Notes From A Query Workshop

August 22nd, 2011 • Kate

guidelinesSo, on Saturday I was invited to give a query workshop to a small group of members of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the SCBWI. I was delighted to chat about my general do’s and don’ts of querying, and glad to be able to get into specifics (over the course of three hours) with the attendees who submitted queries for discussion. I got a lot of great questions from the group, but there was one especially that came up that I wanted to share with you.

Near the end of the workshop, as I talked about guidelines and tracking your submissions, one of the attendees asked a question I think agents get asked a lot, “How do we know what we did wrong when we get rejected?”

And even though we’d spent the last three hours talking about what to do and not do, and what agents want to see in the format of a query letter, I had to break the hard truth: it’s not about how you break up the paragraphs in your query letter, or if you put your author bio before your word count, or introduce too many characters too quickly, or write three paragraphs on your novel instead of two. Most agents I know, even if you break all their “rules”, aren’t going to reject you just for that. (Though there is the author who deliberately flouts the rules, or doesn’t believe they apply to him — him, we may reject more quickly because of that.)

No, most of the time, if we send back a polite form letter saying no, it’s because THE MANUSCRIPT ISN’T RIGHT.

And I think that’s a hard truth to accept. It’s a hell of a lot easier to say “damn, I spelled her name wrong, so she rejected me,” or “rats, I forgot to send pages” than to admit that maybe it’s your writing that needs work.

And that’s why I try to help authors out with workshops like these: because if you can keep from stressing out about the querying process, and concentrate instead on improving your writing, I think you’re going to find it easier in the long run, and come to a quicker recognition of just how far you can go in this business.


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3 Responses to “Notes From A Query Workshop”

  1. Krista V. Says:

    I also think it's important to remember that "the manuscript isn't right" may mean the writing isn't quite there yet, or it may simply mean the manuscript isn't right for that one agent. It's really tough to figure out who might be interested in your manuscript, especially when you're taking your first ride on the query-go-round. Most writers don't land an agent with their first manuscripts, and that's largely because it takes a while to figure out which agents you should be querying.

  2. DaphneUn Says:

    Excellent point, Krista! Although, even in that there lies the possibility of some minor self-delusion. Is it not right for the agent, or just in general? I know that if agents could give detailed rejections, we could answer some of these questions for you, but I can tell you if we did, our response times would be epic… even more so than they are now.

  3. Adam Heine Says:

    In a lot of cases, I think you CAN'T know which agents you should be querying. Like for me, there's almost 300 agents who rep YA, but not all of them rep SF/F. Even those that say they do might not like my brand of SF/F (I know, I'm querying), and a lot of agents who DON'T say whether or not they rep YA sci-fi might be interested in my manuscript (again, I know). So while I try to target those who say they're looking for what I write, in the end I have to query most of them. All because I got a few requests out of left field 🙂

    I think the only way you can "know" your query is okay is to send out a whole bunch and see how many come back with requests. In my experience, for someone querying widely, anywhere from a 5-15% request rate means the query probably isn't the problem. But that's based on VERY anecdotal evidence 😉