Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

This Query Sucks (or how to fail and still succeed)

Is there life after a query that strikes out with agents? My awesome client Jim Duncan, whose debut novel DEADWORLD will be published by Kensington next April, shares his experience. Make sure to catch the exciting contest on Jim's blog at the end of the post.

By: Jim Duncan

As you might guess from the title, I am not what one would call a good query writer. Mediocre at best. My wife (romance author Tracy Madison) whole-heartedly agrees with this assessment.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I will admit to not being a very good editor. It's very difficult for me to assess my own writing, and thus, I don't like doing it. Second, when it comes to certain aspects of the publishing process, I have little patience. When my book was done, I wanted to send out queries that moment.

Back in the old days of 2007, when I completed my novel for the first time, I had queries going out the next day. I made about half a dozen attempts, picked the one I liked the best and sent it out. I had done my research, making sure the agents wanted my genre, whether they took email or snail mail, getting their name correct, etc. I followed agent blogs like Nathan's, Miss Snark, Kristin Nelson, and others (there are a lot of good blogs for writers out there), to glean as much knowledge as I could about the process and how to make that query stand out. I failed. I received one of Nathan's polite form rejections.

What feedback I received (off of a roughly 90% rejection rate) did not like the multiple first person p.o.v.'s I used. Was I deterred? Of course not! I decided to rewrite the book in third person, because I felt very strongly about this story. Whether it was written well enough was another matter.

So, I wrote a new query, several versions in fact, and though I was not happy with any of them, I picked what I thought was the best of the lot and sent it out. There's that whole patience thing again. The results were marginally better, but still no real interest.

Knowing I can't write queries for shit, I figured that might be my biggest problem, so I wrote yet another and tried again a few months later. I sent it out to a couple of publishers who are open to submissions, and like all good writers should do, I began to work on my next book (can't stress this enough: keep writing!)

In the meantime, I had become a regular responder on Nathan's blog. I'd sent a couple of emails to him, suggestions for topics and such. Then, one fine day, I came up with a contest suggestion that became my 15 seconds of blog fame. Those of you who were around a year and a half ago may remember the Agent for a Day contest. At the time it generated the most hits ever on Nathan's blog (about 70k, and 15k comments). Through my willingness to participate and make suggestions, good or otherwise, I had cemented my name in Nathan's mind. We didn't become BFF's. It was some fortunate networking that happened out of interest as opposed to direct effort.

Then, I got the call. Kensington Publishing offered me a three book deal for my novel, Deadworld. Super excited? You bet. What struck me though, was the fact that they were buying my story as an urban fantasy. This entire time, I had been submitting it as a suspense/thriller. Head smack! What would have happened had I realized what genre my story was best suited for? Another good point learned well after the fact. Understand the market for your story!

With offer in hand, I really wanted to find an agent. I had no desire to do this on my own. I picked about a dozen agents that I had queried before and asked them if they would be interested in a second look because of the offer I had on the table. In hindsight, I didn't give them enough time, which was five days. I probably lost some potential agents with that. In the end, it came down to two.

Nathan, whom I'd already had a connection with and knew I liked and would love as an agent, and one who had a slew of authors already published in urban fantasy. She was great to chat with on the phone and I had a very good vibe from her. It was actually a difficult decision to make. As you can see, I chose to work with Nathan. I had confidence that we would work well together and I had a pretty good idea what kind of agent he would be, meaning very hands on, which gelled well with my stellar editing skills.

Without the connection through his blog, my decision may have been different. Nathan will likely tell you, that without that connection, without that sense that we would be a decent match and work well together, he might have been less inclined to represent me. Fortunately, he did and liked my story enough to represent me. Needless to say, I'm ecstatic with the result.

So, can we take from all of this? What have I learned that might be valuable to fellow writers?

• Know your story. Submitting to the right agents is the first key to success.
• Hone and polish your query until it's bright and shiny. This is hard. Crafting simple, effective queries takes a lot of practice and effort. Avail yourself of the knowledge out there and get feedback, hopefully from folks who know a decent query when they see it.
• Be patient. Make sure your ms is actually done. Research for the right agents. Make sure you have the correct information on agents and that they seeking what you write. Write numerous queries. Get feedback. Be more patient.
• Keep writing. For many writers, the querying process can take months. You could write an entire next novel in that time frame. It sucks to decide that book just isn't going to garner interest and then have nothing else waiting in the wings.
• Network. Be social. Involve yourself in blogs. Make comments. Let people know who you are. Be willing to interact. It can only help, and you never know when it might change your life.

