Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, September 4, 2008

Things I Don't Need to Know in a Query

As promised on Tuesday in the word count query stats: things you don't need to include in a query.

I know it's difficult to stare at a blank screen trying to decide what to include and what not to include in a query. Is it necessary to convey a love of writing? What about positive feedback? There's a limited number of words in an ideal query and a whole lot that needs to be conveyed.

Here is a list of things I don't need to see in a query. There are exceptions to most of these rules, so, in the end, use your best judgment. But hopefully this list will help you wield the delete button wisely:

I don't need to know...

- How long it took you to write your manuscript
- How long you researched your manuscript
- How many manuscripts you've written besides the ones you're querying about
- Your Amazon Breakthrough PW Review (please see comments section for explanation)
- How much you love to write
- Your age (unless you're under 18 or if your age is otherwise relevant to the manuscript)
- How much your friends, family, local schoolkids, a paid editor, strangers, and/or anyone else who is not a published author loved your manuscript
- Quotes from anyone who loved your novel, except perhaps for one or two brief quotes from a published author (don't forget I'm taking these with a grain of salt)
- Any rejection letters or references to rejection letters or quotes from rejection letters no matter how positive the person was when they were rejecting you
- What you think the cover should look like
- What publishing houses you think would be a good fit
- A promise that your book will make the bestseller list and/or sell a million copies
- That you've had health and/or mental health problems (unless it specifically relates to the manuscript)
- The moral of your novel
- The themes of your novel (this should be clear from the description of the plot)
- More than two paragraphs of plot description (keep it concise!)
- That you're willing to send a synopsis or outline if I ask for one (I don't generally ask for these, but I'm assuming that if an agent asks you're gonna provide one).
- That your manuscript is completely different than anything that's ever been published (that's basically impossible)
- Apologies for wasting my time (you're not... er, unless your query is too long)

UPDATE: Jennifer Jackson has supplemented this list with some additional things to leave out.






71 comments:

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

I'm good, man. None of that is in my query letter.

Margaret Yang said...

Some agents want you to mention published books that are similar. I can't remember if you are pro or con on that one. Add it to the list?

Nathan Bransford said...

margaret-

They can be done well or not well, so I leave that up to the author.

Bill Womack said...

Are you at all interested in whether the novel has been workshopped in a critique group or otherwise vetted by anyone other than the author?

Darby said...

I sometimes think I should be stating themes outright in a query, only because my plot description feels sparse, and maybe that's a whole other problem. But are you saying it doesn't even matter much to know the theme, or that, yes, you want to know the theme, but show it, don't tell it.

Nathan Bransford said...

bill-

No, I tend to assume it has.

Susan said...

A great checklist--thanks!

Also an interesting portrait of what must be in your inbox occasionally (yikes!).

Heather Wardell said...

If another agent has rejected the book but suggested I query you, would you recommend mentioning that? It sort of implies a previous rejection, but the first agent must have seen something positive or else wouldn't have made the recommendation.

Unless the first agent hates the second, I suppose. :)

Thanks,
Heather

Nathan Bransford said...

Heather-

Yes.

nomadshan said...

Whew. Read that list gritting my teeth, but I was in the clear.

Thanks for the info!

150 said...

Since I've seen so many questions recently about author age, I think it would be worth clarifying that point: am I correct in thinking that you need to know if the author is under 18 for legal, minors-signing-contract reasons, and not because a teenage author is a particularly harder/easier sell?

Jessica said...

Hey nathan,

Sorry but I have a rather random question. How often do most large publishers have an editorial review/meeting to decide whether or not to buy books?

Thanks for all your great posts.

Nathan Bransford said...

jessica-

Usually once a week.

Kimberly Lynn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan Bransford said...

kimberly-

I would recommend that you focus on one project. If you really want to have an agent who represents all of your work and that is very important to you you can mention it briefly, but I think the best strategy at first is to focus your efforts on one project in one genre. Once that works? Then maybe think about the wisdom of genre hopping, but in close consultation with your agent.

Janet said...

Pithy, pertinent post - that did not abuse alliteration.

Anonymous said...

I was a semi-finalist in the Amazon contest last year. I never sent out queries for the manuscript as I didn't think it was ready for publication. That being said, out of 5,000 entrants, only 100 or so received positive reviews from PW and hardly any received glowing reviews. Most people actually received pretty condescending reviews from PW. Just thought I'd mention it in the defense of anyone who queried you and mentioned their positive review.

Thanks for the list Nathan. For once I'm not guilty of anything on here!!! Amy

Nathan Bransford said...

Amy-

Thanks for the info about the Amazon reviews. I guess I have probably received a lot of those 100 and have sort of become immune to them, but I'll keep that in mind.

