Pub Rants

Writing That Dang Query

 23 Comments |  Share This:    

STATUS: I have to say that it’s 7 pm on a Friday night and I’m rather ready to go home.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? MAN IN A SUITCASE by The Police

I have to say that Courtney Milan and her query sparked quite a debate, which took place over at Nathan’s blog. I think battle lines were drawn.

So it seemed like a good idea to highlight a few more thoughts on the query letter and who should be writing it.

Do I think that you should write your own query letter? Yes. Quite simply, I think the writer of the novel should be the writer for the query because hands down, that’s the best person for the job. Voice and all that (which was discussed at length over in the comments section of the debate so no need to add more comment here).

But whether I think this or not is moot because I’m not going to know whether you wrote your own query or not and I’m probably not ever going to ask (unless it suspiciously reads like something that Sherry Thomas would write….)

I do think both Sherry and Courtney brought up some good points. First off, Sherry took a stab at writing it to show Courtney the rhythm of it and what to include for plot points or conflict. And then she quite firmly said that Courtney should use her attempt as a guide only. That really it was better for the pitch to be in Courtney’s voice.

Courtney also chimed in to say that the experience of struggling with the pitch in her query letter was well worth it because it gave her a lot of insight into the manuscript and what may or may not need to be revised in the opening.

I actually heartily agree with is. You know why? Because I’ve given my query pitch workshop at numerous conferences and as you all know, I beat that already dead horse to death again by nattering on about the plot catalyst that starts your novel and how that should be the centerpiece of your pitch.

And you know what I’ve discovered? When workshop participants are forced to figure out what that catalyst is and take a stab at their pitch blurb in the workshop itself, some epiphanies have happened.

For example, in the last workshop I gave (which was at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers I think), one participant realized (to his dismay) that his plot catalyst was near page 100. Now I don’t know for sure (because I didn’t read his chapters right then and there) but my guess is that he had a lot of backstory that was filling up the opening chapters. Story that a writer needs in his head but probably doesn’t need to be there on the page.

See what I mean? So there is real value in the struggle to write the pitch.

But then here’s an interesting take on this. I know some agents who have their authors write the pitch blurb that the agent will then use in the letter to the editor.

I’ve never done that. I have always written my own pitch blurbs. Now, I certainly do ask for the author to take first stab at it because I want to see what the author perceives as the crux of the story.

If this is a debut author, then the pitch blurb has already been done in the query and I often lift elements from what the author wrote originally when crafting my own letter. You can see this in the Courtney Milan example as I lifted “wardrobe malfunction” straight from the query. That totally made me laugh and I thought an editor would find it funny as well—to have this super contemporary phrasing in a letter about a historical romance novel.

However, if you take a look at Jamie Ford’s original query letter and then my pitch letter to editors [see links in sidebar], wow, quite different.

And yet, in the debate, the emphasis on the author’s voice was really highlighted as being of the utmost of importance as to why the writer should write it him/herself.


Copyeditors at the publishing houses often write their own cover copy for the work—taking nothing from the agent’s pitch letter and they certainly haven’t seen the author’s original query.

Now I have had copyeditors lift direct lines from the copy I’ve written (which really flatters me! I give good copy!) and put it into the back cover or flap copy. Most of the times, not. What they created is wholly new.

No real point here. Just food for thought.

No matter what, I do think you should begin by writing your own pitch blurb as you will learn about your own novel in the process of doing so. Where it goes from there is ultimately up to you but whatever you do, just don’t make it generic.

23 Responses

  1. Sarah Jensen said:

    This is helpful. And I had to cut a lot from my novel when I started working on my query. I also had to go back and add a lot. I realized that what I thought was most important, wasn’t that prominent in the ms. 🙂

  2. DebraLSchubert said:

    Kristen, Again, fascinating. I pitched a paragraph on another agent’s site and she loved it and asked for my partial. I learned a lot from that exercise about getting to the heart of the story FAST! I also realized I needed to chop more out of the beginning of the book, which I did.

