Blogger: Wendy Lawton
This week and next I’m going to pull up a couple of blogs from the past for a review session. (Remember review sessions from school days? Luckily, no test to follow.)
Just when you thought you couldn’t stand to think about queries one more time. . .
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.
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).
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 advice would you give to someone just starting out on this writing journey?
Out of the box creativity whilst coloring inside the guidelines. I cannot possibly do that without coffee and chocolate.
Love your comment and will take your advice.
Yes, Shirlee…to both creativity within the guidelines and the coffee and chocolate. 🙂
Not that we ask the impossible. . .
One thing I have learned, and that has lately been underscored with vicious emphasis, is that life and love are fleeting, and that sprinkling faerie dust on queries to better the traction of the pinhead-dancing angels is not worth the time.
My advice would be this –
* An agent will take the time to read your query. Pay her the compliment of researching her body of work and representation.
* As Wendy said, follow the guidelines of the agency
* Be polite, and formal unless you personally know the agent
* Use spell-check.
* Finally, and most important, just describe what the book’s about and how you’d market it (if that’s part of the query). Speak in your voice, don’t get fancy, don’t get cute. Use Jesus’ dictum of saying yes when you mean Yes, and No when you mean No.
You’ve written a book; if it’s anywhere near submission-ready, you’re perfectly capable of writing a couple of paragraphs which describe it well enough to show an agent that it may be worth her time. There are no magic formulae; there are no codes.
Trust your writing skill, and trust God.
Don’t stress, and remember, your job is MUCH easier than an agent’s.
How so? You can send out hundreds of queries. You have to be lucky once, to land an agent.
The agent doesn’t have that luxury with submissions to pub houses. She has to have a track record of success; she has to be lucky a much larger proportion of the time to keep her job.
Andrew, it all hinges on your statement: Trust God. I pray every time I query and then just hit “send” knowing that it is now out of my hands. I didn’t plan to be a writer – God just sent it my way, and I have to trust that he did it for a reason. He has always placed me in strategic places for special purposes, so I doubt his plan was for me to just spin my wheels.
Great advice, Andrew.
I love how gracious and encouraging you always are, Wendy. You always help me feel that … I can do this.
All we have to do to be encouraged is to read the stories of what it took for writers to find success. It’s not for the faint of heart but we wouldn’t have chosen this journey if we didn’t understand perseverance, right?
I’m curious as to why self-publishing is still a negative. It would seem to me that there are potentially some very positive aspects –
* Development of platform and reader base, which are essential for successful SP-ing
* It shows motivation and initiative, rather than “a “someone else’ll do it for me” attitude
* Potentially, an understanding that some projects will simply not be marketable to an agent or house, but that they still may have some appeal (such as Kate Motaung’s lovely “Letters To Grief”).
Wendy L. Macdonald
Andrew, I recently read a book by Rachelle Gardner ( How Do I Decide? Self-Publishing vs.Traditional Publishing ( A Field Guide for Authors) and one by James Scott Bell (Self-Publishing Attack!…) and these books dispelled the negative image of going it alone.
These books gave me hope to keep trying to secure an agent while also improving my writing and platform. Knowing that self-publishing is a respectable option helps me keep working harder and smarter since I know that as long as I prayerfully follow the rules of good writing and business practices I’ll eventually know which door is meant for me. One is not less or more than the other. Each has pros and cons.
I prefer to seek the traditional route because the pros of it still sparkle in my eyes (for now). ❀
Yikes. I wrote this original blog five years ago. How things have changed. I think I will lift that sentence. 🙂
Self publishing is not a negative if it’s a success but it certainly tells the agent or editor how much energy you can whip up on your own. It quantifies what you will bring to the table.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
Be patient!!! This isn’t a race.
Do your homework.
Do not query anything until writer friends have seen the query letter and held it over the fire.
Pray. Pray. Pray some more.
Write it…and then wait at least 24 hours before you hit send.
Patience and prayer. Perfect, Jennifer!
Good advice, Jennifer.
I think I am going to love this review session! We all need to be grounded in the fundamentals of the writing business. Thanks.
If an agent or an agency has a blog, read it. Be a regular if you really like them or are impressed with what they have to say. Even if you do not plan to submit to that agent or agency or if you do submit and they turn you down, you will learn many valuable lessons.
Lori, this is exactly what I was going to add.
