Tag Archives: querying

The Great Big Post of Querying

12 Aug

So, recently, a reader emailed me asking me how I went about querying and finding my agent. I’d actually meant to put up a post about this a long time ago, but the old post included my actual query, which, now that I look at it, is rather spoilery…

I will, however, go through some of the tools I found most helpful and give a basic outline of how the process went.

I started writing my query letter literally a month or so before I sent out my first email (I didn’t snail mail any queries), and then I revised and revised and revised and revised some more. I sent it to critique partners, read it to friends, etc, until I’d whittled it down to about three paragraphs that made sense, got to the heart of the conflict, and gave the reader just enough world building. 

During this time, I was collecting a list of agents I’d like to work with, too. Many of these names I got from blogs, since I’d spent so much time reading agent blogs to figure out how to put together a query letter in the first place. Some I got from contests (I got my agent Emmanuelle’s name from Miss Snark’s First Victim’s Secret Agent Contest!).

 Wherever I got the names from, I checked to see if they had blogs or twitter or anything like that. Not everyone does, and that’s fine if they don’t, but if they do tweet or whatever, sometimes you can get an idea of what they’re looking for. I know the internet’s not the best way to make a judge of character or anything, but sometimes you can get a sense of how someone’s like to work with.                                                      .
Also, a check on querytracker (I did a whole long post about that here) never hurt, either. There’s also www.agentquery.com, but I didn’t use that as much. However, they usually list a number of links to interviews and such that the agent has done, and those can be really helpful. 

Publisher’s Marketplace does require a subscription fee, but it’s not too bad and if you have a membership, you can see what’s been sold by whom and to whom. Which is handy if you’re looking to see who has, say, a really good track record in cozy mysteries or something. Not all sales get reported to PM, though, and some are reported late, so it’s not an end all be all source. 

The Absolute Write forum (or water cooler, as they call it) can be very helpful, too. Many agencies have their own thread in the Writers Beware subforum, and you can search a particular agent’s name to see what sort of experience other writers have had with them in the past. Often, you’ll even see a few people announce that they’ve recently signed on with said agent. The smaller agencies sometimes have rather lackluster, seldom-visited threads, though…which doesn’t at all reflect on the quality of the agency. 

Finally, I got a TON of help from just other writers. The girls at LTWF were an enormous help, as were other friends I made online, who gave me advice about everything from manuscript formatting to query-letter-writing.

I sent out queries in really small batches, since my overall list was pretty small. I ended up signing with Emmanuelle after about two months (longest two months of my life. Truly, lol), but I suppose if I hadn’t gotten any offers after a long while, I would have had to widen my search a little. 

In the end, everybody talks so much about query, and there’s a ton of advice out there (even about the best day of the week or the best time of day to send a query—as a literary intern, I’m just going to say…at least at the agency where I work, this is not going to matter in the least), but in the end, there’s only so much you can do. And writing a really strong story trumps most of the other stuff anyway 🙂


Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen and her book WHAT’S LEFT OF ME is about a 15-year-old girl fighting for her right to survive in a world where two souls are born to each body and one is doomed to disappear. It recently sold in a three-book deal to HarperTeen. You can read more about her writing process, travels, and books at her blog.


The Querying Flowchart of DOOM

17 Mar

by Kat Zhang


No, silly, it’s not actually “of DOOM,” but sometimes querying feels like it, no? (And besides, as writers, we’re obligated to be dramatic, right? What, that’s actors, you say? Pshaw!!)

Anyway, in order to ease the beginning querier into the query process, I’ve made a handy-dandy flow chart. Yes, it’s a very condensed version of the pre-query checklist…mostly because I only have so much patience with making little multi-colored text balloons. Also, there are no arrows. I know. Sadness. But look at it as a test of thy skill, young querier! If you can not master the maze that is the Query Flowchart of DOOM, then see it as a sign that you need more training before daring to enter the lair of the dragon–I mean confront Darth Vader–I mean query!

Are you ready to begin your test of skill??

Enter at thy own peril…

So? Did you make it? Are you ready to send out those queries? 😀

…and did you notice the two missing bubbles?

…because I totally did that on purpose as a further test of your skills.


that’s my story, and I’m STICKIN’ WITH IT!



Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen and her book HYBRID–about a girl with two souls–is currently on submission to publishers. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.

The Parts of a Good Query Letter

28 Feb

by Susan Dennard


I have a popular post on my personal blog that’s part of a series I did called How I Got My Agent.  I thought I’d take out the “good bits” from Part 1, and share them with you here.

Much like in the How to Write a 1-page Synopsis, I’ve drawn up a “worksheet” that you can use to format and write your novel’s query letter.

And if you’re interested in reading about WHY my query worked from my agent’s point of view, you can read about it on the NCLit blog.


The Query

I started querying on October 6, 2010.  But before that, I spent a loooooooong time honing my query letter.  Like, I took workshops, read books, and got feedback until my eyes bled.

But it all paid off!  Out of the 12 agents I queried, 9 requested a full or partial manuscript.  WEEEEE, right?  (Note: part of my success rate has to do with my research, but I’ll talk about that in Part 2: The Prep.  Nonetheless, a good chunk of my success was thanks to my kick-booty query.)

