Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Your Current Project Should Always Be the Focus of Your Query

Thank you so much to everyone for weighing in on what you want on the blog. The people have spoken and holy cow you really want more stuff on queries? You sure? Well........ okay..... If you say so!

In reality though, in the coming weeks I'm going to start mixing in more posts/critiques about pages themselves. I understand why people want queries queries queries because queries are the one part of the process that it feels like an author can really control and are the sort of frustration flash point. But in reality what matters most is your manuscript, and especially that the writing in said manuscript is "good."

But what makes good writing good?

That's what we'll be getting at in the coming weeks. Preview: good writing is precise. That's what I hope to illustrate.

In the meantime, huzzah, a query post!

Continuing in the series of things-you-should-do-instead-of-things-you-shouldn't-do posts about writing a query, here's another must do:

Focus your query on the work you are currently shopping and devote the majority of the words in the query to it.

Sometimes when writers have experienced a taste of writing success they feel this is going to carry the day in a query and focus almost exclusively on those accomplishments.

For instance, all of these things are good, solid writing accomplishments that you should be proud of:

- being accepted to and/or graduating from an MFA program
- placing in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition
- placing short stories with prestigious journals
- being nominated for a Pushcart
- self-publishing and receiving praise from strangers

Congrats! Very well done. But none of these things, at least for me, are going to result in a partial request on their own, and I wouldn't make these accomplishments the focal point of a query.

Even if someone had a great deal of success and had been published and sold a lot of copies, I still need to connect with the current project the author is shopping if we're going to successfully work together. That current project is what I want to know about. It's what I'm going to be basing my decision on.

Yes, mention your accomplishments, but your current project should be the star of the show.


Sandy Shin said...

As somebody who has very little writing credits, this is actually very heartening. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Hold the phone, Nathan. I'm hearing various things about the Amazon Breakthrough competition, including some agents saying don't list it, it doesn't matter. And for example, my first book was an Amazon quarter-finalist, but since the first book didn't sell, I took that mention out of my author bio.

Maybe in another post you could talk more about an author bio?

Nathan Bransford said...


My thoughts on that are here.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Seems like it should be obvious--talk about the thing you're trying to sell!--but nonetheless it's good to hear it repeated.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Are you saying you frequently get queries that talk more about other accomplishments than they actual piece they are querying for?

Francis K7 said...

Hey Nathan!

I think it'd be awesome if you could make suggestions of books you thought had great writing, like you did for LOOKING FOR ALASKA.

That was a huge downer for me at first, I didn't know what good writing was suppose to mean. I thought it meant you had to write like Jane Austen, Faulkner, and Bradbury,or Salinger... then I bought LOOKING FOR ALASKA, and fell in love with it.

It's witty, humorous, AUTHENTIC, and it's authentic because the dialogue is real, Pudge's interrogations are the interrogations I had when I was that age... from the bufriedo, to strategies on how to wiggle your arm out of your sleeping bad to reach a girl's hand and have the plan fail in your face, the first drinking experiences, the sex talks... then he added notions of the Great Perhaps, the famous last words... and the

I thought:
I thought:
I thought:

moments were hilarious. It was such a relieve to see what good writing ACTUALLY meant, that it gave me more hope. I'm sure the definition changes from agents to agents, but the suggestion was not only helpful, it illustrated a concept that's not so easy to grasp.

So if you could, from time to time, suggest books you liked or think showcase what good writing is, I'd be much obliged.

Kay said...

I think writers are obsessed with agent queries because you guys are the "gate keepers". The only problem is that we have to supply a marketable project.

Caledonia Lass said...

Queries are scary, frustrating, inexplicably detestable... ::sighs::
However, good post.

T. Anne said...

Re; ABNA, I received what I felt was a decent Publisher's Weekly review for the novel I submitted in the competition. When I query that novel I plan on mention the PW review. It is available for me to use as a marketing tool in the event I sell my work. I would think mentioning it in the query would be a positive. No?

I thought I remembered you being anti ABNA in the query all together. (sorry to call you anti anything!) It's nice to know we can list it even if it doesn't have magical powers of persuasion. ;)

Anonymous said...

As an ABNA judge, I've got to say making the quarter-finals is no great shakes: 250 entries make it to that stage. This year, I did not pass a single manuscript on. So while Anon might have submitted a great novel, the Amazon contest is not a clear indicator of that. It's more akin to writing in your query letter that you have previously received partial manuscript requests.

