WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT QUERIES?
A tense phone conversation between Editor and Writer.
Characters: Editor: (here on out known as Ellen).
Writer: (here on out known as Kathryn).
Kathryn: Hi Ellen. It’s Kathryn. I just got another rejection letter. That makes five this month.
Ellen: It’s that damn slush pile. You’ll never make it through. Impossible.
Ellen: You don’t have the right query. Your query letter is all wrong.
Kathryn: What’s wrong with my query letter? I followed the instructions. My query describes the book in an exciting manner, says a little about me, and includes the first few chapters. Isn’t that what they want?
Ellen: No! They want….they want….who the hell knows what they want? O, never mind. Queries are a waste. You need a Blog.
Kathryn: A Blog?
Ellen: Yes! Get yourself out there. Create a buzz. Capture attention! It’s the only way!
Kathryn: But…what would I say? I’m an unpublished author, a former actor, and my teaching is on hold for the summer. Aren’t blogs for people who have something to say, something to sell?
Ellen: Everyone’s blogging. It’s the only way to get your book out there. Queries are a waste. Slush piles are deep. Start blogging. Call me next week. Click.
End Scene 1
Three months earlier at Kathryn’s house
Follies (not the musical)
After years of labor, countless rewrites, edits, perfecting word choice, character development, theme, pacing, chapter titles, punctuation--after mulling over critical critiques from friends, editors, skeptical neighbors, mailmen, and my sister-in-law (who absolutely LOVED it), I’ve finished my masterpiece—an utterly original, hit it out of the park, blockbuster middle grade novel. Finally. After 728 gallons of coffee, 3,195 shitty drafts, and premature eye damage from staring at the computer screen for three years, I’m Done. Ready. To. Go. This 53,000 word piece of brilliance will run, not walk to bookstores—real and virtual, across the globe. Don’t let the crowds intimidate you. I’ll be waiting—handing out signed copies at your local book store. No shoving necessary! There’s one for everyone. Why, yes, Mr. Spielberg, I’d love to discuss movie rights over a goblet of alcohol.
Some Time Later
My, it’s quiet. I can almost hear the pages of my manuscript turning from the eighth floor of Random House. Didn’t I send out those queries three weeks ago? Or was it three months? I wonder if I typed in the right email. Maybe I forgot to push Send. Did I double space like they told me to? Maybe they have scheduled a literary agency company meeting about film rights and subsequent sequels to my book, but are postponing until their first string gets back from the Hamptons.
Hello? Anyone there? It’s me, Kathryn Wrye, future famous children’s author knocking on your door. Mr. Publisher? Ms. Literary Agent? Did you receive my query? My blood, sweat and tears composed in Times New Roman? Rap. Rap. Rap. Knock. Knock. Knock. BAM. BAM. BAM. Open the damn door!
The Hard Facts
For those who don’t have the skinny on Query letters, let me give you my version. When we writers finish a book--right about the time our hair is falling out, we look for a reputable (or not) agent/ publisher to query. Truth be told, I cast a wide net. Any person claiming to be an agent or publisher will have my query in their Inbox. In the query (synonym for begging), we describe in juicy detail the thrust of our book, hopefully leaving the agent/publisher wanting more. (And THEN what happened)? That’s why we include emails, phone numbers, and in some cases, bread crumbs and a map to our house. We also add a few blurbs about ourselves—who we are and why we are querying that particular agent. Agents are people too, and they like to feel special, especially since they receive over 10,000 queries a week. That’s a lot of begging. Numbers alone make this method inefficient. Score 1 for Editor Ellen.
Now, here’s where it gets personal. On their website, most literary agents and book publishers make much hooey about great queries. Warnings like, If you don’t Wow us with your query, we won’t read a single word of your book, are highlighted on every editor’s website. Rumor has it that great book queries are harder to write than the actual book. O for crying out loud! Query Schmery. Don’t surmise that if the query’s no good, the book’s no good. Baloney. Just read the damn ten pages you asked me to send. Who cares if I’m not a Query genius? I’ve rewritten mine at least thirty times.
Agents have lots of pet peeves. I would too if I had to slosh through thousands of Please Pick Me queries every day. Hovering at the top of the list are some major Don’ts for query letters. 1. Don’t write Dear Ms. Orange if you are querying Dear Ms. Lemon. Ms. Lemon will take offense and assume you are nothing but a big fake, a dumb person, a lousy writer. Get names straight. When you query 300 agents at a time(I never said that), you have to remember to delete each name before sending off the next one, so it looks like you are querying that particular agent/publisher. 2. Don’t mention all the famous producers you know in LA that could turn your unpublished manuscript into a blockbuster movie deal. Smells of desperation, even if you do know a producer, or happened to see one once. 3. And for the love of God, don’t say your manuscript is the next Harry Potter. It’s insulting, it’s a cliché, and it’s not true. Mine is.
The Ugly Truth
Below, I’ve cribbed a standard Submission guideline blurb you’ll find on most agent/publisher websites. The comments in parenthesis are me channeling what agents are really saying.
Dear Writer (your pie-in-the-sky career choice, not mine), Yes! We would love to read your work (Also got a bridge I’d like to sell you). We are currently accepting unsolicited submissions. (Get a real job like the rest of us)! We here at Andrea’s Awesome Literary Agency are always on the lookout for new voices (movie deals). Please send us a brief synopsis (don’t bore the hell out of us), and the first three chapters (TMI) in the body of the email. Any Attachments (those hostile, bug-infested entities) will disqualify your work and be (gleefully) deleted (or ripped to shreds and thrown into the East River, depending on who’s working that day). Please be patient as we sift through the thousands of queries we receive each week. (We have a vast and deep slush pile of crappy queries we couldn’t get to if there were an army of us). We carefully read each submission. (LOL). We will get back to you if interested (Sayonara sucker).
Now that you have my take on the Query letter, and a more sympathetic view of Editor Ellen’s deep distrust of them, may you never have to write one, and if the day comes when you find yourself querying Andrea’s Awesome Literary, I hope you get to be the blue paper clip. In the meantime, if you want to join my writing group, I’m silver paper clip #356--directly behind you--climbing my way out of the deep sinkhole, commonly referred to as the slush pile.
I’ll keep you posted.