Marilyn Peake said...

Hi, Nathan,

Would you be interested in knowing about awards that an author's won for previously published small press books, e.g. ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards, IPPY Awards, or EPPIE Awards? Is it a good idea to mention short stories and articles previously published in major magazines?

Ulysses said...

Forgive me, but I'm in a very surreal place right now...

Dear Nate-Dog:

I've taken sixteen years to write my fictional magnum opus: "Sixteen Years of Writing," in addition to a good fifteen minutes researching the material on Wikipedia. I love it. My mother loves it too. My Dad hates it, but he suffers from papyrophobia and so this is to be expected. "Sixteen Years" is my fourth fiction novel. The other three are currently in the smallest room in my house, where their pages are occasionally read before being recycled. Amazon's Breakthrough PW review said, "This is probably a book." Stephen King's publicist's secretary's assistant said something about "restraining order violation," but I know he liked it. Although Agent X rejected this work, she said, "The words, taken individually, are not bad," so you know I've got some talent.

The book explores themes of loneliness, heartbreak and misanthropy through the revealing lens of a man whose allergy to wood keeps him isolated from his forest community. In addition to being didactic, pedantic and preachy, the novel teaches the reader the value of cheese (particularly gouda) as an alternative building material, and how true love can reduce household expenses.

I think this book would be a great fit for the publisher of "Thirty Days in New Jersey," and "Starting Religions for Fun and Profit." They could do it up with a cover featuring a Martin Short look-alike and a Chihuahua. In red, because that stands out on the shelf. A homeless guy near my house thinks the local bookstore would make a killing stocking only this book and selling coffee. It has "New York Times Bestseller" written all over it. In crayon, for now, but we can change that. Take this on, and we'll make enough money to visibly embarrass Oprah when she has me on her show. You'll have to swing that, though, because her producer's assistant's nephew's lawyer mentioned the same restraining order Mr. King's publicist's secretary's assistant did.

I don't have any psychological issues, as the attached court documents prove. My age is irrelevant, since my Mom and Dad can't agree on that anyway.

I am willing to provide a short synopsis of the book. Also, a summary. Or an outline. I've got an abstract as well. I can also send pictures of me and my shoes. And short videos of a play I did in second grade. And, well, any of my possessions, actually, although you'll have to give me an itemized list if you want someone else's possessions.

Obviously, "Sixteen Years of Writing" is completely different from everything else out there. For one thing, all those other books have already been published. For another, none of them have been dictated to me by the monster under my bed.

Sorry for wasting your time, but I don't have any of my own to waste.

Sincerely,
Ann Arthur

RED STICK WRITER said...

Your attractive young contributor with the antlers asked about mentioning similar published books. You replied, “They can be done well or not well, so I leave that up to the author.”

I assume a “done well” usage is when it helps to identify the story’s niche in the market, while a “not well” usage might be naming some Stephen King titles and suggesting that your story is as good or better or that you are the next Stephen King.

Say a query letter said, “Though I do not presume to compare myself to the authors, my manuscript is similar in nature to books I have read and know to be commercial successes. Mortal Fear and Dead Sleep by Greg Iles, Scavenger by Tom Savage, The Switch by Sandra Brown, Deviant Way by Richard Montanari, and Mercy by David Lindsey are examples.” Would you consider the passage to be an example of the former or the latter?

Don’t worry about my feelings. I’m a thick-skinned Southern boy. Besides, you rejected me already. Now my goal is to use moments like this to analyze your thoughts about each of my paragraphs.

Nathan Bransford said...

rsw-

Bingo.

(sorry for the short or non-responses today, busy day)

Kimberly Lynn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sex scenes at starbucks said...

Well done Ulysses!

Kimberly, if you get past the requests stage with an agent you'll have plenty of chance to talk about other projects. A good agent should ask you!

JohnO said...

Having been through the Amazon semi-finalist meat grinder, I'll add this: the PW reviewer assigned to my book didn't actually read it.

Or, to be fair, perhaps they *did* read it, and just got the entire story wrong.

Either way, I wouldn't get too bent out of shape about the PW reviews one way or the other.

Ryan Field said...

Thanks...nice post.

Kimberly Lynn said...

True. True.

I am curious, though.

(Dream big or not at all, right?)

Elyssa Papa said...

I'm good, too.

Great post as usual.

Madison said...

Goodie! My query's in the clear! And I've chopped it down from over 500 words to about 380. Yeah, it's getting a LOT better and it even sounds better short. Weird, but true. I guess you guys know what you're talking about! Jk, i know you do! :-)

MyVerbocity said...

