Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Clarity In Queries - The Biggest Reason Editors and Agents Say No

Yes, I know what you all say. Writing a query letter totally sucks. But like doing laundry or cleaning the toilets, this is a necessary evil and something you have to master if you plan on a career in traditional publishing.

As a writer, you have to remember something about query letters. Editors and agents are receiving a lot of these on a daily basis, depending on the size of the agency and the number of genres they represent. That query letter needs to be explicit and to the point with absolutely no confusion for the reader. I'm not talking about the structure here or whether you have a "high concept" written with a comparison between two movies (Twilight meets Scooby Doo). I am simply focusing on the content here.

Miriam Kriss, a great colleague of mine has made a comment numerous times when I have sat on agent panels with her. "Maybe means No." In many cases, that maybe simply comes up because the author lacks serious clarity in the query letter. If the editor or agent has a ton of unanswered questions in the query letter, then it is likely the answer will be a no simply because they cannot afford the time to keep asking questions.

So what are some of those questions that need to be answered?
  • Title, genre and word count
  • What makes your story unique
  • Who the characters are
  • What is their goal, motivation and conflict
  • What is the central conflict in the story
  • What is the theme or "take-away" for the author
Now, these are some of the basics, but we can take this a step further. If the paragraphs within the query are confusing due to too much information, awkward sentence structure or vague points, then we become lost. I am not saying too add EVERYTHING to the query. You still need to keep the query straightforward and simple. But the central skeleton of the story needs to be there.

This becomes a bigger issue when the story relies heavily on world building that you would find in historicals, fantasies, sci-fi, paranormals and so forth. Now it is up to you to provide that bridge to the world that only you have really come to know and understand.

I always recommend taking the time to really read through that query a lot before sending it out. I would also encourage you to have someone who has not read your story to read the query. This outsider will be just like having the editor or agent who has never seen it either.

Here is the thing to remember. As I started out, with "Maybe = No", if you are causing a confusion for your reader in the query letter, then the odds are there is a thought that if you cannot keep your points straight and clear in the query, then what will the actual story be like? Yes, I know it may not be as confusing as the query letter, but you have planted that seed in the mind of the editor or agent.



  1. This is a wonderfully clear and graspable explanation. I just quoted you in a post on defining concept this morning and here you are with another great post on conveying concept in a query. You always make things so easy to understand.



  2. Thank-you so much for returning the blog archive list (labels) to your blog page. I really appreciate it.

    Your post, today, was extremely helpful. Something I had not fully considered. I understand theme, but couldn’t quite put it together with “take away”.

    Then, I discovered the archive list. Oh, yes!

    I clicked on “Theme”, read all the posts. And, I got it. Wonderful. All's right with the world.

    Again, thank-you.

  3. Second what Martina said...you really do make things easy to understand!

    I hope this blog never goes away like so many others have done lately.

    Thanks, Scott

  4. I'm happy to say that after reading this post I feel pretty confident about my query letter. I did all the rights and none of the wrongs. Phew.