Pub Rants

Reading Queries

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STATUS: I did a lot of client editing this weekend. I’m actually going to leave the office early so I can concentrate at home on editing the next one in my queue. I only have three others after this one but my goal is to turnaround stuff within 2 weeks. It’s definitely been more like 3 and ugh, when it stretches to 4, then the guilt is tremendous.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? DON’T FEAR THE REAPER by Blue Oyster Cult

Last night I finished up an edit for a client manuscript and didn’t quite have the gumption to dive right into the next project as it was already after 9 p.m. Truly, it helps to be “fresh” when editing.

So I decided to catch up on reading my queries for about an hour (because I’m always the weak link in reviewing and responding promptly the ones set aside for me to read).

And I know, it sucks that I was tired when I started to review them but hey, that’s not unusual. Agents squeeze in query reading when they’ve got a spare 15 or 30 minutes otherwise it won’t get done.

So yes, I wasn’t at optimum when I read, and here are some things I noticed.

1. I had 120 queries to review as it had been almost three weeks since I had checked my review folder to read what Sara had set aside for me. By the time I had whittled the pile down to 40 email queries remaining, I was fighting the glaze factor. What is the glaze factor? The point of diminishing returns in reading. When I’m fresher, I read better and if I find a query confusing, I’m willing to muddle through and figure out what the writer might be attempting to say (although I usually still just pass). When the glaze factor hits, doing that becomes harder. It’s not that I won’t reread the query, because I will. I’ll stop, shake my head, start from the beginning. However, if I’m still glazing over after the first paragraph and struggling to figure out the query’s storyline, I’ll give up.

I highlight this just to reiterate how important it is to nail that query letter. When I hit the point of diminishing returns and I read a really solid, well-written query, it’s almost an auto yes to ask for sample pages because I’m just so pleased I didn’t have to work extra on it.

And just another FYI—the glaze factor can hit SF&F queries harder as I find writers will often ramble about world building in their queries. Short, succinct, and well done should be your mantra.

2. I’m not fond of queries that sound like the novel is simply a recipe. Add a dash of an intriguing hero mixed with a pinch of a sarcastic heroine (or what have you as I’m making this up). I find that it doesn’t let me evaluate the story of the query very accurately so I often just pass on asking for sample pages. I do try and guess what I think the story would be but I’d just rather the writer described it without the recipe gimmick. I realize this is a personal preference and other agents might feel quite differently.

22 Responses

  1. Gary B. Phillips said:

    Hi Kristin! I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and appreciate all the great tips. If you have the time, I do have one question for you, since I’m writing a young adult novel right now.

    How old is too old for a young adult/teen/independent reader? I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about my protagonist. At the moment, my heroine begins the novel at the tender age of 8, but we quickly jump forward to 18 years old. Is that too old? Is there any industry standard age range for protagonists of YA novels?

    Thanks in advance and thanks for the great blog!

  2. Dayle A. Dermatis said:

    WRT recipe queries, what if the main character is a chef? That’s the only time I used that format, and I tried to do it in the style and tone of the book while imparting as much information as possible. Would it work for that type of book?

  3. Sera Phyn said:

    I can’t imagine you’re the only one to oppose the “recipe queries.” I can’t think of the specific places I’ve seen them mentioned, but I know I have. And rarely (read, never) in a positive light.

    I think that, if I ever got one of those (you know, if I was an agent or even anything remotely close to being one), I’d wonder what the person was trying to bake with a dash of intrigue and a pinch of sarcasm. It just doesn’t seem like it would taste very good.

    As for the editing turnaround, I completely agree with you about the guilt. I’m working on editing a project now that is taking a lot longer than anticipated and the guilt is already building. But being “fresh” does help so much, and I haven’t been that “fresh” recently. Diving ahead despite that is the next best thing, I guess.

