The Query Conundrum

Good morning, Pubcrawlers!

As many of you likely know, as an agent, I get a lot of submissions. Even when I find myself in one of those rare moments where I’m mostly caught up on queries, it doesn’t last. And that isn’t including the pile of requested manuscripts I always have on hand.

So you’ll believe me when I tell you, I read a LOT of queries. And I’m noticing a trend. I’m calling it the query conundrum: when a query is extremely tight and well-written, as are the first ten pages of the project (my submission guidelines call for the first three pages along with a query, but many ask for ten pages or more), but often past those ten pages, the quality of the work no longer matches the quality of the query and the sample materials. It becomes clear to me, very quickly, that more work was put into polishing the query than was put into revising the actual manuscript. And that makes me wonder if, between social media, sites dedicated to publishing (hello!), and word of mouth, too much emphasis is being placed on submission, and not enough being placed on craft.

More and more, before I, as an agent, can submit a client’s project to an editor, a manuscript must be in very good shape before it can be considered by an acquisitions team at a publisher. There are many reasons for this, but regardless of the why, manuscripts must be much more polished before editorial consideration than they might have needed to be a decade or two ago. This means that I am also looking for projects that are close to ready, or projects that I feel can be made close to ready with my editorial guidance.

But “editorial guidance” does not translate to me helping a writer take a novel from first draft to final draft. I understand that more agents these days consider themselves “editorial”, myself included. But part of being editorial means working with writers who we know will understand how to take notes, how to rip scenes apart and put them back together. And the ability to do that is obvious within the text.

So when it becomes clear to me that little to no revision has occurred in the manuscript itself, while the query has been polished to a shine, I have to wonder why. Why is more emphasis being placed on the querying process than on the revision process? Why are we more and more concerned with submission than with creating the best novel we can?

Learning how to properly rewrite and revise will be a boon for you as a writer, not only in getting an agent but further down the road, after possible book deals, getting serious edit letters from editors, being on deadline, etc. There are extremely good reasons to know how to tear your book apart and rebuild it besides just getting an agent. And I’m looking for a writer’s ability to do just that, because I know that writer is going to be more suited to the traditional publishing process if they have those abilities.

On social media, on publishing sites, when you’re talking to your friends, I would love to see more emphasis placed on honing one’s craft before querying. Finishing the book is just one part of the process. Rewriting and revising is another. Querying is just one step in a long list. Knowing how to pitch your work is important, but it’s meaningless if a book isn’t ready.

The takeaway here is: writing a book is exciting. Finishing that first draft is a huge thrill. You have a brick of a novel in your hands! Your words, all coalescing into one cohesive story. Learning how to get past that excitement and make your work truly sparkle is what writing is all about. And that’s what I’m looking for. A great query is just that; but a great, polished book is obvious, query or no query.

Let me know what you think about the query conundrum in the comments! Do you agree? Disagree? Why or why not? I’m excited to hear from you!

 

                    

37 Responses to The Query Conundrum

  1. Marc Vun Kannon May 18 2018 at 11:14 am #

    I work on the manuscript continuously. My writing technique is a form of continuous editing, as I reread the old text so that I can extend it with new material. I am unable to write queries, though, much less polish them to a shine. I’ve wasted years trying. A more relaxed attitude about the queries might free up people like me to send good manuscripts under a not-so-good query, but as it is, I won’t even bother trying to submit since I know agents like you won’t get past the letter.

    • Hannah May 18 2018 at 11:20 am #

      Queries are designed to help agents who receive hundreds of submissions a week know what your story is about and whether it’s the right fit for them. Being able to talk about your story in a condensed form is all any agent is asking for. There are plenty of sites and forums with other querying writers (AbsoluteWrite is one) to help you summarize your novel in a way that helps an agent see exactly what your book is about without new confusions or questions arising. Queries are not about making writers fill a bogus requirement for representation – it’s about making your book stand out among the hundreds we are reading about every week.

      Best of luck to you.

      • Marc Vun Kannon May 18 2018 at 6:29 pm #

        An unfortunate side effect of the query process, and I don’t know if it’s deliberate or not, is that it skews the market toward books that can be easily compressed and described in a query letter format. Books written in other ways are automatically barred from consideration. Eventually people might come to believe that this is the only way books can be written because those are the only books they’re likely to see.

        • Victoria May 24 2018 at 8:16 am #

          You don’t have to include every aspect of your book in the query. If you have multiple protagonists and plot lines, it’s totally fine to write the query based on just one or two. The agent will discover the rest when they read the manuscript.

          • Marc Vun Kannon May 24 2018 at 10:04 am #

            That depends on the structure of the book. In a linear story the plot all runs in one direction. You can have multiple characters and arcs, but if they all feed into that one-directional story structure then it’s still just one story and one plot. When they do not, the story is a multi-plot story and those cannot be shrunk into the standard query format. Every character’s plot is necessary, but none are sufficient. And there are other structures more complicated than that. The query format favors the simplest story structure.

