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The Query Letter & What To Do After Sending It

Friday, January 8, 2010

How critical is the query letter? After we send it out, then what? How long should we wait before following up? How many agents/editors should we query before we stop? What does it really mean if an agent asks for a partial or full?

I'm definitely not the expert on querying. There are plenty of other writers and agents who offer excellent advice on everything from who to query, what to send, and how to write a killer query letter. But for what it's worth, here are my opinions:

How critical is the query letter?

While I believe it's important to craft a professional, appealing query letter, I also think sometimes we put too much faith in our queries.

In fact, yesterday, my agent, Rachelle Gardner, blogged about this very thing. She summarized my thoughts exactly: The query boils down to making a clear and concise presentation of your book. Just tell us enough that we get a feel for it and want to read it. Be polite and professional and try to avoid coming across like a crackpot. It’s worth putting some effort into, but 99.9% of your effort should be in your book.

My query wasn't anything special. Of course I was careful to summarize my plot, similar to a back cover blurb. I looked at my query as a tool to hook an agent into reading my sample chapters. Because, ulitmately the story and writing are critical to garnering the interest of an agent, not the query letter itself.

Once our book is "out there" what should we do next?

We've all heard this piece of advice before, but it bears repeating: Start the next book. The next book serves SO many purposes. It takes our mind off the waiting (at least a little!). It proves we're serious about writing (that we're not a one book wonder). And it helps us improve our skills (if we're intentional about it).

During the months my manuscript sat in Rachelle's slush pile, I worked hard on writing another book. By the time she got to my first book, I had another, even better book, ready to show her.

How long should we wait before following up to the agent/editor who has a query?

Most agents have their own set of guidelines for follow up procedures and we need to be diligent about searching out their specific policies. Let me say this, however, I never followed up with queries that went unanswered. I figured no answer meant "No, I'm not interested."

However, when an agent/editor asks for a partial or full, I do think it's appropriate to follow-up after giving them plenty of time (as in months). Not only does a brief email show we still care, but it puts our name before their eyes again.

How many agents/editors should we query before we stop?

Here's my philosophy, and it might not be the most popular. But, I think we should pick the agents who are best suited to our genre and style and stick to them.

When I queried, I narrowed my list to about a dozen of the best, most professional agents who represent Christian fiction. I decided if one of the top agents didn't want to offer me representation, then my story and writing were still not good enough and I would simply need to write a better book before querying again.

The longer I'm involved in the writing business, the more I realize that if a writer (particularly of fiction) has reached a publishable level of writing skill and has crafted a saleable story, a good agent will notice. . . eventually.

What does it really mean if an agent/editor asks for a partial or a full?

Again, my opinion might not be the most popular, but here it is anyway. When an agent or editor asks for a partial or full, it means they liked our sample writing and/or are intrigued by our story. In other words, they see potential. Yes, this is a good thing. But. . .

Anyone can doctor up the first few chapters of their book. I've seen plenty of writers final in contests with the beginning pages of their book but then weren't able to find representation afterward. I've come to realize most of us can slave away until our opening chapters are stunning, but if we don't write stunning middles and endings, the beginning won't do us any good.

And that brings us back to my previous post . . . we need brutal, honest, insightful feedback on our entire book--before we query.

So, what do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my answers? Please jump in with your thoughts and advice! Or if you have any further questions, ask away!

47 comments:

  1. Jody, this is good stuff you have posted here. And I especially agree with you when you said, I never followed up with queries that went unanswered. I figured no answer meant "No, I'm not interested."

    I see writers all the time asking, "I haven't heard from agent X and I sent my query five months ago. Should I follow up.?" No! After that long, I kinda know that the answer was NO.

    Great post and I love the info you share to help all your blogging friends. Thanks so much Jody. I hope you have a wonderful weekend. :0)

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  2. thank you!! i'm in the process right now of finding the right agents to submit my query to so your post has given me a good place to start from. i look forward to reading your book when it hits stores - how exciting!!

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  3. Agree. I was very particular in who I wanted to represent me. I had about four or five agents I set my sights on (Rachelle being at the top) and postponed querying for a long time. I waited for the timing to be right, which was after the conference. I strongly believed this cut back on the rejections I received 100 times over.

    Although, that's not to say rejections aren't helpful and sometimes a necessary part of the process.

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  4. I have a question for you. What about if you've met an agent at a conference and they said to send them some chapters. Would you send them in and then follow up if you haven't heard in a few months?

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  5. I totally agree!!

    I'm being highly selective about the agents/editors that I'm querying as well.

    I've only queried twice... then once at a conference. I have 2 fulls out and MAN it's hard to wait. Actually it wasn't hard, but it's past the "it's okay to e-mail and remind" time frame and I'm nervous as all get out to do so. *sigh* I guess part of me still wants to go back and edit a ton... but they already have my full, so will that even help? I dunno.