The thing about query letters is that there is a general standard for what should be in a query and how it should be presented. Above all else, you must include a summary of your book — you must show your book’s plot. Next, you need to keep the query professional.  This is a business letter — remember that!

A few other rules to keep in mind:

  1. Be brief, be brief, be brief! Your goal is to snag the agent’s attention immediately and only share enough information so they want to read more.  Keep the story summary under 250 words.
  2. Do not tell the ending! The purpose of a query is to show an editor/agent that you can tell a story from beginning to end, but you want to leave the end unknown. This is much like the back of book – you want to sell your story and entice them to read more.
  3. You must lay out,
    1. the MC’s goal,
    2. why the MC is choosing to act,
    3. what’s at stake if the MC fails.

The Parts of a Good Query

Below, I have written out the building blocks of a strong query letter.  I’ve filled the formula in with my own query, and I hope you find it useful!

Opening lines — Why are you contacting this agent/editor? What is the title, genre, and word count of your novel?

(I’ll get into this more tomorrow and explain why I suggest starting here.)

I read in an interview that you seek strong female leads as well as steampunk.  As such, I thought you might enjoy my 90,000 word young adult novel, THE SPIRIT-HUNTERS.

Hook — What is a one sentence zinger that introduces the MC, sets up the stakes, and is (most importantly) concise?

After her brother is kidnapped, Eleanor Fitt – a sixteen-year-old with a weakness for buttered toast and Shakespeare quotes – must leave the confines of corsets and courtesy to get him back.

Summary Paragraph 1 — Briefly describe the ordinary life of the MC. Follow this with the inciting incident and why the MC must pursue it (i.e. what is at stake?).

It’s 1876, and Philadelphia is hosting the first American World Fair, the Centennial Exhibition.  It’s also hosting rancid corpses that refuse to stay dead.  When one of those decomposing bodies brings Eleanor a hostage note for her brother, she resolves to do anything to rescue him. But to face the armies of Dead that have him, she’ll need a little help from the Spirit-Hunters.

Summary Paragraphs 2 & 3 — List/show in 2-3 sentences what the MC must do to solve the problem before him/her. What choices must he/she make? Be sure to end these  paragraph with a sentence explaining what will happen if he/she fails.  You want to leave the agent with a perfectly clear idea of why this story matters.

The Spirit-Hunters, a three-man team hired to protect the Exhibition, have a single goal: return the Dead to their graves. Yet, what began as a handful of shambling bodies has escalated beyond the team’s abilities, and time is running out. Whoever rules the Dead is losing control, and when the leash finally snaps, Philadelphia will be overrun with ravenous corpses.

Now Eleanor must battle the walking Dead and deal with her growing attraction to the team’s inventor, Daniel, an exasperating but gorgeous ex-con. From the steampunk lab of the Spirit-Hunters to the grand halls of the Exhibition, Eleanor must follow the clues – and the bodies – to find her brother and stop the Dead before it’s too late.

Conclusion — List your qualifications as a writer (societies, publications) in one sentence. If you can, try to find 2 works similar to your own (this shows the agent what audience you believe will read your novel).  Then thank the agent for his/her time.  Sign off.

Though the novel has been written as a trilogy, it can stand alone.  I believe it will appeal to fans of Libba Bray’s GEMMA DOYLE trilogy or Cassandra Clare’s CLOCKWORK ANGEL.  I’m an active member of RWA, SCBWI, the Online Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop, and YALitChat.  I live in Germany and am working full-time on my next YA novels.  You can learn more about me at http://susandennard.com.

So there you have it: a simple way to start building your query.  Again, I hope you can use it.  Be sure to read Part 2: The Prep — or all the preparations needed prior to actually mailing your queries.

BOTTOM LINE: A good query can do wonders and instantly pull you to the surface of the slush!

Do you have any tips to share?


Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, The Spirit-Hunters, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.

3 Things to Do While Querying

28 Dec

How many of you guys out there are querying or planning to query soon? It’s an interesting process to say the least—full of ups and down and random jerks sideways (just to keep you on your toes, you know).

There’s checking your email fifty times a day, squealing every time an agent responds and going into a) an Omg-I’m-SO-excited dance or b) a Whaat?-but-but-but… pout fest depending on the contents of the email. There’s the memorization of the mailman’s delivery times, if you’re one of those who send queries by snail mail. And there’s lots and lots of query-stress venting to writer friends who smile and try to be encouraging and tell you to CALM DOWN, you just sent that full three days ago, of course Agent Awesomesauce hasn’t read it yet.

But mostly, there’s just a lot of waiting. A looott of waiting. Days and days and weeks and weeks of waiting…kind of like how you’re waiting now for me to stop blabbering and get to the point of this article.

…which is: (ahem) Three Things to Do When Querying.

Number 1: Sleep on everything.

No, not literally. I know at least one of you out there had a Huh? moment. I’m not recommending you develop a sudden habit of conking out on department store bed displays or subway benches.

What I mean is, don’t make any hasty decisions. Wrote a batch of queries today? Resist the urge to send them all off immediately. Sleep on it, then re-read them the next morning with a fresh mind and see if there are any grammar/spelling mistakes. Make sure you’re addressing the right person, too. That always helps with the whole Make a Good Impression thing.

