees). Wouldn’t that whet your literary appetite before you read a word?

  6. Chris says:

    If 95% of queries fail to impress an agent for one reason, mishap, misstep, or another then why should it be a negative to hear that someone has self-published. To me that would show a willingness to work hard and go it alone if need be. The buzz crawling around the publishing world is that publishing houses expect authors to do most of the marketing themselves anyway. So wouldn’t an agent want someone who has the motivation to forge a path where none exists and get out and do the work themselves. More people can write books than have the savvy to market them really well with no marketing machine behind them.

    Just my humble opinions, but I’d like to know your take.

  7. Wendy Lawton says:

    I should have qualified that, Chris. A book self-published to the author’s specific audience/platform makes a lot of sense. Or, like you said, a self-published book that was “really well-marketed” with impressive sales numbers does point to an interesting potential. But that’s a rare exception and we usually assume the typical sales history of a couple thousand copies at best.

    A self-published novel usually sparks a negative reaction for me. Why? When I’m reading queries or proposals I look for hints that a potential client is market wise and a good businessman as well. Self-publishing a novel is an exercise in futility– The Shack notwithstanding. There’s simply no way to get enough distribution.

    And it raises other questions. Is the author impetuous and impatient? If so, there’s no way he’ll last through the excruciatingly slow career build. Is the author more interested in seeing his name in print than building a career and a readership? Yep, it’s unfair to generalize but the query process is more akin to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink than to a careful analysis. Time doesn’t allow.

    But none of this is written in stone. This is a hard discussion to have via comments because response to query is all very subtle– whispers of concern rather than rules. I never meant to denigrate self-pubbed books, just to say that it is not something that is necessarily a plus in a query letter. Other agents may disagree.

    As I’ve said so often, none of this matters a whit if the story sings. the combination of superb writing and a compelling story idea leaps tall obstacles in a single bound.

  8. NikoleHahn says:

    What made me crazy is all the different tips on every blog. There have only been one or two which make me go, “ah, I didn’t know that.” There is also the mind bending and excrutiating, “How do I BEGIN my query?” I want to sell my proposal without getting too wordy or to cliched. Normally, I include my background in the last paragraph and in the first paragraph the name of the proposal, a short description of the proposal, and the word count. Does it need any more or any less?

  9. NikoleHahn says:


    I would not reccomend anyone do self-publishing because you end up spending thousands of dollars just to print and market the thing; then, you can’t cover enough ground to really break even. Plus, the editing on self-publish is not that great. Although, I have to admit I enjoyed Michelle Gregory’s self-published title, Edala. She only wanted to publish it for her friends and family. It was very, very good. I’ve also been in a writers group years ago where the majority in the group self-published. Their intentions were out of bitterness of not getting what they wanted from tradtional publishing, disagreeing with their publishers editing process, etc, etc (i.e. impatience, particular). I prefer traditional for myself because I do not have to market as much and their editors are professional. They know what will sell and what needs to be trimmed to make a better and tighter story.

  10. Wendy Lawton says:

    Nikole, I think the question of how to begin a query is the same kind of dilemma a publisher has– how do you get the reader in a bookstore hooked on this particular book when the possibilities are almost endless.

    Writers need to study back cover copy and flap copy. What is it that hooks a reader? The same techniques will work for your query letter.

    Think about it: writers bemoan the query process but it’s no different than the kind of competition you’ll have once the published book goes on the shelf.

  11. KC Frantzen says:

    Thank you all for your time. I continue to learn daily!
    … and that’s a good thing!

  12. BethDazzled says:

    The only annoying part of the process to me is how hard it is to get my foot in the door as an unpublished author. Although I am grateful that most agents accept unpublished/unsolicited queries, I feel like I’m not given the same chance as a referred writer. Maybe I’m just being a whiny Wednesday.

    Blogs & Tweets are a great source for me to feel connected in the interim. Much appreciate that Books & Such does both. 🙂