Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Queries By Committee?

An anonymous commenter in yesterday's post asked me how I felt about people submitting queries they did not write. This apparently is the result of a discussion in the comments section of another blog (I don't know which one*).

This isn't actually a purely straightforward question for me and I'll have more on my own thoughts tomorrow, but I thought I would broaden the question a bit more:

1) How do you feel about these ghost queries?
2) What about queries that are substantially revised with the help of a critique group, i.e. queries by committee?
3) How much help is appropriate?
4) Is it a good strategy?

Looking forward to this discussion.

*UPDATE: The discussion originated at PubRants and Courtney Milan's blog.






143 comments:

Dr. Dad said...

Hmmm...seems a bit dishonest to me! One has to wonder how much of his work is also "by committee."

pws said...

My question is what author would TELL an agent that the query they submitted was created in such a way? I assume that if you knew a query was created by committee or not the author it might taint your opinion. But how would you know?

JM Donahue said...

I saw the discussion over on PubRants about this. I think getting help with a query is fine. Sometimes a fresh set of eyes can really help point out what is working and what needs work.

Ugly Deaf Muslim Punk Gurl! said...

If someone can't even write a query on their own, then I question his/her ability as a writer.

Enough said!!!

Kat Harris said...

If an author had no part in writing any of the query that's pretty bad.

What about queries that are substantially revised with the help of a critique group, i.e. queries by committee?

I would say this is okay as long as the author of the piece being queried used the same diligence on what they're submitting.

Sometimes a writer may need an outside party who has read the book to whittle down just how much information needs to be conveyed in a query.

I do understand how it could be deceptive, though.

Alli said...

If an author has critique partners for a manuscript, I can't see why it's not a good idea to have someone run their eye over the query letter and give suggestions. As JM Donahue said, a fresh pair of eyes can help. Also, I think authors find it very difficult to condense a 100,000 novel into two paragraphs - to the author, every detail is there for a reason. I don't see the harm in getting help as long as the letter isn't entirely written by a ghost writer.

Joseph Lewis said...

My lawyer writes my contracts, my accountant writes up my taxes, and my doctor writes my prescriptions, but none of this professional assistance detracts from who and what I am. I am a writer, not a salesman.

Sarah Laurenson said...

So some people suck at writing queries. Is that a bad thing?

Some of my best manuscripts might be called written by committee because I've had several eyes reading them and helping with what works and what doesn't. It's just there's more words in the manuscript than in a query. But what about with picture books? Lot less words there. Maybe even less than a query.

Writing is a process and I would hope writers are learning and improving all the time. And that includes with query letters. But what's really important? Writing the perfect query or the best manuscript? If you only have time to do one, why not buy the services of a professional for the other? Or why not offer your services to write queries and make more money as a writer? I know people who have an absolute knack for query writing.

And yeah - why tell anyone who wrote the query?

Anonymous said...

It wouldn't bother me to hear about someone else getting an agent based on a query that they had help with or created by someone else. What really matters is the writing, and I've seen it said more than once by blogging agents that crummy query letters sometimes accompany very good pages.

I kind of look at it like a trailer to a movie. If you're the moviemaker, and you want to also make the trailer to get people to take a look at your movie, then you want to do a good job. And if you can see that you're doing a lousy job of making your trailer, you get someone to advise you or you hire someone with more talent for presenting information in that format.

I do think it's preferable to get advice, rather than having someone else write the entirety of your query - it's your baby, and you should be involved as much as you can - but really, I don't care as long as it's not some weird covered-up thing. The writing, I hear, is what it's all about.

(4 hours of sleep and no caffeine. I blame that if this comment comes out like gobbledygook.)

RW said...

I can't understand WHY anyone would even feel it's necessary. Isn't a query just "here's what my work is about; would you like to see some of it?" How hard is that to do yourself? I understand wanting to give yourself every chance to succeed, but sweating a query letter so much seems to put too much importance on that step.

AC said...

I'm with Joseph (and Agent Kristen). I don't think I personally would let someone else write my query, but if other people need that help, then ok. As long as the actual novel is purely theirs, how is a query-by-committee much different than having promotional materials written by someone else?

Roy Hayward said...

Nathan,

I think my gut reaction to this would be negative. But I, myself, am guilty of this in a way. My mother has long wanted to be a published writer. And for her, I have researched and found information on queries. (That is how I found this blog BTW.) I have also written and submitted queries with her.

Now that I have become guilty of this act, I would rationalize others doing this by comparing it to any other type of help. We would not look down on someone that received a large amount of help from their writers group. So we should not look down on the same for queries.

Anyway, I would think that as an agent, you would like to receive better quality queries.

The only down side that I can think of would be to agents. If you need to pick the best to request manuscripts, that you could fear that 'committee' queries would not reflect the voice and quality of the author. This may be true.

I am not sure what the downside is for the writer. Submitting a better query should increase their chances for request, and therefore selection.

It comes to mind that I know an agent that has offered critiques on query letters. Didn't I read a post here where you critiqued a few query letters? If those authors take your advice, won't they be doing this too? And with your help!

Amber said...

It was Kristen Nelson's PubRants blog. I think the whole story is better explained over there, and there's a link to her new client - who this discussion is all about.

I guess, when you put it in that particular way, both my MS and my query has been written by committee. I have a crit group who has looked over both and pointed out the glaring inconsistencies that I swear used to be in there ;)

It can get to be one of those - Can't see the trees for the forest.

Aspiring Writer said...

Disclosure: I have written my own queries with (ha!) mixed results.
Is getting query help any different than getting help with a resume? The professionally polished resume might get you an interview, but it can't get you hired.
I belong to a writer's group and people do post their queries for review. I feel completely comfortable giving general feedback on these: "Your bio is too long. You need to get your hook up top." I never rewrite and then repost the query. It seems disrespectful, but that's just me.

Amanda said...

Writing a query is very different writing than writing a mss, and sometimes a fiction writer simply isn't good at query writing, just like they might not be good at writing, say, poetry. I don't think that their inability to write a good query should be held against them as a writer - it's a different type of writing! No one says a writer has to be able to write nonfiction, short stories, novels, poetry, drama, and everything else. A writer specializes.

I see no problem with a writer getting help with their query.

Carley said...

Well, I have to admit that I am flat out jealous that said author could actally get someone to write her a great query! Queries are so hard to nail, and if we're all honest with ourselves we would love someone to look at our queries, disect them and help us put them back together. (hence the Query Shark) In my opinion, writing the book was the easy part, selling it, not so much. But, I would feel a bit dishonest if someone did it all for me, not sure if I would say no though, lol. I admire the author in question for owning up and giving credit where credit is due.

I agree that a fresh pair of eyes, or two, is a good idea. Ultimately though I'd have to write my own query, but I wouldn't refuse any help in doing it! So where do you get a critique group?? You know, one that is not made up of your relatives! :)

Justus M. Bowman said...

"What about queries that are substantially revised with the help of a critique group, i.e. queries by committee?"

Nathan,

To me, it depends on whether or not the author's voice is lost.

Writing style needs to come through in the query, and that can't happen if a committee revises every nuance for the author. Shame on said committee!

On the other hand, I applaud a committee willing to give new authors general writing/query tips.

Example!!!

Author's Query: "That is why Shelly Moon dove into an ocean of emotion."

Bad Committee: "Change it to, 'Enraged by her fiance's revelation, Shelly Moon dove headlong into an affair with the stunning Joseph Jack.'"

Good Committee: "Ya don't begin no sentence with 'that.' Ain't ya hear nothin' Nathan done spoke?"

Gavin Nachbar said...

http://pubrants.blogspot.com/2009/01/kicking-off-new-year-courtney-milans.html

That's where Kristen talks about it...and then here's Courtney Milan's response to her post:

http://www.courtneymilan.com/ramblings/2008/08/15/how-not-to-sell-a-book/

Julia Weston said...

1) Seems shady to me.
2) Fine; it doesn't seem much different than having a critique group review a manuscript (which seems to be a widely-accepted practice).
3) Not sure how to quantify this. I think seeking guidance helps a writer learn, but I don't like the idea of a writer slapping his/her name on a query letter someone else wrote. The writer learns nothing and the letter might mislead the agent/publisher.
4) See #3.