The same goes for any substantial reply you make to an agent. A few hours usually won’t hurt anything, and it’ll help keep you from regretting hastily penned responses. At the very least, wait fifteen minutes or something. I don’t know about you, but anything I write tends to be more coherent and rational if I’ve had sixty minutes to ponder it, versus one.

Number 2: Research some more agents

This will keep you busy and help dull the insatiable appetite you’ve probably developed for all things publishing related. Use Querytracker and AgentQuery until you can navigate them with your eyes closed. Follow #askagent and #askintern and #queries on Twitter.

Find an agent who sounds great for your book? Read any interviews they’ve done. Check out their agency’s website. See if they tweet or have a blog. Research, research, research. Then craft a query to suit their interests—while remaining true to your story, of course.

Number 3: Work on your next book

You’re going to need one. I don’t remember who said this, or even the exact words he said, but it rings true to me: “I want to be a writer, not someone who has written a book.” Okay, so we can argue all day long about who gets to be called a “writer,” but that’s not the point. The point is, keep writing! If you find Mr./Ms. Perfect Agent and get signed, then yay! you’re ahead of the game for book number two! If, for whatever reason, your current book fails to attract any offers, well, you’ve got another project in the works.

Any other tips from those of you querying? If you haven’t started yet, what are your thoughts/apprehensions about the matter?

And finally, good luck to all!


Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen and spends most of her free time whipping HYBRID–a book about a girl with two souls–into shape for submission to publishers. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.


Submission Etiquette

30 Nov

A Guest Post by Rachel Geertsema


Have you ever been tempted to reply to someone who rejected you to tell her that she doesn’t know #@%$ about writing? Or have you replied to a rejection with your next work attached? I’m here, on behalf of agents and editors everywhere, to say: “For the love of all that is holy, please STEP AWAY from the computer.”

Submission etiquette is hard.  How do you know what is crossing a line and what is simply asking for another chance?  Some agents are willing to take a look at something else of yours, and even encourage you to resubmit once you’ve worked on your MS a little more.  Some editors may flat out ignore you if you try to do this.  Some interns may laugh a little at your attempts to impress (and on behalf of interns everywhere, I apologize).  However, you CAN improve your chances and gain the appreciation of an agent/editor/intern by learning some etiquette regarding submissions.

The absolute golden rule of submitting is: Find each agency/publisher’s submission policy and follow it exactly. If you learn nothing from what I have to say, please, please at least learn this.  But, aside from following submission policies, there is no hard-and-fast rule for what is or isn’t acceptable when you are submitting queries.  I’m here to guide you through this dark world and help you learn some boundaries.

  1. Don’t harass the agent/editor. Asking him if he has received your partial/full that you emailed is fine.  Emailing her every week to see if she’s looked at your MS is not.  We are busy people with a LOT of queries to wade through.  If you keep asking, a) chances are we don’t even know which is yours and so lie through our teeth, or b) we may lose interest in your MS because we’re so annoyed.
  2. Like I said above, follow the publisher’s/agency’s submission guidelines to a T. I can’t express the outrage that occurs in an editor’s heart at receiving a full MS when the publishing house’s website CLEARLY states “Please send only a query,” or when, after requesting some sample chapters, your submission contains 5 random chapters to give the “full effect” of the book.  It doesn’t.  It only creates confusion, frustration, and anger, and a less than 10% chance that it will be read.
  3. Don’t attach your new MS (or 5 others, “just in case!”) in a reply email to a rejection. At the very least, ASK if you can submit something else. And don’t work your way through the list of everything you’ve written since you were 5.  Sometimes you really do need to accept that it wasn’t meant to be.
  4. Being rejected does not give you license to do any of the following:

a) Write back saying anything aside from “Thank you for taking the time to read my submission.”  If you received a really helpful rejection, ask if you can resubmit after reworking your MS. Do not call the rejecter names, question her reasoning, or threaten him.
b) Find his Facebook/Twitter/phone number on the internet and harass him.
c) Write nasty things about her on any website like Absolute Write, Query Tracker, or any other outlet on the internet that is a cesspool of rejected authors complaining about the unfairness of life. WE READ THESE.

Once you’ve got this down, it’s time to move on to the real show.  Here are some tips and tricks that do not cross any personal or professional boundaries:

  1. For the 5th time in this post, I am begging you to follow submission guidelines exactly as they are laid out on the publisher/agency’s website. They are there for a reason, not to create rules that you are required to creatively break. Editors/agents don’t have time to wade through your creative vomit to figure out what your book is about.
  2. Spell the company’s name right, at least. I’ve lost track of how many submissions I’ve received in the past five months that have my company’s name spelled incorrectly.  If you can’t be bothered to double check that you’ve spelled things right, I can’t be bothered to be interested in your MS.
  3. Be patient, understanding, and gracious. The business of publishing is stressful and editors and agents are often doing the work of two people.
  4. Don’t provide 4 pages of your personal achievements. Unless your personal life relates to your MS, I don’t care.
  5. If you receive a form rejection, you can submit a new MS, but not in reply to that rejection. Start from scratch.  If you’ve received a personal rejection, you can ask in reply if you can resubmit in the future or if you can submit something else. Either way, send a query letter along with your MS as a formality. If you resubmit, send a brand new query letter that mentions your history with the company (as a refresher!). If you are allowed to submit something new, approach it with the same professionalism—provide a query letter or outline of your work.
  6. On the flip side, if you haven’t heard back about a query you submitted months and months ago, forget about it and move on. The publisher/agency just isn’t interested, ok? (I’ve received a number of angry phone calls from authors who say they submitted 5 months ago.  Sorry, but we’ve forgotten about submissions from 5 months ago.)

