Pub Rants

Honest, My Novel is Fantastic but I Can’t Write A Query Letter

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STATUS: It’s Tuesday and really hot here in Denver. It hit 99 degrees. This is silly. I live a mile above sea level. A mile. 5280 to be exact. We have mild summers. Mild do you hear me! I feel slightly better now. Had to work on that contract. I reviewed it this morning to decide what was worth getting grubby and fighting for. And there was a little bit of exciting news too but I can’t reveal it quite yet.

What song is playing on the iPod right now? YOU DON’T MESS AROUND WITH JIM by Jim Croce

I’ve got a great rant today.

I just have to remember that I am a nice agent and I only rant politely. I leave the snarkiness to Miss Snark. Ah, the temptation though.

I sent out a NO response for a poorly done query that I reviewed and sure enough, not five minutes later, I got a reply email. In it, the writer said that although she wasn’t any good at writing query letters, the novel was indeed masterful and I should rethink my NO and ask for sample pages.

Uh… No thank you.

In the beginning of my agency, I didn’t receive as many queries as I do currently and I would often give the query writer the benefit of the doubt. If the concept was interesting, despite the unpromising query letter, I would ask for sample pages. Maybe, just maybe, the novel was masterful where the query letter was not.

In almost five years (and thousands upon thousands of query letters), this has never happened. Basically, the sample pages lived up to the expectation given by the query letter—which basically means it didn’t measure up.

If you are a terrific writer, you’ll master the query letter. You’ll do everything in your power to get the feedback you need to make it the best it can be. Why? Because you take your career seriously, and you know that the query letter may be the best (and sometimes only) way to open the door to an agent or an editor.

Now, just to clarify (because there is always somebody who reads this blog and jumps to conclusions), I’m not suggesting that if I sent you a NO that your query was poorly written. It may be a great query but it just wasn’t right for me. We unfortunately can’t take the time (given the volume of what we receive) to tell folks, “yep, good query but not for us” or “OMG what a terribly written query, definitely not right for us.”

We just have the standard response letter.

So as a writer, how will you know if your query letter is any good?

Did you run the query letter by folks at the critique mill who know what makes a good one? (I hear Evil Editor is doing some query dissing and critiquing over at that site.)

Are you getting any requests for partials? If not, well, your query letter isn’t masterful. Or even if you are just getting a tiny number of requests like let’s say 1 or 2 out of every 50 queries sent. Not masterful enough.

And I have never read a bad query letter only to read the sample pages and get blown away by incredible writing.


Now I have read great query letters, asked for sample pages, and not have the partial measure up to the terrific query. And that is always heartbreaking.

30 Responses

  1. Elektra said:

    Is there any chance one of your clients (hint, hint, hint) would offer up their query letter to this blog so we can see an example of what grabs you in a query?

  2. Anonymous said:

    And what do you feel is a good ratio of requests for either partials or fulls based on query letters? Should a writer be pretty excited at 20% request rate or 50% or more, in general?

  3. kis said:

    Elektra, if I remember right,

    Kristin did publish a query letter on her website. It was business-like and not gimmicky at all. I actually wrote my own query based partly on it–and EE’s revisions of others’ letters.

    I’m thinking of subbing my query to EE, but am waiting on five replies before I do. Depending on what those replies are, I’ll either change it drastically or give it a little tweak.

    Of course, I AM still waiting on a reply to the partial I sent Kristin during the second half of May.

    Arrgh, Kristin, tell me the truth! Should I rejoice in the fact that I didn’t receive the dreaded NO today in my email? Should I assume my partial was among those Sara had at her home? Or should I accept the possibility that my neglect in not writing RM on my envelope sent my partial to the trash? Should I spend my nights sticking pins in a doll that resembles my local postal worker?

    Please, please, please tell me what to hope for!!!


    Anon, I think a writer should be quite satisfied with 20%. 50% is what I think about instead of sex.

  4. overthemoon said:

    This is so what I needed to hear. My queries are professional, imo, and short — to the point. But now I’ve gotten a partial request from Kristin, and I hope that means I have finally mastered the query (and everything else, I might add),LOL. Next step…the full.

  5. Simba said:

    kis said…
    Should I rejoice in the fact that I didn’t receive the dreaded NO today in my email?
    Now I’m confused. Do the “No”s come in email and the requests for full come in the SASE? For some reason, I thought it’d be the other way ’round. I have to know which is the correct one to be dreading!!

    (I sent a partial in the last half of May and am dying to know too. LOL)

  6. simba said:

    Oh dang, I just remembered that Kristen does not use the SASE. I was thinking of the other agent (the other, far distant #2 agent on my list…far, far distant…far…)

    Anyhoo, that was embarassing.