Candyland said...

Fantastic advice, though.

Tracy said...

Thanks, Nathan! I missed my chance to chime in on what I want more of, yesterday, but I'm thrilled to hear you plan to do a little about the writing.

I'm at the point where I'm comfy with my query letter, but I'm freaking out on what exactly the agent will be looking for in those first 5 or so pages.

I'm looking forward to all of it though. Bring it... including the monkeys!

Marilyn Peake said...

I’m so happy you’ll be devoting more posts to writing. Since that’s what most of us spend hours upon hours doing, it will be fun to actually read and talk about writing here. I must say, it felt really good to read the wide variation in writing accomplishments on the list you provided – very respectful of writers who devote many long hours to their craft. It’s interesting that you included self-publishing on the list. Earlier today, I received a PR email from an author about a book she self-published. Oddly, the PR included paragraphs of high praise about the author’s writing from an agent who ultimately rejected the book. The email also mentioned how her latest book signing sold the most copies ever in a signing at a particular bookstore. Obviously, there are some wonderful self-published books out there today, and the authors ought to be proud of them. Great advice on this Blog – I already knew about concentrating mostly on a current project in a query letter from earlier posts on your Blog.

Dave said...

I'm excited to hear what you to say about good writing. Without a good story--a well written good story--queries are meaningless. Story and good writing, that's what I want to hear about.

Anonymous said...

I'm anon today so no one will see me asking this question :) But if a writer has written many books in genre fiction, has good sales, a good following, along with reviews and all that other good stuff, and this writer still wants to switch gears (name and all) and go in another direction, how would they go about listing previous works to make them look viable without being pretentious? Just add a long list of titles and links at the bottom of the query? Do this after the current project has been described? Or just say, heck, I have twenty or thirty books out under a pen name, but now I want to go mainstream with my real name?

Or should the writer just ignore sales and previous publications and go for the new work without mentioning anything?

Sorry if I'm rambling. This is a difficult place to be, and it's a difficult decision to make, because I think most writers who do this know they are starting from scratch. So would starting form scratch just be the way to write the query? And just forget about everything previously published.

D. G. Hudson said...

It seems obvious, but we need to be reminded of the value of staying in focus. Thanks for responding to what most of your readers want -- more writing information.

Also, your statement about previous credits & accomplishments is heartening, as so much of this submitting process seems to be about what a writer has already done, rather than what he is trying to market now. Kudos to you for stepping outside that box.

Congrats on also being named one of the five BEST AGENT BLOGS OF 2010 by Chuck Sambuchino! But hey, we already knew that.

mkcbunny said...

I didn't explicitly say this in response to yesterday's blog subject, Nathan, but I think you spend enough time on queries already.

I understand why readers might want more, but there are a lot of reasons I read agent blogs, and they aren't solely to improve my query's chances of success. I'm trying to learn as much about the business as possible. Query info is very useful, but one can go insane learning too much about queries from the zillion resources out there (especially when they conflict).

I'd like to have other agenting/publishing/writing information in my head, too, so I can go crazy about other aspects of the business. :)

Matthew Rush said...

Nathan I think you're right about people focusing on queries - and it does seem to be the hardest part, at least for me. Of course I've never waited anxiously for a book to sell, so what do I know.

Have you ever thought of giving more real world examples? With analysis?

I know you have posted queries that worked on your blog, and those are very helpful but if anyone out there ever wants a little more ... they can always check out the Firday guest posts on my blog (sorry to self promote here, but it really is relevant).

I've got Lisa and Laura Roecker coming up tomorrow morning, and some other very famous blogger/authors like Elana Johnson and Suzette Saxton are coming up soon.

If anyone wants to see an example a great one is here.

Also if you ever want to share and analyze your query for JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, my email is on my blogger profile ... but seriously, as usual you make several good points. A query has one purpose: entice the agent to read more, it shouldn't take a long letter or huge history of credits to accomplish that.

Besides if an agent accepts unsolicited submissions, they are probably counting on the fact that even debut authors can write great books.

Thanks as always for all you do Nathan!

Nathan Bransford said...


I think you can give an overview of your books etc. and it would be extremely helpful if you include a list with publishers and years at the end. But I'd still focus mainly on the project at hand.

Nathan Bransford said...

t. anne-

No, I'm afraid the PW reviews connected with the ABNA don't hold much sway for me.

Backfence said...

