Pub Rants

Not The Right Question

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STATUS: Do I dare ‘fess up that we listened to the XM Holly holiday station all day? Is it too early? I know I’ve already dived into many an eggnog chai…

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? WINTER WONDERLAND by Jason Mraz

As I sit here contemplating the great mysteries of the universe… Okay, in reality I’m really just sitting here having a relaxing glass of wine. Still, even though it’s not a great universal mystery, I puzzle over why journalists always ask this question during an agent interview:

What is the single most common mistake that turns you off of a query letter?

I puzzle over this Q because it strikes me that writers are looking for a magic silver bullet in the answer–as if it’s only an errant comma or grammar mistake keeping the agent from falling in love with the query and asking for sample pages.

In truth, there isn’t a single most common error that puts me off a query letter. Anything that I can list here (such as addressing the letter to the wrong agent, submitting a project in a genre we don’t rep, writing the email without periods or capitalization) are all issues that immediately weed out the wheat from the chaff.

If you are serious about this biz, those query letters are not the ones you should worry about. It’s the queries that are close but no cigar that are your competition. In other words, decent queries, well-written, and actually make us read the whole letter.

We still might pass on asking for sample pages but we gave the letter serious consideration. The rest are non-contenders.

So the real question is out of those queries, what is the single most common mistake that turns us off a query letter?

The answer is there is none. Because these queries are well written and unique enough, we read them. Why we still pass can’t be summed up into a neat little list that writers can then checkmark off the “turn-offs” to make sure their queries will pass the muster.

It’s never about one thing in the letter. It’s about every facet of the query letter as a whole. And even then, if you put the same good query letter in front of 10 different agents, all 10 of them might have a different response. And some would ask for sample pages and the others wouldn’t.

It’s this unknown factor that drives writers crazy.

19 Responses

  1. Kim Kasch said:

    Plus, people have different tastes.

    It’s like the fact that I love Stephen King. I talked my sister-in-law into reading one of his short stories in Full Dark – No Stars. She did NOT like it. I loved it.

    Different strokes.

  2. Kairee Taylor said:

    I wrote my query letters one day when I was stuck on the plot. I’ve been writing the book and revising it for a few months since then.

    I like to look at my query letter and pick it apart the way I would if it were submitted to ME.

    I found that writing the query letter really helped me zone in on what I was trying to accomplish with my story.

    And I am so eager to get rejected that my finger is hovering over the “send” button on my drafts. Waiting. Oh to be rejected–doesn’t that mean that you really, truly are a writer? I think so.

    Great post and thanks for clearing that up for us (insert laugh here).


  3. graywave said:

    “It’s this unknown factor that drives writers crazy.”

    Oh yes. And what Mark Twain said: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

  4. Arwen said:

    It’s definitely the unknown factor that is crazy-making. I have great sympathy for agents wading through piles of queries — it’s a sad fact that most agents are too busy to explain that unknown factor and whether “the market is glutted/your idea is unoriginal/your voice makes me cringe/it’s not you it’s me.” So on the other side, the writer (often? usually?) gets a form letter (if they are contacted at all,) and is left wondering, “Did my query suck? Or should I scrap this whole concept? Or does my voice make people cringe?” A sticky wicket, for sure, but presumably firing off enough queries helps sharpen the focus on what needs work. I hope, anyway. 😀

  5. Ashlyn Macnamara said:

    I wonder, though, is it really a competition? If an agent reads two good queries in a row, will she say to herself, “Now which one of these will I request?” Or will she request both because they’re both good queries and her interest is piqued. An agent doesn’t have a daily request quota, does she?

  6. Joseph L. Selby said:

    @Ebony Where do you get your ideas from?

    The answer: “There’s a nice little place downtown. It doesn’t look like much on the outside, but the ideas are fantastic and they’re all reasonably priced.”

