Friday, July 13, 2012

It's a Query Letter not a Ransom Note!

The fine art of querying sends many writers running for the hills or seeking shelter in a cave. For some reason it makes many of us cringe at the thought despite the fact that a query really is just more writing. So why do we all seem to hate it so much? Well, there are many things you can do to make the process less painful, and there's lots of tips on how to craft a good query if you know where to look.

I will preface by saying, although I have not sent out a formal query letter yet, I have spent many hours researching what makes a good query letter and follow many agents/editors on twitter that do #10queriesin10tweets. I have learned quite a lot about querying. In fact I've learned enough to know that if you have half a brain, pay attention to submission guidelines, and are polite and professional you are probably ahead of about 50% of the pack right off the bat. Crazy I know but it's true! A quick Google search is really all it takes and that's before you even consider the synopsis, writing, word count etc. of the manuscript being queried.

I will say if you are a writer that is querying or you are even thinking about querying at some point in the future, follow #10queriesin10tweets periodically, the information there is invaluable. It really puts things in perspective. In the hundreds of tweets to this hashtag I can count on one hand the number of requests for pages I've seen result from queries. And as discouraging as it sounds, to me it's simply not because of the common offenses I see committed when people query. 

Follow the submission guidelines
I'd say that the biggest thing that gets a 'no' is not following submission guidelines. Which is anything from querying a genre the agent doesn't represent, to not pasting in the first 10 or so pages, to sending attachments. By the way most agents hate attachments because it puts them at risk for a whole host of viruses and malware so they simply do not open them and often just reject the query. You don't open attachments from unknown senders, so why should they? (and if you do shame on you!)

Lack of plot/conflict
I also see a lot of rejections because the query letter fails to explain what the book is about and what the conflict is. Agents want to know why they should fall in love with your book but if you are just giving them a play by play then they don't need to read your book they already know what's going to happen. Avoid the and then, and then, and then syndrome in both your manuscript and your query.

Word Count
Word count isn't always a make or break but knowing your genre and a rough range you should fall in can save you a lot of headache. If you are way outside the estimated range, think long and hard before you query. And no don't go in thinking you are the exception to the rule, you most likely aren't. There are tons of posts about word count out there, so I will just say Google to find your genre and a good range for it.

An error or two in your query are not the end all be all, but if you query is littered with grammatical mistakes this tells the agent you don't know your craft. Would you send out a resume with a bunch of typos and expect to get a job? No! So make sure you proofread your query letter and get at least one other set of eyes on it to catch as many mistakes as possible.

Weak Writing
This I see a fair amount as well and this one is harder because it's often difficult to see fault in our own writing. Even if you have a critique partner or group, you sometimes don't know when you are done, ready to query and if you've done all that you can. And yes every writer should have at least one person they run their writing by that isn't a close friend or relative that will be honest and objective. So this one is tough to see, and usually means we as writers need to work more on our craft and continue to improve before we query. But the good news is, in most cases weak writing can be fixed.

Now these are the query notes that I usually laugh at when I see them on twitter. No you can't have a book deal and a film deal right off the bat, no you are not the next J. K. Rowling so you can't be a diva about your query, and no you shouldn't query your self published novel looking for an agent to make you more money. And then there was this one that I saw yesterday that made me flat out cringe.
Now I won't pretend to read the agent's mind here but I'm going to wager a guess that this query was possibly on the verge of having additional pages requested when the agent got to the demand of "6 figure advance." Not only did this writer shoot themselves in the foot but they cut their legs off, threw them in a river, and then tried to run a marathon. We as querying writers are in no position to make demands. Don't get me wrong there is a time and a place for some negotiations (and I use some generously) but not when you are querying.

The purpose of a query is to introduce yourself and your manuscript to an agent and see if they are interested in looking at more. Nothing more. You are selling yourself and your manuscript to the agent. So when you as a writer start making demands, you immediately become an undesirable person to work with. Publishing is a business and it's professional. Would you walk into your current boss' office and demand a six figure salary? No! So why are you doing it in a query letter?

So when I saw this tweet I cringed and nearly wanted to cry. In my experience most writers do it because they love the craft, love getting lost in the worlds they write and love spending time with the characters they create. In the beginning, most of us would be ecstatic just to see our name on the cover of a book that we wrote. The advance is nice but by and large we want to see our manuscript in print, out there in the world being enjoyed by others. Writing is not a get rich quick profession and if you think it is maybe you need to reevaluate your priorities. 

So remember this when you query: it's a query letter not a ransom note! You can't hold your manuscript hostage for unreasonable demands or you will never get anywhere in the publishing world. By all means wait for the right agent that gets your work, loves it like you do and has a good plan for how to revise and sell your work but don't be ridiculous.

The more I research the more I find that querying really isn't this huge elusive mystery. Writers tend to make the process way more complicated than it needs to be. Do your homework, write a well structured to the point query that has all the required information and query the right agents. We are writers so querying should be just like writing anything else, write, revise, perfect, execute, yet we tend to stress over the process. Yes the act of querying is stressful but actually writing the query shouldn't make us sweat so much. Take a deep breath, be polite and professional, follow the guidelines and put your best work forward. Eventually you will find the right place for your work.