In honor of writing crap queries, there's going to be a contest to kick off my author blog. Yay contests! The winner will receive a query critique from Nathan. To win, all you will have to do is come up with the best, rejection letter response to an agent. Be creative! Just keep the foul language to a minimum. This is for amusement purposes, not to prove that you might be a sociopath.

Happy writing!


Marilyn Peake said...

Hi, Jim,

Congratulations on your three-book deal from Kensington, and for signing with Nathan as an agent! I’m planning to print out your Blog post today. It’s incredibly inspiring and full of hope for those of us who suck at writing queries.

I have the same kind of tenacity for writing the actual novel as you do. Right now, I’m basically rewriting my entire science fiction novel based on an extensive critique from Alan Rinzler. I’m finding this a complete joy. I definitely understand your willingness to rewrite your entire novel from a different perspective while still balking at the idea of crafting fine-tuned query letters.

Oh my God, your contest sounds awesome! Chuckle...what a great idea!

Liz Fichera said...

Your suggestion to keep writing is such a good one. Even though you might connect with an agent, it doesn't necessarily mean your agent will sell your first book. It might be your second or even your third one that finally sells. All the more reason to choose your agent carefully.

Congrats on your success!

Theresa Milstein said...

Interesting story. When I wrote my first novel, I queried immediately as well. Big mistake. Now I take longer, but still haven't landed an agent yet. Queries stress me more than writing the entire manuscript.

I'll check out your contest.

Stephanie Garber said...

Thanks for the post! It was very encouraging and very amusing! I love query stories with bad starts and happy endings -so congratulations!

And I think the contest on your blog sounds awesome...I will for sure try to enter.

Remus Shepherd said...

Know your story. Submitting to the right agents is the first key to success.

Finding the right agents has little to do with your story. Even your book, Jim, was queried in the wrong subgenre. But you knew the agents through socializing and diligent research. 'Know the agents' is much better advice.

But not everyone can do that because...

Network. Be social.

That's all well and good if you have a scintillating personality. I'm a nice guy and a hell of a writer, but I have the personality of an arthritic porcupine. Every time I post on an agent's blog, I worry that I'm just getting myself added to another blacklist.

It bothers me that for authors, social skills are at least as important as writing skills. I can live with it and hopefully thrive in it, but it bothers me.

Joanne Bischof said...

Always encouraging to read a success story that basically boiled down to a lot of hard work! Thanks for sharing!

Theresa Milstein said...

That was fun to write!

Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mira said...

Jim, I'm so happy for you and your success. I'm excited to hear about your upcoming book debut. Congratulations! I remember when you first got Nathan as your agent, and it's exciting to see you transform into a published author! Very cool! :)

Your story is interesting, because it talks about the query process as an organic process. You learned more about your work throughout. This makes sense because outside feedback can help clarify our work in our minds. I like that you didn't give up, too. I think there are times when revisiting a dream agent makes sense.

In terms of networking and helping an agent know your name, specifically Nathan, that's a really good point. I'm going to get right on that.

So, again, congratulations Jim. I hope it goes wonderfully for both you and Nathan.

Mira said...

Remus - I think what's important in Jim's story is not that he charmed Nathan - he had a good idea and then won a contest which helped him come to Nathan's attention.

I also think that writing a good book alone is plenty. Not all doors will open, but if you have a good book, many will.

minawitteman said...

A three-book deal! Congratulations, Jim.

And a very inspiring and reassuring post, to boot!
It's great to know that there is hope, even after sending the lousiest query ever - to Nathan, of all people - which I did, not knowing a thing about the American query system. Since, I have honed and polished, I had my SCBWI-mates check the query, I have researched agents, and I even got a recommendation from a senior editor of one of The Big Six.
One day I will get through, I know I will. I just have to be patient - the last thing on the list that I have to master...

Until that time I will keep writing.

Perry said...

Great post.
It rang a bell with me about genre. My critique group was working on my 2009 National Novel Writing Month manuscript. And one of them announced 'this is a YA novel'.
Not what I'd planned, but it made me happy to hear I could write YA.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Jim! I’ve noticed your comments on Nathan’s Blog, and always thought you stood out as a talented writer. To tell you the truth, I never understood why Nathan didn’t contact you, in order to offer to consider your work for publication.