  7. kis said:

    Don’t be embarrassed Simba, its damn hard to keep track of all this stuff! Best you can do is follow directions and pray to god (or Allah, or the devil, or the eighteenth reincarnation of Shirley McClaine.)

    And if you mess up like I did (blush) you just cross your fingers and hope the agent in question isn’t already having one of those days.

    So you sent around the same time I did, huh? And you haven’t heard back yet, either? Whew! Could I have your home address, so I can send you chocolates for telling me that? Hope flowers once again in my desert of anguish. Of course, it’s just a stay of execution, right?

    And you wanna know stress–try a full! Three to four months of agonizing, only to get a politely-worded critique on the fact your book is too big. Then you join a crit group and they tell you they hate everything the agent loved. Arrghhh!

  8. kis said:

    And I’m sure Agent Kristin is #1 on a lot of authors’ lists. It’s not often you find an agent so accessible, so helpful, so human…

  9. Amra Pajalic said:

    I can so put my hand up as the query letter sucking. Evil Editor gave me a critique and at least now I know where and why it sucks. But I’m not even ready to consider submitting. Just writing a good query letter and synopsis is a huge chunk of time and something I’ll need heaps and heaps of time (and practice) to master.

    This post totally makes sense to me because you need to know your strengths and weakness as a writer and then try to correct them, or should I say overcome them.

  10. Shelli Stevens said:

    Eeeek I hope I wasn’t one that didn’t live up to the query!

    But I completely agree. Queries can be hard, and I know mine sucked two years ago. But there are a ton of resources online and in writer groups that tell you how to write a passable one, if not a fabulous one.

    There’s really no excuse for bad queries nowdays, IMO.

  11. Ryan Field said:

    I thought I’d share this. As a published writer (gay fiction for Alyson Books, Starbooks Press and Cleis to name a few) I also run a small editorial service. Following cannon ethics, I don’t write or charge clients for query letters;just don’t believe in it. The other day a client ended a three page, nightmare query letter with this: “Say but the word and lunch I will buy, you bring the tuna and I’ll bring the rye.” He’d read somewhere the editor he was querying liked to read manuscripts over lunch. To anyone interested—there are many books available that teach how to write query letters. One of my favorites is, THE FIRST FIVE PAGES by literary agent Noah Lukeman.

  12. RyanBruner said:

    I’m not sure how often it may have been mentioned, but there is an absolutely WONDERFUL writer’s group called Backspace at where Kristin occasionally pops in. I’ve been a member for a few years now.

    If you are serious about writing, you should check it out. They are hosting a writer’s conference in about a month as well.

    Anyhow, you can get some absolutely WONDERFUL feedback on your query letters there from those who have been down the road. A great many of the people there are published authors, including a NYT bestselling author, and a few on the road to becoming bestsellers.

    Me? Well, I’m on the road to finding an agent. 😉

  13. Anonymous said:

    It would be nice though, to know if it’s the query or the premise that gets rejected.

    I based my own query on the example Kristen posts on her website. I focused on all the major points, made sure I followed all the “checklist” recommendations the various agents suggest, and even had my query letter critiqued by a popular author!

    I got the standard form rejection.
    *shrugs* The hardest part of the “standard rejection” is the standard “lumping-your-query-in-with-those-I-rant-about” and wondering… Did mine truly suck?

    Here’s a lovely fantasy… That agents have more than one form letter.

    “Dear Aspiring Author,

    While your query letter is great, the premise of your novel doesn’t grab me.

    Better Luck Next Time”

  14. Anonymous said:

    I do know of a writer who successfully used the technique you mention in your entry. This writer received a rejection to a query and promptly wrote back to the agent saying that while the writer could not write a good query, the manuscript was great.

    The author got an agent and a publishing contract based on this ‘sassy’ response. So, is it possible this person’s story of a positive result is floating around the internet now, encouraging similar strategies? Maybe this will be a new trend?

  15. Carmen said:

    Agent Kristin, would you mind if I ask you a question? I have a novel (you’ve read a partial) that I’ve gotten some feedback on. The feedback is generally great idea, “high concept” and all that. But I’ve also gotten some feedback that the first 30 pages do too much “explaining” the story and not enough “telling” the story.

    Anyway, I want to basically re-do/eliminate the explanation and get right into the story. Would you, as the representative of agents :), be open to a re-query? How would you write that? “I submitted this before, but made it much better,” etc?

  16. lizzie26 said:

    The best advice I ever got in writing a query: (1) think of the short blurb that would be on the back cover (or inside front flap) of your book. It hooks the reader. Write your query that way. And (2) make the query short and to the point.

  17. kis said:

    Yeah, short, to the point, not too much detail. My story is big–cast of thousands–and it was amazing how easy (comparatively) it was to condense it all into a paragraph or two. I just had to limit each aspect of the plot to one, maybe two sentences. I think it would be harder if the story was smaller. You would agonize more about what to include and what to leave out. You’d be tempted to make your character descriptions more personal.