Remember that on this side of publishing, we want you to succeed as much as you do. Guidelines and policies are in place because we just don’t have the time to wade through the huge variety of submissions we would otherwise get. I can promise you that following a company’s guidelines is always noticed and appreciated by those of us who can get lost in the slush pile for days on end (and yes, I have literally spent days devoted to reading submissions in the slush pile).

Now that you have this insiders’ knowledge, you can query in complete confidence! Happy querying!


Rachel  has spent the past year wading through slush piles at a variety of publishing companies, including a literary agency (with LTWF contributor Vanessa), academic publisher, and trade publisher. She is also a freelance editor and has nearly completed a publishing certificate at Ryerson University. She can also make the best cupcakes north of the border. You can follow her on Twitter @r_geerts.

When multiple agents make an offer

29 Nov

by Susan Dennard


Goofy and I are back to wrap up our last post: When an agent requests your manuscript.  So please, put on your imagination caps (or Disney caps — whatever), and imagine the snide voice-over yet again!

Also, if you want to see how I (Susan, not snide narrator) actually handled the Great Agent Hunt — from query prep, to querying, to offers, to choosing — I’m talking about it this week on my blog. 🙂

Now onwards!


I gart too many choices...

Agents!  Everyone wants one, but no one can seem to find them.  More elusive than a bird-of-paradise, and even easier to scare off for good.  Demand far outweighs supply.

Except when it doesn’t.

More and more often these days, when a writer gets an offer, they wind up with several offers.  >1 agent wants to get their hands on the manuscript because it’s a darn good story, it’s well-written, and it’s highly commercial.

So what do you do in this situation?  How the heck do you choose just one?

First Things First

First, make sure that you have notified all other agents in possession of the manuscript and given them a response-deadline (see When an agent requests your manuscript to learn how).

Second, DO NOT REFUSE ANYONE before the time is up OR before all agents have responded.  You may, of course, make a decision, but don’t notify anyone until you’ve reached your deadline or all agents have said yay/nay.  Again, this is described in more depth in When an agent requests your manuscript.

Now onto the Famous Call.

What To Ask During The Call

Be sure to gargle plenty of salt water and practice your phone-voice.  You want to make your best impression, after all.  And also, be sure to avoid phrases like, “Garsh” or “Huh-hyuck.”  These do not give off an impression of intelligence.

Prior to the call, you should prepare a series of questions to give each agent.  Even if you have only one offer, you should do this.  Some important things to consider are:

  • How did you get to be an agent?
  • How many clients do you have now?
  • What professional organizations are you a part of?
  • Do you handle film rights?  Foreign rights?  Audio rights?
  • Are you a hands on agent?  Or do you prefer to leave all that to the writer alone?
  • In what “state” do you think my book is?  In other words, how much editing do feel it still needs?
  • What would be your timeline for submitting?
  • How often do you like to check in with your clients?
  • Do you charge any fees?  And what is your percentage?
  • What would you expect from me as a client?
  • If I sign with you, what will happen next?
  • Can I see a copy of your agency agreement?

The last question is of particular importance.  Try to see a copy of the agreement — most agents will happily comply — so you can be sure it’s a contract you want to sign.

What To Consider Next

I'm not sure this agent fits...

Once you’ve spoken to each agent on the phone, now is the time for you to DECIDE.  If there is no obvious choice — someone with whom you instantly connected and without whom the world would be dreary and gray — then now is the time to compare/contrast.  I suggest weighing pros and cons.

For example, if you want minimal agent feedback, and Agent 1 is hands-on while Agent 2 is hands-off, then Agent 2 has +1 pro and Agent 1 has +1 con.

Some aspects to consider (and that work well as pros/cons):

  • Enthusiasm (for your book, for your career)
  • Agency agreement
  • Experience
  • Hands-on/hands-off
  • Age (perhaps you’d rather work with someone close to your own age)
  • Number of clients
  • Editorial vision for your book
  • Career vision for future books
  • Submission plan for this book
  • Phone conversation (too friendly?  too cold?  not professional enough?)
  • Professional organizations

Tally it up, ponder it, dwell, moan, whatever.  Just be sure to have a decision in time to meet your own deadline!

Oh, you have decided already?  You’ve found The One you want representing you and your novel?  Well, in that case, let’s move to the final phase of this process then.

Saying “No”

Because you’ve chosen, you now have to tell all those other sweet agents “no”.  Email is the best way to do this, but it is no easy task because, to put it simply, rejection sucks.  Face it bravely, dear Writer, and if you like, use this template to help guide your words:

Dear<Agent Name>,

Thank you so much for the time and effort you spent considering me as a client.  I appreciate your enthusiasm, and even more, I appreciate your offer of representation.