I agree with Remus. It bothers me that agents let so many great authors and books slip by, waiting until the social aspect of their relationship with the writer feels right or the book already has a publishing deal. Many of the greatest writers have had reputations for being huge pains in the ass, but agents used to seek them out for their intelligent insights and the quality of their work. It might have made the agents’ lives more difficult, but that was part of their job. Agents have accused authors of having a sense of entitlement, but I think many agents have that – the desire for great success without too much trouble. As a result, the market has been flooded with lots of romance and YA books written by friendly, sociable people. Books with all different levels of writing skill are published in those genres, including those written in extremely simplistic language about extremely simplistic concepts.

paravil said...

So, someone correct me if I'm wrong, but in the end this author's success at finding an agent had nothing to do with his query writing. He landed an agent through networking on blogs. Right?

If that's the case, then this isn't encouraging at all. I mean, congrats to him, but it's a bummer to all of us who are still relying on the query to do the job.

Juice in LA said...

congrats on the 3 book deal! Man I wish I had your problems! Agents love my query, but then they get to my book and tell me its over written...

Layla Fiske said...

Hi Jim...

Thanks for your post. It's a great perspective on an intriguing success story.

Sharing your experiences and knowledge learned along the way is inspiring. In fact it has inspired me to change my post name from LaylaF to Layla Fiske...get my name out there, get involved...makes sense!

I'm looking forward to checking out your website.


sublimeromantic said...

"This is for amusement purposes, not to prove that you might be a sociopath." <--LAMO! That's awesome. This whole post was awesome.

Query letters are evil.

And congrats on the book deal and landing super agent, complete with orange cape. :o)

Anonymous said...

Congrats Jim.

Anonymous said...

Congrats, Jim!

Still, I find your story interesting: 3-book deal and no agent until after that deal was secured. I've been chugging forward on querying my own MS with agents, and I suspect I'm nearing the end of that part of the journey. I've had a few material requests, but none lately (despite a finely edited q letter which has been through QLH on Absolute Write and which my critique group tells me is sound and good-to-go), and only one full still out. The past month has been nothing but form rejections. I'm not optimistic about it.

But I am feeling pretty okay about going straight to publishers, increasingly. Nathan's one of the few agents that suggests that you might be okay in doing that, and I've stumbled across quite a few publishing stories lately that seem to start with getting a book deal, which then opens up the doors for an agent. And my goal is publication, and I believe in my book. Stories like yours only emphasize to me that it might be the right way to go.

Anita Saxena said...

Now I don't feel bad anymore. I stink at queries too. Congratulations on all the success.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Perseverence should be every writer's middle name. Unless, of course, it's OprahWindreysNieceorNephew. That's good, too.

Anonymous said...

Love your article. Kudos to you for getting a publishing deal for three books and getting Nathan as your agent! I think your conclusions about specific lessons to be learned from your experience, however, are deeply flawed. First of all, you underestimate your ability to write query letters. You obviously wrote a query letter that landed a three-book deal from a publishing house! Here are the conclusions I reached after reading your article:
- Write a good book. Edit it.
- Socialize with agents online.
- Find a publisher.
- Then contact an agent. With a publishing deal already in hand, agents will be happy to represent you. Agents with whom you’ve socialized online might be extra happy to represent you. (As an aside, I should probably mention that I have a major publishing house interested in my book without having received any interest from agents in response to my query letters.)

ed miracle said...

I'm selling this book. You wouldn't want to buy it, would you?

Lynne said...

Congratulations on your book deal, and finding such a nice agent in the process too.
What a great mid-week gem for all aspiring authors! I wish you all the best.

Great contest idea too.

Amanda said...

Jim, you're awesome. Love your post.

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

I agree with the comment someone made that writing the book was easier than writing the query.

Everytime I send out my query, Iam so stressed.

Anonymous said...

I find this post encouraging and discouraging, all at once. It seems unfair that in order to get the attention of agents who had already deemed you unfit for their efforts, you had to do part of their job by garnering the attention of a publisher. How bad could your query REALLY have been if this added incentive made them "see the light" regarding your novel? I am convinced that agents who ask you to submit sample pages with your query don't read those pages if they don't like your query, and I feel like you've proven me right. Whatever your query was missing, your sample pages should have been enough to give an agent pause, but you had to go above and beyond. And as someone who writes crappy queries, that irks me!

Anonymous said...

