I've been reading queries and submissions for years, and yet when I first started accepting queries as an agent a couple of weeks ago I felt nervous. How will I know if a manuscript is good enough to request?
Turns out I shouldn't have worried. When a manuscript is good enough to request, I just know. Which probably isn't all that helpful for writers, because that just comes down to the ineffable "it factor" or matter of taste.
I'm going to do some straight talking right now, which is: most writers have terrible query letters. Not for nothing are there so many resources about how to craft a good query (I'll link to some below). That's because writing a query is hard and requires a totally different skill set than writing a novel.
It would make my life easier if I got nothing but top-quality query letters. And if you're reading this post you should definitely take the time to do some research and make your query as good as it can possibly be. But given that queries are an art form that so many struggle to perfect, my submission guidelines also request the first chapter of your manuscript pasted in the body of your email.
I do make it a point to read the entire sample, but my decision is made at the end of the first paragraph. I know that must sound outrageous. How can I judge an entire manuscript on a handful of sentences? Well, you'd be surprised. That opening paragraph will likely introduce me to the voice and the protagonist at the very least, and those things alone are enough to make or break my desire to read more. With every manuscript I've requested so far, I knew I was going to make that request at the end of the first few sentences.
This also means that I know immediately if I'm going to send a rejection. You only have to lose me once, and then I'm gone.
There are, occasionally, queries that don't fall into either category. I read these queries, I read the sample chapter all the way to the end. And I still don't know what to do. Those queries get starred and I open them back up every couple of days and try to determine what to do. Usually these queries have something but not everything. Maybe the writing is incredible, but the premise is meh. Or maybe the premise is amazing but the writing...isn't well-executed. Or maybe it's solid all around and I know it, but I'm just not as excited about it as I think I should be. Something is preventing me from pulling the trigger, so the query languishes in my inbox while I try to identify the problem and whether or not I can solve it or even if I want to. Publishing wisdom says "If it's a maybe, it's a no." That's a hard pill to swallow, for writers and for me, too. But I do find that most queries move from limbos to rejections eventually.
I appreciate the weight of sitting on this side of the desk. Every query I receive represents someone's time and effort and labor of love. I know that I make decisions in a matter of moments that either reward or refute the painstaking work authors have put in for months, or even years. This is why you cannot, cannot, cannot allow rejections to discourage you. Keep writing. Keep querying. And someday an agent is going to open up your query and just know...
Pub(lishing) Crawl has lots of posts about the art of writing a successful query letter, including the podcast episodes where my co-host JJ and I critique queries live.
LIterary Agents Bridget Smith and Jennifer Udden co-host the podcast Shipping and Handling, and do a live query critique in one episode and often drop hints about querying in general throughout their archives.
Search the Twitter hashtag #querytip for tons of advice from agents and industry professionals.
Of course, Query Shark is the expert. Be ready for the brutal, unvarnished truth. It will make your queries better.