Anonymous said...

I recently posted portion of my query on a website for feedback. I though a fresh pair of eyes would notice mistakes I'd missed. Not a great idea. Because no one had read the book, the story was changed as was the voice. And some of the comments didn't even make sense. Then a fight ensued between a number of individuals. Not a pretty scene.

I don't have a problem with others writing someone else's query. It doesn't mean the author isn't a good writer. Queries aren't easy to write. Ideally, the author should write his own letter, and have others provide suggesions and feedback. Ideally people who have read the book.

MC said...

Nathan,
Isn't it your quest with this blog (along with getting clients) to help people write better queries?

And there are blogs out there, like Query Shark, who provide this service free of charge.

Do you ever sign someone up based solely on their query letter? The letter is a rejectable possibility, but not a signable possibility.

Anonymous said...

So, if another agent walks up and says, "Here's a manuscript. It's not right for me but I think you would like it."
Do you say, "Have the author send me a query letter so I can judge his writing." Or do you say, "Thanks, I don't need no stinking query letter."
If the query letter reflects the book who cares who wrote the letter.

Kathleen Peacock said...

I fully support doing research, having a second pair of eyes, and taking advice but I can't imagine not writing my own query.

It's the first impression an agent will have of me (unless I obsessively comment on their blog). It's not something I would feel comfortable having someone else write.

Now you may use the argument that people enlist writing services for cover letters and resumes but I think the crucial difference is that those people aren't necessarily positioning themselves as writers.

I also wonder if it would possibly reflect on someone ability to help promote the book through interviews, conferences.

Courtney Milan said...

Hello, followers of Nathan Bransford! I am the author who had someone else write her query letter. *waves*

I do want to say that the structure of the query letter was written by Sherry Thomas, but I revised and revised it until it was representative of my voice, and not Sherry's; and the version Sherry wrote for me she specifically did not polish, for that reason.

Authors don't write back cover copy for their books. They don't make covers for their books, either. That's because authors are really good at writing books, but there's no guarantee that they can do any of the other things. There is probably some correlation between writing a really bad query letter and writing a really bad book, but it is not a perfect correlation.

The query that I sent was (a) in my voice and (b) about my plot.

I am really, really bad at writing query letters. In the months when I was revising and polishing my manuscript, I also worked on a query letter, and in those months, I didn't get a single draft of a query letter that I thought was good enough--and I tried and tried and tried. But I thought my pages were actually pretty good.

At the time, I was working 12-14 hours a day, six days a week, in my day job, and writing until 2 AM, and then getting up at 6 AM to go back to work and do it all over again.

I wasn't going to let a little obstacle like working 80 hours a week stop me, and I sure wasn't going to let the fact that I couldn't write a query letter stop me, either. I knew I had something special, and I was too excited about it myself to really write a query letter that captured the important points.

Anonymous said...

Ugly Deaf Muslim Punk Girl --

You said: "...If someone can't even write a query on their own, then I question his/her ability as a writer..."

I used to think this too, but the person on Pub Rants got a six figure book deal -- so who knows?

For entertainment go to Query Shark blogspot (ala agent Janet Reid) to see just how hard it is to write a query.

Karen Cantwell said...

The purpose of the query is to attract the attention of the agent to your work. We all know how hard that is. If an author can get help from others in writing a succint and catchy query that is true to the body of work being presented, I think that is fine.

Vieva said...

I think what matters is whether the voice is changed or not.

If it still reads like the actual writer, it's not a bad thing. Gods know I've run my stuff past other people. And it's made a difference, too.

And when a novel is accepted, the novel itself is tweaked by the publisher and possibly the agent as well. So why NOT get help for the query letter?

But write your own. If you can't write the darn thing at least enough to get help with it later, that's just sad. Possibly not a problem - but sad. (unless someone wants to write mine? please? I'll give you a biscuit!)

Kristan said...

I'm not sure I understand the problem... I think most authors get help with their work -- beta readers, writing groups, etc. -- so what's wrong with help on a query letter?

(Being written by someone else altogether is a little more clear-cut in terms, I would think. Just like submitting a manuscript written by someone else would be.)

Actually, I have a question of my own, Nathan. I was thinking about this as I brushed my teeth this morning. (Yes, my brain IS always this interesting. :P)

Junot Diaz's collection Drown was great, and I presume he sold it via an agent with the idea that he'd do a novel next. Well, it took him 12 years to get that novel done. Even though it won a Pulitzer, isn't that a reeeeally long time for an agent to wait? If you're the agent in that situation, what's going through your mind? Do you dump him? Pressure him? Wait for his genius?

I guess the whole situation intrigues and confounds me. I don't actually know, maybe his agent did drop him and he found another one...

Just curious, thanks!

Robert A Meacham said...

I would rather learn from my failings than succeed from another's success. I believe in injecting my personal take from what works.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon@9:23-

If someone I trust refers a manuscript to me I ask them to have the author get in touch with me with a query. I'll automatically request the manuscript, but I at least want to know what it's about.

Margaret Yang said...

But Nathan, aren't we kind of ignoring the elephant in the room?

After the agent takes on the manuscript, he writes HIS OWN query letter to the editors! Does the agent take the writer's query word-for-word? Of course not. So at the end of the food chain, the editor is seeing a query letter not written by the writer.

How do people feel about that?

PurpleClover said...

Wow, definitely struck a nerve here.

To play devil's advocate:

No matter what, the query is subjective and if someone has better words to describe the MS then so be it. If the agent is actually reading the manuscript, they should be able to make a decision based on the first few pages. The query itself is just to give the agent a preview...who cares who it comes from?

IMO a decision based on a query is like a judge making a decision just based on how "guilty" they think the defendant looks or talks...not actually looking at the evidence.

But to throw a wrench in, I personally would not feel comfortable letting someone else write my query. Editing? Yes. Writing? No.

Oh you thought this was going to be rational? hehe.

Scott said...

I think a query should be written by the person querying. That's not to say that I didn't have some people read the query and give me a 'thumbs up/down'. Does that count as a critique group??

Crimogenic said...

Nice topic.

I agree with those commenters, who think that most queries are reworked based on committee input: beta readers, critique groups, other writers, family and friends, etc. I don't know if getting someone to write my query completely and just submitting that version is the right answer. But as Courtney Milan said, she got the basic gist of what the query should be from someone and rewrote it in her own voice, so that's a bit different.

Also I wonder if in some cases it isn't the query that's the problem, but rather, the author is submitting to the wrong agents.

Whirlochre said...

I have no problem with the idea of beta readers helping out with novels, synopses and queries, but ultimately, the words should spring from the writer. Anything else is elaborate data entry.

Professor Tarr said...

I have come to the conclusion that I really suck at queries. And maybe that is okay. But in a market that is tres competitive, sales and marketing are key - and if I want my books in the hands of the most people - and I do - I believe that I have to get better at that aspect.

If I don't get better, I'd welcome a ghost query that put my work - repeat MY work - in front of an agent. But it would be a sad disappointment if the work by committee or hire or whatever was not representative of my work. I put my query up on my little professortarr.blogspot just to see if I could get past that hump and see where I might err. Maybe I'm way out of line. I've lost all objectivity.

It may simply be that I have written a great book that no wants to read, and hence is not publishable. That is entirely possible. Or it might just be that I suck at queries or novel writing or both. Entirely possible.

In a way, it's all the same to me because tomorrow I know I will still be writing.

Jess said...

I think that Kristin herself says it best (I think in today's follow-up post): The writing stands on its own. The query is just to entice the agent. If the writing isn't as stellar as the query, it doesn't matter how good the query was. It happens all the time. Some people write great queries (or have help) and don't put the same polish on the books themselves, which is a shame, but there are probably an equal number of great books with poor queries introducing them.

At worst, you're wasting everyone's time, including your own. At best, you're getting the help you need to get the thing into the right hands. I like the forest for the trees metaphor and also that fresh eyes can't hurt.

Remember, you as the author know everything the query doesn't say, so your mind can fill in the gaps. Having others read the query and give feedback can help you spot incoherence or inconsistencies you wouldn't notice because you have all the information.

L.C. Gant said...

