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Thoughts on Querying Agents

On Sunday night I began querying agents to pitch Kagemusha. By Tuesday morning, I already had two form rejections in my inbox.

Querying is a maddening business for everyone involved. Agents (or their interns) have to read through twenty plus queries a day. They reject most on sight. Some agencies can take four to six weeks to respond to a query, if they respond at all. Then if they ask for the manuscript, it could be another two or three months before you get the final "I loved it, but I didn't love it enough to represent it. Sorry."

You rarely learn exactly why you were rejected. It could be any number of things, and none of them are personal. A quick rejection doesn't mean that the book sucks, or that the query sucks, or that you're doing anything wrong.

Unless you are doing something wrong.

Before I wrote my query, I spent a lot of time studying how to construct one. I read blogs by editors who critique queries submitted to them. I participated in forums where writers post queries to get feedback from their peers. And I learned that, to be honest, most of the queries for unpublished books out there are downright terrible.

Here are some basic, basic tips for constructing a decent query letter.

Brush up on grammar.

Some people seem to think that because they have large vocabularies and can come up with clever turns of phrase, they don't need to bother with petty technicalities like proper spelling and punctuation.

The other day I read a complaint by a young woman who was upset because her critique partners kept pointing out mistakes in her manuscripts.

"Its really frustrating my peers are so close minded. I've taken English Comp and I was the best writer in my class, I know how to follow the rules of grammar and I am so sick of all their negativity!"

If you can't see anything wrong with the above, stop reading blog posts right now. Obtain a copy of The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage or similar. Read it. Memorize it. Sleep with it under your pillow. Then talk to me about your misunderstood genius.

Comma splices are not stylistic choices. Slaughtered homophones are not artistic touches. A grammatical error here or there will not make or a break an entire manuscript, but it will kill a query letter dead.

Stick to the story.

The second problem I see often on these blogs and boards is that writers don't seem to know what their story is. They gunk up the query with irrelevant details, and the main narrative arc gets lost.

Here's a fabricated example for Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which I finished reading a few days ago.

Evelyn Couch, a middle-aged housewife with suicidal tendencies, visits her mother-in-law's nursing home one Sunday and meets Ninny Threadgoode. Ninny reminisces to Evelyn about her youth in Whistle Stop, Alabama.

In the 1930s, Ninny married the boy next door, Cleo Threadgoode. She had a crush on Buddy Threadgoode, Cleo's charismatic younger brother, but Buddy passed away in his early twenties. Cleo's sister Idgie ran the Whistle Stop Cafe, a restaurant that served the best barbecue sandwiches and lemon icebox cakes in the state.

As a teenager, Idgie had fallen in love with Ruth Jamison, a beautiful Sunday school teacher who boarded with the Threadgoodes. But Ruth fled from the relationship to marry her fiance, Frank. When Ruth's mother died, Idgie rescued Ruth from her abusive marriage, and together they raised Ruth's son, Buddy Jr. (a.k.a., "Stump"). Years later, Idgie was accused of murdering Frank, who was actually killed by the Threadgoode family's housekeeper, Sipsey, when he tried to kidnap baby Stump.

Eventually Ninny passes away, and Evelyn visits the dying town of Whistle Stop to say goodbye to the Threadgoodes.

This, my friends, is not a query. This is a book report, and a confused book report at that.

Fried Green Tomatoes is a difficult book to condense succinctly, but so are most other books, especially if they feature multiple main characters with complex and intertwining plots.

The trick is to pick one story to highlight. Banish the details of the subplots and backstory from your mind. No, you will not convey all of the poignant brilliance of your novel. You don't have to. You just have to represent it accurately, with enough flair to catch the agent's interest.

Middle-aged housewife Evelyn Couch is lonely, overweight, and suicidal—until she meets quirky octogenarian Ninny Threadgoode. Though Evenlyn is initially put off by Ninny's ceaseless chatter, she comes to look forward to the sweet widow's nostalgic tales of growing up in the small town of Whistle Stop, Alabama.

Ninny entertains Evelyn with stories about her sister-in-law Idgie Threadgoode, the free-spirited proprietor of the beloved Whistle Stop Cafe. As Evelyn hears about Idgie's humorous antics and courageous deeds, she's inspired to overcome her depression, rediscover religion, and find the backbone to start a new life for herself selling Mary Kay cosmetics.

FRIED GREEN TOMATOES AT THE WHISTLE STOP CAFE is a story of self-discovery and a richly comic, nuanced portrait of the twentieth-century South. The novel addresses themes of racism, lesbianism, and the changing cultural landscape of America from World War I to the present.

You could afford to fit more details about Idgie etc. in there, but you get the idea. Alternatively, if you were Fannie Flagg and you wanted to emphasize the story of Idgie, you could leave out Evelyn or mention her as a framing device. But you can't bounce between both—not in one short page that will be skimmed in a matter of seconds.

Be precise.

Many of the writers who post their queries for feedback have a bizarre but understandable tendency: they're so focused on writing an attention-grabbing pitch that they forget to say anything about the book.

Here's another fabricated example, reminiscent of a dozen queries I've seen in the last week alone.

After fifteen years of privilege and isolation, Jonah has only one thing left to live for: revenge.

Escaping from the confines of his gilded cage, Jonah has a life-changing encounter with a boy named Dean that can only be described as fate. As Jonah learns more about Dean, he finds himself tangled in a web of deceit, conspiracy, and betrayal that makes him question everything he ever believed in. And when Jonah starts to fall for Dean's beautiful sister, Paige, he just might end up breaking the greatest taboo of all.

FALLEN is a high fantasy for young adults complete at 60,000 words. It is the first novel of the Allysia trilogy.

I have no idea what this fictitious novel is about, but it sure sounds exciting!

You may think I'm exaggerating with this example. I assure you, I am not. Blinded by the sparkle of their words, people will write very long and elaborate queries about absolutely nothing.

A query is not a 1930s movie trailer. You can't get away with, "Thrills! Chills! Romance!" You need to give concrete, relevant details that convey exactly what the heck your book is about.


Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt (September 30, 2014, 3:59 pm)

The only problem I've found - okay, the MAIN problem - with the people who comment on certain blogs is that I don't know how well they write fiction: I just know how they write comments.

It is often clear right there: misspellings; 'its' for 'it's' and vice versa; alot and alright; affect/effect/impact; the inability to have a sentence actually say something.

The heartbreaking ones have written and published many novels - and aren't selling any. I have clicked on links and read the Look Inside the Book! feature for some of them, and have gently tiptoed out of there as quickly as I can.

It seems impolite to point errors out to people not seeking correction; the once or twice I have attempted a mild suggestion, I have regretted it.

So I don't any more, unless it has been requested - who am I to correct anyone else? Others, braver, have gone into the breach - I hope their suggestions are at least listened to better than mine.

Your suggestions above work as well for descriptions if you are self-publishing rather than querying. You are trying to get a reader to do the same thing you want an agent or editor to: read further into the actual book.

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What is the first letter of "Missouri"?