  2. Jo May 18 2018 at 11:19 am #

    Thanks for this insight. It never occurred to me that people might take this approach. If anything, I have the opposite problem: preparing the query is so intimidating that I find it easier to go back to my manuscript and see if there might be a sentence I can tweak.

    • Hannah May 18 2018 at 11:22 am #

      I’ve written a few posts about querying for Pub Crawl that are aimed at making it a simple and easy process for you – check them out and see if you find them helpful 🙂 Many people have!

      • Jo May 18 2018 at 11:27 am #

        Thanks, Hannah!

        • Hannah May 18 2018 at 11:40 am #

          Absolutely! Best of luck!

  3. Jodi Lew-Smith May 18 2018 at 12:42 pm #

    Polishing the WHOLE book is, methinks, the single biggest skill a writer has to learn. So many of us start by writing shorter works – stories or essays – where it’s possible to spend many many hours on a page or two. When we get to full-length works, we have to do it more efficiently. And this is hard hard hard.

    It’s easier to treat the query like an essay and polish it to death.

    I’m still learning (as are we all!), but I’m starting to have success by working on more than one project at a time. This allows for taking longer breaks from a work, so as to come back with fresh eyes to see where sections need to be taken apart and put back together — not just polished. These days I don’t do much polishing at all until late in the game, when I’m certain the story is completely solid.

    • Hannah May 18 2018 at 1:02 pm #

      I think you’re absolutely right that polishing a query can be much easier to set your mind to. I’m glad you’re finding ways to revise that work within a process you enjoy! That’s definitely one of the hardest parts.

  4. Julie May 18 2018 at 12:44 pm #

    This is such a great article, Hannah! Thank you!

    • Hannah May 18 2018 at 1:02 pm #

      Thank you so much for reading!

  5. Janice Hampton May 18 2018 at 2:27 pm #

    Thanks Hannah for this article. I’ve worried about that a lot. For example. there is a book out among the masses that talks about polishing the first so many pages. I’m not going to mention the title, but when I saw the book it brought thoughts to my mind. What happens after those so many pages? Does the reader suddenly stop reading? Or is the reader now able to read the writer’s mind?

    As a writer I want a good quality product associated with my name. If I can’t deliver that through out the entire book, I might as well self-publish without hiring a couple of good editors.

    My only complaint and it’s more with me than agents and editors is that I didn’t have the confidence to really pursue my passion until I was in my mid 40s. Now I’m in my early 50s and I just hope that before I die I can actually publish some of the stories roaming around in my head.

    Regards,
    Janice Hampton

    • Hannah May 18 2018 at 4:56 pm #

      I’m glad to hear you’re pursuing your passion, and I wish you the best of luck!

    • Michelle Ruiz Keil May 23 2018 at 8:20 pm #

      As someone who came to writing later in life after raising a family, I’m here to say DON’T GIVE UP! My first book is coming out next summer and I plan for many to follow. Writing is a career with longevity. We both still have years and years to tell our tales. Best of luck, Janice!

  6. JUNE LORRAINE ROBERTS May 18 2018 at 4:10 pm #

    I’m delighted to see this issue addressed. I often wondered if the situation existed as much as I thought it likely to.

    • Hannah May 18 2018 at 4:57 pm #

      Glad you enjoyed!

  7. Irene May 18 2018 at 4:37 pm #

    Thanks for posting this article! As a new writer and only 10,000 words into my first draft, of my first novel, I find this extremely helpful! Especially for later on down the road! I’m so glad I could get this advice now.

    • Hannah May 18 2018 at 4:57 pm #

      So glad this was helpful!

  8. Philip Athans May 18 2018 at 6:33 pm #

    This distills all the reason why, as a freelance editor, I work with authors on their query letters only _after_ the full book edit is done. First, have something worth querying!

    • Hannah May 19 2018 at 11:50 am #

      Exactly!

  9. Aaron John Rulison May 18 2018 at 11:18 pm #

    Hi Hannah! Thanks for the article. I’m motivated to try to polish my work all the way through, uniformly good. Hopefully future reviewers will be able to flip to any page and see the same quality of writing.

    I’m new to writing novels. One of the fascinating challenges is making it work on the many levels of action, emotion, and theme, and of course the overall arc of character development. Sewing up all the levels cover to cover, and weaving them, is endlessly challenging and fascinating. I do think it takes a cover to cover approach to make it all hang together.

    Yea. Easy to say. Fun to try.

    As for the query: I better make it good, too.

    Thank you again!

    • Hannah May 19 2018 at 11:55 am #

      it absolutely is fascinating! Rewriting and revision can be so much fun.

      Best of luck!

  10. Al Morgan May 19 2018 at 11:48 am #

    Perhaps the premise that query letters are an efficient way of finding great writing is incorrect. A system that takes so much work on the collective world of agents to explain, and so much time and effort for writers to figure out may be inefficient and place the emphasis on the letter more than the manuscript. It’s not surprising that those who master the art of the query letter don’t correlate well with those who master the art of the manuscript, the system rewards query more than manuscript. Just because this is the route the agent world has decided to take doesn’t mean it’s the best route for finding and publishing great works. The point that agents have so many submissions to review is well taken, and the world is what it is, so writers need not only master manuscript writing skills, but also query writing skills if they want to get published. But, maybe agents would be more successful in finding great works in other ways if they weren’t married to this paradigm that causes them such frustration.

