Sweating the small query questions

| Monday, March 19, 2012
Today's Tune: Trying My Best To Love You

I've been involved with the fabulous online writing community for a few years now, and in that time, I've begun to see a lot of the same questions pop up over and over regarding querying. The more I watch, the more it feels like we're focusing on the little things rather than the big questions.

It almost feels like writers are trying to fill the tiniest cracks because we believe that the smallest, most insignificant mistake will take us out of the running when we're playing the Query Game. As though forgetting to word a salutation or order query elements in the exact right way will cause every agent out there to delete a query immediately. The anxiety over "screwing up" is so high that people will fly to a writer's forum in a panic to ask whether they should fix and resend, let it go, send an apology, send a clarification, OMG WHAT DO I DO WHAT IF I'VE RUINED MY CHANCE AT GETTING THROUGH TO THIS AGENT?!

There are probably a number of factors involved in this querying nervousness. First and foremost, I think a lot of people really hate the feeling of being out of control when they hit the "send" button, so they want to do everything exactly right because it will "increase their chances." Because form letters or non-responses are so common, people are probably looking for any reason at all that they might have been shut out. And let's face it... it's a lot easier on our confidence and ego to believe we got a form letter because the agent didn't like the way we wrote our bio paragraph rather than thinking that they might not have connected with the story.

The accessibility of agents on social media probably has something to do with this attitude, as well. We have access to every rule and pet peeve known to publishing. We see the pros making comments about how they "can't stand" to see another letter saying this, or formatted this way, or comparing to this book. The somewhat-logical connection to make is that even if your query/project is SUPER AMAZING, if you made that goof, then the agent is going to write you off, no questions asked, even if they think the project is interesting.

Here's the reality: subjectivity kind of sucks. Sometimes you can write the most stellar query on the planet and have a project that editors will fight over, and some people still aren't going to click with it. Writers love to read those stories about such-and-such famous author getting rejected because it's the truth -- we all get rejected at some point. Usually repeatedly. There is absolutely nothing we can do to make our project universally appealing. If you want to do this, you will get rejected. Sometimes for a good reason, sometimes for a bad reason, sometimes (much more rarely) because the agent/editor was having a bad day. The sooner we can accept that we can't avoid rejection, the sooner we can stop fussing over the little things.

Now, I'm not a literary agent and I do not have any kind of ~*super secret access*~ to industry secrets, but based on personal experience, talking with several agents, and following tons of industry blogs, I know that no one will reject you because of one tiny mistake. Hell, a lot of agents won't even reject you if you include one of their big pet peeves... as long as they like the sound of your project. It always, always, always comes back to the project and the meat of the query. If they think it sounds good, they DO. NOT. CARE. that you used a rhetorical question, or skimped on the bio paragraph, or made/didn't make comparisons.

Which doesn't mean your query should be sloppy, because obviously the point here is to make your project shine. The one thing I *do* hear everyone say is that they like each query addressed individually to THEM, rather than a CC of every agent in North America. Other than that, though, you're probably focusing on the little things too much.

It's not bad to want your query to be as polished as you can make it. You should want that. It's good business. Put your best foot forward and such. Just don't get so caught up in hoping the little things push you through that you forget what actually gets you the request for more: your story.

If you've queried before, did you suffer this kind of query anxiety? If you haven't queried yet, are you feeling the pressure to make your query *perfect*?


{ E.J. Wesley } at: March 19, 2012 at 8:12 AM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
{ E.J. Wesley } at: March 19, 2012 at 8:13 AM said...

You smacked the point between the eyes when you said "subjectivity kind of sucks", Steph. I feel (about queries) the same way about job interviews/resumes: Be yourself, be proud of what you've done (not gloating, just proud), and let the body of work speak for its self.

Do those things, and in the end--if it doesn't work out--you can chalk it up to being for the best and move on.

Really stopped by to say how much I appreciated the kind words you (and others) left on my blog last week. It was tough time for my family and the encouragement was a great help.


(Had to make a small edit! :)

{ Rachel } at: March 19, 2012 at 8:15 AM said...

Excellent post. As a sometimes Query Hell Squirrel (sometimes because I find I get burned out regularly), I have two additional thoughts.

First, a good lot of the people who post on QLH are looking primarily for approval from the squirrels. On the surface, that seems like it should be a good thing. And once or twice in the year(?) I've been hanging out there I've seen it happen - a query is so good everyone loves it. However, 99% of the queries don't have that happen. Best case scenario for most of them is that some people like it, one person loves is, and the rest continue to pick apart its faults (subjectivity at work again).

In my opinion, all this misses the real goal. The point of critique sites like QLH isn't to perfect a single query letter (cause it's not likely to happen anyway), but to teach people how to write effective (note 'effective', not 'perfect') queries. Very few of the come-and-go writers end up learning. Those that stick around for months-on-end working on other people's queries are those that learn.

Second, as one particular squirrel likes to say... 'Problems in the query almost always reflect problems in the MS.'

The query is a knock on the door. Done properly (again, not perfectly), it will get the door cracked two inches. What the agent sees through the crack (opening pages) is much more likely to get the door slammed shut or opened enough to put a hand out.

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: March 19, 2012 at 9:03 AM said...

this is so true!
of course you need to be professional and polished and address the agent and follow their guidelines, etc.
but when push comes to shove, it's usually the story they aren't connecting with...

Anonymous at: March 19, 2012 at 9:27 AM said...

I *just* realized my last last round of queries included a misspelling of my main character's name (a no-no called out by Query Shark). I shudder every time I think about it, including writing this comment.

The pressure to be perfect is insane, and the all-too-often "no response" policy only adds to an author's inner turmoil of, "What did I do wrong and how do I know to fix it if no one tells me?".

{ Phoebe } at: March 19, 2012 at 10:12 AM said...

Oh man, I screwed up my first-ever query to Michelle. Failed to follow the guidelines, didn't include a synopsis, spent a week cringing. Never heard back.

She's now my agent and sold my book (a different book, sure, but a better book). So that just goes to show how little this stuff matters in the long run. People make mistakes--if you do, be polite about it. No biggie.

{ Old Kitty } at: March 19, 2012 at 11:24 AM said...

I'm not in the query hell stage so all I can say is "phew"! LOL! You really have to have the thickest skin possible!!

Take care and good luck to all you lot querying away!

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: March 19, 2012 at 3:05 PM said...

Thanks for sharing, all! The mistakes are definitely embarrassing and anxiety-inducing. Wish I had a cure! I mean, I can say the words, but that doesn't make anybody NOT nervous, myself included ;)

{ Stina Lindenblatt } at: March 19, 2012 at 7:35 PM said...

The worst thing I've done is misspelled an agent's name, even though I tried not to. Fortunately I didn't care either way if she rejected me, which makes me wonder why I queried her in the first place.

{ prerna pickett } at: March 19, 2012 at 8:20 PM said...

I needed to read this, especially since I just redid my query...again. I need to stop overthinking it.

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