Great question!

I agree with Aspiring Writer's comment that writing a query is similar to creating a resume. For those writers who DO have others write their query letters entirely and take credit for it (clearly not what Courtney did), I think it only backfires, especially when the query writing style doesn't match that of the MS.

I like Justus M. Bowman's example of the "good" vs. "bad" committee (very funny!). General help is fine, but if you lose the writer's voice, it's gone too far.

P.S. Thanks to Courtney Milan for joining in on the discussion! Best of luck with your novel.

Scott said...

I think agents already factor in a certain amount of leeway when considering a query, don't they, Nathan? If so, I don't understand why someone wouldn't want to grab the chance to represent themselves and their work. It's not only a tool to sell your style, it's a tool to critique your own work: if you can't nail the essence of what you're writing, you might have bigger problems than query feary.

Sure, have someone give you feedback which will help you get better, but as someone who takes pride in my writing, I want that shot at selling it. It's kind of like wanting the ball with three seconds left and the game on the line. Not wanting to represent yourself in such an important way would worry me if I were an agent. It might suggest a degree of laziness and perhaps a lack of respect for what I do. It might say something about confidence, as well. Could writer's block be far behind?

But, as has been covered here already, how would they know if you didn't say?

R. Daley said...

If it works, sure. I'm results-oriented. As long as it doesn't cover up a lack of talent that will be exposed in the requested manuscript. Then you just wasted the agent's time.

Speaking from an unpublished point of view, I think soliciting and using feedback in query content is akin to having the publisher help with jacket copy. The art of abbreviation and the instinct to know, out of 80,000+ words, which to leave in and which to leave out is different than the composition of the completed novel. While many writers may excel at both, I'm sure there are plenty of great novelists who struggle with the short "teaser" version requisite in a query.

Deborah said...

Who doesn't get help with their query letter? Whether it's several other pairs of eyes, a beta who reworks it, someone who takes your own "pitch" and makes a query out of it, or whether you collaborate with someone, it's the most common form of query around. The people who expressed "shock horror" at the thought that the writer would use a query that wasn't 100% their words, clearly hadn't sent query letters, or perhaps hadn't been on any websites to understand this is the norm. There is no big deal to this. Published or agented authors publicly thank the people who helped them with their queries on their blogs, that's how common and accepted it is. The 70k, 80k, 100k word ms is where the author's voice is important, not the 150 word query.

akisdad said...

So many posts I can't read and process them all, but the question and discussion are interesting. I can see the point of getting someone else's ideas on what you write, but at the of the process, aren't you the writer? It might be honest to admit that your query was helped by friends (and that you stole the idea for the communicator built into the brain from Iain Banks, the camoflage suits from Philip K Dick and the joke about the weapons from Terry Pratchett), but then you might as well credit the teacher who got the A, B, C's firmly established in your head and so allowed you to compose English.

ryan field said...

I commented yesterday on Pub Rants that I didn't see anything wrong with getting help writing a query. It sounds like it should be a simple, black and white issue. But it's not.

Elissa M said...

I'm siding with the folks who think help with the query is no big deal. In fact, I think feedback is essential, whether it's on the query or the manuscript itself (hence my membership in OWW). The thing is, you're not asking an agent to represent your query. If your manuscript sucks, it doesn't matter how brilliant your query is.

Of course, a writer must, as Courtney Milan did, make sure the query is true to the novel and the author's voice no matter who wrote it. If you manuscript is nothing like the query, you're wasting everybody's time.

clindsay said...

I have seen many great query letters with really crappy pages.

But I have never once seen really good pages accompanied by a crappy query letter.

Anonymous said...

Literary agents sell writers' works to publishers.

Queries sell writers' works to agents.

Is it bad that writers must rely on the skills of agents to get their works published?

Is it bad that writers rely on someone else's skills to get their works published?

Query writing is sales/marketing (and a bit overrated aspect of it by now, imo.)

Novel writing is art. (Or it used to be that. Nowadays it seems to blur into copywriting. But I digress.)

Do you design and code the word processor that you write your novel with? No. You rely on the skills of IT professionals. Do you wish to spend your days perfecting your art of querying, or would you rather work more on your novel writing skills - and on your novel?

I wonder when someone's going to start a Query Writing Agency or publish a collection of quality, 'blank' queries.

"We read your manuscripts and query agents for you! Just send us a query: buy a free template from us now!"

;)

(anonymous)

Lady Glamis said...

I personally feel that the writer's voice should be in a query. I know publishing is a business like any other, but I would think that an agent would like to get a feel for the author from a query that was written by the writer.

I think help is fine, though. I certainly ask for help when querying. But I try to keep my voice in there!

Elyssa Papa said...

After I write my query, I always send it to my CPs and then to a query critique group to get feedback. If a line doesn't make sense, I switch it up, and my CPs will suggest things to make my query stronger.

One agent I queried in June wrote me an e-mail about my first chapter I posted on my website and told me what she felt needed to be less of. This past summer, I bid on a query critique by an author and won it. The author received my query and critiqued it, and her comments made my query so much better. We all want that feedback from someone in the business. After all, we all want that awesome query critique from Nathan. *g* I know, as an aspiring writer, that I value the feedback/critique of an author, an agent, or an editor because they know a lot more than I do.

At the end of the day, the query I sent out is mine. If an agent request pages, then it's on my writing alone that gets judged. I also know Courtney Milan, and I know she worked her butt off on this manuscript and getting the query exactly right. Like we all do when we want to get an agent and become published. If you can have help on your query so you can get through one obstacle, then so be it. It's going to be your writing at the end of the day that nabs you an agent or not.

Cam said...

I don't know about "ghost queries" or hiring someone to write a query BUT - much in the same way that I would plan to have my MS critiqued by a group of other professional writers - I would also do the same with my query. Research before writing the query, draft the query, revise and clean it up, then send to one of my critique groups for comments. Outside opinions from trusted sources are always valuable, even if you decide not to implement the advice.

Ulysses said...

There is adanger in having a query that is not solely the work of the correstponding book's author. The style and voice of the query may be substantially different than the style and voice of the book. That would make it quite difficult for an agent or editor to judge those two very important qualities on the basis of the query alone.

However, outside of those considerations, I don't think it matters who writes the query. It's supposed to give the reader the gist of the story, making it sound exciting and interesting enough to merit a request for a partial.

As for workshopping a query, I don't see it as any different than workshopping a book. The workshop is supposed to help the writer make his pitch sharper, clearer and more effective. How is that a bad thing?

lotusgirl said...

I think the bulk of the query should be done by the author, but having a second pair of eyes looking for mistakes and flow seems fine. By committee seems a bit much. I think the agent needs to get a real feel for the author's style and voice at its best not a conglomeration of voices all mixed together.

That said. I'm sure there are instances where it has worked well for the writer to have someone else do their query, but it just doesn't seem honest to me. Of course, that begs the question: Is honesty what we're shooting for?

other lisa said...

I agree with those who say there is nothing wrong with having a critique group work on your query. They've read your MS and presumably helped you with it, so why not get their insight on your query?

In my case, my buddies made all kinds of suggestions and gave great feedback. They rewrote what I had (and I was grateful for that). I had all of that in mind when I sat down and rewrote my query yet again. I think the query ended up being all my own words, but having all that input definitely shaped the way I wrote it. Their suggestions led me to a better understanding of what worked and what didn't.

I guess if having someone else write the thing for you works, I don't have a problem with it. The writer still has to have the goods; the query is a sales pitch.

Jarucia said...

Definitely agree with those saying 'no' to a query ghost-writer.

The agents themselves have given the best reason...they get brilliant queries followed by dreck MS's. It's really a waste of everyone's time.

Query proof-readers who KNOW your work are groovy, but the author must resist doing stuff that IS NOT in their own writer's voice.

bettyk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marilyn Peake said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading PubRants and Courtney Milan’s blog. Got a real chuckle out of those posts. I’ve always written my own queries and have never workshopped my novels or short stories. Having said that, however, I definitely understand why someone would get help in writing a query letter. As Courtney pointed out, how one writes a query letter doesn’t always reflect how one writes fiction. I personally know many authors who workshopped their query letters and subsequently landed contracts with top agents, as well as book deals and great advances from the large publishing houses. Clearly, their fiction writing was good enough to be published, even though they needed help with query letters!

bettyk said...

