Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Writing a standout query remains one of the greatest challenges for a writer hoping to snag an agent’s or editor’s attention. I often describe those of us who receive a barrage of queries every day as being somnambulant. We see so many queries that sound the same and offer up ideas we’ve seen many times that we’re kind of sleepwalking as we meander through the query thicket. The writer’s first task in creating a query is to wake us up–gently, or we might not be in the best frame of mind.
Some ways NOT to try to wake us up would be…
- to proclaim yourself the next Nicholas Sparks or Malcolm Gladwell. We read those types of proclamations a lot.
- to use hyperbole in describing your manuscript. That does not impress but suggests your work will be littered with overwriting. For example, if a query describes the manuscript as “The most profound, moving, and picturesque study of the human condition since the Bible,” well…it’s unlikely to be an accurate description.
- to oversell yourself. How you present yourself might get our attention at first, but we do investigate beyond the query and the proposal. So, for example, if you describe yourself as a speaker with a significant platform but, on asking more questions, the agent finds out that means you speak regionally (as opposed to all over the country) and about once a month, every other detail you’ve presented about who you are is viewed with greater skepticism.
Let me add that writers aren’t necessarily trying to deceive in any of these approaches. They’re just framing how they want the agent or editor to see them. Writers also can’t see themselves in the context of the writers’ pool, which is how those of us in publishing view them.
If you’ve worked hard to become a regional speaker, you feel good about the advances you’ve made. You see how far you’ve come; we’re looking at where you need to be before you can attach the word “significant” to yourself.
If those aren’t the best ways to wake up an industry professional, what is?
- Foremost is that your manuscript is a thing of beauty. Even in nonfiction, if you wield your words well, editors and agents will snap awake.
- Then there’s the platform-thing, which still works its magic.
- But every once in awhile I’ll come across a query that takes a different tack from the norm, and that unusual approach, in and of itself, nudges my eyes open.
A few weeks, ago I received a query that began this way:
“I don’t know how I came to pick up The Waiting by Cathy LaGrow but, once I did, I kept reading straight through to the end. I was riveted by the touching simplicity of the story and the narrative voice. Having just completed my own manuscript, also inspired by true events experienced by my family, I am writing to you in the hopes that you will find my work equally riveting and want to represent me…”
This smart query works on several levels:
1. The writer has done her research. She knows about a book I represented. She read it. She liked it.
2. She mentions her book is written in the same vein. And it is. She wasn’t grasping for a weak connection but shows me where the membrane between the two stories is thin.
3. And the writing of the paragraph is strong as is the rest of the query. She shows off her writing skill in a quiet and elegant way as she describes the manuscript and herself.
Among the elements that struck me about the query was that the writer either accidentally discovered a book I represented or purposely read it. Either way, she realized complimenting a book I participated in getting published would be a winsome approach. She was smart and realized that mentioning The Waiting was setting a radio alarm pre-dialed to my favorite music.
I was fully awake by the time I finished the above paragraph and attentively read on. Unfortunately, her manuscript wasn’t one I thought I could place for a variety of reasons, none of which had to do with the concept or the writing but instead were about it not being a fit for me.
If it had been a good fit, I would have immediately asked to see the proposal and would have eagerly awaited receiving it.
How’s that for a smart query?
When you put together a query or a description of your manuscript, what’s the greatest challenge for you?
What makes a standout manuscript query? Click to tweet.
Lit. agent @JanetKGrant showcases how to make a query stand out. Click to tweet.
One of the most important challenges for a writer is to understand how many letters an agent receives on a monthly basis. Or even on a daily basis. I am sure, Janet, that the process can be a bit tiresome.
So as you pointed out, one challenge is not to write a query letter laced with Melatonin. 🙂
My biggest challenge in writing an eye opening, jump for your approval stamp query letter, is making it fit on only one page.
I’m considering using a 6 pt. font, but I’m sure that will not get me the desired response I’m looking for. 🙂
Jim, I like your Melatonin comment. ZZZZZ….
I think writers struggle with describing their project succinctly than perhaps any other part of the process. (If it’s possible to narrow it down to one item.) The writer sees each tree in the manuscript’s forest and wants to describe that tree. Editors and agents have to be invited into the forest first.
Thanks for such a great post! I’ve been struggling with mine for the past few days, but the one thing I can’t decide is whether to put in a bio section or not. Half the places I find say to leave it off if there’s no writing credentials, and the other half say that I should put at least something.