    And Ryan,

    A three page query? Ouch. And that little ditty at the end–way too personal, almost creepy. If I was the editor, I’d be looking over my shoulder a little after reading it. It’s one thing to insert a quip, but that was going a bit too far.

  18. gigi said:

    Hello Kis,

    I’m thinking, if you sent a partial in the second half of May, you really don’t need to be stressing out over not having heard back yet. It’s very, very early days. Just sit tight, and give it some time. Two to three months or more is usual before sending a follow-up on a partial.

    I waited 2 1/2 months before following up on my partial to Kristin, and got an immediate polite reply that she had just finished the read. She seems *very* current with her work–a six month wait isn’t unusual for many agents.

    I know, sometimes the hardest part of this business is waiting. But knowing how long to wait and giving the agents a reasonable space of time will show them how professional you are, and that you are the kind of client they want on their list.

    I can’t recommend Miss Snark too highly for this kind of nuts-and-bolts advice…check out what she has to say on wait times, and good luck! Wishing you the best!

  19. kis said:

    I wouldn’t be stressing, except that Kristin said on her last post that she was mostly caught up til June 1, and that any NOs were going to be sent out en masse yesterday. That either means–hopehopehope–that she hasn’t got to mine yet, or–nonononono!–that my parcel either didn’t make it to her office, or she pitched it after not seeing “requested materials” on it 50 times in red pen cause I forgot to wite it. (I still can’t see this as a REAL possibility–Kristin just seems too nice for that!)

    Anyhoo, I’m thinking there’s a downside to knowing this much about the specifics. 1:00 pm is a little early for me to be craving my first drink…


    Wd ver. Aeiwg–I think I just found me another name!

  20. kis said:

    Oh, and I’ve been a Snarkling since January. 🙂

    wd ver. Gtfekr–maybe not the best name out there?

  21. Tori Scott said:

    a six month wait isn’t unusual for many agents I just finally wrote off an agent who’s had a partial for 14 months. And I didn’t even query her! She read the first two pages in a workshop and asked for the partial right then. When I followed up a few months later, she couldn’t find it and asked me to email it to her. I did. That was 7 months ago. Won’t even bother to query that one again, even though she’s 2nd in command at a top agency. I want an agent who, frankly my dear, gives a damn.

    And no, the agent isn’t Kristin. She has sample pages from me right now, but she’s only had them for 2 weeks.

  22. kis said:


    From what I’ve heard, Kristin is very prompt, so I don’t want her to get the impression I’m trying to rush her. I know from previous rants that she never posts in the comments, so I’m not expecting an answer here, either. Just venting.

    In fact, if I hadn’t forgotten (still blushing over it) to write the “Requested Materials” thingie on my partial, I wouldn’t be agonizing at all. Knowing from the last post how caught up she is will help me decide whether I need to resend my partial or not, and let me tell you, it will be a relief just knowing!

    I went through similar throes last year when I sent my full to an agent and found the SASE two days later, hiding amid the tape and crumpled kraft paper I’d packed it with. I haven’t had such a sudden and staggering surge of dread since my fat coffee-table of a dog walked off the end of the government wharf in the dark one night!

    Long story short, I sent the SASE separately, and it found its way home. Oh, and the dog’s no worse for wear, either. Still fat though. 🙂

  23. Linda Adams said:

    After struggling with query letters, I finally came to a conclusion: If the story doesn’t fundamentally work, it’s virtually impossible to do a query letter. If the story really works, the query letter (and synopsis) will come together.

  24. Tracy Nelson said:

    I have been working on my novel for around a year now. I have been working on my synopsis and query letter for about a month. I have every confidence in the world that my ability to write a query letter should match my ability to write a novel. When this author said that she was no good at writing query letters my question would have been, what makes me think your novel will be any better. I sincerely do not mean to sound like an overly confident snob, but there is no way I’m going to admit that my skills are poor in any area when turning somethig in. Seriously, if you are not confident in your own work, why should anyone else be?

  25. Anonymous said:

    Here is my issue with this writer; where is the confidence? First of all, while turning in my query letters there is no way I am going to talk about my inability to write! If I talk about my inability to write a query letter, than why should anyone be interested in my synopsis or novel? Send these things in with confidence and obviously do not say you are not good at writing. HELLO! You are trying to get a book published! I think she should try again…and this time make a statement about how good her writing is! 🙂

  26. Anonymous said:

    Here is my issue with this writer; where is the confidence? First of all, while turning in my query letters there is no way I am going to talk about my inability to write! If I talk about my inability to write a query letter, than why should anyone be interested in my synopsis or novel? Send these things in with confidence and obviously do not say you are not good at writing. HELLO! You are trying to get a book published! I think she should try again…and this time make a statement about how good her writing is! 🙂