After much thought, I’ve decided to decline your offer.  I ended up with several offers and was forced to make a choice.  It was an especially difficult decision because <insert something you really liked about the agent>.  I wish you the best with all your future projects, and thanks again for taking the time to consider me.

Best wishes!


And there you have it, folks.  Don’t forget to notify your chosen agent, of course!  They’ll want to know that you’ve selected them, and they’ll want to draw up the needed paperwork quickly.

Now run around and squee your head off, for it’s definitely something you have earned.  Best of luck in your career, Fearless Writer!


Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her manuscript is currently on submission to publishers. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.

When an agent requests your manuscript

9 Nov

by Susan Dennard


As I was writing this, I got to thinking of all those awesome Goofy cartoons. You know the ones I mean – where Goofy learns to play baseball or ski or swim, and hilarity ensues… So heads up. Goofy’s gonna learn to navigate agents too…

Oh, and you have to imagine me as that snide voice-over in the cartoons. Very posh, very serious.


Garsh! This is hard.

Writing! The age-old profession for the entertainment of millions. Amongst those brave enough to pursue a writing career, it has been directly linked to premature aging and stubby fingernails.

These days, it seems the internet is saturated with information on researching agents. On querying agents. On handling The Call. Yet, where does one find information on partial or full requests? What does one do when offered representation while other agents still possess the manuscript? Or, what all writers dream about, what does one do if multiple agents offer representation?

Requests for Your Manuscript

Once you get over the initial and inevitable hand-clapping and squealing, try to calm yourself. After all, ::condescending voice deepens:: initial professionalism doth the man…er, dog…er, writer make.

Simply fill out this handy-dandy template, paste a copy of your query letter below it, and then attach the manuscript file to the email.

Dear <Agent Name>,

I was delighted to receive your request for a <full or partial> of <Book Title>. As asked, I have attached the manuscript (in MS Word format) to this email. I have also pasted my query letter below.

Thanks so much, and I look forward to hearing from you.


<Paste Original Query Letter Here>

An Offer While the Manuscript is Still Out

I gart an offer! Huh-hyuck!

Oh happy day! You have received your first offer. What do you do now? There are still 6 (or 16 or perhaps even 60) agents still in possession of your manuscript or query or synopsis.

You have two choices:

1) You may choose the offering agent and instantly – instantly, I repeat – notify the other agents of your decision.

2) You may decide to hold off on acceptance until you have heard back from all the other agents. If you choose to do this, then simply fill out this handy-dandy template and send it to all agents who have not yet rejected you. In the subject of this email, be sure to say: OFFER OF REPRESENTATION for <Book Title>, <Name>.

Dear <Agent Name>,

I would like to inform you that an agent has made offer of representation for my <Genre> novel, <Book Title>. I wish to make a decision regarding this offer within the next <Time Frame>, but I also want to give you a chance to read the <full or partial or query or synopsis or whatever you sent> I sent. If you could please let me know your position with regards to <Book Title> by <Day>, I would greatly appreciate it.

Thanks so much, and I look forward to hearing from you.


<Paste Original Query Letter Here>

Additionally, be sure you choose a reasonable time for decision making. The standard amount is a week to ten days, but you can do more (if perhaps you contacted a lot of agents) or you can do less (if you want a quick answer).

That said, if you give the other agents a deadline, then you REALLY SHOULD NOT accept any offers before that deadline. By giving the agents a chance to finish your manuscript and decide if they want to make an offer, those agents are effectively clearing off their schedules and prioritizing your manuscript. For you to accept an offer before hearing back from them is considered rude – you have just wasted their time.

Stay Tuned

Oh the complex world of writing! All non-writers wonder why you do it, and all writers wonder how you could ever do anything else.

Goofy and I will return at a later date to walk you through the final question posed: “What does one do if multiple agents offer representation?”

For now, though, Goofy must ice his sore muscles, and I – haughty voice over that I am – must go gargle salt water for my future gigs.


Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She recently signed with Sara Kendall of NCLit. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.

Guest Post: Common Query Issues

1 Sep

Guest Post by C.A. Marshall


Thanks for having me ladies! I ❤ the LTWF blog!

When I graduated with my MA two years ago, I had the beginnings of my first novel, a MG about travellers and faeries in the woods behind the house of a kid named Ben. My dissertation included the first 15,000 words and over the next six months I finished writing it. I also started querying it. Widely. At the same time I was writing it.

I remember getting rejection after rejection until I finally got two requests for full’s. Yay, I thought, maybe I’ll get an agent! I was wrong. Both full’s came back with form rejections.  I’ve since learned that querying a book that is unfinished and unpolished is a huge faux pas.  We’ve all got to start somewhere, right?

Fast forward two years and a bit of education that an MA can’t give you and I now know more about the query process, how it works, and what the standards of querying are.

As a query-reading intern, I’ve had many writers ask me to look their query over and give them some pointers. Most want to know if I would forward it if I had seen it in the queries inbox. Over time, I’ve noticed a few things that these queriers have in common.  Here are some of the issues I see most often:

Formulaic personalization. Saying something like, “I saw that you represent _________ and ________ and so I’m querying you.” Anyone can plug in a couple of names. Get more in depth. Read a book that they represented and talk about it for a sentence or two, or at least that you’ve been following their blog/twitter and mention a recent posting. Something that says you actually know who the agent is and that you’ve tried your best to get to know them.

