Confessions of a Slush Pile Reader Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Query – By Diane Glazman

This column is by our own novel whisperer/ developmental coach Diane Glazman. If you would like a guide through the labyrinth of the publishing world or a developmental coach, you can learn more about her here, and contact us here. Good luck, and may your words be swift. 

How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love My Query

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Query Letter Terror – The Truth Unmasked

Every writer feels this, and for good reason. In roughly 250 to 300 words, your query letter must create a connection with another human being whom you have most likely never met, investing them so deeply in your work that they can’t do anything but fall on their knees and beg you to be their client.

Or at least, that’s what you’ve been told by the literally thousands of resources available to help the querying writer walk the tight rope between literary craftsmanship and outright selling your soul for a chance at the brass ring. How-to manuals tell you what to include, online forums offer critiques, scores of interviews with agents reveal what made this or that query irresistible.

But here is the simple truth: writing a finely-honed query letter is one of the most stressful, frustrating, and unrewarding tasks a working writer will undertake in his or her career. It is sometimes easier writing an entire novel than boiling it down to the kind of snappy, marketing-savvy language agents say is essential to getting their attention.

But is it really necessary?

(a dangerous thought).

Do Query Letters Matter?

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After more than a year of reading submissions for a literary agent and reading upwards of 1,000 query letters, I’m going to let you in on a little secret:

A fantastic query letter is NOT going to automatically result in an agent asking for your partial or full. Nor is a weak letter going to generate an automatic rejection.

In fact, the query letter is almost irrelevant in an agent’s decision to request a partial or full.

You can have the most amazing query letter that does everything a query letter is supposed to do, and it won’t matter if the work doesn’t deliver or if the agent doesn’t rep what you’re selling.

The only thing that truly matters is the quality of the work.

Most agents request the first 5 or 10 pages, some even request the first fifty. In addition, most agents use submission/slush pile readers like myself to winnow down the volume of queries to something approaching manageable. Some agents ask for the first 50 pages, essentially asking the writer to sub a partial because, if the agent likes what they see, they can keep reading and get a better sense of whether the entire manuscript can deliver the goods. (The exception to this is agents who ask writers to query with the first page only. In this case, the query letter is important for the simple fact that the agent is looking for a very specific type of novel – high concept, easily summed up in a sentence or two, starts with a bang on page one.)

In most cases, the agent will have a slush pile reader or an assistant who goes through the queries, reads the submissions, and reports back to the agent on those the agent should look at and those that should receive a form rejection. Some agents sort through their emails first, select the queries that immediately catch their eye, and pass on the rest to the slush pile reader.

Which is where I come in.

Here’s What Happens When I Read a Sub:

The agent for whom I read requests a query letter, a 1-page synopsis, and the first fifty pages of the work from all writers. She does a quick pass through her inbox, winnows out the obvious no’s (for example: 300,000 word novels, work that is not in her area of interest, etc) and holds onto work that immediately appeals to her because it is exactly the kind of work she wants to represent or the writer has stunningly impressive credentials (please note: neither of those things is going to result in an automatic request for the full manuscript, she’s still going to read the work, just like I do).

When I get submissions from her, I open up the email and scan the query letter pretty quickly to find word count, genre, and any publication credits. I then open up the submission itself and start reading. My decision to recommend a rejection or a read to the agent is ENTIRELY DEPENDENT on the submission.

Seriously.

100%.

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While the query letter gives me an indication of what I’m going to find in the sub, and a well-written query may increase the number of pages I read before making a decision on my recommendation, the simple truth is the quality of the query doesn’t have an impact on what that recommendation is going to be.

Then Why Torture the Writer?

I suspect one of the main reasons such an emphasis is put on crafting the perfect query is because it’s an easy way for agents to give examples of the quality of writing they’d like to see. Critiquing a one page query or providing an example of a successful query is a heck of a lot easier than explaining the quality of writing an agent wants.

In addition, if you can give the agent a perfectly executed marketing pitch (also called a log line), you’ve done a portion of their work for them – they know how they’re going to pitch the work to an editor (which is not an insignificant thing).

Plus, there is a very real correlation between the quality of the query and the quality of the sub. Having read more than 1,000 queries, I’ve yet to see a badly written or organized query that is attached to a spectacular sub. If the query is long and meandering, without focus or an ability to succinctly convey what the work is about, chances are the sub reads the same way. Likewise, if the query is crisp, professional, and demonstrates an understanding of publishing as a business, the odds are, the sub is going to be decently written as well.

Why The Query Still Matters, And How To Make It Work For You

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While the query may not make or break your chances with a particular agent, it’s still important that it be as well-written as possible. It will still be the first thing most agents see, their first impression of you. While it may not be the be-all selling tool most ‘how to sell your book’ resources tell you it is, it still needs to do a few things:

  1. Demonstrate a command and facility with the English language with basic grammar and sentence structure.
  2. Be professional – a query letter is a business letter. You are establishing a relationship with someone with whom you wish to work (and likewise, want them to want to work with you), therefore the tone should be professional, formal, succinct. No smarmy glad-handing language, no banter, no <wink, wink, nudge, nudge> attempts at humor, no emoticons, no commentary on anything that would verge on the kind of things stalkers would know (while agents are quite active on Twitter and may tweet about personal things, under no circumstances should you refer to them in your query letter. Comments like “Hey, I just saw you were in Italy, by a coincidence, my novel is set in Italy.” Should be avoided).
  3. Keep it short – ideally, a query should be one page (approximately 250-300 words). One paragraph of intro (title, word count, here’s why I’m querying you), one paragraph to sum up your work, one paragraph of bio. That’s it. As I said above, when I read subs, I skim the query, but where length matters is in how it relates to the work itself. If you have a 120,000 word manuscript and a 2-page query letter, the agent is much more likely to look at it with trepidation because the work is probably going to require a fair degree of editing to get it to a saleable length. On the other hand, if your query is razor sharp, the agent is going to face the same 120,000 word manuscript thinking that, while it might be long, this is a writer who knows what she’s doing, and well, okay, maybe it needs to be that long.
  4. Present your work in as dynamic language as possible that demonstrates you know what the work is about, you understand conflict, stakes and tension (if it’s a novel) or the life lesson (if it’s a memoir) or its central thesis (for non-fiction). The best formula I ever heard for this is: X believes Y until Z. John believes Carol is the woman for him until he meets Bob. It’s simple, it’s too the point. Yes, it’s reductive as hell, but the query is about reducing your work to its most essential, universal core.

To sum up, I think there’s more emphasis put on the importance of a good query letter than is actually true in practice, leading to a lot of stressed-out writers who have come to think that unless the query is perfect, they will blow their chances with every agent they contact. I just want to say, this isn’t the case. Write the best letter you can, but know it’s not going to get you that request for a partial or full or even a contract and a sale – all of that rests on the shoulders of the work that you’ve written and whether the agent you’re querying is the one who is going to fall in love with your book.

So quit worrying about your query and get back to work.

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