I find this post encouraging and discouraging, all at once. It seems unfair that in order to get the attention of agents who had already deemed you unfit for their efforts, you had to do part of their job by garnering the attention of a publisher. How bad could your query REALLY have been if this added incentive made them "see the light" regarding your novel? I am convinced that agents who ask you to submit sample pages with your query don't read those pages if they don't like your query, and I feel like you've proven me right. Whatever your query was missing, your sample pages should have been enough to give an agent pause, but you had to go above and beyond. And as someone who writes crappy queries, that irks me!

Remilda Graystone said...

Wow, great story. Reminds us to not give up. Thanks for the inspiring post!

The Red Angel said...

Great anecdote, Jim! :) Congrats on the accomplishments you've made, you're lucky to have Nathan as an agent! Thanks for the tips and for sharing, your story is very inspiring.


Anonymous said...

Wow---kudos on your three-book deal! What I'd like to know is how do you get a major publisher to respond, especially when you marketed it under a different genre? I've tried a few editors (pubs who take unsolicited mss.) and can't even get a reply, much less a book deal. What's your secret??

Eileen Andrews said...

Whenever I write a query I feel like I'm trying to shove my entire body into a one by one box. Which makes sense as if I'm taking 100k and bringing it down to 100.

Scott Foley said...

What a fantastic success story and very inspiring, thanks for sharing it with us. Having myself received a mixture of responses to queries including total silence/straight rejections/encouraging comments but client list full, I am still none the wiser whether my query letters suck!

So will definitely start looking for feedback and keep going, thanks again and congratulations.

Annie said...

I can't wait to write my first query. I bet I'm a fantastic query writer. The problem is the book.

Hmm, maybe I should offer a service.

D.R. Chisholm said...

Thanks for sharing this! It was generous, useful and timely. Wishing you great success!

Fawn Neun said...

You know, it never occurred to me for an instant to requery any agents that sent form rejects after I'd landed a couple of publishing offers. I thought I should restrict the requery list to those who showed some initial interest.

Can't say it's an approach I'd be willing to take, but if you're comfortable with the result, that's all that matters.

Congratulations on your book deal - that's awesome!

Chuck H. said...

Congrats, Jim. Way to go!! I entered your contest, now maybe I'll have a chance to hook Nathan as an agent. Thanks for the opportunity.

Jill Elizabeth said...

Thanks for the post Jim, and for pointing us towards your blog. Creeptastic!

Some commenters seem to be discouraged--but there are many avenues to getting published. I'm sure if you asked 20 authors, you'd get 20 different stories on how they landed their first book deal!

D.G. Hudson said...

Enjoyed your post, Jim, and also checked out your blog site. Good luck with the contest! Also liked the post about the ghosts in the underground vaults in Scotland (where much of my heritage came from).

You have some valid points regarding an author's own awareness about his work. When the story crosses genre lines, it's hard for the author to see where it fits best. That's where our beta readers and those assessing our work (agents, editors, etc.) can sometimes give us a heads-up.

You're fortunate to have found a great agent as well, Jim. Looking forward to seeing your book in 2011.

Lori Howell said...

Mr. Duncan,
Impressive! And, thank you. I am in the midst of writing my first mystery thriller, so I think this is the genre. Great advice, I'll triple check to be sure. I stopped writing because of the Query letter it literally freaked me out. I decided to give it another stab, I did and I am still alive to share. I agree with you writing about oneself is very difficult, but we must believe in ourselves to overcome the menace of the Query. I've decided to embrace the Query letter as my best friend. And in the near future, I'll be sending my queries. Much success to you and again thank you.

JDuncan said...

Thank you for all of the feedback everyone. It's much appreciated. Also, another round of thanks for those who have come over to my blog to check out the contest. There are a lot of funny entries. I'm looking forward to perusing them all.

J. T. Shea said...

Congratulations, Jim Duncan!

Remus, I AM an arthritic porcupine. Luckily, Nathan’s blog has no ’humans only’ rule. I deeply resent your stereotyping of my species and disability.

I don’t have a personality, since I’m not a person. But, among porcupines, arthritic or otherwise, I’m the life and soul of the party. Yes, porcupines do have souls.

I DO curl up in a ball sometimes, but that’s just expected if you’re a porcupine. I write all the time, of course. I have to do something with all those quills…

davidrory said...

Oh what joy reading this was. I write quickly and prolifically but doing queries and synopsis has been agony. I have taken two years constant reading to prepare for the first queries. I have not yet had a response to the three I sent in the past few weeks so I don't know how poor they where yet. However the advice to keep trying and keep honing is encouraging. Thank you again Jim. I wish you continued success.
David Rory.

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