Being too “list-y.” Giving a list of characters or themes that you cover in your novel doesn’t tell us anything about the plot. It’s how those characters interact that make the story, show us that.

Lack of voice. When writing my own query and struggling with voice, I was given the advice to try writing the query in first person from the main characters’ POV. Let a bit of their personality show through. Then, turn it into third person, keeping those bits of voice in.

No plot. Putting in a bunch of hypothetical questions or a list of things that your character worries about doesn’t equal plot.

Lack of cohesion. While chopping down your plot to fit into the available space, watch that you don’t lose the connection between the action and the characters reaction. If they’re happy and shopping in one paragraph and in another they are frightened and in a different country, it pulls the reader right out of the mini “story.”

Third person bios. I don’t know where this comes from, but a bio in a query that you’re writing should not be written in third person.  I think it’s creepy and awkward.  Third person bios go on jacket flaps and on websites, not in queries.

Irrelevancy in bios. It might matter to you if you’ve got six kids, three cats, and a husband named Steve, but it doesn’t matter to us. At least not right now.  There will be plenty of time later to get to know all about you but for now just focus on your book and what you have done to make YOU the best person to write this book. If you’ve got an MA/MFA, list it. If you’re a lawyer and you write about a lawyer, list that. If you’re writing about a teenager though, we don’t need to know that you’ve got three of your own and what their names are.  Why would you want that information out there anyway?

Too long/too short. It’s generally expected that your query will be about three or four paragraphs long. Use that space wisely. Don’t condense it down to one paragraph, use that extra space to show us your characters’ personality. On the other end, if you’ve got an inch, don’t take a mile.

Writing to trends. If you’re writing something that’s trending, be sure to point out what makes your story about vampires different from other stories about vampires. Don’t just say that yours don’t sparkle. That’s not enough. I’ve seen plenty of Twilight knock-offs that have non-sparkly vampires.

Speaking of vampires, try not to use the word vampire at all. Use “undead” or “blood-suckers” or “night hunters” or some other vampire-esque euphemism. The sad truth is that after seeing vampire query after vampire query that are rip-offs of Twilight or True Blood, as soon as interns see the word vampire we’re already looking for hints of which other vampires you’re copying.  The same goes for Angel/demon books with character names like Gabriel and Michael.

If you’ve got a cop story, don’t name your cop Jack. There are a million ways to die, and most of them have been done before. A cop who’s wife has just died, or a detective who didn’t see that his ex was cheating on him, FBI agents for some secret undercover operation… those have been done to death. Get a new angle. Surprise the reader. Make the story truly terrifying, not one I can guess the ending of by reading the flap copy.

If you’re going to write a memoir about your life, make sure you’ve done something interesting. Just because you’ve got a few funny stories to share doesn’t mean that the world will rush out to read them. We’ve all got funny stories and most of them are “you just had to be there” moments. Read other memoirs. Make sure something truly unique has happened to you and you’re not just writing because you like to hear yourself talk.

You can’t control trends, but you can control the quality of your own work. Read lots of your genre/topic and make sure to make your book unique.

The number one biggest mistake that I see is that the author doesn’t follow guidelines. I usually ask for the first 250 words to follow the query and sometimes authors will send the entire first chapter as an attachment. Do your research and make sure to follow each agent’s guidelines exactly.


C.A. Marshall is a freelance editor, lit agent intern, YA writer, and loves to play with her dog Mollie. She dreams of one day owning a small house near the water, preferably in England, with a shelf full of books she has written and has helped others to write. She can be found in Emmett, MI and at camarshall.com

How NOT to Query: A Guide

29 Jun

By Sammy Bina


As an intern at a literary agency, I’ve had the opportunity to read through some of the query letters authors send us. I’ve seen some really spectacular ones, and I’ve read some that made me cringe. I’ve noticed a general trend in the queries we reject, most of which contained problems that could have been easily avoided. We recently critiqued a bunch of queries here on the blog, and hopefully you guys learned something from our comments! As an addition to that, I thought I’d put together a guide on how NOT to query.

Rule #1: Don’t let yourself be unprepared.
This might sound like common sense, but hear me out. You’d be surprised how many authors are not prepared when they first begin querying. The most important thing is that you have a complete manuscript ready to go, should an agent ask to see it. Don’t start sending out query letters once you’ve written a decent partial. If an agent reads it and wants to see more, they’re not going to be happy when they find out the rest of the story has yet to be written. So make sure you’ve finished your story, and polished it up as best you can. Never send a first draft. Have people read over your work (if you need a critique partner, we even have a section for those here!), and make sure they’re people you can trust. Grandma’s probably going to tell you your work is the Next Big Thing, but Grandma also lies. Find someone you know who will be brutally honest (if that’s Grandma, all the better), and heed their advice. That way your manuscript will be shiny and perfect for when Awesome Agent asks to see it.

