Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On The Over-shopped Query Letter and Why I Hate It

It's time to talk about queries.

This blog is all about the writing, to be sure--and, ultimately, so is the industry. But it's the query letter that gets the ball rolling, and it's the query letter that often makes aspiring authors break out in hives.

So. I'm not going to talk about my approach to queries. It's outlined in AGENT: DEMYSTIFIED, so if you've read it, you already know this. (Short version: It's a business letter.)

What I AM going to talk about is my aversion to the over-shopped, uber-critiqued query letter that seems to be gaining popularity as more as more online resources become available to authors.

An "over-shopped" query letter is one that's been through dozens--perhaps scores--of online critique rounds. Here's the basic scenario: The aspiring author writes a query and posts it on his favorite online community or critique group. The masses have at it, offering advice, ripping it to shreds, reconstructing sentences, honing in on hooks.

At first glance, this seems like a good thing, right? Getting feedback is always good. Always.

But. Often, as the process goes on and the author keeps posting the latest iteration of said query, the essence of the query and THE VOICE OF THE AUTHOR is lost. By the time the final product exists, it bears little resemblance to anything the author may have written on his own.

Sure, the hook might feel stronger, or the overall composition of the letter might be tighter. But who, exactly, wrote the letter?

And, too, there are certain "query formulas" out there to which many subscribe. Which means that most (if not all) over-shopped query letters are going to end up as "formula letters."

Do you really want a "formula letter" to represent your work? Yourself as a professional?

Now, it might be argued that any type of business letter is a type of "formula." I agree. The difference is that when you write a query--or any type of professional communique--without outside interference, the end result is a reflection of YOU. Not your critique group.

Things work differently when you have your WORK critiqued. Somehow, if you've learned how to take the good advice and make it work for you, you'll end up with stronger writing. But how much "work" can you do to a one-page query letter without ultimately sacrificing your individuality?

You can literally "work" your query letter into something it never would have been if you had simply written it yourself.

Think about the impression this will have on a literary agent. A query comes across the desk and reflects a certain "something" about the author and the story. It's actually a compelling hook and a genre the agent represents, so he asks for sample chapters and a synopsis.

When they arrive, they are completely at odds with the query letter.

And, too, I believe many agents have developed an eye for the "over-shopped" query, to the point where, unless the sample pages (you DO include sample pages in your queries, don't you?) blow him away, he's going to yawn his way through the "cookie cutter query" and move on to the next one.

Naturally I've got an anecdote to go along with all this.

When I thought (foolishly) that my first novel was ready to be queried, I posted my I-sweat-blood-over-this-thing query letter on a writer's community and asked for critique. Hoo, baby, I got it. Rip, tear, rip, tear, and I rolled with it and changed things around and editing my fingers off, until I had the perfectly over-shopped query letter.

And I began the querying process.

The good news is that I soon realized the novel wasn't good enough to publish (it was a mess, actually). But before I halted the querying process, I garnered two requests for partials. Two! Naturally, both of them turned quickly into rejections. But that over-shopped query had worked its magic, making me feel, for a little while, that I actually had something good to offer.

Of course, none of the critters had read my novel, or knew the least thing about it (except for what was in my original query). Had they read it, they would have deleted me from the community on grounds of ineptitude.

Now, I'm not telling you to go write your query letter in a dark hole somewhere. Getting an opinion or two is wise. But I strongly advise you against over-shopping it.

Know what else I advise against? Fretting over it. It's really not the big, scary monster it's been made out to be.

And all those "THIS is the way to write a super-fantabuloso query letter!" blog posts and articles and pages on agent web sites? Read them. BUT TAKE THEM WITH A GRAIN OF PROVERBIAL SALT.

Now you know why I don't want to do query critiques on the blog as part of our "crit venue." My personal query philosophy just doesn't line up with that.

Still wishing we'd do something with queries here on the blog? You're in luck! In July, we're going to have a Very Special Query Contest.

That's all I'm going to say.


Write your novel, edit your novel, edit your novel some more. When it's time to write your query letter, buy my e-book, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and write it. No sweating, no fretting.

It's just another stepping stone across the pond. If you slip once or twice, you're not going to drown.

Trust me.


  1. SO TRUE....and not just with queries, but with manuscripts as well. When you crit it too much, it becomes not yours; when it becomes not yours, you've lost it.

  2. I've read on a number of blogs how some query letters are beyond perfect and then the actual novel doesn't match up --- maybe some are spending too much time on the wrong thing!!

