Getting Your Query Through the Slush Pile

As part of my manuscript critique service, I invite my clients to submit their query letters for review. If you don’t know what a query letter is, here are some resources to learn more about them. I cover the basics in my book Writing and Selling the YA Novel. Writing-Selling-Young-Adult-Novel And you can always find information in the Writer’s Market Guide. Writers-Market In addition, there are countless websites and blogs devoted to the topic, so even a quick search will keep you reading until Christmas. But my purpose with this blog is not to define a query letter, but rather to discuss the art of getting one through the slush pile. And yes, it is an art.

One of the most common experiences I have when reading both a manuscript and the query letter is that the query letter does not adequately show the writer’s talent or the manuscript’s potential. The manuscript is great, but the query falls flat.

When a writer sends me their work, I usually read the query first, but I don’t make any comments or suggestions until I’ve read their book. Then I’m able to look back on the query letter with new eyes and see if it is the best representation of the novel. Too often, it isn’t. Although their actual writing might be publishable, their query probably won’t make it through the slush pile.

Back when I was an assistant at Curtis Brown, Ltd., part of my job was reading query letters and deciding which ones would get passed along to the agents I worked with. Now, every assistant does their job differently, but I had a system. (You know, cause that’s just the kind of organized assistant I was.*cough, cough*)

I’d start by making three piles. First, there was the definite YES pile – people with publishing credentials who had an awesome idea that I knew my agents would love, and/or people who had some sort of personal connection with the agent. This included people they’d met a conferences – so don’t be shy about including that information in the opening line! This was a ticket straight to the agent’s desk.

Then, there was the definite NO pile. This included people submitting work outside of the genres my agents represented, queries that were unprofessional, and people who seemed… well, insane.

Finally, there was the MAYBE pile. This pile was by far the largest one. The maybe pile included submissions that were strong — almost always from unknown writers. The letters were professional and their novel ideas seemed like possible matches for my agents. The problem was, the maybe pile required culling down. I couldn’t pass along a foot high stack of queries to my agents every week. So how to decide which ones would land on the agent’s desk?

The first, most important factor was always the story idea. After a short time working with my two agents, I knew their tastes and preferences pretty well. By the end (almost five years!) I could predict which manuscripts they’d request with uncanny accuracy. I want to mention that the taste issue isn’t just about genres (ie: an agent represents romance, but not sci-fi) That’s part of it, but the issue goes a lot deeper than that. Just like any reader, agents have preferences within genres – do they like humor? Dark stories? Are they huge tennis fanatics (can’t imagine where that came from, Ginger!)? Do they have a soft spot for animals? As a writer, you don’t have a lot of control over whether your story matches an individual agent’s tastes and preferences. You can try to match your submissions to tidbits you might glean from conferences or interviews, but most of the time, you’re not going to know the secrets to an agent’s soul. Sobering? Maybe, but it should also be a bit liberating. Just because you receive a rejection doesn’t mean that either your query letter or your story are inadequate. There’s a good chance that form rejection letter means what it says: your story is just not the right match for that agent.

What about the queries that did seem like potential matches? Here’s where the art comes in.

I think a great query letter should evoke some small spark of emotion in its reader. Yes, I realize this is asking a lot from a three paragraph business letter, but trust me, it’s in your best interest to try and achieve this goal. Just today, a writer sent me their query letter and it made me laugh. Twice. It sparked something and I found myself thinking, “You know, this guy is really talented.” Humor is probably the easiest emotion to evoke, but the others aren’t out of the question. If your book is a dark drama can you make me feel – even for a second – as if I’m being pulled into a world of darkness? If it’s a thriller, can you aim for even one extra heartbeat?

In my opinion, the most important quality in a query letter is balance – you’ve got to strike a balance between presenting yourself in a professional, polished way, and evoking some sort of feeling from your reader. Err on the side of being too business-like and your query will probably fall flat. Err on the side of being too creative and you run the risk of seeming gimmicky. The best queries are the ones that hint at something deeper – don’t just lay out the facts about your story, infuse its description with the same heart you put into writing your book.

Finally, my advice is this: push yourself. Work and rework your query letter. Play around with different versions. Write a draft where you go overboard, then writer a draft where you pull back. Try to evoke an emotion from your potential reader. Eliminate any potential confusion. Consider ways you can distinguish yourself without looking like an amateur. As with revising your novel, remember that a lot can be accomplished with a little. One or two powerful lines might be all it takes to escape the slush pile. Use this as incentive – visualize the maybe pile, and tell yourself that you don’t want to get stuck there. Chances are, your book deserves better.

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