    As far as Courtney is concerned, obviously what she did worked and she learned a tremendous amount in the process. In the highly competitive world of publishing, you have to follow your best instincts and do what works for you. Clearly her work is of the highest quality, or it wouldn’t have mattered how good the query was. I hope she sells millions!

  3. Anonymous said:

    I wonder what all the fuss is about. Aren’t we talking about an industry in which autobiographies regularly have co-authors and many books were written by uncredited ghost writers?

  4. Anonymous said:

    Thanks for this, Kristin. The discussions on both Nathan’s blog and yours are always very informative and interesting.

  5. Amy Nathan said:

    Kristin, I took your query workshop at Chicago Spring Fling last April and had the same epiphany as the writer you mention – I realized that my plot catalyst was way too far into the book. Writing or even just brainstorming a query is a great way to pinpoint the “real” story. Since then the plot catalyst has moved to within the first 50 pages. I think it’s key for beginning queriers (is that a word?) to remember that the actual manuscript must backup the pitch.

  6. Anonymous said:

    I think your query posts about locating the catalyst and building your pitch around it are the best, most informative posts out there on how to form a query — not to mention how to think about a book.

    So much so that I’m not starting my new novel UNTIL I can determine the catalyst and how the rest of the book will be effected by it. I used to fling characters on the blank page and hoped for the best. No more. Writing is too hard not to have that concrete catalyst down.

    Thanks for that, Kristin.

  7. Anonymous said:

    Interesting, in Courtney’s query letter she says she is a lawyer:

    “I currently work as a lawyer …[bio info deleted by Courtney’s request]”

    On her website she says:

    “Before she started writing historical romance, Courtney experimented with various occupations: computer programming, dog-training, scientificating. . . . Having given up on being able to do any of those things, she’s taken to heart the axiom that those who can’t do, teach. When she’s not reading (lots), writing (lots), or sleeping (not enough), she can be found in the vicinity of a classroom. “

    Maybe the discrepancy has been explained in that she didn’t write the letter.

  8. Anonymous said:

    Anon, there could be a number of reasons for that. She may simply want to keep her practice completely separate from her writing.

    However, she may also be a lawyer who has chosen to do something else. I passed the bar exam in three states and am, therefore, a licensed attorney in those three states. I have chosen a career in the federal government over practicing law, though. However, I am still a lawyer.

    And anyway, who cares if she is a lawyer or not? Being a lawyer has nothing to do with writing historical romances. The important part of the query is the hook, and regardless of who wrote it, I gather it’s a true reflection of the novel itself.

  9. Anonymous said:

    Or perhaps it reflects more on the state of mind that honesty is just an inconvenient detail. Next thing you know, people would justify that it is okay for a high school kid to have someone else write an essay for college application so long as the essay is a “true reflection” of the kid. Oh, never mind.

  10. Anonymous said:

    It took me several drafts of my query letter to get one I liked, although I was sending early versions out- after I got a version I liked I could see why an agent would have passed on my earlier versions. But here’s what I learned- the final query letter is better than the novel. Well, not better, but it has a zingier voice than the novel. I have crafted a more commercial pitch for a literary novel. So it’s somewhat misleading! I either need to punch-up the novel, or tone down the query- if that makes sense.

  11. *Jen* said:

    Hi Kristin,
    I have been following along with your blog since just before the holidays began and I wanted to thank you for all this great information about query letters. Even though I am not finished with my current novel, I decided to give writing the query a try. I’ve gone through several drafts and I’m sure what I have now is not what I will end up sending out. However, it was a great exercise in recognizing where my conflicts lie. I have realized that by having one of my plot points featured as a minor conflict, I was missing out on some really potentially great material. Now this minor point needs to become a major point–and I think the work will be more interesting and entertaining for it!
    Thanks again!

  12. Elissa M said:

    The mention of cover copy being written by copy-editors got me thinking. The book I’m currently reading has what I consider the worst possible cover blurb I’ve ever seen. It almost made me put the book down. I bought it because I can’t resist debut fantasies that are stand-alone novels over 200,000 words. And within two pages I discovered it was a bazillion times better than I imagined it could be from the cover copy. I wonder how many times sales have been lost due to a bad cover (picture or copy)? Probably unquantifiable.