In defense of those of us who requsted more posts on queries -- don't get me wrong. I HATE HATE HATE queries. I doubt I'll ever get it right! But, given it's the ONLY route (other than a direct pitch) for getting an agent to look at my ms, I'd say getting it right is pretty darn important.

You can write about other subjects as well. I promise I'll read it all. Just include a bit occasionally about the query process (like today's blog). That's all I ask.

As to contests and competitions, I think what writers get out of those, more than anything else, is validation -- and occasionally some useful feedback.

Sekiei said...

Good advice as usual, Nathan.
I just wanted to say I'm looking forward your writing advice too. "Good writing must be precise" is a great point, and much easier said than done. It's interesting to hear different agents' opinion about what is or is not 'good writing'. It can also help an author chose who to query or not.

Aleeza said...

Ah, okay. But Nathan, what am I to do when querying to those agents who actually have a requirement to send them a page with a biography of myself, if I don't have any writing credentials?
Send them nothing, even though it says VERY CLEARLY that queries that dont follow instructions won't even be given a reading?

Aleeza said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Nathan, Any chance you could post sometime on the beast that is the two-book deal? I cruise various blogs often but never see this written about. In my own case, I have a solid book of short stories, many of which have won awards,but am not sure if THAT should be the pitch in the query, or if I should give equal weight to the almost-finished first draft of my novel. Any thoughts much appreciated. I suspect a lot of people are in this position.

Anonymous said...


"I think you can give an overview of your books etc. and it would be extremely helpful if you include a list with publishers and years at the end. But I'd still focus mainly on the project at hand."

Thank you. I was hoping you'd say something like that.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Oh good, more on writing! Thank you.

Rick Daley said...

I'm eager to read your posts on page critiques. I think many of us fall into the query trap and hammer out revisions of our queries when we should be spending that time on the MS itself. I know I've been guilty of that in the past.

Adventures in Children's Publishing said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan Bransford said...


Two-book deals are a topic for another day, but if you have a short story collection plus novel I'd query with both, because often publishers want them in that combination. That's an exception I'd make to the query-only-one-project at a time rule.

Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

Nathan, this is such valuable advice that I have to say I haven't seen before. It is easy to get caught up in "bragging rights" and think that they will make a big impact. The truth is, we should embrace and believe in the writing we're submitting to let it do the talking. Thanks for providing this tip for those of us in the querying stages!

Mary McDonald said...

I have the opposite problem. I have no publishing credits and my education and day job isn't related to writing, so I often omit any bio. Is that as bad as putting too much?

Anonymous said...

Nathan, Thanks for the info on two-book deal querying. I'll keep an eye out for a more detailed post...Seems like some models would be interesting to see.

Sarah Scotti-Einstein said...

I am just about to start querying for a book length memoir about my life-changing friendship with a homeless, mentally ill veteran. A condensed version of the first four chapters appeared in a prestigious literary journal and, I learned a few days ago, won a XXXV Pushcart Prize.

Since this writing is directly related to the larger project, would I make it more prominent than I might if the piece were unrelated?


Nathan Bransford said...


Congrats! I'd definitely make it prominent. Sorry if there's confusion, I'm not saying people shouldn't highlight prestigious awards or even lead with them, just that they shouldn't be focused on to the extent that there's not enough discussion about the project itself. But I don't mean to suggest that you should bury prominent awards.

Sarah Scotti-Einstein said...


Thank you (and keep an eye out for a query from me in the next few months)!


Courtney Odell said...

Great post! Thanks!

Personally, I want more information on queries not because I feel like it's the one thing I have control over, but quite the opposite.

When an author begins querying agents, they start (as anyone would) at the top of the list, with their first choice, but as they go on, they learn more and more. They see the mistakes they made in their query letter/package and are mad there won't be another chance to woo their first choices again.

The author's chances of acceptance go up over time, but their list of agents dwindles. It's terrifying! If other authors are like me, they stopped sending out their query package after the first few rejections and have put it in the shop for repairs. Now, they are looking to gather as much knowledge as possible on how they can improve before they burn through their entire list of agents.

Who better to get this knowledge from than an agent (possibly THE agent they want)?

Thanks again! Love the blog, a truly wonderful writer's resource.

jongibbs said...

Dang! I wish I'd read this before I mailed my last query. Next time, I'm taking out the bit about getting my 'One width' swimming certificate ;)

P.A.Brown said...