I took courses at an on-line writing school to learn the fine points of writing fiction. Similarly I took courses on "Marketing Your Work" at an on-line writing school. The instructor in the course on "How to Write Query Letters" was a Literary Agent. I see nothing wrong with it. Seems to me new writers are encouraged to "workshop". Being able to write is a gift; learning to write well is a skill.

(Corrected due to a grammatical error.)

Sarah Jensen said...

RW said...

"I can't understand WHY anyone would even feel it's necessary. Isn't a query just "here's what my work is about; would you like to see some of it?" How hard is that to do yourself? I understand wanting to give yourself every chance to succeed, but sweating a query letter so much seems to put too much importance on that step."

But if an agent never sees more than your query, a fresh pair of eyes might help. My query is in my voice, but I've had help revising it. I've since rewritten it, but it wouldn't be half as good if not for the wonder people at querytracker.net
And yes, I've had others read my MS and tell me where I was lacking or where things needed to be cut. Including Ray Rhamey at Flogging The Quill.
The story is solely mine. The characters live in my head. If I don't agree one hundred percent with a suggestion, I don't change it. But I want to learn and grow as a writer, and I think that comes from learning what others have to say.

Tiffany Chalmers said...

I don't see a problem having queries critted or written by others. It's a sales pitch. Not all writers are born to sales. That's the agent's and editors job.

I've used my critique group to help me write my queries. I'd do it again if I still had to write them (thank god I don't).

I don't think it says anything bad about the writers ability to write. I think it says they were smart enough to outsource when they knew they couldn't do their book justice.

Nikki Hootman said...

I had someone read/critique my novel. Afterward, I showed her a draft of my query. She flat-out told me that my query didn't reflect my novel, the tone of my writing, or the focus of the story.

Condensing your 100K-word novel into a couple of paragraphs can be totally crazy-making. Sometimes an outside perspective is exactly what is needed to create a query that is accurate and representative of your work.

And as others have pointed out, like a resume, the query is just what gets your foot in the door. If your writing isn't up to snuff, you're not going anywhere. If it IS something wonderful, then who cares who wrote your query?

BJ said...

Me? I think that getting help -- critique groups, etc. -- is perfectly fine. It's a means of learning how to do it right.

To those who wonder 'who would tell an agent it was a query service who wrote it?': They don't have to. Often, a query from a service comes across like it was cut from a cookie cutter (or query cutter, perhaps).

All that said, it really depends on the agent whether they would be happy with a manufactured query letter. Some refuse them. Some may not. It's a matter of preference, really.

MzMannerz said...

I haven't read enough queries by powerful novelists to answer this question. I'd need to see the query letters submitted by top notch authors (actually, I think we all should) and that would tell me whether or not there really is a disconnect between the ability to write a query and the ability to write a novel.

elizaw said...

I think that you should write your own query. Just like anything else, it's a part of learning to be a writer. But to not get help on said query letter? That's just silly. You have test readers for your novel, to correct mistakes and help you revise your work. What's wrong with doing the same for a query letter?

Half of the problem with querying is that there is simply too much novel to stuff into a 300-word letter. Opinions of people who can tell you what the most important parts of the story, what stuck out the most, can be vital to deciding what to include.

Write it yourself. Get as much help as you need to make it excellent.

ChristaCarol said...

Jennifer Jackson also has a bit of a mention of it in her latest blog, comparing queries to food chains (be prepared to be hungry).

I'll be honest, when I first finished my manuscript and entered into the hell that is writing a query letter, I contemplated and questioned the idea of having someone else write it. But then I realized the passion, let alone MY voice, wouldn't get through to the reader (agent) like it should.

Now, if it's something like a non-fiction work, which in essence is really a proposal, I wouldn't be so against it. Depending on the subject matter, of course.

Madison said...

I personally think it's cheating if a writer does not write his/her own query. Getting help is one thing. My query, which goes out on the 15th, was greatly helped by the wonderful people over on AW (www.absolutewrite.com). But I still wrote it myself.

I didn't have a stratagey except for research. I looked up I don't know how many "How to Write the Perfect Query" things that are plastered all over the web. Some were really great and others, well, not so much.

In this business today, you have to know how to sell your work. We are putting ourselves and our project out there for all to see. You think anyone's going to want to buy something that you haven't promoted yourself? Ah, probably not. So, queries are a great way to start building those sale skills.

Mary said...

Wow. Call me honest, but having someone else write your query seems akin to paying a corrupt PhD to sit your exams. However, if a writer feels that is the route for them, I suppose it is justifiable if the query is viewed purely as a sales pitch that requires a separate talent.

Anonymous said...

No you don't tell the agent you got help, and there's nothing wrong with getting it.

Plenty of people have trouble shifting gears from narrative writing to business letters. You spend a year fleshing out a story into 100,000 words, and now you find yourself having to trim 90,500 of them while still conveying the story. Sometimes you NEED those other eyes to get to the core of the plot and trim out the extra characters.

The place where I post (and yes, help people with their queries) doesn't write the letters for anyone. The author posts a letter and others offer advice on how to make it sing.

Sarah Jensen said...

So I posted my different queries on one of my blogs, anyone up for telling me what they think?
http://legendoftheprotectors.wordpress.com/2009/01/07/writing-your-own-query/
;)

Wendy Burt-Thomas said...

I just wrote an entire book on queries and can tell you that if someone can't write a great query, they can't write a great book. You wouldn't have someone shake an editor's hand on your behalf, would you? Your query is your first impression. It shouldn't be a hand-me-down.

Wendy Burt-Thomas
"The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters"
(January 2009, Writer's Digest Books)

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, Wendy, your opinion is presented with a bias. Your book's success is dependent on writers needing it. Writers becoming dependent on professional querying services would reduce the pool of potential buyers for your book.

This question has to be answered by people who have no conflict of interest.

JES said...

Bottom line:

1) I myself don't mind that people do it (although I'd have a really hard time doing it myself).
2) No problem.
3) I thought Courtney and Sherry struck a great balance. As she explains on her blog, Courtney had gone around and around and around with the query's structure; Sherry more or less took pity and said, "Okay, stop for a second, can you try something like this...?" Light bulb goes on over Courtney's head. Courtney reworks her query. It sells.
4) Whether it's a good strategy depends ultimately on the outcome, which depends on how well the "query reviser/rewriter" understands the work and understands the work's author, which depends on how well the author communicates with the reviser/rewriter... and then, obviously, it all depends on the improved query's landing in the right agent's Inbox. In this case, it worked all around and I cheer for Courtney and wish Sherry would take pity on me, too. :)

sex scenes at starbucks said...

[rant commencing]: If people would write their queries (and synopses) BEFORE and DURING drafting and revising, they wouldn't be such a problem. I've critted well over a hundred queries in the past few years and the ones with problems are from writers who "pantzed" their novel and have no idea what the actual story is about. I'm not a huge proponent of detailed plotting, but why write a book without knowing what the central idea and the "hook" is? [end rant]

There's a big difference between getting someone else to write your query for you and getting advice. The author will have to write one at some point. Critiquers come and go, but queries will always remain a part of this business.

Just_Me said...

1) It works. I've seen people post queries that hooked them agents who say, "Well, my friend really wrote it."

2) Is there such a thing as a query or book not done by committee if you've found a critique group? Just getting a short story cleaned for submission I have three or four people I'll show the piece to and ask for help. They comment, tweak, edit, and sometimes suggest lines to make it better. I do the same for them.

Later my writing will be by a committee of an editor, and agent, and myself. Just because you have a great idea and can put it on paper (or word) doesn't mean you can edit yourself to an acceptable standard. That's why editors exist and self-published books have a bad reputation.

3) For a query? As much as is needed! As long as the author's voice and ideas are there any help they can get is good.

4) If it sells your ideas and books to the world, yes. There will never be a situation where a good author will be so alone that they don't have someone else reviewing, editing, and changing their book before publication. Why would it be different for the query?