  4. Julie Weathers said:


    I’ve seen this mentioned a few times with an almost fill-in-the-blank situation. Granted, when you are forced to reduce your story down to that level it makes you realize what the essence is, but I think it still needs to have a distinctive voice.

    This is one thing that nags at me all the time. I can’t imagine reading through hundreds of query letters without wanting to bury your head under a pillow. It really does seem important to write a good one.

    Woe is me.

  5. lizr said:

    Ah yes, the glaze factor. Used to happen to me every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon when I’d get back to my dorm room and lay on my bed to catch up on some Biology 101 reading.

    My solution was to keep reading the same paragraph over and over, absorb nothing, and fall asleep until dinnertime. 😀

  6. karen wester newton said:

    “What’s playing on the iPod right now? DON’T FEAR THE REAPER by Blue Oyster Cult”

    I’ve got a fever and the only cure is … MORE COW BELL!

    Sorry, I’m a Christopher Walken fan.

    The world building in queries comment is very revealing. I never thought of it, but I can see where it would be true.

  7. Anonymous said:

    How many terrabytes of webspace would we save if the query were eliminated? How many millions of pages are dedicated to the ‘correct’ query?

    An editor wants this, an agent wants that… there is no generic letter that’s going to please everyone. If you do what Agent X wants, but you send it to Agent Y, they’ll read the first paragraph and toss it. After all, they’re just looking for a reason to toss it anyway.

    Why can’t we just send 3 chapters with the word count on the first page? After all, does anything besides the story really matter? Odds are that many great novels have been sunk by bad queries. Telling a story is an entirely different art from letter-writing. One might as well assume that a great novelist should naturally be a great poet, and said poet should be a great singer… and so on. Its ridiculous to hold writers to a higher standard than everyone else.

    Let’s eliminate this wasted paper and get right to the guts of the business. Tell a good freaking story and forget about spending 3 weeks composing the perfect letter.

  8. Pam Halter said:

    The only thing I dread more than writing a query letter is writing the synopsis. 🙂

    Thanks for the reminder that an excellent letter is so important!

  9. Anonymous said:

    I have a question regarding the “portal” fantasy novel. I believe you mentioned in the past that you couldn’t stand them. However, I’ve queried you before, and you gave my partial a try twice (the second time was after a re-write), but passed.

    I’ve re-written again and must admit it wasn’t ready the first two times. So, is it considered against etiquette to query you again with the polished manuscript and a new query letter, or is the fact that you’ve already passed twice and it’s a “portal” fantasy three strikes, and I’m out?

  10. Anonymous said:

    I can do one better.

    Last week I picked up a ms of mine to “polish” it after finishing it a month prior. I think I’d suspected it all along, but seeing it again confirmed the the entire work was one big “glaze factor.”

    It can’t be fixed. So many things are wrong with it from the first page on that I decided to give up on it. I sent it through the shredder. What a relief that I now recognize when a book WON’T work and don’t have to toy with it for an additional four months trying “really hard” to make it work.

    Queries are the same thing, I guess.

  11. Anonymous said:

    I’ve gotta have more cow bell. God, I love that man. If you ever get a chance, try to find Jay Mohr’s impersonation of Christopher Walken (gleaned from their time together making ‘Suicide Kings’- an underrated movie). Some of the old clips of the impression might be on Opie & Anthony’s website- I don’t know if it is searchable.

    As to the phenomena of the ‘recipe query’, it’s out there and it is a scary trap to fall prey to. It happens to me when I get bored, when querying becomes a mechanical part of the routine. Rather than research an agent and tailor the letter to him/her, I take the prototype of the letter (the first draft, with the best if vanilla-est, cleanest version of the plot description; you know, the one that best fits every textbook example of “Here is a fine query letter, to base your own on!”) and tack on some lame opening like “I hope this letter finds you well…” I think that is the easiest way to inspire the glaze factor in an agent.

