In my agent travels, I find that most of the questions I get from aspiring authors are about queries. And that makes sense: everyone (including myself) will tell you that your query is an important weapon in your agent-getting arsenal. So, having been told that the difference between publishing superstardom and form-rejection comes down to one page, authors obsessively work on their queries. But that’s not quite right: what they do is obsess. And I think a lot of times they can’t see the forest for the trees. They ask agents what font or paper stock they should use, whether HTML email or plain text is better, or if their bio should be longer or shorter or more personal or more formal. They receive conflicting advice from different websites, agents, editors, author friends, and spouses. And then they have a nervous breakdown.
Ok, that last part may have been a bit of an exaggeration, but I don’t think it’s that far off. Writers, who tend to be obsessive anyway, get downright crazy about query details, and I really don’t blame them. We publishing professionals haven’t helped the situation, what with all of our dire warnings about doing it perfectly or else. So I want all of the writers out there to pay attention: if you’re reading this blog, if you’re paying attention when publishing pros give you advice, if you’re going to good, appropriate conferences, you don’t need to panic. This is the catch-22 of it all: when agents go on and on about bad queries and what-not-to-do, they’re preaching to the choir! Anyone savvy enough to be paying attention is probably doing it right in the first place. I don’t mean that all of you have winning queries that will score them an agent and publication, but I doubt any of your are going to wind up the cautionary query tale that you hear at conferences.
But, the question the remains: what am I looking for, if it’s not all of those little details? What I’m looking for is a unique idea and good writing. I’m looking for an authentic, interesting voice–yes, voice in your query. I’m looking to get a feel for your style in just a couple of paragraphs. I’m looking for you to describe your book, whether it’s commercial or literary or in between, in a way that makes me want to keep reading. In October, I linked to a great query example, the one that Lisa McMann had written for Wake that was recently in Writer’s Digest. It was exactly I’m looking for: it was unlike any query I’d received before (or since). How so, you ask? It was entirely unique to Lisa and her book. It didn’t follow any formula or template. It gave me the information I ask for, but it did so in a way that was different. And I can promise you, all of the successful queries I’ve read have done the same thing.
I’m sure this will spur many questions, but I’d like to have a saner, more humane query discussion with aspiring authors, one that focuses on ideas, narrative, and writing instead of on boring details like font and word count. A little common sense in putting together a presentable query, plus a killer idea and great writing, and you’re all set!