Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Query Life

I've been sending out query letters to agents for my novel, If You Can Get It, (an earlier draft of which some of you may have read on the blog as a NaNoWriMo six years ago, but which has been quietly removed from the archives since I'm not trying to sell it) since early July. I've now sent out 98 queries. It's an interesting process.

The first challenge is to give a sense of what your novel is about (basically a hook followed by a summary for the 20-30% of the story) in a short and punchy letter. This is harder than it sounds, and I've revised mine repeatedly during the last few months. Here's my current one:

Jen Nilsson has an MBA, a Bay Area condo, and a great job as a product manager at a tech company. And if her big product launch goes well next month, she may finally land the marketing director job she’s been gunning for. But then her younger sister Katie, fresh off a fight with their parents back home, blows through the front door, dumping cardboard boxes of possessions onto Jen’s couch and a lifetime of personal drama into her lap.

Family is family, so Jen agrees to let her sister stay, even though impulsive Katie, with a newly minted liberal arts degree and no plan for her life other than not to let their mother tell her what to do, sums up everything that frustrates Jen. Somehow she’ll turn her sister into a model adult. But then Jen’s product launch is canceled and she’s laid off.

Jen feels like the floor has dropped out of her world. Katie tries to step forward and support her sister, but her wages at Starbucks are less than the mortgage and her attempts at cooking and home maintenance tend to spiral into catastrophe.

Jen’s got to find a new job, not just to pay the bills but to rebuild her shattered pride. At last she seems to have found the perfect lead, but with each interview she becomes more sure the company’s dysfunctional from top to bottom. When she’s finally offered the job, her instincts tell her to turn it down. But how can she turn down the job she so desperately needs?

She takes the job, but within days her fears are confirmed by an email from her new boss. She’d better dust off her passport. She’s got to be in China next week.

IF YOU CAN GET IT is mainstream fiction which explores the humor and humanity of the business world in the mode of THIS COULD HURT and THEN WE CAME TO THE END but finds its heart in the deepening relationship of two sisters as different as Elinor and Marianne of SENSE AND SENSIBILTY. It is complete at 72,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

The comparisons in the last paragraph I added most recently and with extreme reluctance. I don't actually think that my novel is hugely similar to any of these, but what I eventually reconciled myself to is that comps are a shorthand for evoking in the agent's mind a sense of what the novel is like in tone and theme beyond the very short pitch which is in the query itself.

To find agents, you go to either a writers market such as one can pick up at the library, or a website with lots of searchable listings of agents. I use, which not only has a searchable list but also lets you record who you sent queries to and what responses you've received.

Different agents what different materials. Some want just the query letter. Some also want a brief summary of the entire novel including the ending. Some want you to include the first five pages or first ten pages or first chapter or first three chapters in the email you send.

And once you send your email, you wait for a response. How long? Well, I have a spreadsheet to tell you.

Of the 98 queries I've sent out, I've had 44 responses: 39 outright rejections and 5 requests for either the first three chapters or the whole manuscript. The other 54 queries I haven't received responses on yet, and from what I've seen it's typical that about half the time you get no response (which means "no".) All five positive responses came within the first two weeks after sending my query. Of the negatives, most responses have been fairly quick, but there's a long tail.

You also start to get a sense of when agents are clearing out their inboxes. I've received the most responses on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Many agents clearly spend their "free time" answering queries, as a fair number of responses have come in during the evenings or on weekend, but I don't record the time I get emails in my spreadsheet, so I can't graph that one for you.

Rejections are basically all form letters and provide no specific reason for the rejection. Some of this is doubtless to save time, and I suspect some of it might also be to avoid having writers try to argue the reasons for rejection. A fairly typical letter might be:

Thank you for writing to me about your project. While the idea has some merit, I don't think that it's right for me. However, publishing is a very subjective business, so I strongly encourage you to keep trying. It may well be that your project is just right for another agent.

[Note: this is not the text of any one agent's rejection, it's a just a typical example that I made up after reading lots of them.]

Rejection is, of course, disappointing, but it's part of the game. So as my own bit of amusement, I've been compiling the text of all the rejection letters I've received. Here's some word frequency art based on all thirty-nine.


Anonymous said...

Suggestion: that query letter needs to be half that length, and the last paragraph should be the first.

Darwin said...


I'd certainly welcome detailed thoughts on revision of it. The current version is one I got to through extensive workshopping with the forums on QueryTracker, but I don't consider myself any kind of query letter expert. (Actually, I kind of hate query letters as a genre.)

It seemed like the "housekeeping paragraph" could be either first or last, and I ended up going with format QueryShark seemed to favor with putting it last.

The amount of story to cover in the letter is something I've gone back and forth on. Right now I'm covering the first three of eleven chapters, which is kind of the first act. Or perhaps there's a more terse way to cover what's being covered.

Darwin said...

If you have expanded thoughts on the issue, I'd be happy to hear them here or via email (darwincatholic at gmail)

There's also the issue that I'm running out of agents at this point. But there are probably enough lest we could perhaps even do something interesting like construct a blink control group to see which query letter structure and length works better.

The current version got four positive responses and nine negatives out of the last thirteen responses, so that seems like a dense enough data set we could maybe bet a test read on a test/control strategy, so long as I can identify a group of another forty or so agents to send to.

Jenny said...

FIND WORK at the tip of the pencil is funny.

Jocelyn said...

It's a pencil?

I - I thought it was the ballistic missile of rejection.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

"She takes the job, but within days her fears are confirmed by an email from her new boss. She’d better dust off her passport. She’s got to be in China next week."

I would have cut this paragraph out of the query letter. I think that if you leave it out, the reader will feel more intrigued and wanting to know what will happen next.

Kathleen said...

I don't have any advice for you, but I really enjoyed reading the book--was so delighted each time you published a new chapter.

Darwin said...


Thank you!

Somehow or other it will see print. It's still out at a couple agents and one publisher. And if that doesn't work out, I'll go the indie route.

It's very sustaining through this process to know that people enjoyed it.