On Queries

Michelle Hauck interviewed me last week for her excellent ‘Query Questions’ series, which provides insight into how different agents deal with the queries they receive. If you read through the series you’ll notice quite a bit of variation, which just goes to show quite how subjective the whole process is. I really enjoyed answering Michelle’s questions, and you can find my answers here. So I thought it was about time I wrote a blog post on queries, to go with the interview.

After my last post listing the most common reasons why I reject manuscripts, a few people asked me why I didn’t write one listing the reasons why I reject queries. I didn’t do this because the reasons why I reject queries are generally very boring (luckily Michelle’s interview was not about this! All the questions she asked me were very interesting).

Essentially, I’m not going to request sample pages unless I’m thinking to myself ‘OMG, I want to read this book!’, and the vast majority of queries I receive just don’t make me feel that way. Even if the writer has obeyed all the query rules and is writing in a genre I like and takes care to tell me that they definitely have more than one female character in their manuscript, there’s still a fairly high chance that the subject matter just won’t appeal to me as much as I need it to if I’m going to take it on. It might appeal to somebody else (and if I suspect that somebody might be one of my colleagues I’ll certainly pass it on), but it’s just not going to be for me.

There’s nothing an author can really do to account for an agent’s personal tastes – the reason why finding an agent is so difficult is that it can take a while to find somebody whose taste and vision for the book match up with yours, somebody who is going to love the manuscript as much as you do (and preferably more!). You can do everything right in your query and still not manage to find the perfect agent – but you’ll have more chance of finding them if you make your query as good as it can be.

In my query workshop last weekend at SFContario, we discussed how to write a query that shows off your manuscript to its best advantage. A couple of participants mentioned that it was very difficult to figure out how much information to give – you need to give enough to intrigue the reader and demonstrate the things about your manuscript that are fresh and different, but not enough that the whole thing reads like a synopsis. We talked through a few potentially helpful ways of thinking about this:

 

– Try and write your query as if it’s the blurb on the back of a book. The query is doing the same thing as a blurb, after all – its sole purpose is to make people want to read more. Plus it’s easier to locate and read a whole heap of blurbs to figure out a good query technique than it is to locate and read a whole heap of other people’s queries.

– Figure out a good elevator pitch, and go from there. You guys know how much I enjoy a good Twitter pitch party – it’s a real challenge to boil your whole query down to 140 characters, but I really think it can be helpful in figuring out what your book is actually about, and what aspects of it you most want to focus on in your query.

– Use comparison titles. This was a bit of a controversial one, as there are advice posts out there saying that agents hate it when authors use comps in their queries. Maybe some agents do, but I think a well-judged comp can be pretty effective. I think the key thing to remember when you’re thinking of comps is that it’s about conveying the core aspects of your manuscript, so you need to find comp titles that share something of that core, not just some titles in the same subgenre. Don’t say something is like His Dark Materials just because it’s YA and vaguely steampunky – when I read that something is like His Dark Materials, I expect talking animal spirits, religious allegory and maybe multiple worlds. Don’t compare your manuscript to massive bestsellers – I don’t know what ‘Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games’ means, but I’m afraid I don’t believe that you’ve written it. Bad comps in a query are worse than no comps at all, so if you’re not feeling confident about using them then remember you don’t have to. They’re not compulsory. But I do think they can be a useful tool if you’re struggling to convey the tone and flavour of your manuscript in a query.

 

Because it’s so easy to send form rejections for queries, it’s hard to say when agents are rejecting a query because the query is weak and doesn’t do the manuscript justice, and when they’re rejecting it because the manuscript genuinely isn’t to their tastes or they think it’ll be too hard to sell. I’d say that if it’s the latter, you’ll probably get at least a few more personalised rejections, detailing exactly why the project doesn’t appeal – I always try to send more concrete feedback to authors if I can. If you’re really getting nothing but form rejections, it’s probably time to rethink your query.

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