Deb Kelly Speaks Out in Defense of Query Letters

I know, I know, it sounds crazy, but you guys: query letters are not that bad. They can actually be sort of awesome, when you nail them. Sorry Deb Dana, I am going to be the exception that proves the rule. Though pouring through stacks of them back when I was working as an editorial assistant was not anyone’s cherished job, whenever I assist authors in the publishing process now, helping craft query letters is undoubtedly my favorite task. It feels a little like making a really good introduction—like when you saunter into a party, have a brainstorm, and then introduce a college friend to a office mate and watch them hit it off. Only it’s on a much larger scale. There’s just all that potential. Anything can happen.

A query isn’t the only way to reach an agent, sure, but a good one may be the fastest method, and it certainly is the cheapest. Even if you pay someone like me to help you, you’d be hard pressed to find a cheaper way to appear on the doorsteps of 30 top agents and make a great impression (next best plan would probably involve chocolate, and not the drugstore stuff either). As much as we all bemoan the uncomfortable tap dance of agent-hunting as it stands, I’ve yet to hear of a better way for a writer to express her true voice than in actual writing. Ergo: the query.

And from the other side of the desk, finding a good query can be so, well, exciting. When, on those steamy Friday afternoons in the summer when all was quiet, the phones had stopped ringing, the emails were slowing down, and I was mining a pile of queries hoping to strike gold, every request letter I sent back was laden with my own secret yearning—to unearth a great talent, to read a fabulous new story, to make a discovery.

Of course, I didn’t get my agent through a query. I realize this is an annoying thing to admit, but I had a personal connection with my agent before she was my agent. Befriending literary agents is a serious hazard of working in the publishing industry. But I did write a query letter, to see what it was like. I wanted to know what my book was about—I mean, from the outside in—and I wanted to make sure that was clear in my mind going forward. And I’d read so many query letters by then, some that were clearly written in protest, some that were dashed off, some that felt almost pained by the process, that I wanted to know—can I do better?

It was hard. I get it more than academically now, how hard those damn things can be to write when you’re in it—in the mindset that you should have some magic credentials, some perfect title, some tempting tagline that will open the door so many others have found locked. But you’ve got to knock, right? You wrote the whole stinkin’ book, so you’ve got to knock. You might as well put on your best lipstick before you do.

And maybe ask a honest friend to make sure you didn’t get any on your teeth.

PS: Someday I’ll post my query letter up here so you can all weigh in (quietly, when I am not listening) on how I did when the shoe was on my own foot. But it has spoilers, so that day will have to wait just a little longer…

6 Replies to “Deb Kelly Speaks Out in Defense of Query Letters”

  1. I sent 116 query letters and didn’t find my agent through a query either! I also agree that a query is a great way to distill your own novel down to less than a page, showing all its best parts. I’m working on my next book and often wonder if I’d benefit from composing a query even though I have an agent. It might serve to remind me exactly what the story is about. You know, because sometimes my mind wanders. To chocolate.

  2. I agree with you and Amy that a query is a great way to figure about what your book is really ABOUT. Like Amy, I’ve considered writing a “fake” query for my second book, just to boil it all down on one page.

  3. I’m sensing a pattern here…because I didn’t actually get my agent by query either. But several of my friends did, so I know they DO work! I suspect I would have gotten my agent’s attention with a query, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to deliver it verbally.

    As you’ll see, though, I did write a query for the work – and it really DID help me make the pitch because I knew what the book was about!

  4. Great post. I think that you’re right about the query process. If it wasn’t a good way to finding talent, then it wouldn’t still be the method of choice for literary agents.

    I actually don’t hate writing query letters. They can be fun. I find it’s a lot easier to write a query letter BEFORE writing the entire book. Once you’ve done that, you have so many details in your head it’s too hard to figure out what’s important and what’s not… but I’m also a plotter, I have a thorough outline and synopsis ready before writing my story. If you weren’t a plotter, I’m sure my “write query letter first, edit it later” method wouldn’t work so well.

    The part of the querying process I don’t like is the WAITING and time it takes up (plus, of course, the rejection). But I’m a patient person and I make sure to have something else to write so I’m not agonizing over every query letter I sent out.

  5. JQ – yes, the waiting is SO hard. Although, those rejections that zoom in within the hour are also disconcerting! As for writing a query to see what the book is about – it’s called a short synopsis. And I still have to write those for blurbs and whatever. There is no escape!

  6. The waiting is bonkers. But JQ, you’re doing exactly what I tell my students and clients: move on, baby, forget the query is even out there. Onward and upward!

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