Query trenches redux

The recording is 6:49 minutes long. Text follows. I could rewrite this 100 different ways, and who knows, maybe I will, but enough! If you’ve been wondering why the quilting and posting here has slowed, this is some sort of explanation. And by the way, I’m not looking for strokes or for advice. Just blowing off a very specialized steam here.



Send us the first five chapters of your manuscript. Send us the first 10,000 words. Send us the first three pages. Send us the first three chapters. Send us 100 pages.

Make your query letter sing. Write it in a tone consistent with your novel. Limit your query letter to a single page. Include a blurb, target audience, word count, comparable titles, and your special qualifications and publications. Limit your query to 750 words. Add a synopsis. Tell us outcomes in the synopsis. Don’t hold back, you can tell us the ending in your synopsis, but not in your blurb or your query. Make your synopsis 500 words. Make your synopsis 200 words. Make your synopsis 2000 characters. Make your synopsis fit within the box provided. Don’t get frustrated when you can’t edit within the box and we just cut off text that doesn’t fit. Don’t get frustrated when all your line breaks disappear in the box. Patiently re-insert them, and hope you catch them all.

Tell us who you are in ½ a paragraph.
Tell us your special qualifications, publications, and awards in a sentence. Don’t worry if you don’t have any. Make it colorful.

Be sure to capture font changes. You won’t know about this until you read back a sent-query and discover that the first paragraph is blue for some reason. You decide you like it blue and leave it for the next few letters but then, going forward, take the trouble to highlight all your text and select ‘black.’ Don’t get frustrated by this or by reinserting line breaks or by having to repeatedly cut and paste text in online submission forms.

Revise your novel’s beginning radically so that the first five chapters, 10,000 words, or three pages, actually reveal the overall tone and voice of your novel. Question yourself about re-querying one or two agents who only got third-person male chapters that provided backstory when the entire novel is first-person female, meaning they didn’t even sample the voice of the novel. Try not to hate yourself for not thinking this through more thoroughly two seasons ago.

Include your sample pages in the body of your email. We do not open attachments. Send your sample pages as a word doc. Make sure every page is numbered and has your name on it. Send your sample pages as a word doc but exclude all identifying information. Space it at 1.5. Double space it. Only use New Times Roman.

In the re line put your book’s title, your name, and the agent you’re querying. In the re line put your book’s title, its genre, and the agent you’re querying. Do not query more than one agent at a time.

If you don’t hear from us in 8 weeks, consider your manuscript rejected. If you don’t hear from us in 10 weeks, consider us uninterested. If you don’t hear from us in two seasons, you figure it out. If an agent dies or moves to another agency, you’ll have to subscribe to QueryTracker to find out. Subscribe to QueryTracker, the deluxe package, but also subscribe to Duotrope in case you like their screen better. Notice that 5% of the agents you want to query are not in either data base. Ignore their suggestions that you inform them.

Give us comparable titles and make sure they’re recent. Don’t list prize-winning books, be humble. List at least three but not more than five. Don’t worry if one of the books is also about your subject matter and still selling briskly on Amazon. Tell us why these novels are comparable but don’t let your query exceed one page. Don’t let your query letter exceed 700 words. Limit yourself to 2000 characters.

We have a reply rate of 58%. We have a reply rate of 8%. Of .7%.  We do not reply, generally.

Look at our recently published books to see if we’re a good fit. Be sure to do this even if the selected agent’s wish list lines up with yours. Try not to cringe when all the titles are romances, mysteries, or young adult which you have nothing against but do not fit with your novel.

Read the agency’s ‘about page’ Does it matter if they’re a new agency with up-to-date outlooks and methods or a well-established one with the credentials only time can provide? Boutique agencies say they can give authors special attention. Their reply rate is 8%. The agencies with offices in Denver, LA, New York, and London have a reply rate of 70%, 90% of those, rejections.

All agents have too much work to do. Most agents are underpaid. A significant number of agents are closed to submissions. Agents die and move to other agencies and agencies fold and you will have to find that out on your own.

They say they want compelling, inventive, unforgettable prose that tells a story highlighting marginalized people or forgotten histories. They say they want character-driven stories that also have a plot that drives like an engine. They say they want stories saturated with a sense of place, with complex characters but also with a plot that drives like an engine. They say they want historic fiction, but nothing before 1800, please. They say they want history fiction but will not read anything with sexual violence.

They like dark humor, quirky twists, complicated relationships, and a plot that drives like an engine. They say they want literary fiction that is also women’s fiction, that is also commercial upmarket fiction, that is also book group fiction, that is also historic fiction but nothing prior to 1800, please and don’t send anything with sexual violence. 

Try not to cry when every single braggy announcement on twitter about signing with an agent or getting a book deal involve witches, vampires, demons, and magic powers. Every. Single. One. Try not to get hung up on the prevalence of Young Adult and Middle Grade. Don’t consider rewriting your novel a fifth time so that is would appeal to readers aged 12 to 20.

Do not reply to an email acknowledging receipt of your query. If you get a rejection, do not reply. It is a courtesy and it is boilerplate. But do notice how the bleakness and overarching silence of the query trenches makes a little pop of pleasure burble up when you receive an agency email, even when it is a boilerplate rejection.

Also notice how the initial satisfaction at getting rejections and joining that club —  Hooray! – fades very fast and how you have to keep going and try not to cry when the next tweet announcing an agent contract or book deal is for young adults or features a queer maiden with magic powers who sells her soul to an archdemon.

Keep going but start thinking about when you will stop. Keep going and wonder why. Keep going and wish things were otherwise. Ignore people who tell you to write another novel like it’s taking a shit or unloading the dishwasher. Keep going and watch how the dread about self-publishing might morph into a slow accretion of resources.  


23 thoughts on “Query trenches redux

  1. deb

    Ho-lee-shit. I thought at least there were some standards. I fall apart at much more than word count. And “comps”. I’m still at a loss. When the hell do we have time to read the latest, greatest, and awardless to find comps?

  2. Nancy

    Listening to you, my head is spinning! So complicated, in the most unpleasant way. Whatever way you keep going, or don’t, I’m proud of you for Writing a Book! -and for trying so hard to get it out there. xo

    1. deemallon Post author

      Nancy! I can’t tell if I responded to this or not. Thank you for pointing out that I have, indeed, written and novel and no one can take that from me.

  3. debgorr

    Once upon a time I thought I’d might write and publish but realized I am not stubborn enough, determined enough…whatever it takes. Self publishing is something I would like to learn more about.


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