Monday, February 20, 2017

No, I don't understand how to do novel query letters, either

I've written a novel. I think it's pretty good, both artistically and from the point-of-view of commercial potential. Every year, thousands of people get to this same point. When we get this far, conventional wisdom is that the best thing to do is to write query letters to literary agents.

I've read half a dozen articles online and the advice from the Writer's Market on how to do this. I've written several versions of a query letter. I've sent off five. I have no idea what I'm doing.

Everyone wants something a little different. Some want the query letter attached to an email. Some say just put it in the body of the email itself. In this latter case, do I try to keep the formal format with the letterhead and everything?

Some want the first few pages of the novel. My book has a short introduction that is really part of the book. Do I start from that or just go to Chapter One?

Examples of "query letters that succeeded" are so all over the map, they're of no more use to me than an article called "novels that succeeded" would be.

All the advice suggests I include some kind of personal link, some "here's why I think you would be great to represent this book" statement. But these seem so obviously false, I can't believe agents really appreciate them. Why did I pick you? Your name was in the book, and I'd really be happy with almost any agent at all right now, that's why. Any agent is better than the no agent I currently have. Can't I just jump to talking about the book?

Then, there are those who want a synopsis. These are just awful to write. They're supposed to be a few pages and include nearly every plot point from the whole book. Most agents don't want them. Or they do, but in some modified form. You have to tell what your book is about, but without any of the magic that hopefully made it interesting. To modify the old saying, it's like trying to write that the New Testament is the story of a Jewish carpenter.

Blake Kimzey, the guy who critiqued my short story for me and whose chapbook I thought was pretty inventive, just finished writing a novel of his own. He had this tweet the other day:

That's about as good as I can give you, too. Nothing about it comes naturally to me. Agents want great work to take to publishers. I get that they might want to give writers a few hoops to jump through to weed out the lazy or the novice. But the querying process just seems made to put writers off their game, making it a pretty good bet that a good number of books that might have done well end up slipping through the cracks. I'm not saying that I'm sitting on top of the great American novel here, although I hope I am, of course. Only that I find querying to be such a different skill from fiction writing, I honestly think one could excel at one and never master the other.


  1. Replies
    1. Unfortunately, I was taught to pray along the lines of "Not my will, but Thy will be done." If it isn't God's will that my book be published, then I'd rather His will not be done.

  2. No clue about the "dos". Have some "don'ts" for you (perhaps a look at your competition will cheer you up)

    1. Score. Just by speaking English better than Google Translate and not believing Jesus handed me my manuscript in a dream, I'm ahead of at least some of the competition.

  3. Have you tried pure mystification? The hard sell? Really, I bet it's primarily social: who you know. The query letter must surely make it into the trash better than 9 times out of ten. But forwarded by some insider, that'd make all the difference Seriously publishing is such a closed, New York business.

    I'm reminded of Mencken who promised he'd publish a great novel if some random person would just send the manuscript. He said he submissions of all sorts, some wrapped in ribbon, but all universally terrible. It's hard to overcome that fact: most people who think they can write are simply terribly. If that's most of what you've got to deal with, what would you do as an agent if not rely upon friends to recommend? And even that's little better than a curse.

    Try spiritual threats.