*Point* I do think the author ought to do the writing and the work for their book. Their idea needs to be their own as does the voice. But I don't honestly believe anything in this day and age is done in isolation when it comes to the publishing industry. All our work is by committee.

Anita said...

Anon 1:48: I think if you saw the full content of Wendy's book, as I have, you'd realize your statement is flawed. The book contains a lot more than just basic info on querying. It's a little warehouse of querying info.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nathan Bransford said...

anons-

Goodness, no need to be so cynical. No one has said an author can magically write a good query from thin air. What I (and others in the business) have said is that good authors (with practice, information, feedback, etc.) can write a good query letter.

Anonymous said...

It was a valid question, Nathan. It would've been interesting to see the author's answer. Sorry to offend you. I do respect your blog and your right to moderate posts.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Maybe you can put it differently?

Dale - lvcabbie said...

I think a good comparison would be between being a writer and a salesperson. One may produce great prose but be unable to condense it so that a very busy agent would want to read it. It's not easy to condense 100,000 plus pages into three or four paragraphs.
I find writing my novels enjoyable although I'm not always thrilled with the very important polishing phase. What drives me up the wall is trying to cendense them into a query and a synopsis.
I wonder how many published authors actually produced their own query.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Nathan.

My question/ comment is directed to Wendy.

My understanding of your comment is that if a writer can’t write a good query than she can’t write a good novel. Yet, I don’t feel that’s exactly accurate. I think your statement is a gross generalization. Others on this blog have posted information about successful queries, and in some cases the writer didn’t write them or at least had some help writing them. So, I’d like to know if you consider writers who get ‘help’ (critique feedback, betas, etc), and use that information to craft good queries, bad writers?

Also, if writers who write bad queries are bad writers, what would be the purpose to seek out query help in books and online, etc, if in the end they are just bad writers?

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Query Committees and [verb] [villain] gridlock

I'm all for queries by committee - even a very small committee of one person - my novel has a "godmother" - I just sent her a package of novel-related items, and am hoping between that and my website, she will be able to give me her usual excellent help, I mean, feedback.

And I think if you have a writing group giving feedback already on your novel - why not get their input on your query?

Totally ghostwritten query - thumbs down.

***

Alas, last month I finally completed the "fill in the blank" query form from way back when - and I realize that the [verb][villain] part of my novel is about, oh, two paragraphs long. It's literary fiction (I like to think high concept, but who knows), so it's not a technicolor slaying of evil mythical creatures type thing, but still...I've figured out a way to give it more heft / length...but I'm not thrilling to going back and editing...anyone else's query forcing them to go back and edit their novel?? My sympathy.

Wendy Burt-Thomas said...

Hi all,
To respond to the post by Anonymous: I absolutely think it's fine for people to get feedback/advice on their query letters. I encourage people to join critique groups, get second (and third) opinions, etc. My response was geared to Nathan's post: about "people submitting queries they did not write."
Wendy

Anonymous said...

I am not sure “committee work” helps queries. I belong to a number of writers groups and I have seen queries that albeit had a few nits to pick turned into mediocre pap as the author tried to please everyone and incorporate everyone’s comments. The best bet is to use group comments as you would on a chapter of your book – filter them through your own voice and instinct. Not everyone has to love your query (certainly not everyone in your writers group), especially if it is garnering results.

150 said...

They don't bother me, but then I don't have to read them by the hundreds.

Amy said...

Nathan - I'm glad you're sharing your comments tomorrow.

1) How do you feel about these ghost queries?

If a person did not write his or her query they should properly attribute the author who did.

2) What about queries that are substantially revised with the help of a critique group, i.e. queries by committee?

Depends on how much help. Help with revisions and feedback from workshop and critique groups is great. Using other peoples exact words in substantial length and passing them off on as your own is not. I'm not an expert, but I believe legally you can't borrow something that is the length of a phrase or it's considered plagiarism.

3) How much help is appropriate?

As much as a person needs as long as someone's exact words are not used without attribution.

4) Is it a good strategy?

Sure, as long as the writer isn't plagiarizing. Also, I think query letters help authors see holes in their stories. If they are having trouble with the query, maybe there is trouble with the book. I've found in the instances when I had trouble writing a query, it was because my book had a problem. SEX SCENES AT STARBUCKS said it perfectly on her post.

It's all about proper attribution.

Professor Tarr said...

Perhaps what this discussion has shown us more than anything is that an author's role is more than writing a great book. There are many facets to being a writer. I think for me personally, it shows that I should look at all aspects of my writing with a critical eye.

The first biker story I ever submitted to Easyriders way back when was rejected out of hand. I was so angry. I was cynical and arrogant; got defensive and pouted mercilessly.

It was a form rejection even and my manuscript was sent back all marked up - dozens of diacritical marks on every page! The nerve of those people - how could they? Didn't they know what a genius I was and how funny my story was?

So it sat in my drawer for a few months and I moved on to other things. Eventually I pulled it out and realized that somebody somewhere had taken the time to mark up my manuscript. They wouldn't have done that unless they were on the verge of using it.

So I went back in and retyped the whole thing. I took every suggestion - even ones I cringed at doing - excising my precious words - and when that was done, I reasoned that even after the editing, they still had reservations - so I tried imagining what the objections were and then wrote around them.

I eventually tightened the whole thing up and sent it back in. It got published, I made money and they offered me a fiction series, which I loved.

But it took that critical look at myself to make that happen.

I still do that with my queries. Everytime I get a form letter back, I sit there and try to think of why it didn't catch the appropriate mindshare. My query was rejected by Nathan in October and I think I have changed it a dozen times since then - partly on the committee-think of this blog and this community of shared writing passion.

I'm not going to resubmit, but I bet if I did Nathan would see a much more professional query than the one I sent prior. That's what we are doing here - supporting, nurturing and helping each other grow as artists. I get sad when I see us turn on each other as a community. We are artists all.

Anonymous said...

I'm actually stunned no one has picked up on agent clindsay's 10:55 response.


Quote: "...But I have never once seen really good pages accompanied by a crappy query letter..."

You've got to be kidding me! Isn't this why Janet Reid always asks for pages, the queries sometimes suck, but the writing is stellar? (yes, I realize you aren't Janet Reid, but, you know... NEVER ONCE...?"

Creative A said...

Normally I would object to something like this, except I've done it before, and I knew the motives behind it. There was someone who posted their revised queries over and over on a critique forum. Reading all the queries, you could see they had a good story, they just didn't know where to focus it, didn't know how to get past their own internal stumbling blocks. The person had tried it all.

At that point, I offered to write the query for them as a guideline which they could use to shape or form their own query.

Now, granted, the person could have just used my query, which would have been deceitful. But in that situation, I felt the person was struggling to "get it," and the only way to help would be to show them. Once they had something to work with, they could shape it to fit their own way of writing.

Technically, I wrote the query for them. But what was needed was the focus, the example, which is why I did it, and I think that's what they took away.

I think the term query committee makes it sounds as if everyone did the work for you. It's possible that this happens, but for the most part, I think people are just helping other people straighten out the part that they struggle with. If they couldn't do it themselves, that would misrepresent the persons abilities. If they could do it, but just struggled, I would not feel that was deceitful.

Whoo. That was long. I've really been wondering about this, especially because of my experience with it, so I appreciate you starting the topic, Nathan.

-CA

Lea said...

There's nothing wrong with having another pair of eyes help you out with a query. The query is a make or break deal and you need to get it right the first time.

The way we have critique groups to help us hone our work, the same applies for queries.

Stephanie said...

Seems to me, if an agent or publisher is going to get a feel for a writer's voice and writing style via the query, the writer needs to have written it. What if the agent got that query, liked the idea, but didn't really connect with the writer's voice? The writer could be cheating himself out of the chance of a lifetime. That said, there's nothing wrong with running a query letter past a critique group and getting some thoughts. It just seems to me the author needs to do the writing...on every piece of material in the submission packet.

Bee said...

Anything done by committee is usually only as good as the least member of the committee. I think a comedian once posited that the elephant was designed by committee. Oh well, you get my drift.

I see nothing wrong with having someone knowledgeable in the publishing world look at your query. Sometimes a fresh eye will notice something that you missed.