    But... what I DO know is that GOD knows the agent I need. So I'm writing on another book... waiting until I feel like GOd gives me the go ahead to e-mail my follow-up.

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  6. I think it's always wise to follow up after an appropriate length of time. Most agents will have some kind of response time posted on their website, so if you don't hear anything a month after that, I'd say you're free to follow up. I did follow-up's a few times, only to find out that they never received my submission, so it's always wise to do it I think.
    One thing I love about having an agent is that I don't have to write those queries anymore!! But I have a much longer and more in-depth proposal to work on, so I guess I'm not off the hook entirely!

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  7. I am far from this point in my writing life, but this is written so well and so thoughtfully, that I'm going to save it somewhere, for a time when it can help and guide me.

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  8. I definitely agree. It is all about the story. Thankfully they let us send our sample pages too!

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  9. I think querying has been my downfall. I stress too much about crafting the perfect query letter. Arrrghhhh. Rachelle's post - I read her blog daily - really helped put things into perspective. I think Nathan, Holly Root, and a few others have also done post over the past few months along similar lines, especially since it seems that some agents are realizing that they've terrorized the poor aspiring writers with all this talk about perfect queries.

    If I don't hear back from an agent, I just figure it's 'no' and move on to the next one on my list.

    Thanks for the post.

    S

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  10. Spot on! This is what I needed to know. Even though I feel ages away from querying, when I start I want to be professional and ready.

    I wondered at the number of agents to pursue. I need to start doing my homework, so far there are only a handfull agents that I'm familiar with.

    Thanks Jody!

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  11. Good info, thank you! Appreciate your insight. Queries are not my favorite thing, but come with the territory. Blessings!

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  12. Another well-written post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I liked what you said about writers being able to create stunning first chapters, but have their stories fall apart in the middle. Are there contests for middles? That's my toughest area.

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  13. I just love reading your tips. Even the stuff I've heard before...you sum it up so well, plus it's all a good reminder to keep tacking into my brain.

    I have found myself going over query letters and the first three chapters again and again more than I do the rest of my book. Yikes.

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  14. Professionalism all the way, I think that really matters. It seems the query is more the "business" side of the craft of writing, yet that query letter should at the same time hold some of our writing "voice," a fine line to walk, balancing both!

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  15. Agree, Jody. These are wise words from a wise woman who has traversed this journey successfully. Thanks for sharing it with us.
    Karen

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  16. This is a really great post, Jody. I totally agree with you. I dream of being published, but I also dream of working with an agent who wants to help me develop my career to be the best that it can be. This is our life and we want to be picky about who is helping us reach our goals and dreams.

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  17. Hi Jody! Great, GREAT POST! And so timely, too, as sending out queries this year is one of my New Year's resolutions. I agree with everything you've said, and also I think commenter Catherine West makes a very valid point about contacting those agents who haven't responded after a certain length of time. I think it does pay to inquire at least once, because it could certainly be true that they're just not interested in your story, but also, like she said, they may not have even received the query.
    Sorry to go on so long but in this competitive world of publishing, we need to give ourselves every chance possible. Besides, all the agent can say is either yes, I received it, or, no, I never received your query. Then you can take it from there. And if the agency in question is one of your top choices (I have mine in groups of 10), then I think it's well worth the inquiry.

    Wonderful post again, Jody! And Happy New Year! :)

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  18. Jody,

    I think this is some of the most honest and realistic advice I've found yet on queries. I read Rachelle's post yesterday and was so relieved to hear a professional say it's the book the matters. I've often wondered at the myriad sites telling how we need to build platform, readers, market, this and that. All of that is important. But if we don't have a great book, it won't do us any good.

    I like what you said about finding the top agents in your genre and sticking to them. I've fretted over how many to reserach, how many to query. I plan to only query a few at a time, but still...if the top agents reject, should you continue down the line? Hmmm, food for thought and very worth considering.

    Thank you for this and have a wonderful weekend!
    Jen

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  19. Yes! I agree! We need stunning beginning, middles, and endings! I'm trying to do that now so when I query this spring, someone will be 'wowed' by my brilliance. :0)

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  20. I agree. I agree. I'd echo how important it is to research agents (get on their websites, Google them...obviously don't stalk them...you get my point) before you query. Study. Show them you've chosen them for a reason. I have a whole notebook dedicated to agent insights, etc.

    I think taking rejection as an oppoturnity to learn is one of the greatest ways to propel forward on the path. It sifts the long roaders from the one book wonder writers.

    ~ Wendy

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  21. Good advice! I queried a total of three agents. After attending my first writers' conference, I learned that not every agent is a match for every writer. I did not want to submit my work to an agent I didn't "know" through research.

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  22. Jody,
    The agents I know sneak peeks at the writing. If it grabs their throat, their stomach, THEIR HEART, I'm not too sure the query means a lot.

    "Write that really good book," Zondervan Sue told me years ago.
    Step one. Then the other steps unfold llike...an invite to a strange new world.