  3. I totally, totally agree. I share my query letters, just for people to tell me if it has a major hole, or if something doesn't make sense. For fresh eyes, basically.

    If it's got something wrong, then I fix it. I almost never take someone else's "fix" suggestions, because they almost never sound like me!

    It's a simple as that.

  4. This reminds me of kids who get WAY too much help writing college admissions letters. Some input is good, but you need to make sure that you actually present yourself as who you are to colleges... including your own limitations! Great advice, and advice I'll definitely keep in mind when I shop my own query some day.

  5. Great post! I totally agree! :-)

  6. I agree.
    Okay I've got something dumb to say. No comments necessary. This may be anal. Anal warning. Some agents want an email query. Some books on the subject say, you need a full salutation, address, name (of course), date, company name. Then I read rants by agents who say dont send that crap...just the name ma-am. They claim it wastes valuable space and reading time (hey, who's going to read their own salutation??).

    My only recommendation is for the agent to publish on his site, an example of the form and content they'd like, including salutations, and if they prefer the artsy-do anyway you like approach (be yourself) or something in between, say so.

  7. Locksley-- Who says anal is bad? ;)

    Email does not require the address/date thing the way a typed paper business letter would.


    *You are not sending to, nor expecting a return mail to, a physical address
    *Emails are automatically time/date stamped when they are sent.

    You DO need a proper salutation, as that's just good business manners.

    And you DO need your appropriate contact info at the bottom: Name, email address, phone number.

    Follow those guidelines and you'll be good to go!

  8. My problem is the ever-changing query. I think I have like seven versions for the same book. I can't ever decide which is the best way to tackle it.

    And, to be honest, I think different approaches work with different agents. Subjectivity is the word. And where some dismiss my project based on the query, others are intrigued. And I think some see through the query to the project.

    I'm not sure there's a one-size-fits-all solution on these. But making sure you voice gets through the mix is key. Because THAT is what you want an agent to connect with.

  9. This is a good reminder. One of the main things I get from reading agent blogs is that they are most bothered by queries that do not reveal the characters or the story or that lack the author's voice. Only the author can supply those things. When I'm ready to query my work I will concentrate on those things and frame the letter with professionalism. That's the plan and I'm sticking with it.

  10. Hear! Hear! If you lose your voice, than what are you selling?

    I sat down and wrote a bunch of loglines (hooks, aka the one-sentence opener) and mini-synopses for my novel. By doing this, I was able to experiment and then go back and pick out the best parts or phrases from each one.

  11. THANK YOU!

    Your commentary on the over reviewed and decimated query letter is so on the mark
    that I wanted to stand up and cheer! You know, I think I will ...

    I'm back. Think I scared my dog.

    In short - if the letter doesn't reflect the author and the writing, then it is not an honest letter of introduction -
    or good query.

    And thats all I have to say about that.


  12. Anyone want to critique my query?
    Just kidding.
    But not really. ;)

    All I know is that when I started asking for query critiques on various sites, I got tons of useful feedback, including a generous rewrite of it. Another useful result was that I figured out what my book was really about. What scares me is this "one shot" deal where I get one shot to impress an agent in 250 words. So why wouldn't I do everything in my power to impress an agent enough to request a partial or full read? Especially as a new, unpublished author with few credentials. Frankly, it is a big, scary monster to me, especially since I know that I suck at anything resembling marketing. i need all the help I can get.

    BTW I went to check out your book and I can't access the site. :(

  13. lapetus999 --

    It's not a big, scary monster, and you need less help than you think you do. Seriously. I promise.

    And I'm sorry for the inconvenience with the sales site; their server has been down for about the past hour. (GRRR!) I just checked; they're back up again.

  14. I watched your I'm more scared than ever *shakes*
    I think need more stuffed animals (or cashews).

    Yup, site's back up, and they take PayPal (wooo!)

    Thanks for the encouragement!

  15. I had one critter on a writer's forum get mad because I wouldn't use his suggestions. But the voice was all wrong, not to mention it was so obvious he didn't get what it meant for a teenage girl to be raped. To him, the girl wouldn't have trust issues when it came to guys. I kid you not.

    He then attacked every aspect of my query. Problem was (for him that is), no one one agreed with him and all were quick to defend it. After that, I wrote off the whole forum query critting thing.

    Curious to see what the Very Special Query Contest is, though.