    I’m always lazy when I start querying a project. Maybe it’s my subconscious way of ‘getting the no’s out of the way’ (the old cold-sales sop). I’ve got to admit, once I get going and do the right research, my letters are almost always ‘glaze-free’. The only exception was a letter to an agent in New York, who rejected my letter in less than an hour. I compared the e-mail times, and sure enough, from sending to return, it was 48 minutes flat. As I had done my research and taken the time with the letter, I admit I was confused… the same project had gotten some thoughtful, personal rejections from larger agencies… and after a week of wondering, I researched even deeper and discovered that the agent already repped a series of books with a similar theme to my own project. Different storylines, but a close enough parallel to conjure visions of her being billed as repping a certain kind of book.

  12. Adrienne said:

    To answer Gary – 18 isn’t too old for a YA, but you may want to reconsider the genre. If most of the story takes place with the MC as a teen, you should be fine. But if a great deal of the story takes place when the MC is younger, or it is more about coming of age, you may even have a general adult fiction book on your hands.

  13. Anonymous said:

    Kristin, don’t know if you read these comments, but if you do, I was hoping you could devote a future post to what you mean by “editing” a client’s ms. My agent (and sometimes his assistant as well) provides me with an email of detailed notes after a first submission to him, and then some more notes/suggestions until we have a finished product. Is that what you mean by edits, or do you literally mark up the ms? Also – do your edits differ between published clients and unpublished clients (My first two books didn’t sell, I’m hoping for better luck with the third…….)

  14. Beth said:

    Anon 11:11 said: Why can’t we just send 3 chapters with the word count on the first page? After all, does anything besides the story really matter?…Let’s eliminate this wasted paper

    Er…maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t sending 30 or so pages for every query going to waste more paper than merely sending one?

  15. Sarah Garrigues said:

    I am currently reading Sarah Dessen’s YA novel JUST LISTEN. Her main character is eighteen and just graduated from high school. Since that is an event many YA readers are looking forward to, it is completely an appropriate age/topic to write about.

  16. CHOOCH said:

    I was one of those queries that had Kristin up late at night. All I can say is that she is awesome. For some reason excite muffed up my original e-mail and only eight or nine words made it through. She took the time to respond to me so I would know and let me resubmit again. And then again because I write horrible, horrible queries. I can sell thousands of books a year on my own (and have a script going into development), however, I can’t write a formal letter touting my talents. Thanks once again – see you in the bookstore.

  17. kymbrunner said:

    Since many people read before bedtime, I think the glaze factor is perfect for deciding which stories stay and which ones go. If the query can’t keep you awake, then off with its head! 😀

  18. Anonymous said:

    Beth: I think you missed my point. Most agents would like to see a sample along with the query anyway, at least in my experience. You may be querying a different bunch than I am, and I know it varies, but I think far too much importance is placed on the query.

    Assuming a writer can’t write a book because their query sucks is like expecting Michelangelo to paint your house. Totally different tools, techniques, and skills involved. Agents are falling into the same trap as the general public. Everybody who can put words on paper assumes they can write. So, to carry the metaphor even further, agents are looking at the work of thousands of house painters hoping they’ll find a Michelangelo in the rough, yet they’re judging by house-painting skills instead of an art piece.

    That’s silly. And yes, wasteful, but that wasn’t really my point.

  19. Twill said:

    anon 4:09 –

    Yes, there are different techniques involved in writing a good query than in writing a good novel. But all the arts are related. If you have mastered the skill of writing a GREAT novel, then you can swiftly master the skill of writing a GOOD query letter.

    Engage the reader.
    Make them want more.
    Know what your story is about.
    Control the reader’s attention.
    Show, don’t tell.
    Economise phrasing.
    Avoid cliche.
    Attend to detail.
    Be luminous.

    You already have to know all of the above to write a good novel. After that, you merely learn how to apply the same skills to getting an agent or editor’s attention.

    Demonstrate all of the above in 100-200 words that relate to your novel and your desired relationship with the agent, in the tone of the novel.

    Not that tough.