Query Only

A query letter, that one-page miracle, often seems pitiful in the hands of the new writer. Writers must wow the agent with the story line, the actual writing in the query, and the writer’s credentials. Wait. How will an agent know if the writer can write a good novel?
I remember chafing against that edict to “Query Only,” so in the late nineties, when Todd Pierce’s advice came along, I jumped at the chance to be daring. What seems like eons ago, Pierce, a professor at a Florida University, ran a web page for those trying to land an agent. He not only touted inventing a writing contest and awarding yourself the prize (not recommended), he also dared his readers to break the “query only” rule.
Writing Tip for Today: For those new to this game, “query only” refers to the request many literary agents make in the marketing books or on their sites. I was taught that “query only” means just that. No sliding in the first three chapters or that 20 page synopsis. So when Pierce suggested authors add the first page of the manuscript to those grouchy “query only” requests, I wondered if it would work. What are some possible pros and cons of this action?

As writers, I wonder if we really appreciate how hard lit agents work. Everyday, they must wade through reams of awful stuff, from autobiographical tomes handwritten on lilac stationery, to all-caps missives that read like manifestos. If you choose to send agents anything besides what they request, your query could end up like this:

The very tired agent, seeing the attachment to your e-query, 86s the whole thing without opening it. Never send attachments to a prospective agent unless specifically asked to do so.
The agent, just off August vacation, says, “What the heck?” and does a speed read of both the query and the opening page. Then 86s it.
Agent, getting hungry, decides to print and schlep your query to lunch. Spills ketchup on the manuscript page, blotting out opening line. Writer holds breath, in case agent is quick with the napkins.
Agent, up after midnight reading the day’s crop of new queries, tries to stay awake long enough to get to the first line of your novel. Puts your query in the “maybe” file and falls asleep sitting up.
Agent, moved by your reasonably good query, makes a note to request a partial. The first page of prose doesn’t exactly knock off the socks, but it intrigues. A partial can be the first 50 pp, the next 50 pp and so on, until agent either decides it’s worth a shot or else drops the manuscript on the tarmac, scattering literary genius to the four winds and the flock of Canada geese who live next to the runway.
Agent, riveted by your stunning query, is elated to find the first page of your work included in the body of your email. Can’t wait to call you and request the full.

The point is that sure, most writers talk about people who broke the rules and got away with it. But remember, these are rare cases. My advice? Stick to what an agent requests.

Try This! Make two lists of agents from info you glean from a marketing book or the Internet. Find at least 25 active agents who say they are interested in your type of book, and put the ones from large or prestigious agencies on the “A” list and the new, maybe hungry, agents on the “B” list. Make a plan to mail out at least 5 queries in September.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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