But a critique group? Gotta be careful there. Personalities may intervene and you could get bad advice. I like Dr. Dad's take: "One has to wonder how much of his work is also "by committee."

Rachel said...

I think that while outside help with minor revisions of a query letter is fine, a ghost query ultimate hurts a writer. Whether writers like it or not, queries are an important part of the writing process. Writing a query can help a writer define his or her work better, as well as the specific audience it is for. Writers who don't write their own queries are cheating themselves.

other lisa said...

I have to disagree about one thing. I think that someone can be a very good novelist and not always write good queries. I've seen it. This really is a different kind of writing, and, yeah, we should be able to do it, but it's not the same skill set as writing a novel.

Phoenix said...

Writing is a competitive business. Emphasis on "business". The BOOK is a product. Agents and editors have tried to establish a gatekeeping mechanism geared to filter work a writer is trying to sell. That's good business on their part. Finding a way past the gatekeeper is good business on the writer's part.

There's an old adage in the business-proposal-writing world: "A good proposal by itself doesn't win the business, but a bad proposal can lose it." The moral: Don't submit a bad proposal.

How many times have I seen it stated on agent sites that a query is a business letter? Do you think the person trying to sell you insurance writes their own sales letter? No, they hire someone like me to do it for them if they want to make the best sales pitch they can, sell their product, and pay their mortgage. Why should writers be held to different ethics and standards when it comes to their product?

M Clement Hall said...

Politicians, captains of business and generals of armies get their memoirs ghost written.
The simple writer pays hundreds of dollars to attend courses on how to write a query.
Is it any wonder some queries will be ghost written?
And does that turn a sow's ear into a silk purse?
I doubt it.

Anonymous said...

I don't see why it would be a problem. Yes, agents use the query letter to judge whether or not an author can write well, but really a query letter is essentially a business letter. No one would say it was dishonest if a person's administrative assistant wrote a business letter that he or she signed. Many people hire others to write their resumes. It is the agents who have decided that the query letter is like a test, but that doesn't mean the authors have to agree.

Nathan Bransford said...

"Do you think the person trying to sell you insurance writes their own sales letter? No, they hire someone like me to do it for them if they want to make the best sales pitch they can, sell their product, and pay their mortgage. Why should writers be held to different ethics and standards when it comes to their product?"

Insurance agents aren't selling writing, they're selling insurance. Writers are selling their writing. And they shouldn't be expected to be able to write???

Adaora A. said...

1) How do you feel about these ghost queries?
2) What about queries that are substantially revised with the help of a critique group, i.e. queries by committee?
3) How much help is appropriate?
4) Is it a good strategy?


1) I think they're just not right. I think when you write a query you put some of yourself into it (you're selling YOUR work). When you have someone else writing it, then where is your passion for the work you wrote? Did said person (contracting another to write the letter) actually write the book? I disagree with the whole thing.

Other questions) That's a different thing then what I just said previously. When the query is already written (with your hand), then of course you want a second, third, or fourth opinion to check for grammatical errors and layout. You've written it, and now you want to hear from others before you hold you head between your legs, and send your work out into the world. All of that I think is a good thing.

Phoenix said...

Insurance agents aren't selling writing, they're selling insurance. Writers are selling their writing. And they shouldn't be expected to be able to write???

Novelists are selling a specific kind of writing -- storytelling skills and voice, not marketing/sales skills. Would you expect everyone selling liability insurance to be equally adept at selling medical insurance or optional product warranties? For that matter, do you expect every writer of taut police procedurals or thrillers to be equally adept at writing lyrical literary fiction and YA?

Besides, if every professed writer could really write well, what need would there be for editors? ;o)

L Violet said...

I agree that the resumé and business letter analogies are not apt. If your resumé is for a job that includes the ability to organize information, word-process it, and write well, you are ethically obligated to write your own resumé. Same goes for business letters. And college application essays.

But--literary agents have erected a test (read: obstacle) that intersects with **but is not the same as** the ability to write novels. I feel that the system is artificial and flawed, and forces fiction writers to deal with the query system as best they can.

Agents made the rules; the rules don't make sense. Agents need a winnowing mechanism, but the query system is a failed approach.

Is it ethical to submit a query you did not write? My heart says No but my head says You bet.

Vancouver Dame said...

Thumbs down on having your query done by another person or 'committee'. I agree with Dr. Dad, and many others in this discussion.

Writing a query letter is another aspect of being a writer, IMO. The manuscript, the query, and the synopsis are all part of the process. If the agent determines that he wants to redo the submitted material, that's his option, but he should be able to have faith in what he is receiving as being that person's work.

Look at all the authors who claim to be telling a true story lately, when oops! they confess later to different facts. In nearly every profession there is always someone who will do it for you, if you pay them. Where has the pride of professional quality gone? I also agree with Nathan's reply about the insurance salesperson! A writer should write. All of it.

Nathan Bransford said...

Phoenix, L Violet-

Sorry, I feel like that's a cop out. Writers have to be able to summarize their work eloquently, whether it's the query stage, the publicity stage, or whether it's drafting a proposal for a future project or any of the other million times when it's necessary to describe their work in a compelling fashion. I see it done every single day! It may not come naturally at first, but throwing up one's hands and saying "I can't do that" won't get a writer very far. It's what separates hobbyists from professionals.

Anonymous said...

"I agree that the resumé and business letter analogies are not apt. If your resumé is for a job that includes the ability to organize information, word-process it, and write well, you are ethically obligated to write your own resumé. Same goes for business letters. And college application essays."

Ethically obligated to write your own resume? Come again? You're going to have to explain this one to me. Perhaps if you're applying for a job that requires you to draft resumes for others, you should have created your own, but otherwise, I don't have a clue what you're talking about.

Same for business letters. Few people write their own business letters. I'm a lawyer and I cannot tell you the last time I sat at a computer and wrote a letter myself. Probably not since I was a law clerk working my way through law school. However, I suspect my clients prefer that I have a secretary writing my letters, for two reasons: 1) I have more pressing matters to attend to regarding their case, and 2) I bill them for my time, but not the secretary's time.

Now, I agree with you about college essays. But I'm completely baffled otherwise.

Kimber An said...

Hmmm, I can't imagine how it would make a difference to the agent, since I presume it wouldn't be mentioned in the query how it came into existance.

My concern is for the author. I don't think it's dishonest or any similar thing. I think it's a lack of confidence in his or her own ability. I would encourage such an author to spend more time with their own writing and develop their love and courage in it. If the author can take a novel from the Heap & Pile Stage all the way to Submission Ready, he or she has the talent to write an excellent query letter. He or she only needs to polish that talent.

Adaora A. said...

I think it's ridiculous. If you put so much time and effort into a body of work, why should anyone but you sell it? It's like going to all of the lectures, taking all of the notes, and doing all the assignments at university, then having someone else write the final exam for you. Bad form in my opinion.

Amy said...

Well, most companies hire advertising firms to market their goods, but their goods still have to hold up in the end.

If a well-written query, that adequately "sells" the project to an agent or editor so an author can get his/her manuscript read, who cares WHO wrote the query? The query isn't what sells, right? It's the book itself, isn't it?

Nathan Bransford said...

Amy-

Isn't it false advertising?

Adaora A. said...

If a well-written query, that adequately "sells" the project to an agent or editor so an author can get his/her manuscript read, who cares WHO wrote the query? The query isn't what sells, right? It's the book itself, isn't it?
Again, if you take the time to write the book - to understand your characters intimately and with great detail - why should anyone but you write the letter which sells the story? Why would you hire someone else to write a query? Why don't people hire someone else to go to job interviews for them instead of going themselves? Selling your work is selling an extension of you. As the writer, you put the sweat and tears into it and it's your work to promote. Why would someone else write it for you? You put your personality into a query and open up the reader of the letter to you and your style of writing. It's giving the reader/agent/editor a taste of YOU and YOUR work. When someone else writes your query that smells like false advertising to me.

Anonymous said...

The "company hires adverstising firm" analogy doesn't work. If your company creates widgets and your marketing rep shows prospective buyers another company's widgets, passing them off as yours, then the analogy works.

Your query should be an example of YOUR writing. It's your widget; sell it.

- Mr. Spacely
Spacely Space Sprockets

Anonymous said...

