I talked to a writer friend today, let’s call her Donna, who wanted to read her query letter to me. She did. It sounded fine. Then she told me it took her nine days to write that query letter and she’s been waiting to hear from an agent for three and a half months, and she’d begun to worry that her letter wasn’t good enough.
We talked for a few minutes about query letters, and she referred to several writing books and a magazine article she’s been holding onto for a while, and as we talked I realized how unhelpful it had been to her to have any information at all. Really, did it matter whether she described her interest in the historical aspect of the story before or after the book summary?
I reminded Donna that slush piles are called that because people in offices where manuscripts are delivered let them pile up. And then by the time they go through them, it’s not always with a careful read, but with a feeling of having to clean the refrigerator before the sister-in-law’s visit.
Frankly, I was always worried that my query letters weren’t good enough. The first one definitely wasn’t. I typed in the heading the way I found in a book on writing letters. I typed “Dear (agent’s name).” I typed “Manuscript enclosed.” And I typed “Sincerely yours, my name.”
That agent took me on, so we know it wasn’t the query letter that did it.
He dropped me a year later when he realized I intended to write for young adults.
Donna’s been through this before, and perhaps should have known about query letters and slush piles. She’s been published once, some years ago, then got involved in caring for a family member with a serious illness, and because she wasn’t producing any writing, lost her agent.
Because we’d covered all of the above, I asked her what she was working on now. She said, “Well, nothing. I thought I’d wait and see.”
So I asked the pointy question: “Are you interested in publishing again?”
She said, a little indignantly, “Well, of course. Isn’t that what this whole conversation has been about?”
And I said, “Then you ought to be writing.”
If Donna worried the query letter was the reason she hadn’t heard anything, and if she actually thought the person opening the envelopes was going to give her any useful feedback on her work, I figure there are a few people out there who could stand to hear this.
I worked in an agent’s office in the nineties, and her instructions to me were to check first for photos, she wasn’t accepting anything that came with a photo of the author. And to check for a SASE, because that was a mark of professionalism. I read an awful lot of query letters that year.
And I’m convinced of these things: there is no one format (as one book suggests) that sells all books. Non-fiction buyers want to know why they should listen to what you have to say and why they should take your word for it. You should tell them. They are defensive buyers, whether they are editors or readers.
Fiction buyers are a more relaxed group. They want a good story, and all you have to do to win them over is, tell it. So be aware that the query letter doesn’t have to tell them how long you’ve been working on the brick foundation, or even that you went to Barnard’s bricklaying adult-education classes. Your letter also doesn’t have to summarize the whole novel. Think more along the lines of book flap copy. One paragraph.
You don’t need to drum up a hard sell, you don’t want to bribe them with your first born or your outstanding eggnog recipe, and you don’t want to scare them off by sending your picture. Keep it straightforward. Since you are generally not your character, you don’t have to create a strained effort to carry the story voice into the letter. Keep it simple.
They just want a feel for the writer you are, one holding out this hopefully promising manuscript with a minimal paragraph that invites them to look it over, and the information they need to return it, or even better, to speak to you.
Remember to enclose your manuscript and your SASE and a reasonable form of contact information should be part of the query letter.
And just between you and me, if you are unpublished, never listen to advice to send to one agent or editor at a time. Just don’t listen. Whoever gets back to you first, or gets back to you at all, they are your target. But a shotgun is more effective than a blowgun in the publishing world.
This seems a poor analogy to employ. Let me try again. . .I’m trying. I’m thinking of things that come in great excess. Water, as in floods. Haystacks. Traffic. Sand, as in storms. Grass hoppers in certain years. Hmmm. Thorns on the rose bushes I planted today. Well, anyway, don’t expect a rapid reply.
Also, don’t feel that if you’ve already gotten a no from an agent, that you can’t send something else to that agent. Not next week, generally, but that might depend on how long they took to get back to you. If they took six months, and in that six months, you’ve finished something you think is good, send it. You might get lucky and hit while he or she is still working through the slush pile. Or you might have to wait six months again for that window to open.
Remember, that agent I worked for said look for photos and the SASE. She didn’t say, be sure to wonder who sent that manuscript. It’s not that they won’t remember your name; they aren’t going to remember any of the names on the nine hundred envelopes they opened in a single week.
Meanwhile, move on to your next project, waiting to be written.
Don’t wait three and a half months, anxiously checking the mailbox, hoping. It’s reasonable to shake the cage (I’m sure editors would prefer I work on this analogy, too) after three or four months. Call and inquire about the work you sent. If someone hasn’t read it, assume they won’t. Just don’t stop writing.
Don’t stop writing.
Don’t stop writing.
For a fascinating read, and more useful advice than I can offer, please look for Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees. Except maybe for this advice on rejection letters: They happen. Just move on.
Don’t take six weeks of your writing life to recover from this disappointment. Don’t start racking up empty bottles of Southern Comfort. Also don’t stop breathing. And don’t give up hope.
Certainly you’re tougher than that. You’ll need to be.
You believe in what you’re doing and you’ve got something else partway along (nearly finished, right?) and that work will suffer if you set it aside to mope. Don’t waste that six weeks and don’t blame anybody else if you do.
Six weeks is maybe sixty pages, even if you’re only writing in the back seat while the kids are at karate class. Write them gladly. Gaily, even. Tack the rejection letter up in the outhouse as if you might need it when the Sears catalog runs out, but really, just keep it. You want to remember who to burn in effigy when you finally do get published. And if you’re making a really really really serious effort, you’ll have enough of these, that, yeah, really, you’ll have forgotten most of their names.
Write. So that they’ll have to remember yours.
Audrey’s domain name is out of jail!
Although you’ll still find me at audreycouloumbisbooks.com, I can once more be found at audreycouloumbis.com. and of course, I can be found in the garden.
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