Also, make sure you’ve written a synopsis. A lot of agents are going to ask to see them, and you can’t leave it out just because you think yours sucks, or you didn’t feel like writing one. It can sometimes be a deal-breaker while reading your partial. An agent or intern will read through your work, and if they’re not completely sold at the end of 50 pages, they want to see a synopsis. You don’t want to give anyone a reason to doubt you, so make sure you send it.

As a side note, don’t write a ten-page synopsis. 2-4 pages, double-spaced, is the norm. If your synopsis is longer than your first chapter, you have a problem.

Rule #2 (which goes hand-in-hand with #1): Don’t send out a premature query letter.
If you need some suggestions, scroll through our comments during this month’s Query Week. Trust me when I say that the first draft of your query letter is probably not the one you want agents to see. Write it, then have people read over it for you. If they’ve never read the book, even better. If someone who knows nothing about your book can’t make sense of your query letter, it’s a safe bet an agent won’t be able to, either. Use your friends and family as guinea pigs. Personally, I went through four or five drafts before I was really happy with my my own letter, but I made the mistake of sending out the earlier drafts. Don’t do what I did. Wait until you’ve got something solid before you let Awesome Agent see it.

Rule #3: Don’t mass query.
As some of the ladies here have already mentioned in the past, it’s best to send queries out in small batches. Agents aren’t fans of queries were the cc box is a million miles long because an author couldn’t be bothered to individually contact them. You want to personalize each query letter to the agent you’re sending it to. If you refuse to add that extra 2-3 sentence paragraph at the end of your query, and just want everyone to see the exact same thing, at least address the letter to the individual agent. When you’re a female agent who receives letters addressed to “Dear Sir” or “Dear Editor,” it’s pretty obvious what you’re doing. You lose your credibility, and you’ll most likely end up with a rejection letter. Personalizing an email or letter takes about ten seconds, and it will only help to make you look good. And don’t we all want to be pretty?

Rule #4: Don’t query agents who don’t represent the genre of your manuscript.
If your book is science fiction, you don’t want to query people who represent mystery. You’ll look foolish, probably end up annoying the agent, and you’ll most likely wind up with a form rejection. Just because someone’s a literary agent doesn’t mean they represent every kind of fiction (or non-fiction). Agents have personalized tastes, just like everyone else.

Rule #5: Don’t send unsolicited materials.
Seriously. Don’t do it. This includes pictures, family trees, character listings, business proposals, artwork, random excerpts from your manuscript, or any part of your manuscript at all. If an agent wants to see your work, they’ll let you know. Until then, you just have to sit around and twiddle your thumbs. Waiting sucks, but take comfort in the fact that you’re not the only one doing it!

Rule #6: Don’t use fancy paper.
I know you want your letter to stand out in a sea of slush, but pretty paper isn’t going to compensate for a poorly written query or novel. And even if your query’s good, the pretty paper still gets a raised eyebrow. It’s just going to get recycled anyway, so stick with the standard 8×11 white printer paper. It’s professional and standardized. We like standardized.

Rule #7: Envelopes. Get the good ones.
Obviously you’re free to use whatever kind of envelope you have on hand, but let me just tell you that the self-adhesive ones are the best. You know, the ones that have the tape you just peel away? When you send a SASE, and it’s hot out, other envelopes will seal themselves shut in the mail. Then interns like me have to take sharp objects and slice them open, only to tape them back together. And trust me, you probably don’t want to make me use pointy objects.

Rule #8: Don’t query from prison.
Stranger things have happened.

To be fair, the person may be a good writer. But if you’re going to query from prison, please be professional. We don’t need to know what you’re in for, or how long you have left until you get out.

Rule #9: Don’t forget your SASE.
Or your postage! If you forget your envelope, or didn’t include postage, you probably aren’t going to get a response, and then you’ll spend weeks wondering what happened to your letter. I’ve seen people send money with their envelopes, but not every agent is going to be nice enough to actually take your letter to the post office and mail it. So make sure you put the stamp on your SASE yourself.

Rule #10: Don’t be aggressive.
You know that phrase that goes “B-E aggressive!” that people tend to use when they’re joking? Don’t. Don’t be aggressive. Not when you’re querying, anyway. Make sure you give agents plenty of time to get back to you. Typically, it’s perfectly acceptable to resend a query if you haven’t heard back in two months (unless their guidelines specifically tell you they don’t respond to queries they aren’t interested in). Don’t be that person who checks in every week or two to see if an agent’s read your query. By the time they actually get to it, the agent will have already formed a mental image of you, and it probably won’t be a good one. I know from experience how nerve-wracking waiting can be, but just keep yourself busy while you wait. You’ll come across as professional, and you’ll be glad you did in the long run.

And that’s it! Keep in mind that your query letter is the first thing an agent sees. It’s the first impression they get of you and your story. Like any job interview, you want to be polite and professional. So follow the agency’s guidelines, and don’t get over-zealous. Rules are there for a reason, and in this case, they weren’t made to be broken.


Sammy Bina is a fifth year college senior, majoring in Creative Writing. She is currently querying her adult dystopian novel, THE AGE OF NEVER GROWING OLD, working on a YA paranormal romance, and interns at the Elaine P. English Literary Agency in Washington, DC. You can follow her blog, or find her on twitter.