Krista, you should give some sense of who you are. That could be done in a few sentences. If you have some special knowledge or experience that qualifies you to write your book, including life experience, include that. If all else fails, mention that you live in, say, Walla Walla, Washington, with your husband, two boys and a pet squirrel. Some description of who you are helps the agent/editor to have a brief introduction to you.
Thanks! That does help!
What if you used to be a member of several RWA (or other org) and had to leave them, for whatever reason, how, or would, one mention the former memberships in the bio?
Thank you, Janet, for explaining so clearly what works and doesn’t work in a query (I’m going to leave the accidental rhyme in just for fun).
What I find most difficult is being concise. But all the editing helps I’ve been reading have come in handy for writing the query too. Bonus.
Blessings ~ Wendy ❀
Yes, when you’ve labored long over a project, it’s so hard to summarize it–and you–onto one page. Editing skills to the rescue!
Speaking of editing, I typed my e-mail wrong in the first comment. 😉
Janet, I hadn’t planned to say much about myself in the query since I’m a new author. Would it be wise to mention right away if I’ve participated in an agent’s webinar; read their blog; or entered a first chapter contest the agent had run?
I’m thinking it might get their wheels turning as they try to put a gravatar picture to my name(hence… keep them wake).
Wendy, if you’ve had any connection with an agent, including attending a webinar the agent presented, definitely mention it. It communicates that you’re actively working to figure this business out and that you thought the agent would offer sound advice.
The hardest part of query-writing for me was the realization that the letter didn’t have all that much to do with my book.
Instead, it seems more like a book cover, painting a word-picture that makes it impossible for the agent to resist the appeal, “pick me up!”
To that end, I try to formulate one “snapshot” that represents the heart of the story, first visualizing it as a literal picture, and then describing it in as few words as possible My theory is that the first few words are what sells the concept…and more verbiage offers greater opportunities for a positive initial response to turn negative.
These are hunches, nothing more. I may be completely wrong, but one has to do something.
I hate adding a “who I am” bio. If the concept and writing in the query are good, no businessperson in publishing will care about the details of my life (as long as I don’t rob banks every Saturday, for want of anything better to do).
And if the writing and concept are between terrible and ho-hum, no one will get to the end of the letter, so what’s the point?
Andrew, may I just add a thought regarding your bio?
I think bios are helpful for a couple reasons. For instance, where do you go when visiting a blog for the first time? I head to the “About” tab.
Just like the “about” section of a writer’s cyber home, bios are a snapshot of what you’re about. Yes, stellar writing/intriguing stories are attention-grabbers, but an interesting two or three line bio reveals more than you think.
Like Janet said, while we don’t want to oversell ourselves, it’s those tiny personal nuggets that intimate the essence of who we are. I think the publishing industry does care.
Think of it like this– A interesting bio isn’t bragging rights. It’s getting to know the person behind the book. THE book connected with your brand, your platform, and what makes you tick. And yes. As a writer, I want to know, too! 🙂
I agree with Cynthia. I might be drawn to your manuscript, but I represent authors, not manuscripts. I have to have some idea of who you are, be it ever so brief. Also, who you are should inform what you’ve written. Knowing a bit about you helps me to put your manuscript into the framework of your life.
Writing one “picture” from your book is a good entry point, but following that needs to be a peek into the rest of the book through a summary of some sort.
The query is sort of like back cover copy, in that it needs to intrigue, but a query many times needs to dip a bit deeper into the book’s overall concept than back cover copy would.
The greatest challenge in writing a query for me is that no exact specifications seem to exist. And when searching for “how to write a query” … if you discover five websites, you’ve discovered five different ways. 🙂 I am one who really likes to see a “perfect” example.
But it was the “different tack from the norm” that drew your attention … 🙂
Writing a query isn’t a science; it’s an art. Yes, certain elements must be in a query, but it’s how you construct the elements that make it work or not.
Also, one person’s perfect query might not apply to your manuscript. The example I use in this blog was just the right choice for the narrative nonfiction she had written, but it wouldn’t function as beautifully for a book on dealing with loneliness.
“It’s an art” … that helps me tremendously … and the idea of catching someone’s attention. Thank you, Janet!
I think the trickiest part of writing a query letter is engaging—or waking up—an agent or editor in the first line or two. I love what the person in the example you shared did. Now, to figure out my own way of waking up my intended reader. 😉
Writing the opening to a query is like writing the first sentence of your book. It’s paramount that it capture the reader.