  7. Joseph L. Selby said:

    @Kristen WINTER WONDERLAND by Jason Mraz

    One of my drill sergeants had a version called “Sniper Wonderland” that ruined that song for me for a long time. I’ve only just begun to fit the words of his version. I still can’t listen to the original.

    I prefer O Holy Night. There was an awesome version done by New Orleans musicians for Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” that is really powerful.

  8. Lucy said:

    Ashlyn Macnamara said…

    If an agent reads two good queries in a row, will she say to herself, “Now which one of these will I request?” Or will she request both because they’re both good queries and her interest is piqued. An agent doesn’t have a daily request quota, does she?

    6:52 AM


    It’s actually amazingly rare that agents get two brilliant queries in a row, but it happens. In which case, both would probably be requested.

    What’s more likely, however is that one project will have some edge over the other. This is where the so-called competition comes into it; and it’s what makes that competitive edge that’s hardest to define. An agent with a full client list has to be very, very selective, especially when fielding–like Kristin and her colleagues–30,000+ queries a year.

    With such limited time and limited slots, your book has to stand out–in a good, professional way–to get attention. As opposed to all the other reasonably good books being queried.

  9. Stephsco said:

    Janet Reid posted a similarly themed post today. It’s the concept and writing over the query that she pointed to. What I wondered though, is how many writers DON’T believe their concept is truly original and well written enough to be published? Writers hear the concept has to hook them, and yet agents say they’re still getting piles of rehashed concepts that aren’t interesting. So there’s a disconnect somewhere, probably in our own biased minds, that maybe everyone else has a boring idea, but MY IDEA is original.

    There’s no real answer to that either other than taking feedback seriously.

  10. Karen Peterson said:

    It seems that we (not writers, but people in general) are always looking for the magic bullet. Whether it’s a fat-melting diet pill or a fortune cookie providing the winning lottery numbers or an agent sharing the sure-fire way to find representation. The magic bullet is simply to work hard and do our best. The rest will fall into place. It’s not glamorous or easy. And it shouldn’t be.

  11. Out Here in My World said:

    Wait…. forget the query question, can we go back to the mysteries of the universe? I have so many questions yet to be asked or answered!!
    Like you I am sitting at my desk listening to Christmas music, Amy Grant, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. I must confess, I sing along!! (Maybe that’s why my dog, Raider, left the room??)

    I need to get my brain and heart back into writing. Thanks for another great post!! Off to finish what I started writing weeks ago.

  12. Anonymous said:

    As an author, I get tons of letters from new writers asking for advice about writing queries. And it’s hard to advise them because I know in my heart there is no set rule…other than following the agent’s specific guidelines and giving the best book description possible.

    I also send them all over here 🙂

  13. Kelly Robinson said:

    I took a query writing class eons ago, and I told the instructor I always felt like there was some secret thing that would instantly brand me an idiot and land me in the trash –trying to ply those secrets out of her.

    Her response: “Sometimes you just have to let go of the envelope.”

    That was years ago, so “Just hit ‘Send'” works as well, but it’s something I’ve never forgotten.

    That statement alone gave me the guts to start freelancing, and I’m SO glad it did.

  14. Julie Daines said:

    Thank you so much for saying this. I’m getting so tired of query letter cliches and advice. I sent the same letter (essentially, with personalized content–pitch was the same) to several agents and editors. Most passed, one didn’t.

    Everyone’s taste is different, concepts that appeal to others won’t appeal to some. And in the end, it’s your talent that will sell the book, not the commas and salutations.

  15. D.A Cairns said:

    I recently had a short story published which I wrote 10 years ago and subsequently shelved after a string of rejections. It takes so much time trying to find markets and then satisfy the wishes of editors, just to have your story read. That process chews up time which I would rather use for actual writing. We all know the passion that drives us as writers and no matter how often we are rejected we keep writing and keep trying. Getting an agent or a publisher requires more than talent.

  16. Anonymous said:

    I’m glad to read your comment regarding keen interest in the art of book jackets. I believe they are close to being as important as the book itself in the marketing process.