  16. This post reminds me of Nathan Bransford's Agent for a Day competition about a month ago. I won't go into all the details, but at the end, he basically said that people seemed to be requesting queries based on the technical perfection of the query, rather than the story behind the query. He said it was the job of agents to look beyond the query and assess the story itself. That made me realise that you don't need a perfectly polished query - you need one that represents the story. As you said so well Authoress, if you get your query critiqued over and over, then it may lose all resemblance to something you wrote.

  17. This is a great post, I'm going to put up a link on my blog...which happens to be a query critique blog (The Public Query Slushpile).

    I think there is some value in the critique (otherwise I wouldn't have started it, and blogs like Query Shark and Evil Editor would not be so popular). The real key is to know what to do with the feedback.

    If you take every single comment to heart and re-write your query incorporating all of the feedback, you will lose your identity and probably skewer your story at the same time.

    But if there is one common thread in all of the comments, it may be advice worth taking. Just remember that you know your work better than anyone else, and make sure you stay in control of the writing.

    Janet Reid had a great post on query fear recently, too:

  18. It took me eight (part-time) years of research, writing, and editing to produce my novel. I thought THAT required perseverance - but this whole query process is even MORE daunting. A girl could go crazy reading all the advice out there - in books, on agent blogs, etc. Bottom line: There doesn't seem to be one RIGHT way to write a query. But it's hard to guess an agent's taste ahead of time - for instance, do they require a personal connection like Nathan Bransford seems to? Does voice matter more than anything? Do your credentials help to persuade them? Are rhetorical questions really so horrendous? What's a girl to do?!

    So, hey, I'm grateful for sites like The Public Query Slushpile - I figure it's worth a shot having other writers look at my query first. I mean, even though my mother-in-law likes the current version, it doesn't mean the agents-of-my-choice will. ;-)

  19. SO with you. Overwriting/overediting is a crap pie in the making. We all know that. We've all seen it in books that are so familiar. High profile court case where female lawyers wearing stilettos date recovering half-shaved obnoxious alcoholics get kidnapped and blah, blah, blah. Right? I mean, how many of us want to call up those authors and demand our thirteen bucks back? I'd rather read a well written book twice than a bad one once.

  20. A query letter is a marketing tool. I think when you write one, you should pretend you are an advertising
    smarts with a name like:


    And then write it.

    The main thing to remember is that you are an agent for sales. A vacuum salesman with a foot in the door. The synopsis will be more detailed, but even then I don't think you need to get bogged down in hideous detail.

    I blogged about Synopses. Synopses are summaries. If they are boring, I'd say the chances are so is the manuscript. It's so easy for the author to plot the novel but to lose the plot in the synopses. Concentrate on the Hero/Heroine.
    Summarise them by asking questions, based on GMC and answer them, then summarise the summary.
    Some synopses read like the phone call you get from India trying to sell you a phone plan... has anyone ever understood them?
    A good author, in my opinion, will automatically have their voice showing through. And a good agent, and editor, it will surprise you, will see it.
    But it's easier said than done. I know. But if you feel confident, then I reckon it shines through.

  21. I have to admit that when I was first ready to market, it took months before I even got up the gumption to begin a query! I knew failure was imminent, so why bring myself closer to to my own demise?

    I read a ton of books/websites, but in the end, like you say, it came down to me writing, re-writing, throwing out and beginning again (sound familiar??).
    Until I had something I was comfortable with that could be easily modified depending on the agent I am querying.

    I fully agree with you - a query should carry the author's voice, otherwise it's just another form letter...

  22. Thank you for this post. It's timely for me as I'm in the middle of revamping my query, (to lead with a hook or to ditch the hook) trying to sort through all the contradictory viewpoints out there.

  23. Query letter is giving me a hard time. I also have that kind of experience like yours in writing a query letter.

  24. You've freed me, Authoress. I've been posting my query for critique, and I wind up pulling my hair out. You hit it on the head.

    Sigh. I feel much better.

    *looking for original query to edit*

  25. I have to agree. I received some very helpful feedback on QueryTracker and a few other sites, and then proceeded to edit it to death. I needed to hear te feedback to find my own voice if that makes sense...and them only when I took what I learned and trashed the query I'd revised for 2 years and faced a blank piece of paper did I tart getting requests. It was a necessary progress for me to work it to death and then start over. No offers yet, but at least I'm getting requests finally! And each time I made changes in the query, I slowly began to see how the overall ms could be improved. Because of a few query critiques I think I've vastly improved my entire story.