on the reading, assessment, and writing of queries
Yesterday, someone replied* and asked how a person could judge a manuscript without having read it. They seemed genuinely perplexed about how an agent arrives at a decision and sincerely did not wish to offend. I have a policy of not replying to these inquiries because one can rarely, if ever, explain one's self to the author's satisfaction. And I also must be fair here and note that the original query didn't include the first five sample pages as per our guidelines, so I really was making a judgement call based on just the query.
Here's the plain and simple answer: I can't be 100% sure that I didn't make the wrong call.
But, I have to acknowledge that there is a necessity in taking that risk. Unfortunately, there has to be a system that attempts to mine for gold by shaking it out rather than examining every rock in the landscape. If I tried to read a full manuscript before making a decision for every query that I received in 2008, that would have been around 2,600,000 pages (assuming an average of 100K words per book at 400 pages in standard manuscript format**). *blink* *blink* Even with just a one-page query, one-page synopsis, and five sample pages (if everyone included them), I'd be looking at over 45,000 pages of reading according to my 2008 stats. It's hours of work every week that doesn't immediately or directly get a commission and pay my mortgage. Luckily, I have wonderful clients to fund my R&D.
While I was thinking about this, I inevitably (for me) veered into a foodie comparison. I said to myself: "Self, think of it like picking a restaurant based on the menu when you haven't had an opportunity (or the finances) to sample the dishes in every restaurant that you want to try." There are a lot of different kinds of restaurants out there. And there are some, based on past experience, that I suspect are really just not places I want to go. So, if I'm going to try a new one, there has to be a way to narrow down my choices, because, even if I wanted to, I can't try them all. Not even every one in Manhattan alone.
Sometimes I think a query is like fast-food. It really doesn't matter whether I go to McDee's or BK, the menu choices will be pretty much the same anywhere in the world, and I probably won't find it satisfying from a culinary point of view. I'm not saying this to hurt anyone's feelings, but there are queries that are like that. The otherwise uninteresting boy finds his destiny, saves the kingdom, and gets the girl (yes, I've read the Belgariad and I don't want to read it again -- it's like the Big Mac of fantasy at this point). Incidentally, I don't really eat fast food anymore either. Probably somewhere there is a grillmaster that makes a better burger in his town than the next one over. After all, they have to start somewhere -- Jacques Pepin once worked at Howard Johnson's, and look at him now. However, they have to have both the menu that appeals as well as the talent to pull it off. The query needs to show that they are not a BK knock-off, but perhaps a steak-n-burger place that's a step up from the same ol' thing. There's something really satisfying about a burger made just right. (see: Rare Bar and Grill)
There are a lot of queries that fall into the middle range -- non-chain restaurants, if you will, that have a decent, but unimaginative menu. They might sustain you, but they will not rock your foodie universe. One might be tempted to give them a try, to see whether the chef's skill in the kitchen outmatches the menu. There are a lot of dishes out there that many cooks can make passably well, so then it comes down to innate talent, not just competent execution. Sometimes you get lucky and find a favorite. (see: La Bonne Soupe)
Very rarely, queries are like "the most amazing restaurant evar," and you know that no matter what, this menu gives you the feeling that you will have a gustatory experience you will not forget. These would be the Michael Mina's or Jean Georges of query letters. And, yes, I have read queries where the voice shines through that strongly.
To me, this is also one of the reasons that you should always write your own query. While Agent Kristin said as an aside in her blog post about marketing letters that sometimes it's hard to write your own query (a point with which I will certainly not disagree), she also said it was fine with her if someone else wrote it as long as it was good. That's where I will differ. I have a few reasons: (1) No one will know your book as well as you, (2) No one will be as passionate about your book as you, and (3) The query letter may reveal things about voice and personality which can contribute to the overall sense of you as writer. This is not to say that you can't get help with writing a query. Your critique partner or writing group may be able to give you valuable feedback, or insight into something you might not be getting across, just as they might with your novel. At the same time, it seems to me, lately, that a lot of queries come across as over-thought-out and over-worked, and many of them end up sounding all too similar. The query letter is the agent's first impression of the writer, and in that sense I feel it can be important. It should be the invitation to the appetizer of sample pages, and then those should be so very compelling as to lure the agent in for the full meal.
And now I've managed to make myself really, really hungry. Luckily, it's time for lunch.
*Actually, I tend to get several replies, but most of them are of the "thanks for your time" variety. Some want more information, which, due to the volume of new inquiries, I simply can't provide, except as best I can here on this blog. Only a very few are argumentative or angry.
**Those giant fantasy/sf epics sure do balance out the YA, though even those are getting longer and longer it seems.