A certain subculture of the writing world believes that the end justifies the means. Like villains in a bad story, they really will stop at nothing to further their careers, even if it means "using," "hiring" or "borrowing" the work of others. I've seen what they've done FOR themselves and TO others.

Adaora A. said...

In my opinion having someone else write the very first thing you use to sell your story feels pretty suspect to me. If I were an agent (not that I have any idea how they think - aside from reading this lovely blog), I'd be smelling a bag of you-know-what.

Sarah said...

Wow! Great comments. I'll add my two cents.

(Steps on soap box.)

Ghost queries? No.

Queries by committee? Depends on the committee, and why I'm using it.

My critique group has helped each other write queries. However, the gals in Slushbusters are great writers, offer good comments, and I have enough sense to apply the criticism that works. They sharpen my writing, and I'd be a fool not to consider their comments.

I agree that, eventually, we should all be able to deftly and eloquently capture our story's geist in a paragraph or two. While we're learning how to better do that, it helps to have folks who know our story and know the craft help us with it.

The question is whether I'm using my committee because I think query letters are pointless and require little real skill *or* whether I'm using my committee to help me learn to write a better query. Big difference.

I also agree with Sex Scenes that query problems reveal story problems. Writing a good query made me see where my novel needed major revisions.

I'll stop now.

Sarah Jensen said...

"Sorry, I feel like that's a cop out. Writers have to be able to summarize their work eloquently, whether it's the query stage, the publicity stage, or whether it's drafting a proposal for a future project or any of the other million times when it's necessary to describe their work in a compelling fashion. I see it done every single day! It may not come naturally at first, but throwing up one's hands and saying "I can't do that" won't get a writer very far. It's what separates hobbyists from professionals."

So Nathan, are you saying they shouldn't let others read it and offer suggestions to rearrange the query? Or to ask questions? So that they can go back and write a better query? That's what I've done. I've written it, but had others point things out.
Tell me that some things don't work, or that they don't understand something that makes sense to me, because I'm too close.

Nathan Bransford said...

Sarah-

Nope -- don't have a problem with authors incorporating feedback at all. More on that tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

False advertising? False advertising would be someone writing a query about something the book isn't about. Not using someone else to write the correct synopsis and give a sales pitch as long as its accurate.

Also, for the person saying they have never had a bad query with good manuscript...could it be because you never made it past the query?

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

You could also make the case that misrepresenting the author's abilities in the query by having someone else write it represents false advertising.

I've requested lots and lots and lots and lots of manuscripts over the years. Probably over a thousand by now. I have requested queries that were subpar where I liked the idea, queries that were superb where I wasn't sure about the idea, and everything in between. There is a striking, striking correlation between the quality of a query and the quality of the manuscript. Striking.

Somewhere out there I'm sure you can find a good novel going unnoticed because of a crappy query. It's a big world. But I've never requested a partial for a query I thought was subpar and then been blown away by the manuscript. Not once! And I'm reading solicited material several hours a day every single day.

I'm always open to tweaking the system. If I didn't think queries worked I'd use a different system. They work.

BarbS. said...

Whoa. Having somebody else write your query is a little like having Mom write the essay for your university application. If you're not mature enough to do it yourself, you're not ready to enter into a responsible business relationship. Does that make sense?

Wordver: antedort. The "antedort" for bad query writing is... :O

Anonymous said...

"It's your widget; sell it!"

I hadn't thought about it like that. When you put it that way, comparing it to showcasing someone else's product to sell your own, unrelated product, it does seem like false advertising.

And I loved the Jetsons as a kid!

Laurel

Adaora A. said...

Why don't I hire someone to take a job interview for me? Why don't I hire someone to write my exams, and do my homework? It's about honestly. In school they call it academic integrity honesty, and in writing, it should be called author integrity and responsibility. This is just wrong in my opinion. And I've probably talked too much in this thread but - honestly - I can't help myself. Writing a query is - to my understanding - selling not just your work, but also yourself. If you have someone else writing it for you, it's sleazy. That's the word that's been sitting on the tip of my tongue all evening. It's sure as heck sleazy when you get someone to write a letter about you and your work.

Courtney Milan said...

"There is a striking, striking correlation between the quality of a query and the quality of the manuscript. Striking."

But this is not necessarily because there is a striking correlation between the ability to write a good manuscript and the ability to write a good query letter. It is more likely because there is a striking correlation between the ability to recognize a good query letter and the ability to edit your own work.

You're selecting for the skill where people recognize good writing.
If you can't recognize that your query letter sucks, you probably can't recognize that your manuscript sucks, either. But the skills for fixing a manuscript and fixing a query letter are not the same--which is why you get great query letters with crappy manuscripts.

Anonymous said...

I guess some may classify me guilty because I have posted my queries to my critique groups, in hopes of making the synopsis more appealing. These people challenge my every word. They question me and make me soul-search my writing to decide if it is worthy of being read or just wasting time. But the words are still mine. They do not rewrite it for me and I choose to decide if their comments and suggestions will better my query or not. I think that as long as a person stays true to their words, a critique group can only make them stronger.

Nathan Bransford said...

Courtney-

I think that's a good point, and it speaks to how important it is to know when and how to incorporate feedback. And of course, your case speaks to another aspect of the process -- if you don't want to have to write a query, there's always referrals and networking!

margaretsouth said...

Must get help with query letter. Sometimes, the author is the last to know why anyone would buy the book, or what the book is about to most readers. It's always a good idea to get an objective point of vew!

Amy said...

Anon 9:10. I think it's great when people work with a critique groups for feedback and editing of their work. You should keep doing it, I do it, it helps with mistakes. Get second eyes, smooth out awkward wording. It's wonderful.

I spend a great deal of time refining my writing, making it original, polishing... Everything I submit that has my name on it is my original work and I'm proud of this fact.

I strongly believe if someone is submitting something that is not their original work, whether it's a query letter, a college entrance essay, a blog post, then it should be attributed to the original author. It's not fair to the reader of the material, the other submitters, or the original author otherwise.

Marketing material is different as its sent on behalf of the company.

I'm sorry if this hurts any feelings, but it seems pretty straightforward to me.

Michael said...

Here is what I think...
If I could market my own book, I wouldn't need you. Writing a fiction novel and writing pitches are two different skill sets...this is why almost all writers have to work so hard to get good at writing query letters. I think it sucks that many agents judge our work not by the work itself, but by something that is completely unrelated to our skill as writers. Thus far I have accumulated 10 agent rejections, and NOT ONE of these has seen a single word of the novel. Something wrong with that, I think.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I have been reading your blog for a while now and find it very interesting. I have recently finished my first novel and have been looking for a literary agent. I went to the section on query letters and found the form you suggest. You'll be hearing from me.
To comment to the subject at hand; I never thought about asking someone else to write my query for me, it just doesn't seem proper or ethical to me.

Anonymous said...

I think that when any industry that requires selling the 'sizzle' as well as the 'steak' (or perhaps even the 'sizzle' instead of the 'steak') in hot competition to other 'sizzles' then you not only expect this type of thing but encourage it.

After all, no one complains that the advertisers do everything by committee in order to hone down that slick ad that will catch your eye ....

Why expect writers to be different?

A warning said...

Personally, I wouldn't ask anyone else to write my query and I wouldn't write a query for someone else, but I don't think there's anything in the world wrong with sking for feedback and critique. Queries are generally pretty easy for me (I work on them as I go along) but I always ask a few trusted friends to look at mine and offer any suggestions. Sometimes just changing a phrase around a but is a huge help. It's no different from having a full ms critted.

But I wanted to post a little warning, if I may. There is a certain self-published writer who was successful enough to sell that book on to a major house. This person has set himself up as some sort of guru and is charging aspiring writers $500 or more (yes, you read that right) to write a query for them and submit it for them to "a select list of agents."

At least one of his "clients" signed a contract with well-known scammers Writer's Literary Agency.

While it's up in the air whether he actually put her in touch with WLA, the fact that for $500 he didn't even explain the basics of researching agents to her is pretty bad. As, I suspect, are his queries; I've been told he includes things like "What famous successful writers you are comparable to" and "what tragic events have happened in your life". Neither of those things really belong in a query.