  13. Courtney Milan said:

    I just want to point out that it’s been eight months since I sent Kristin that letter.

    If you think about it for just a little bit, you might figure out why, having sold a novel last August, I might have subsequently undergone a change of career to something less demanding than lawyering (which I was doing at the time I sent the letter, and am not doing any longer).

    One possibility is that I write romance novels with a good bit of sex in them. I don’t want today’s kids, savvy in the ways of Google, to be able to easily look me up and get their panties in a wad. I’m being extra careful to separate out my identities, so you get dot dot dot–in both my website bio and Kristin’s bio instead.

    Of course, the other possibility is that since selling the novel I have entered the witness protection program, and you have just blown my cover. Curses upon you! Next time I enter the witness protection program, I shall have to remember NOT to make a personal website.

    In any event, Sherry didn’t write my bio paragraph. She didn’t even know what I did for a living until much, much later.

  14. ryan field said:

    “And yet, in the debate, the emphasis on the author’s voice was really highlighted as being of the utmost of importance as to why the writer should write it him/herself.


    I found the voice thing interesting too. And I thought I was the only one. I can tell you from experience that there have been many times when I’ve submitted my own cover copy (or sell copy, sometimes) and it’s either been changed or rearranged by the copyeditor. And there have been times when nothing has been changed, which is flattering. Either way, no big thing. But I always have to go back and check what I’ve submitted as cover copy, because it’s hard to tell the difference between something that has been changed and something that hasn’t. And, the cover copy that has been changed is usually much better than what I submitted. My writing “voice” has never been altered by anyone in cover copy, and that’s because it’s cover copy and it’s not my writing.

    Before I found an agent, I always wrote my own queries. I learned a great deal from blogs like this, and I believe that if you can get help, then go for it. But frankly, I always thought the voice in my own queries was a little bit different from the voice in my pages. And that’s because it was a query, not pages.

  15. Madison said:

    I’m glad to see agents addressing this topic. Maybe more people will start to see that getting out of writing your own query isn’t an easy way out. Thanks for this post, Ms. Nelson. Quite informative.

  16. Anonymous said:

    Dog training is more bio-worthy than “lawyering”? Is “lawyering” even a word?

    Oh well, author is a much better career choice than any of Courtney’s other occupations.

    And thanks to Agent Kristin for this wonderful blog!

  17. Deborah Teramis Christian said:

    I just wanted to say I think your blog is as entertaining as it is informative and I really enjoy it. I especially appreciate your forthrightness about some of the otherwise-hidden workings of this industry.

    I did a mini-review of your blog and recommended at my own site. I hope others will come here and take a look as well. You can see that review here.
    Thanks for all the work you put into this. 🙂


    Deborah Teramis Christian
    Science fiction/fantasy novelist

  18. Anita said:

    Over on my blog, I’ve placed the jacket copy of a book I’ve recently recommended in my book recommendation column. The copy is in the tone of the book…you read it, and you know the style to expect from the book. I think there’s a lot to be learned from reviewing really good jacket copy.

  19. Jean said:

    I love the suggestion to start the query with the plot catalyst. Very good advice!

    I weigh in on the get help side of the argument. I feel it is important for the letter to be the author’s and to have their voice, etc. However, I also believe they should get all the help and advice they can get to ensure that they aren’t making huge plot following assumptions in their letter.

    Thanks for the great post.

  20. Anonymous said:

    Kristin, could you answer a question for authors whose plot catalysts are too far into the manuscript? If we figure that out after querying you and do major rewrites to fix the problem, is it bad form to requery?

    You were my first choice when I queried you last year, and I was elated when you asked to see a partial. Your “thanks but no thanks” was the push I needed to edit a 110,000-word novel down to 98,000. So thank you very much! Even if I wasted my chance, I’m grateful for the learning experience of your “no.”