How Important Is a Good Query, Anyway?
Whenever my mom was upset, she cleaned the house. If I heard the vacuum when I walked up to the front door after school, I’d often head over to my friend Jamie’s house and call home to say they invited me to dinner and ask if I could stay. My mom was (is) a wonderful woman, and it’s not like I feared for my wellbeing or anything, but that sound told me she’d be grumpier than hell. It made no sense to me at the time.
Then I grew up.
The company I worked for shut down a few years ago. In the midst of job-hunting, it became inexplicably important for me to clean out my garage – as in empty all contents, scrub every shelf top-to-bottom clean the crap out of it, clean out my garage. It felt good. When I was done, I felt good. Sending resumes into the ether may be a necessary part of job-hunting, but at the end of a typical day you either have nothing to look at or you’re looking at rejection. That day, I was able to look at a garage you could perform surgery in. I had accomplished something tangible. I had control over something – maybe not my job search, but something.
Then my mom made sense.
For writers, I think honing query letters is a combination of sending out resumes and cleaning out the garage. There’s a lot we don’t have much control over. The process is daunting. It’s also intimidating. But the query – that’s something we have some control over. So we obsess on it, honing it into 247 words of absolute perfection, knowing that it is the ticket to publication. Except, it’s not.
A great manuscript is the ticket to publication. Good query letters are helpful, in that they increase the odds that an agent will look at our manuscripts. Great query letters aren’t a whole lot better than good ones, and a perfect query letter is no better than a great one. But, as I’ve said before, once an agent reads the first sentence of your manuscript, the query letter has done its job. There might be a slight hangover from a great (or bad) query, with the agent expecting, and therefore being predisposed to think, that your manuscript will be good (or bad) because of your query, but even that’s going to be gone after a couple of pages.
Former literary agent Nathan Brandsford (whose blog you should take a look at to learn all sorts of things about querying and such), held contest called “Be an Agent for a Day” a few years ago. He mixed real queries from bestselling novels in with queries people had submitted to his blog to see how many readers could pick out the “winners.” The results were interesting (which is why I linked to them), but the layer right under the results was fascinating. Here is one of the queries:
Dear Agent for a Day:
I have been seriously writing for nearly two years and am a finalist in fourteen RWA contests with twelve different books, including second place in the Daphne du Maurier Single Title category. THE COPYCAT KILLER ranked second in the Golden Opportunity contest. I’m a member of the Sacramento Valley, Kiss of Death and FF&P Chapters of RWA, and earned my PRO pin.
Why do some children grow up evil? That is the timeless question addressed in THE COPYCAT KILLER.
Ex-FBI agent turned fiction crime writer Rowan Smith wakes up one morning to discover someone is using her books as blueprints for murder.
Her former FBI boss fears one of her past arrests is out to terrorize her and insists she hire a bodyguard, or he’ll assign two FBI agents to watch her. Rowan, who relishes her privacy and solitary life, doesn’t want a bodyguard, but reluctantly hires ex-cop Michael Flynn.
The killer systematically goes through each book and chooses a victim, sending mementoes of the crime to Rowan. Michael’s brother, freelance DEA agent John Flynn, accuses Rowan of hiding something and calls in favors to learn enough to confront her. She confesses that her father and brother killed her family. Her father is in a mental institution and her brother was killed trying to escape. They fall into bed needing a physical connection. The murderer kills Michael that night.
John and Rowan deal with their guilt over Michael’s murder as they work with the FBI to find the murderer. They discover that Rowan’s boss lied to her about her brother’s death–he’s in a Texas penitentiary. But when they go there to confront him, they discover that someone took his place.
THE COPYCAT KILLER is a 100,000 word suspense novel with romantic elements, in the vein of Iris Johansen, Lisa Gardner and Tami Hoag.
In addition to THE COPYCAT KILLER, I have two additional single-title romantic suspense novels, a futuristic suspense currently under consideration at Dorchester, and a women’s fiction novel with a ghost as a main character.