I just wanted to get the word out. If someone fitting this description (self-pub to major house) offers to write your query for you for $500 or more, please do not do it, and do not trust him, no matter how nice his smile is or how good & reputable his own representation is. He will not help your career.

Sorry if this is inappropriate, Nathan. But the topic made me think of it, which happened fairly recently, and I thought perhaps it would be good to mention.

Judi said...

Hmm...but...what about the agents who don't have their authors write the pitch for their novels? Agents write the pitches and they sell the book to editors. Is that wrong too?

I can't have someone write a query for me to "sell" to an agent. But, an agent can/is expected even to write the pitch for me to sell it to an editor?

klromo said...

I understand the importance of the query letter - I do. But I think it's a very sad fact that the query letter has become almost more important than the writing. And because the literary community has put so much importance on "the query", it's no wonder that writers are resorting to "whatever it takes" to get them in the door. Unfortunate, but apparently necessary. Maybe agents should brainstorm another way to decide which manuscripts are worthy??

Professor Tarr said...

I think ultimately it comes down to ownership. Regardless of who offers feedback - committee, ghost or whathave you - if it is not representative of the work, then I as the author will know that and have the mantel of integrity to wear myself. Whatever goes out under my name has to be mine.

I know I have a certain voice for good or ill that is solely my own. If someone wrote a query for me that was brilliant yet not really representative, I'd feel a total disconnect with the piece. That doesn't mean it wouldn't help me hone the query to have outside help.

For me personally, I am just now starting to embrace the writers community as a thing of support, I have always done EVERYTHING alone. Part of the problem for me is that query rejection is cold. It may be simply that my work does not fit an agent's list, taste, market, etc. or it may be a freakishly lousy query about a freakishly lousy book.

I subconsciously always assume the latter - not that I think my work is lousy at all - I believe it is brilliant but my ego is not such that I don't think it (novel AND query combined) can't be improved or that my individual style/taste/interests are not perhaps uniquely mine - and hence not publish-worthy. It's just that right now I have no way of knowing.

As a means of improvement a feedback loop is essential - somehow. That is what I have felt all these years I was missing.

I almost would like to post my entire novel somewhere, have folks look at it; look at my query and then tell me if they are of a piece. Just so I can get a better sense of how to synthesize the two as one. My gut tells me that what is wrong (if there is something wrong) with my query is a microcosm of what may be wrong with my book. Or not.

That's why we value sites and discussions such as this. It gives us a lot to mull over. Looking forward to your comments today, Nathan. Always insightful and helpful. Thanks for doing this!

Anonymous said...

My editor said she was "terrible" at writing back jacket copy and uh, yes, she was. So I rewrote it for her.

Does that make her less of an editor? No.

I honestly think that AGENT'S need a good query letter because that's the query letter THEY are going to send out to editors and frankly THEY have no clue how to do it either. I'm not saying that in a dismissive way, either. Selling something is hard; if you have a great book and the sales pitch (query) is already done, the agent doesn't have to think about how he/she will sell it.

I bet there are tons of books that agents love but "don't know if they can sell" simply because the writer didn't have a great query and they, themselves don't have a clue how to break down the book, either. What agent in today's world has a week to spend on ONE client's query pitch to an editor?

Phoenix said...

Writers have to be able to summarize their work eloquently, whether it's the query stage, the publicity stage, or whether it's drafting a proposal for a future project or any of the other million times when it's necessary to describe their work in a compelling fashion.

Publicists and agents and ghost writers are around for those authors who do get published and have to summarize subsequent books. I'm not sure why an author HAS to develop those skills.

If the query reflects the tone of the book and the flavor of the story, I don't think that's false advertising. Certainly not any more so than when an agent pitches an editor. I've been involved with marketing/advertising copywriters, technical writers and creative writers for 20+ years now. You can be brilliant in one field of writing and totally suck in another. I've seen it time and again.

I'm not saying the system is broke. No matter who a query is written by, it still filters out the material an agent has no interest in repping, which is still likely 80% of the stuff that crosses the desk. And not everyone is going to employ a ghost writer.

The again, I'm probably biased. I actually enjoy (re)writing queries for others. Hmm, did someone say people would actually pay to outsource their query writing? Maybe some research is in order... ;o)

Can't wait to see your thoughts, Nathan!

Anonymous said...

Sometimes, I read agent blogs and wonder how many jobs they've had. Often, agents seem to employ a very tunnel visioned outlook of their job - something I see in other industries on people who were 'home grown' at their company or otherwise have not had a great many experiences in different working environments. I'm not talking about job hopping - I'm talking about people who have not made the smart, deliberate moves from one environment to another to hone their industry knowledge and skills.

We wouldn't expect, necessarily, Stephen King or John Grisham to produce a stellar romantic novel. I doubt we'd expect a great legal thriller from JK Rowling. Yet there seems to be a refusal to consider that a sales pitch, aka query letter, might just require a different skill set than a long format story teller possesses, mainly because of all the rules agents have attached to writing a query.

It should be one page! It shouldn't start with a rhetorical question! It should only mention credentials if X,Y,Z is in place and the moon has aligned with Jupiter!

I'll stop before this becomes a long format post. :)

Aubrey said...

I think there is a point where a new set of eyes is essential to writing a query. I have a friend whom I helped out with fine tuning her query and I don't feel bad about it. I told her where I got stuck reading it, where she needed more straightforwardness etc. Then she used her own words to spruce it up. I know in her case, she was so stressed about the whole thing, a new set of eyes really helped her.

Now something that is completely written by an outside party...that's iffy.

I'm excited to hear what you say Nathan!

Tish Cohen said...

A writer should be capable of writing her own query. I don't care what anyone says, writing a good query is not more difficult than writing a good novel.

Anonymous said...

Anon (January 7, 2009 11:14 PM)

I feel your pain. I have been rejected 15 times and not one agent has actually read any of my work. My query has been critiqued, spellchecked, grammar checked, etc etc, so I do get why writers feel desperate. After spending years writing and editing my book, I can't even get one agent to read even a partial. That sucks.

Dara said...

I don't like the idea of someone else writing it, as it seems to me that's on the questionable side. The writer needs to use his/her own voice to construct the letter because who but the writer knows the details of their story? Even a "ghost" writer who has helped the writer will not be able to convey the story the way the writer themselves would.

But that being said, I don't see the problem with having another set of eyes go over it and point out things that could be improved upon or clarified. It's important though that the author fixes these areas without crossing the line of having it rewritten by their critique group.

It's a fine line really. To those saying it is wrong to have input from a critque group on areas needing improvement in the letter, then how are you supposed to ever edit anything, including your manuscript?

A writer needs to learn to accept input on improvement from others, whether that's a query or a manuscript. Ignoring such is a bit on the egotistical side as well as a big mistake--in my honest opinion.

DCS said...

Feedback is no more than telling the writer this did (or didn't) grab,excite,move (insert verb)me. Writing something used by the prospective author as an original query is dishonest.

Lori said...

Sorry, but writing a query letter is a whole hell of a lot different than writing a book. Anyone who has written one knows this. Just because a person doesn't like to write queries, or can't, doesn't mean they can't write a book.

And everyone I know gets help with their queries. Thats what critique groups are for, thats what contests are for.

Kate H said...

Writing a query is a very different skill from writing a novel, and getting enough distance from your own work to do it well is also tough. Some authors simply can't do justice to their own work in a query. I think it's perfectly legit to get help writing a query, though I think the final words should be the author's own.

Julie Weathers said...

"If someone can't even write a query on their own, then I question his/her ability as a writer."

Pretty strong condemnation.

As with many things in writing, having an extra set of eyes to look at things you might be missing is a good idea.

Beth said...

I don't have a problem with it. Writing queries requires a whole different skill set. Some writers never seem to get the hang of it, while others have a knack for it. So I would say: try your hardest to do it yourself, but if you just can't get it together, then get help, so your work will get read. The query, and who wrote it, ultimately doesn't matter -- it's the pages that count.

Eva Ulian said...

If you can catch an agent with a query written by someone else, then to my mind that agent is not worth his/her salt.

Sorry I'm late, just discovered the blog.

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