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WARBeat the Reaper: A NovelThe Hellhound of Wall Street: How Ferdinand Pecora's Investigation of the Great Crash Forever Changed American FinanceThe Evolution of Bruno LittlemoreThe Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, Red HarvestGlengarry Glen Ross

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Scared of the Query

Plenty of things are meant to frighten us on Halloween, but for many writers like Kelley, nothing is scarier than the query letter. (I feel like there’s an opportunity for a great costume there. If anyone out there has pictures of someone dressed up as a query letter, please send them my way.)

Kelley: “What would you say would be the most important part of a Query Letter? I have to say, I hate writing them. I seem to always put off the query letter because it scares me. As confident as I am about the stories I write, I admit to being scared of the Query. I’ve done them for short stories before and apparantly done something right, but they still loom over me.”

There’s no doubt that query letters can be a major source of anxiety, but they’re a necessary part of the process of getting your work published (if you decide not to self-publish, of course). The best thing you can do is educate yourself, and then try to stay calm. I believe that good work will shine through a marginal query in most cases.

So many people have expressed their thoughts on this topic, which is easy to see if you Google “How to write a query letter.” Most of this information is valid and perfectly useful, but beware of reading too much of it. There are differing, often contradictory opinions about the fine points of a successful query, so if you try to read everything out there you’ll drive yourself crazy. AgentQuery has a very detailed explanation of what goes into a successful query letter, and I recommend starting there.

It’s a good idea to solicit feedback on your query from friends and family, assuming they can be impartial and give you constructive criticism. Take this criticism with a grain of salt though, as the main thing you’re looking for is whether or not the letter holds their interest and/or gets them excited to read more. For useful criticism on how to shape your letter, send it to a place like Query Shark, or to other writers who blog and offer advice.

Once you’ve got a draft of your query letter that you’re happy with, the other important aspect of educating yourself is researching the agents you plan to reach out to. If an agent offers any specific guidelines—the way Nathan Bransford and Rachelle Gardner do—customize your letter to that person accordingly. This is a far more effective method than sending out the same letter to a huge list of agents. Focus your search in small bursts of 5-10 agents whose interests are in line with yours. And for Faulkner’s sake, don’t be this guy.

The obvious truth is that the most important part of a query letter is the writing. It should be the best writing you can possibly do, so it’s simply going to come down to whether or not the agent is a good match for your voice and subject matter. If you’ve done your research, you’ll be giving yourself the best possible chance.

I realize that I’ve generalized a lot here, but to be fair it was a pretty general question. Please feel free to use the comment section to ask more specific follow-up questions.

I used my extra hour from daylight savings to write this post. What did you do with yours?

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15 comments to Scared of the Query

  • chris

    Can we query you directly, or does one have to submit to the general email address on the agency web site?

  • Great post Chris. I must have rewritten my query hundreds of times. I believe that the very first sentence is the most important sentence of the query.

    I’m so glad you’re started this blog and I look forward to your posts!

  • It’s always good to run onto a new blogger who is ready and willing to tell it like it is; I like my information unvarnished. Blogging is hard work, time consuming and largely unappreciated. I hope you continue to take the time to talk to we writers, but I’d understand if it tapers off some as you build your list of best sellers. Unselfish guy that I am, I’ll help you along in that regard by sending you a query. Best wishes from the wide open west.

    Wally

  • You are right in your thinking about query letters. I”m glad you recognize that which makes you more of a real person. Thanks

  • Hey Chris, thanks for the info. :-) I tried my hand at writing query letters while I participated in the Random House Struik Creative Writing Course (it’s a course run by Random House’s South African division and Ronald Irwin) and I have to say that I’m not exactly scared of query letters but I am wary of them. Thank you for passing on the request through Daniel, I’m looking forward to submitting to you. :-)

    • Chris Kepner

      No worries, Dave. Nice to meet you, and I look forward to seeing what you’re working on. Don’t forget to include the first 25 pages or so, as per my submission guidelines. That’s more important to me than the query letter.

  • HeidiG

    Your blog about queries reads much easier than many other query articles, thanks. I must say though, I think I go beyond fear with query letters. It’s become more like a phobia. Even the word “query” is like fingernails on a chalkboard. A lady at work came to me the other day and said she had a “query for me”. She wanted Girl Scout cookies. Who queries cookies? It was as if she knew what the word would do to me. I sent you a query. *twitch* Look forward to hearing from you.

    Heidi

  • Jon Percival

    Hi Chris
    I’ve got the old dragnet out fishing for an agent that sounds like the kind of guy I can relate to. Living in sunny South Africa, long distance relationships come with the territory and simply become one more thing to test a guy, so you learn quickly that before doing anything else you need to develop a nose for things. So far I’ve found 7 of the usual suspects, and you, which I guess makes you unusual and unique for not making a good query the be-all and end-all. Reading between the lines, everybody is shouting ‘show me the money before I get my toes wet, which is fair. I’m just struggling to convince myself that most agents out there are not just picking plums in stead of looking a bit deeper, like I hope you are.
    Jon.

    • Chris Kepner

      Hi Jon,

      Thanks for the comment. One of the things that agents constantly struggle with is limited time. I’m sure this isn’t news, but it honestly can’t be said enough. If my job was 100% reading and analyzing queries to find the best new talent out there, I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the volume (especially given the depth with which I analyze each query.) I think most writers would agree that the best practice is to serve current clients first, before looking for new ones…that’s a principle I try to live by, and it necessarily means that I have less time to read queries than I’d like. The last thing I want to do, however, is imply that I don’t wish to receive queries. They are my most important asset for building my client list.

      Not sure if this is all relevant, or if I’ve gone off on a tangent – either way, I appreciate your interest.

      Chris

  • Jasper Schellekens

    it took you an hour to write this post! o.O

    :P

    maybe oscar isn’t afraid of sending query letters, but there are a lot of talented authors out there who are…

    thanks for addressing that fear.

  • brian

    What are your thoughts on re-querying?

    After both impersonal rejections that clearly state that “this project isn’t right for us” and before receiving a response.

    I came to a realization that the original query I have submitted to various agents was lacking a well-defined hook, and though I’ve only received on rejection letter so far, I’m doing my research and trying to make it more succinct and attention-grabbing. It was originally written in more of an essay format, instead of the standard: Hook – Mini-synopsis – Writer bio format.
    So far I’ve managed to cut it down from 630 words to roughly 375, and I still have to cut it down some more. The philosopher in me is having some trouble focusing on the marketable aspects rather than the intellectual aspects of my work.

    There are many plot points that bring a sense of intrigue to my character, and it’s truly daunting to pinpoint the one or two that really define her and her growth all the while informing the agent about her struggle.

    One agent says to say, “I previously queried you on this book but you passed; however, I’ve learned so much more about how to pitch my book and I don’t believe my previous query adequately captured it. I’d like to try again.”

    But that’s 37 words right there.

    I’ll just have to keep at it.

  • JEN

    Know what I do? Query therapy. I have a file of “Queries and Cover Letters I Will Never Send” full of fake queries. I start with “Dear Editor,” (or “Agent”) and write what I really think of query letters and where they can stick them. Once the vent is out, I switch screens and write a real professional letter. Works every time!

  • Kristyn Kay

    Hello Mr. Chris Kepner!

    I just wanted to say thank you so much for posting these blog entries! I have read through many of them and really appreciate the help since I am a new author. I saw you mentioned you were interested in commercial fiction and I plan on sending you a query soon. I know you are very busy so thank you for your time and I hope to hear back from you soon.

    Kristyn

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