A full is available upon request. Thank you for taking the time to consider my story.
Two key points here. First, this is the query for the novel THE PREY by Allison Brennan. Second, from a technical standpoint, it pretty much sucks. I have no problems talking about how much her query (from a technical querying standpoint) sucks, because I doubt she cares. Which is more or less my point.
The first paragraph has nothing to do with the book, and basically tells us that she has cranked out a mountain of unpublished romance novels and is proud that she belongs to a club. Then she hits us with a rhetorical question, and follows that by telling us that she just asked us a timeless question.
After boring the crap out of us with a bio and committing the cardinal sin of querying (starting with a rhetorical question) she finally gets to her hook. That’s where the query suddenly stops sucking. It’s a pretty good idea for a book. She obviously had to cut and cram to get the basic arc into the number of words she had (although she cheeted, it’s about 100 words longer than a query is supposed to be).
While plenty of agents rejected her query, few, if any, rejected it solely because it sucked. Because, let’s face it, the blurb part doesn’t. It combines two different things that sell books (FBI serial killer hunts and romance novels), covers enough plot twists and straight-up romance to easily pack 100,000 words with interesting stuff, and is written pretty well. Plus there’s sex. Yay, sex.
Being honest, I’m almost certain I would have rejected it if I’d been playing Nathan’s game. Partially because the query was so crappy and largely because, if I were an agent, I wouldn’t be that excited about this particular idea (I can recognize its marketability, but the person selling it has to be interested in the romance writer, romance, and sex angles, which I am not). The phrase “not the right fit for my list” is not (always) a polite way of saying you suck. Some books are, legitimately, not the right fit for that agent.
Even then, I’d be tempted to peek at the pages she included. There’s a reason this query led to a 20+ novel (so far) career. It’s a pretty good idea for a story.
So that’s what puts the “perfect query” dream into perspective. Nathan’s take on it is spot-on:
But more importantly, I think this contest goes to show how people may have overemphasized the query itself when they were playing agents. The queries that generated the highest response rate were the most technically precise. They were tidy, they were well-organized, they followed the rules. They were good queries (and some of them may go on to have success stories of their own). But this wasn’t a contest to spot the best queries.
When an agent is reading a query we’re trying to look past the query to get a sense of the underlying book. We’re evaluating the concept and the writing, not ticking off a box of requirements. I don’t reject people solely because they start with rhetorical questions or their word count isn’t quite right or they break one of the query “rules”. I can’t afford to do that. Nor do I request pages for a book that has a perfect query but whose underlying concept is flawed.
A good concept and strong writing are more important than good query form.
Now, a strong query helps your odds and your request rate, which is why we blogging agents spend so much time talking about the “rules”. It really does help your odds to write a good one. When people are writing good queries it helps us spot the good projects. But remember: the most important thing is not writing a good query, but rather writing a good book. A strong concept is so important.
A good query will get you only so far. Specifically, it will get the first sentence of your manuscript read by an agent. That’s it. Then it’s done.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying you shouldn’t send out a perfect query. There’s no reason not to, and it certainly can’t hurt. The key thing to remember in all of this, though, is that a query is there to demonstrate how interesting your manuscript is, not how good you are at querying.
Are there agents who will stop reading if the first sentence is a rhetorical question? Sure. About half of the agents Allison Brennan queried took a pass, maybe even one or two for that reason. But about half of them didn’t pass – and that’s despite the fact that (aside from her blurb) her query was truly awful. And the fact is, with that story, she could have probably been in the 75% or better request range with a better query.
But the moral of the story is: Her premise was solid, her book was marketable, and she lived happily ever after.
For the rest of us – getting from half to three quarters or higher can be critical. More critical if having a really solid query gets us from 25% to 50% and throws a few extra agents into the mix who might be willing to spend some time working with your not-quite, but potentially, publishable manuscript.
It certainly can’t hurt.
And it beats the hell out of cleaning the garage on New Year’s Eve.
Happy New Year!