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  23. I agree 100%. There is a lot of wonderful info packed into this post. Thanks so much, Jody. :-)

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  24. These are some wise words and particularly timely for me. I am always surprised when I see people, even agents, suggesting to query as many people as possible. One site I saw said to send out at least 50 queries! I understand that we need to get our work out there but it seems of more consequence to think about WHO our work is being seen by and if we'd really want them to represent us.

    That being said, I DO believe we should broaden our horizons just a little. If we've narrowed our list down to five agents that we'd definitely want to represent us, I think it's smart to seek out at least five more that we still respect and know represent our genre. That we could potentially work with. Because in that we might find the perfect agent just be being a little more open.

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  25. This is why I am working so hard on my writing instead of sweating the query process.

    Thanks for the clear, concise info.

    Yours is the most helpful writer's blog I follow.

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  26. Wise words, Jody. In the search for representation I think desperation can cause a writer to put so much emphasis on the query and submission pages that the rest of the book doesn't get the attention it may still need. We're impatient to be finished the revision process and anxious for publication before the story is really as good as it can (and should) be. That desperation can have us scrambling for acceptance by any agent when we should still be crafting the quality that only the better agents would want to represent.

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  27. I don't know that I've ever written a query letter. The whole idea makes me queasy.

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  28. I completely agree! Of course, you have more experience than I do. Thanks for all the thoughts and your take on the entire writing process.

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  29. Great advice. I'm getting ready to query next month and am going to be starting on my letter soon, so this post was particularly interesting to me. Thanks.

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  30. Thanks for the post, Jody. You actually answered a few questions I've been mulling over this week.
    Still, there is so much to learn...
    Emily

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  31. I know someone who is about to write a query letter and this is very good advice. I'll let her know about your blog.

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  32. I agree with it all, Jody. I especially agree with the part about the strong beginnings that fizzle out into so-so middles and endings. The whole book has to be just as good as the beginning. Great points here.

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  33. More excellent advice, Jody. An amazing query letter isn't going to get us representation or a contract. A well-written story is.

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  34. What is a partial? I assume full means the whole manuscript, but what defines a partial? Three chapters or 100 pages?

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  35. Hi Jody -

    Great advice! Rachelle's post telling writers to have two books ready inspired me to get my second manuscript done. Now, I'm researching the third.

    One advantage to writing more than one manuscript: It boosted my confidence level. I know finishing one book wasn't a fluke. :)

    Blessings,
    Susan

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  36. Jill asked: What about if you've met an agent at a conference and they said to send them some chapters. Would you send them in and then follow up if you haven't heard in a few months?

    My Answer: In that case, I would definitely follow up. And I would especially make sure to remind them that you met them at the conference and that they asked to see the chapters.

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  37. Southpaw asked: What is a partial? I assume full means the whole manuscript, but what defines a partial? Three chapters or 100 pages?

    My answer: A partial will differ from agent to agent, and when they ask for it, usually they will specifiy exactly how many chapters they'd like you to send.

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  38. I think I pretty much agree, except for the only twelve agents thing. *grin* I do agree that we should only query agents who've sold our genre. I look at websites to see who's sold where, and that's really helpful in knowing who'll be a good fit.
    Great points here! A full request is so exciting, but I have to keep reminding myself that fulls get rejected all the time, that it doesn't mean anything other than what you said it does.
    Thanks for the post Jody!

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  39. I really appreciate this post. It's encouraging in a way the much I've read about querying has not been so far. Thank you for being willing to share your opinions (whether you think they'll be popular or not). :-)

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  40. I am learning so much from your blog! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    -Alisa Hope

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  41. I like your point about picking the best agents to fit your books and stick with them, that if you got what it takes they'll notice eventually. Sounds pretty sound.

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  42. Jody,
    You answered a lot of questions in this post for me. First, I have been too scared to send my work to the top agents. But now I understand. If my work isn't good enough for them, then I need to write better. Thank you!!! Also I have a full out and it has been the three months-- I have hesitated to contact the agent as I figured he would me if it was good enough. Good thoughts you've given me.

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  43. Jody: You are very wise for one so young. And I agree: focus most on the writing, or you'll be sorry when they look at your "middle."

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  44. I don't know much about this business but I think you are right. I have been worried so much abour the querying process lately that I have ignored my book.

    God got on to me this weekend and I'm back on track.

    Thanks for your post!

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  45. I would definitely follow up. And I would especially make sure to remind them that you met them at the conference and that they asked to see the chapters.

    Work from home India

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  46. I found your site through another blog post, and I just want to say, I really needed this post at this time! I'm about to start querying, and your advice was BRILLIANT! Thanks so much!

    Oh, and congratulations on The Doctor's Lady! I bet you can hardly wait until it comes out! Only.. 23 days, 6 hours, 53 minutes and 40 seconds! (right now)

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  47. Hi Cat! So glad you found my site and that this post was helpful today! Love when that happens! And thanks for the congrats on my book! I'm super excited about it! :-)

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