I would add:

- details about your sex life
- your UFO experiences/how JFK is channeling messages through you
- how your book is like (this book) but broken down into eighteen books
- what is wrong with today's youth and how your picture book will 'right' the next generation

Also, we once received a query that smelled like Desitin. I'd hate to think where that letter was before it was in the envelope...

Just_Me said...

Good info. I'm guessing you can mention if the book is part of a projected series? I know Book 1 should be a stand-alone (just in case the worst happens and everyone stops reading), but... mention projected Book 2 or no?

Diana said...

Ulysses, I liked the part about the monster under your bed. In my case, I dictated the novel to the monster. He's a better typist.

Heidi said...

great post. I read it holding my breath, and was glad to sigh at the end!

I have a question that may or may not be vaguely related to one of the first questions:

If your manuscript is heavily plotted in a field that is not your own (ie legal, medical, detective) and you had it reviewed by an expert in that field for authenticity (ie, a lawyer, doctor, pathologist), would that be worth mentioning in a query?

Or do you assume it's authentic and figure you'll know pretty quickly when you read it?

AstonWest said...

Whew! I think I avoided any of the listed offenses...

A Paperback Writer said...

I am amused.
thanks, Nathan

Betty Atkins Dominguez said...

Oh No! You've heard from me before?

Mary said...

Ulysses,
I really enjoyed the book title, "Starting Religions for Fun and Profit." The whole letter was wonderful, but that line really cracked me up.

Michelle Moran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michelle Moran said...

HA! Best query ever, Ulysses. If I was an agent, I'd snap that right up.

Furious D said...

Great post, I think the key to good writing, and writing good queries is knowing how much information is too much information.

Scott said...

Excellent post, Nathan. Cheers.

I do have to confess to being semi-guilty of the "research and theme" offenses, but only in the sense that they nailed the guts of the concept and plot and flowed so nicely into a much shorter description. They were more or less "warm up" comments that I thought helped whet the appetite rather than dry info, but I think I'll drop them now. :)

k. kelly said...

I was wondering, Nathan - is it typical for an agent not to respond to a query at all? I've heard that most agents send a rejection letter at the very least (if only to discourage the person who wrote the query from contacting them again), but I've sent out two queries recently and neither agent responded with a rejection letter or otherwise (I waited a good amount of time for a response - about six months for each agent). Is this standard practice in the industry?

jbrian said...

Well, I was going to write a book entitled "Starting Religions for Fun and Prophet", but I haven't seen Jesus' face in my breakfast cereal yet, so I'd better hold off.

But seriously... I've read where some experts say, Yes, mention books similar to yours... "in the style of James Patterson...." etc., and I've heard, No, don't compare your stuff to anyone else's. Let it stand on its own merit.

So, Nathan, what's your take? Should my query to you inclue or not include comparisons?

Gail Goetz said...

I've read several places that agents want to know if we've written other manuscripts than the one we're querying about so they'll know we have other novels they might represent.

Anonymous said...

The query you are about to read has no plot.

clindsay said...

BLESS YOU! :-)

C-

janeyolen said...

When I was first in editing (at Gold Medal Books!), we used to assign the "I am sick and need to make money real fast for my fatherless kids" query letters to one editor named Walter. It was a great company joke.

Jane

Scott said...

Thank gods for the internets, because agents tend to tell you what they're looking for. Although the details like Nathan's list may vary, perhaps one should go with their gut, yet stick to keeping it at an effective length. If the rest is strong and you've miscalculated, perhaps you're still in with a shot.

Marketing oneself is far more difficult than writing the darn book!

ashley said...

Ulysses, thank you. That query laughter cracked me up!

Sheila J. said...

I guess one advantage of switching to digital submissions is that you only have to worry about what is in the query letter, and not so much about what may be inside that rather thick envelope.

sophie said...

Ulysees,
Your book sounds esoteric enough to be a contender for some British literary award. Set it in the middle east and I reckon you're sure to make a shortlist or two.
Have you heard back from Nathan yet?

Nathan Bransford said...

sophie-

I've already offered him representation and am flying him out to San Francisco just so I can tell him in person how moved I was by his query letter.

Rebecca said...

Nathan, if you have time to answer, I'm wondering about mentioning magazine clips in my query that are completely unrelated to the novel itself -- I've seen advice that this is a good idea because it shows you can stick to deadlines and take editorial feedback, but I've also seen advice to skip mentioning clips that aren't relevent to the novel's subject. Do you have any thoughts on that, or is it just a "mention if you want, keep it short" thing?

Nathan Bransford said...

rebecca-

There's a post in "The Essentials" on how and whether to list your publishing credits, so please check that one out.

