Some of you may have noticed while perusing agent blogs that there are quite a lot of “rules” about the querying process. You know: not too long, not too short, novels need to be finished, and some wacky agents out there even loathe rhetorical questions.
Some of the more jaded writers among us have taken this as evidence that we agents delight in making the unpublished jump through hoops. Every new “don’t do this” blog post, in this view, becomes one more thing a poor author has to remember, and given the number of opinions out there, it’s impossible to keep every single rule straight.
And you know what? They have a point.
While we agents are not diabolical sadists (most of us anyway), there is a truth at the heart of these complaints: there are hoops that you will be made to jump through along the way to publication, not all of which will make perfect sense, and some of which are based strictly on individual agents’ preferences.
I think what really rankles some authors is that it’s time-consuming to keep up with all the rules, and they begin to feel like they’re made to run around in circles trying to get everything right, while at the end of the day the agents may not even respond. I understand this feeling, and I’m very cognizant that this is part of the power imbalance between agents and the unpublished, which itself is a source of a lot of the angst of the query process. I understand how incredibly frustrating it is to spend hours personalizing a query only to receive a rejection five minutes later or even not hear back at all.
So let me say: I hear you.
But might I suggest a new way of looking at this?
The fact is, you don’t have to follow any of the “rules.” Where’s the law that says you have to follow someone’s guidelines? What’s stopping you from writing a hand written query on pink paper that you dashed off in two seconds? You won’t get arrested! (At least not until I’m sheriff).
I use the extreme example to illustrate a single point: these query rules we blogging agents blog about? They’re not about making you jump through hoops or because we hate pink paper or because we’re meanies. We’re just trying to help you improve your odds.
Let’s take one particular element of the query process that particularly seems to get under some people’s skins: personalization.
Many writers associate personalizing a query with kissing up. This is not the case! I get queries that are personalized along the lines of, “I read your blog and I kind of think it sucks, but here’s my query anyway.” And you know what? I don’t stop reading.
But here’s the reason why personalization works so well: there’s a correlation between personalization and the quality of the query.
The type of person who researches the proper way of writing a query, who personalizes, who follows the “rules,” who goes the extra mile and takes the time and who somehow avoid getting all freaked out about the way their pride is being vanquished by jumping through a few hoops: these are the people who tend to go the extra mile when they’re writing their manuscript. They’re the ones who tend to listen to critiques, who don’t suffer from excessive pride, and who understand that this is a business where it pays to be professional.
In other words, the type of people who personalize their queries are the type of people we want to work with. This isn’t always the case, obviously, and there are non-personalizers who are incredibly professional and personalizers who aren’t professional. But there’s a fairly strong correlation. So I pay extra attention when someone personalizes and urge everyone to do so on my blog.
These “hoops” you’re seeing are merely hints. We’re just trying to tell you what the good queries look like and what we respond to positively so that you can imitate them and conduct yourself professionally. You don’t have to follow the rules! But this is a business where the odds are long, and it pays to make them as good as possible. Even if it means jumping through some hoops.