    • Hannah May 19 2018 at 11:54 am #

      Traditional publishing is, first and foremost, a business. Publishing Crawl is one of many resources for those seeking to enter that business. Query letters help agents establish who has done their homework and is prepared to enter that business. Articles like this are not rants about frustration – they are resources to help YOU understand weaknesses I am seeing, so they can be addressed preemptively. This trend is not a frustration to me – it’s simply another thing that tells me a writer isn’t ready. Telling you about it here is a service I’m providing (voluntarily, I might add) to give people who are still doing their homework about the business some insight into what I see and look for from querying writers.

      Best of luck!

      • Al Morgan May 19 2018 at 12:05 pm #

        Hanna,

        And the service you provide is greatly appreciated.

        Al

    • Marc Vun Kannon May 19 2018 at 2:47 pm #

      It’s a perfectly fine system for discovering a particular type of book. It’s of less use for finding other types of books. Unfortunately there are no statistics available on how many people would prefer those other types of books, so there’s no incentive for the publishers to try to develop those markets. That’s the benefit of small press and self-publishing, provided the publishers there can figure out a way to tap into those readers. The trick is to first recognize whether your book fits the standard model or not. Regardless of whether you can define what type of book it is, if you can find out what type of book it is not you can save yourself years of ‘frustration’.

  11. Ellie May 19 2018 at 1:47 pm #

    This is very interesting! Something else I’ve noticed is a lot of authors don’t sell the book that they got their agent with. It’s the thing people say to comfort those on their first sub with their agent too (and sometimes second or third). I wonder whats missing in between there as well.

    • Hannah May 19 2018 at 3:17 pm #

      Sadly, getting an agent does not necessarily equate to getting a book deal. There are so many factors outside of the agent and the writer – publisher, editor, market, sales team, audience, bookstores, etc. There are a lot of variables that often seem forgotten when we discuss representation on social media, but they are a huge part of why a book does/doesn’t sell. It also must be understood that there are more writers than agents, more agents than editors, more editors than slots for books on a season’s list. So, there’s a lot going on! A lot to think about and consider.

  12. BrendalLynn May 23 2018 at 4:09 pm #

    A side benefit of learning to write a tight query is that you are forced to see your main plot in all its naked glory. Yikes, where did that cellulite come from?

  13. BrendaLynn May 23 2018 at 4:14 pm #

    Also, the query process is the biggest advantage that traditionally published authors have over self-published authors. It has forced me to become a better writer.

    • Hannah May 24 2018 at 8:42 am #

      You’re absolutely right about the cellulite! Another thing a tight query often shows is the lack of stakes in a story, or a passive character. There are lots of things a tight query can tell you – but it sucks to have to discover those weaknesses at the query process, rather than in revision!

  14. Cheryl Bezuidenhout May 23 2018 at 4:37 pm #

    Hi Hannah,
    I’m an indie-author, just starting out as a novelist, so not in the market for agents or publishers because I need to refine my craft. I also enjoy the direct, hands-on feedback I get from readers as I interact on my social media accounts – I’m learning and taking in a lot about being a writer.
    Part of this process involves a reading exchange in which I agree to read someone else’s book if they will read mine. I try to be true to that agreement, and am busy reading the third of these books to come across my desk. I have another two in the wings. I’ve noticed much the same trend – the writing in the first part of the book (maybe the first 10%, or so) is, for the most part, flawless, well written and error-free. But there comes that page that just won’t make any sense, and it’s downhill from there. I try to give honest feedback, but I agree, there’s definitely a trend to polishing the first portion of the book and ignoring the rest. It’s disappointing and revealing. I don’t understand it, frankly. It’s self-defeating. The lack of completeness and the carelessness is obvious. I have to wonder what they were thinking.
    I don’t pretend to be a master of the craft at all, but I spent a lot of time making sure my novel met the high standards I was measuring it against. I was careful to reduce errors as much as possible (I can’t say it’s error free, but it’s damned close!) and spent countless hours revising, fixing and knitting the story together to the best of my ability.
    It’s a marathon, not a sprint and the impatience to get a book out the door can, often, outweigh the essential requirement of creating a clean, organized manuscript.

    • Hannah May 24 2018 at 8:43 am #

      Patience is absolutely key! It’s great you recognize that and apply to your own work.

  15. Susan May 23 2018 at 5:39 pm #

    This was helpful! I received an editorial letter from a well known editor and I’m currently revising everything based off her notes. Should I mention this in the query so agents know? If so, how could I word it without sounding unprofessional. Thank you!

  16. Lisa Ciarfella May 25 2018 at 3:59 pm #

    Great post. I so get this!

    As a recent MFA graduate from CSULB, I interned for an Agent and read lots of scripts. If it’s not ready, it’s clear, sometimes even within the first few pages.

    I’m actually looking for work right now. Know any Agents looking for assistants?? Even part-time, or remote??

    If so, I’m all ears!

Leave a Reply