Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Query Writing

Part One// The Nitty Gritty

For those of you who don’t know what a query letter is, or how traditional publishing works, the first half of this post is for you. Let me walk you through what I’ve learned along the way, because I get asked a lot if I plan to self publish. When I say I want to be a published author, people tend to assume that’s what I mean. I think the general populace of non-writers has this nebulous concept of publishing—either you self publish, which seems to be what more people are familiar with, or you send your novel to a publishing house where an editor will be more than happy to print it out and send it to bookstores.

Not many people seem to be educated on how the process actually works, and that’s okay. But after a while, it gets a little disheartening, especially when it’s hard to tell if questions are coming from a lack of understanding or a lack of confidence in my ability, an “Oh, you want to write, that’s cute, but you’ll obviously never make the cut to be published professionally” approach. And I try not to take offense, when I sense someone is taking that specific tack, but it’s a little insulting all the same.

Let me clear the air. Eventually, I will write a post about why I would rather not self publish. Glossing over this topic today feels unintentionally rude to people who do self publish, which is sad, because I have beta read for self-published authors (Sierra Abrams and Brian McBride), and I have a lot of respect for them. So I will write a post about that soon, because it’s a personal choice, and I know it’s no one’s fault, really, but I’m tired of the question, after all these years. Right now, let’s just move forward knowing I would prefer to be traditionally-published.

The fun—and by fun, I mean not-so-fun—part of traditional publishing is that, to be considered by most reputable publishing houses, you have to have an agent. The agent is the gatekeeper, someone who thinks your manuscript is good and is now invested in getting an editor to buy it. This is great for editors, who are insanely busy, because they can at least know that what’s being sent to them has been vetted. Beyond that, it’s good to have an agent, because then you have someone in your corner who knows the business, who knows how to negotiate legal contracts, get you better advances, pitch to editors, and work out film deals, and more (not necessarily in that order).

Now that we’ve covered what agents do, let’s talk about query letters and why I’m writing one even though the whole process makes me want to tear my novel into tiny strips and use it as confetti. A query letter is, primarily, a short summary of your novel, like you would read on the inside flap of a book jacket. It gives agents an idea of what your book is about, and its job is to be intriguing. If it fails at that, then it is a sad, sad failure. (No, I don’t feel overwhelming pressure, what are you talking about?) Long story short, a good query letter is meant to convince an agent to read your book, because if they read it and like it, then they might want to represent it.

Something else to note, before we move on, is that rejection is a huge part of the process, and that does not necessarily have anything to do with whether or not you are a failure. JK Rowling received her fair share of rejection and was told not to quit her day job. Even if you have written an astonishingly good book, there are going to be people who don’t think it’s worth the paper used to print it. Go on Goodreads and look up reviews for your favorite novel. There will be people who hated it. So getting an agent is not necessarily as straightforward as it sounds, because everyone has their own personal taste. This is all ignoring the issue of making sure, if an agent is interested in representing you, that they are a good fit for you and your projected career path. Nothing is as simple as it looks from the outside. So, before you ask an author if they are published yet, consider maintaining a healthy distance, enough to give you a running start if they decide to stab you.

Part Two // Query Woes

Now that we’re all—hopefully—on the same page, I can complain about query writing. It’s hard. Like, so hard. (Truly, I have such a way with words.) Back in 2012, when I began reading numerous successful query letters and researching how to write my own, I thought it was going to be a breeze. Coming into it, you think it’s going to be easy, and people will tell you that it should be easy, which makes it even worse. But then you actually sit down to write it, and you realize that it takes a lot of work to make something look effortless.

Here’s the thing. You have just spent a considerable amount of time writing, editing, and polishing your novel. At this point, you are so familiar with it that you no longer know how to see it like it’s new, which shouldn’t be a problem, but it is, because you have to step into the shoes of someone unfamiliar with your story to know how the summary comes across. They don’t know how awesome your book is—all they know is what you tell them, so you have to tell them the right stuff, and that doesn’t mean writing a query letter that says: My book is really good. Pls believe me.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Jim, but I am a doctor writer, not a salesperson. If I had wanted to get into sales, I would have gotten into sales. Nevertheless, here I am, feeling like someone going door to door trying to sell vacuums to people who already own multiple vacuums.

I have to extract the essence of my story, all that makes it interesting, and condense it into as few words as possible (closer to 250 than 500). I have to make this letter cohesive and well-written and fascinating. And I have to communicate that I think my book has what it takes without sounding like a pompous nutcase. On top of that, I have to do this knowing I have failed twice before, which is even less fun than it sounds.

That’s why I’m giving myself a month to finish the query letter for HIRAETH, as well as the synopsis, which is longer and more detailed and spoils the ending. That one is less frustrating, although it still feels alien.

So if my next few posts read like they were written by a deranged person, you’ll understand why.


  1. I have a deep appreciation for that Treasure Planet quote.

    Querying sounds so hard. When people casually ask me what I'm writing about, I have a hard enough time as it is trying to boil it down to something succinct. Querying is a whole other battlefield that I've not fought in yet. Salesmanship? What is that?

    Keep going! You can do this!

  2. I've never written a query letter, but I'm hoping I'll be able to start doing things like that sooner than later. And it stresses me out. xD But I'm sure you've got this! Keep at it!

  3. So much yes to this post. I haven’t queried all but once but I have pitched in person to agents and editors and I know how nerve wracking it is to sell your work. And I so love the Star Trek reference. XD I get the same anxiety when people ask me about self publishing, why it’s taking me so long to get published, why I’m working a less than ideal day job to support my night job, etc.