I hope it helps to picture us slipping into a snooze as we make our way through query after query. We’re like the sentry on duty in the wee morning hours. We know our job is important, but it’s just so hard to stay focused…
NOOOO! No snoozing when you read my query. 🙂 The reminder that it’s like writing the first sentence of a book helps. Thanks for that illustration. 🙂
Until today, I looked at the query letter as following a formula. Thanks so much for this eye-opener for a more successful query letter.
Teri Lynne Underwood
As I finish up the last few sections of my proposal, these wise words will be my guide—
“I might be drawn to your manuscript, but I represent authors, not manuscripts. I have to have some idea of who you are, be it ever so brief. Also, who you are should inform what you’ve written. Knowing a bit about you helps me to put your manuscript into the framework of your life.”
You’re welcome, Teri Lynne. Looking forward to seeing your proposal!
I hope this makes someone smile, other than me! I’m teaching the girls to write essays for the SAT. Of course, they have to begin with a hook … one of the hardest areas in the query process for me. This was their topic:
Suffering a hardship can build character.
They’ve been told to make up statistics, quotes … just sound knowledgeable. So my youngest starts with this hook:
“Ships are as hard as rocks.”
I got tickled … and wondering how on earth she will tie that in to hardships! 🙂 I don’t know if she will manage it, but she woke me up! 🙂
That is a startling beginning. Now, to figure out where to go from there…Ah, every writer’s challenge. Thanks for sharing, Shelli.
Thank you, Janet, for clarifying the query and the agent’s situation. You distill writing a query into a few sensible and creative steps. I’m saving your post for when I’m ready to write mine and need your straightforward and friendly reminders.
I’m so glad my thoughts were helpful to you, Betsy. I wish you the best in your querying process.
Thank you, Janet! It made me smile to think of my MS as a ‘thing of beauty’…at the moment it could be a contestant on “Extreme Makeover – Manuscript Edition”! 😉
Seriously, you have helped me to understand that the query letter is more than A+B+C=Agent Representation. It’s also about revealing the heart of the writer and the heart of the story.
Thanks to everyone for the great comments!
Thanks a lot, Janet. You really gave us a crash course in writing a query or proposal. It will help.
My greatest challenge is trying to see my work through the reader’s eye so that I can describe it in a way that makes them eager to get the full story.
I’ve had people say something like, “Oh, your story is about…” and I go, “My gosh! She’s right. Why couldn’t I see that?” I guess I’m too busy writing instead of deciphering.
donnie & doggie
Dear Ms. Kobobell, Although my query takes a different tack from the norm, after your 2nd cup of coffee (with an exotic creamer) and have read my opening, 121 word sentence, would it nudge your eyes open or send you straight back to sleepy-ville?”
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept through the dingy rat-infested streets of 19th century London, (1803 to be exact) rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the irregularly placed gas lamp posts that struggled against the darkness as I dipped my quill pen in the India ink well for the last time and wrote, ‘The End’, on my middle grade historical novel for adventure seeking children, (ages eight through eleven) who are prone to devour a novel (with characters who have truly become real) in a single sitting, . . . after they do their homework of course.
I’ve often wondered what the difference between querying an editor or an agent was and you concisely explained it here. I think (may be wrong) an editor wants to hear about our books (and us) because that’s what they represent. An agent wants to hear about (books, of course) us, the author, because that’s what you represent.
That knowledge in itself is gold. It gives good direction to me as an author.
Like Shelli, my hardest part of querying is knowing what, and how much of the what, to put into a letter. That there are no set guidelines and that every agent looks for something different, as editors do is a brick wall at times. Doing a search doesn’t really help unless I only research one and stop there, then I’m shorting myself by not researching more. But more only adds confusion. And the cycle goes.
But knowing you are looking for the author behind the ms helps extensively. I’m always telling authors to promote themselves because books come and go, but you want readers to remember the author behind those books. I do a promotion feature on my blog that encompasses this thinking (no buy links are posted so readers are redirected to the author instead of one book).
It makes sense that the same is true of the person they want to represent, or sell, the author. Thank you! 🙂
Thank you, Janet. What’s most helpful from agent blog posts (for me) is to be shown and example and have it explained. I love that different approach you shared.
Query letters are a challenge no matter how long one writes for. Writing a smart one is even more hard. Thanks for such insight. It is greatly appreciated.