Premise Me This, Synopsis That

24 Jun

by Vanessa Di Gregorio


Since our 3-day-long query critique week is over, I thought that now would be a good time to talk about writing synopses and figuring out your premise(s); because they can really help you when it comes to writing your query.

See, the problem people have when it comes to writing queries is that it’s difficult summing up your 60,000 word manuscript (or however long you MS is). Heck, summing up a short story isn’t much easier! So what’s the best way to go about summarizing your novel-length work into the few paragraphs required for your query? Write a synopsis (which Savannah talked about here). Okay, so Savannah does say that using what you wrote for your query letter can help you write your synopsis; but who’s to say that you can’t use a synopsis to help you write your query letter? They’re both similar in that you need to somehow narrow your story into very few sentences. Which is hard, right? That’s why your manuscript IS 60,000 words long, after all! But though difficult, this is a skill you need to work on as a writer. And writing a synopsis is great practice for summarizing your beast of a manuscript.

It can also really help you figure out where you want your story to go, and figure out what your story really IS about. I mean, with all the sub-plots that might be lurking around in your manuscript, you need to still be able to clearly decipher what the main plot is. And sometimes, when you’re THAT into your story, you can’t differentiate. You probably tell anyone who asks that your story is about a girl falling in love with a boy, but with an epic battle between good versus evil and a long and dangerous quest involving needing to find all the pieces of the Triforce in order to save the Princess of Hyrule. And that the young hero travels back in time with a magical Ocarina and needs to go from dungeon to dungeon in order to obtain grappling hooks, and boomerangs, and all sorts of other gadgets in order to continue on his quest and overcome the obstacles in his path. And then there are zombies inhabiting the future, which is the future that will come to be if the evil isn’t stopped. And the other young man who is helping him turns out to be a woman who turns out to be the very Princess whose kingdom he is trying to save. And he wears green and lived in a tree before all of that happened. And there is a little blue fairy that follows him everywhere. And so on and so on. See, we can get a bit lost in the details of our own work. Every word and every action and every minor character is significant in our minds. Now, my reference to the Legend of Zelda aside, you need to be able to sum up your story into a cohesive and easy-to-follow synopsis. Which the above clearly wasn’t.

But aren’t queries shorter than synopses? Well, yes. But why not take small steps towards your query? Condense your manuscript into a synopsis (which, in itself, will be challenging). And then, take your synopsis and condense it into your query.

Now that I’ve talked about why switching it around and writing your synopsis before your query might be helpful, let’s move onto the dreaded one-sentence pitch. Yes, I know; no one likes summing up their story into one-sentence. It’s blasphemy, using only one sentence to sum up the entirety of your 60,000 word manuscript. BUT! Working out this pitch is your premise.

If there is one thing that I learned from my fiction editing class, it’s that your story needs a clear premise. And here’s the thing. Your premise often starts off as that initial idea, that spark that sets you writing that manuscript. Even if you don’t realize it, you probably started writing after thinking up a premise in your mind. Mine, for example, began with the idea, “What if there was a young girl who had never seen the sky?”; and sure enough, my manuscript started to form. Of course, as you build on your premise (and often, as you write and take that initial idea in new and different directions), your premise changes and grows. So now the main premise for my story centers around Danae, a young woman who risks everything she knows by leaving the caves she calls home in search of a friend in a dangerous new world, where she meets new people but finds herself the enemy. Of course, my manuscript is about more than that; but so far, the main premise is that. And while I, as you no doubt, have sub-plots and secondary parts to your premise, your main idea isn’t that much different than your one-sentence pitch. And this one sentence pitch is great practice for not only understanding your story better, but for being able to pitch it in your query. If you can sum up that monster of a manuscript in one sentence, what CAN’T you do?

Queries are often difficult, because it tends to be the first time you try to sum up your story. So if you start with writing a three-page synopsis first, you’ll have a much better understanding of the key points of your story. And while a synopsis is chronological in order (which I’m sure you know from Savannah’s post here because you’ve read it, right?), your query doesn’t necessarily have to be. But at least you know what the main events in your story are, and what happens that is useful for a hook. The one-sentence pitch will also help in your query writing, because you’ll have been able to sum it up in one sentence; so summing it up with a few more sentences, while still challenging, won’t be as daunting as it was prior to the one-sentence pitch. Because really, what’s scarier than that?

If you had asked me about what my manuscript was about a few months ago, I would have gone off into a long-winded explanation about how Danae’s people are called the Ane’a, and how they had fled to the caves years ago. And how they had once upon a time lived up in the trees, and had once been great. And how now they were forced to live hidden from the entire world, underneath the rocks in the Fog Lands, where nothing but a dim grey light shines through the cracks. And I would’ve gone on and on about all the details in my story that make it what it is. But really, the point of the query is to entice the reader enough for them to WANT to read about all the little details. Your query is a teaser. If you asked me now, I wouldn’t mention any of that. I would sum it up very shortly; I would mention my premise (with a bit more detail), and that’s all. Because really, when someone asks what your story is about, they don’t want an in-depth, scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter explanation. They want the general gist of things.

So, embrace the synopsis and the one-sentence pitch! Your query will probably look better after you practice condensing your story a few times. And then try verbally explaining your manuscript to someone. You might actually find yourself better at putting your manuscript into words.


Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.