I agree the writing should be the most important thing, but there are some agents who won't even take small samples of the ms or there are those who don't look at anything but the query. It makes no sense to me, since even a single page of the ms should tell a savvy person if it's worthwhile to read anymore.

So we all struggle to make 250 words excite someone we probably have never met, who we know by name and reputation into wanting to read our novel. It's no wonder it's very daunting and we lose sleep over them.

Myrna Foster said...

Thanks, Nathan! Your query posts are always helpful.

Janet Johnson said...

Good words of advice. I look forward to your post on good writing.

Becca said...

This makes me feel a tad bit better since the only credential I have is that I'm about to graduate high school. Which isn't much of a credential.

OfficeGirl said...

Hi Nathan,

What if, oh I don't know, the writer has no writing credits and is in fact a high school drop out? What then?

ryan field said...

Enjoyed this.

Kathy M. said...

The point is to query the book and lighten up on everything else. I GET IT!! Thanks for the tip. Nathan, I have a question. After a rejection, would it be proper to request a reason for the rejection, or do you usually mention this in your response?

Jil said...

All your information is gratefully accepted and digested but without a good query it doesn't matter how well written my book may be, an agent will never read it.
And Is not "good" writing judged differently for different genres?
Young Adult and Children's seem to be the most focused upon these days. What about the rest of us who write about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary or difficult situations?
Anyway, I appreciate whatever you give us, Nathan. Thanks!

Claire Dawn said...

Agents are people too. (OMG! Really? What a revelation!) Like people, they like different things.

I read on an agent's page last week that they wanted 9 or less lines about the book and a paragraph on your publishing/writing history and the first 3 chapters. That query is very different from anything I've heard any other agent ask for.

My lesson from this? Creat a query template. Then research every agent and personalise that template. If they want to know about your MFA, tell them. If they don't, leave it out.

Most of the agents have a web presence and info on submissions. It's never been easier to give an aget EXACTLY what they want.

Mira said...

Oh, and continuing from yesterday, contests and games are great fun.

But you have to pace yourself, too.

So, I like this post. It's deceptively simple. I like the idea that people can get in the door on the strength of their work. I give publishing a hard time - but that's one very nice thing about it.

Nathalie said...

Hi Nathan, I have a question about prologues. I know, we're talking about queries here but it's all a part of the writing, right?

I've heard other agents say they just skip the prologue or ignore it. As the first page an agent would read with initial submission(query/sample pages), would you say it would be better to just leave that prologue out or include it?


Nathan Bransford said...


My thoughts on prologues here.

And also a friendly reminders about the FAQs, which have answers to about 90% of the most commonly asked questions. Please check there first!

Kate Evangelista said...

Showcasing the work is the most important part of the query. I agree. Thanks Nathan!

wendy said...

That all sounds fantastic, and just what I need right now. After being told by an agent who requested a partial that the narrative wasn't as good as he hoped, or something like that, pointers in what makes writing good would be fantastic. When I first arrived at this blog, I had a wonderful feeling of finding an online home, and you've never let me down, Nathan.


Mike French said...

Good advice the rest of the stuff like past achievments should normally be in an attached cv

That said it really depends on who you are contacting, the best advice is to do some research on the editor or agent you are submitting to and see what they prefer.

Shmologna said...

It's a good thing I have no accomplishments. said...

Or just say, heck, I have twenty or thirty books out under a pen name, but now I want to go mainstream with my real name?

Anon 11:27: This works for me. There are agents and agencies that specialize in career moves.

Manstream, though, is tough taters to peel. But, I'm sure you have more of hook than that.

After five genre mystery novels in a series (the first of which was a finalist for an Edgar Award), it took me a decade to switch my old name off and have my new (same) name come back in an entirely different area of fiction.

Best of luck opening a new door! You're going to be a terrific find for the right agent!!

Courtney Odell said...

What about sending the prologue with the query letter (as the first 5 pages)? That's a no no, right?

Nathan Bransford said...


Answered farther up.

Anonymous said...

I think I'm going to quit writing and just become an agent. Why bother writing when I can make a living off someone else's talent?

Nathan Bransford said...


I wish you the best of luck becoming an agent. said...

Probably, too late. But... Nathan, if you haven't finished your week's round-up yet, check out Terry Stonecrop's current blog post: advice on writing from Alice in Wonderland. It's coolio!

I don't put links in comments, but you can click (well above) on Terry's comment entry and get there in half a snickerdoodle.

J. T. Shea said...

So I should leave out winning the Bonny Baby Contest?

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