I remember the first year I went to Mount Hermon after finally commenting on the B&S blog posts (I lurked for awhile before I got the nerve to jump in). I sat at a lunch table hosted by Janet and Wendy. Over the din in the room Janet asked everyone to introduce themselves. She pointed at me and said, “As our friend from the blog, why don’t you start Jenni?” That might not be verbatim, but it’s close. I tried not to choke at being put on the spot. 🙂 This exchange made me thankful that I’d started a relationship with them before we met in person.
I don’t think writers realize the part relationship plays in all this. It can be that foot in the door.
Wendy L. Macdonald
Wendy, thank you for the review. I know I’ll be rereading this when I have a second MS ready to query.
I have two suggestions that I’ll keep in mind for my next work too:
1. Only submit to agents you genuinely like and trust. It’s a scary thing to submit your work to others–but it helps tremendously if you know that the agency you’re submitting to is good-willed (Books and Such for example).
2. Read old blog posts of the agents you like and see if your work really fits into the agent’s sweet spot. The odds are better for everyone involved if you have an agent that is excited about what you write. Publishing is a slow journey and passion will be required to propel both the agent and the author forward.
Blessings ~ Wendy Mac ❀
Good advice, Wendy❀. In other words, do your homework. 🙂 Funny thing is that we agents have to do the exact same thing when submitting. It takes a great deal of time to brush up on each house, read our copious notes and give them exactly what they are seeking. (But it’s worth it.)
Kristen Joy Wilks
I actually enjoy writing queries and proposals. It gives me a positive way to procrastinate when I’m stuck on a story. I’ll just open a blank document and work on my query for awhile until I think of a way to write more on the story. That way I start my queries early and work on them for months…or years.
You are blessed in that you enjoy the business side of things as much as the creative side.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Oh, and I love Sally Apokedak’s idea of a query letter in bullet points. Even if you don’t actually use the bullet points in your query, it is a good exercise to write one up this way. Shows you what is actually important to include.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Wow, I use the word “actually” an awful lot! I should look through my WIP.
Actually I hadn’t noticed it.
Love these suggestions Wendy. My advice to someone starting the writing journey is to begin with articles. That helped me find my voice and learn the craft. We always think we have to write a book to consider ourselves a writer but I’ve learned so much through article writing and publishing that will help me when I land a book contract.
Plus when you start with articles you learn to give an editor what he/she needs. A great foundation for all writing.
Eager to meet you in a few days at Mt. Hermon, to attend one of your workshops, and to hand you a book proposal (through the correct channels, of course.)
Blessings on your day.
Great post, Wendy. All of the comments are helpful as well.
The advice I would give is a common thread here. Do your homework. First, write out what you want in an agent. Each agent is different, and each author is different, so take the time to think about what you need to compliment your strengths. Do you want an agent with a editing background? A marketing background? An author background? Do you want an agent who is more Spiritual, or one that’s a little more laid back? More professional, or one that’s more easy-going and fun? Encouraging, or one that will press you to be the best you can be?
Study several agents, and find a few you think would fit. I’ve been studying a handful of agents for a year or two now, and I’ve discovered that my original ‘dream agent’ is not the one I would really want to pitch to. Our strengths and personalities wouldn’t be the best combination.
I would also echo what Gayla said. Once you narrow down the agents you think might fit, scour their website and any other source you can for info about them and articles by them. Especially articles on pitching, proposals and queries.
Given how difficult it is to get published and all the hoops you have to jump through, especially if you have no track record, a sane piece of advice would be the same as Mr Punch’s advice to young men about to be married: Don’t.
Thanks Wendy for a great post. I need to be reminded again and again what needs to be done.
I learn so much from this blog. Thank you for this helpful post. I have been struggling to express my writing voice in a way that is informative yet real as I seek to present a query that works and speaks the magic. So far, I haven’ crossed that bridge yet although attempts are being made. Wendy, I appreciate the tips you share. I see a couple of errors I have been making on my queries through your “eyes” and perspective. Yikes! The query can implode a solid effort. It’s essential to get it right. It’s a bit humbling to realize that the row to hoe is a bit more complex than one has realized.
A comment about the vanity publishing thread. It can be a disillusioning process if the publishing company is not adequately committed to its product and the authors who are shelling out big bucks to make their book happen. I feel sad for those whom have been taken advantage of in many different ways. Self publishing has much promise but it still takes wise execution.
Ha…I just got done writing my latest blog on the “many” advice blogs on queries! If I had a dollar for every piece of advice on writing queries I wouldn’t have to write for a living!!! So true….and many writers point out, that there are so many different styles/rules/guidelines that they do seem to contradict each other. But your advice above seems very reasonable and sound, and probably needed for most trying to query. Thank you, again, for a good and direct article. Always enjoy.