Naomi said...

It has been a really long time since I was a teenage writer, but I conscientiously never mentioned my age in cover letters (I wasn't writing novels, so I was submitting to magazines) because I figured that would just set up the editor to expect it to suck. In retrospect, I should have gone ahead and mentioned it: it wouldn't have hurt (I got rejected everywhere anyway) and it might have helped (or at least gotten me more encouraging personal rejections).

I've been asked a few times by teenagers if I think they should mention their age (on cover letters, with short stories, and on queries, with novels). What do you think I should be telling them to do?

Rene said...

Love this post! I've really been enjoying reading through your archives, too. Thanks for all the informative posts.

Rebecca said...

D'OH. I checked the FAQs and somehow missed The Essentials. Apologies for the pointless question.

Dave Wood said...

Interesting about the Amazon PW competition. One of my writing group compatriots competed and was in the top five or so. I critiqued the first half of the book and didn't see much correlation between what he'd written and what the reviewer said. My friend did, however, start including his participation in his queries and his percentage of requests for the manuscript went way up. He credits it with getting him an agent at Trident -- though there hasn't been any progress in the months since.

Ulysses said...

Nathan:
Thank-you for the invitation, but I'm afraid they won't let me across the border into the U.S.

I previously had no idea that restraining orders could be so geographically extensive.

Nancy D'Inzillo said...

Nathan, on your list was "how much your friends, family, local schoolkids, a paid editor, strangers, and/or anyone else who is not a published author loved your manuscript," does that mean if a published author loved your manuscript it might be worth mentioning? Or would that only be worth it if they were a really big name (if at all)?

Kate Lord Brown said...

My 'day job' used to be as an art agent - the worst ever query started with 'Dear ... You're the only agent I'd like to work with. I'd like to offer you an exclusive ...' Unfortunately the artist had forgotten to cut and paste the correct details and had sent us a letter addressed to a competitor. If he was going to submit to everyone in town, at least he could have made us think we were special ... And guess what, the work wasn't that great either!

Tina Gail said...

That is funny. lesson we can all learn. Be careful where and to whom letters are sent.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of free stuff, I want to know when the internet and the publishing world are going to be free of Nathan Bransford is what I want to know.

I hear 7-11 is hiring night clerks. Check it out, Nathan.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Too late, I've already risen up to assistant manager at my local 7-11. Thanks for the tip, though.

Arovell said...

At last, I see a reference to my situation in a blog post! I'm under 18. You said that it was okay for me to mention my age in a query, since it is relevant (the book is YA); but would you recommend it?

Anonymous said...

::yawn::

Nathan:
It must be presumed that you do not read 99% of queries past the first line or two unless for personal amusement. Please. Be a man of honor and tell the truth :)

-Most newbie writers do not get a second glance.

-A winning query of 300 words requires expertise. I.e, only published authors get a look-see.

-You're not receiving as many queries lately because dozens of new writers are too terrified to bother starting a writing career.

-The ONLY way to get pubbed these days is to 'score' an agent --a durned great one-- as major houses have closed their doors to unsolicited ms's. Even with an agent, the chances are slim that even multi-pubbed writers will get their next one in print.

-Fewer books, (and with greater restrictions to length etc) are being published across genres.

It is fifty times more difficult for a new writer to publish than in the past, say, fifteen years.


VTY, etc...

Nathan Bransford said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan Bransford said...

oops, missed one:

anon-

You're 0 for 7.

1. I read my queries. Unless someone sent me a 1,000+ word opus, I read the whole thing.

2. Most newbie writers get a better look than people who have been published but don't have a strong track record. Them's the facts in the business these days.

3. The vast majority of partials I request are not from published authors.

4. Just about every single month I receive more queries than I did the last month.

5. This one is closest to being true. Yes, you need an agent. However, I know authors who have been published by major houses without one. Are the odds good? Definitely not. But it happens. And if someone is multi-published there's a good chance they'll have their next work published. If their work doesn't sell it's tough though.

6. More books are being published in every genre than any time in history. Fiction is becoming harder to place at the major houses, but nonfiction and young adult are strong.

7. It's always a good time in the business if you've written a great book.

Anonymous said...

Cool..I love it!

Katy said...

Okay, I know this post was months ago, but is it really important to tell the agent your age if you're under 18? I would think it only matters later in the query process, when/if the agent and author begin to negotiate working together. Is that correct, or do you think it's important for the agent to know they're dealing with a minor from the get-go?

Aida Karanxha Bode said...

So then, to find an agent one must work "full time"... it's so exhausting - you have pages of do's and don't's here. Just reading them is discouraging.

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