All About Queries and Publishing Terms!

Pub Speak: A Writer's Dictionary of Publishing Terms

I’m really excited to be a part of Tracy Marchini’s blog tour for her new e-book Pub Speak: A Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms. This book is a valuable resource if you’re a writer who wishes to know more about the publishing world, whether you’re published or aspiring. Talk about a handy tool to have with you at a writer’s conference!

Today Tracy was kind enough to answer some questions for me regarding the querying process. I hope you find her answers as helpful as I did!

What is the number one most important thing you feel agents look for in a query?

I think the number one most important thing agents look for in the query is clarity.  They want to see that the author can hook the reader, explain their idea and tell us a bit about themselves in a clear, fluid way.  I would say voice or the writing itself, but the truth is that query letter writing and fiction writing are two completely different styles, and so it’s not always a fair assessment.  But if the query letter is confusing, or the plot summary raises some red flags, then it’s less likely that an agent is going to request to see the manuscript.

Do agents hate really long queries no matter how well they are written? I can imagine that sifting through queries all the time gets to be so tedious, and if I were an agent I think I’d favor brevity.

This is going to sound strange, but… query letters have first impressions too, and anything with a staple would give me a small pause.  There are very few query letters that need to be longer than a page.  If you find that your query letter is reading more like a synopsis than a pitch, then maybe what you really want to do is write a one page query letter that follows the traditional format and then include a separate one to two page synopsis.  This is a much better first impression, I think.

Do you have a general word count for queries that seems to work best?

I don’t really have a general word count, but you can’t go wrong with:

– A one to two line hook
– One to two paragraphs summarizing the plot
– A paragraph about the author
– A closing line or two

I’ve often had complicated formats for my novels, such as multiple story lines from different characters’ points of view. Does an agent want to know if a novel has story lines like these? For instance, in my novel, Monarch, I never mention in the blurb that it is told from other view points, even though they are essential to how the story plays out. I focus on one character only – the person most readers would say is the main character. My main question is how in-depth should a writer go when talking about the story? Does it matter as long as it is clear? 

I think it depends on the story.  If you have written a murder mystery and we occasionally hear from the killer, then I think you could write the query from the sleuth/main character’s point of view.  But if you’ve written a dual voice novel, where the two characters start as strangers and are brought together for some larger purpose, then I think most agents would want to hear about both characters’ motivations and the fact that it is a dual voice novel.

Writing from multiple characters’ POV is very difficult, kudos for accomplishing it!

But I think that most books should be able to summarize the important facts in a paragraph or two. If you can’t summarize what your story is about in that time, it does make the query reader worry that perhaps the manuscript isn’t ready yet.

What advice would you give to very new writers querying for the first time? Would you recommend waiting to query on a second or third written book instead of a first book? 

I think the best thing a new writer can do in regards to querying is to read the blogs (like Nathan Bransford’s, Janet Reid’s Query Shark and for children’s writers, Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations) and learn as much about the process as possible.  If you’re in a writing group, ask them to look at your query letter or find a conference or consultant who can give you a professional critique before you submit.  While you’re researching how to write the letter, you should also be paying attention to etiquette — when should you follow up?  How long does a particular agent or editor require if it’s an exclusive?  What is the proper etiquette if two or more agents request exclusive partials?

Assuming they wrote, edited and rewrote the best first book they could, I would encourage an author to submit because they’ll learn an awful lot about the process. I think it’s wise to keep in mind that most author’s first books don’t sell, but that shouldn’t stop you.  It’s like the lotto, “Hey, you never know!”

Tracy is a freelance writer and editorial consultant. Before launching her own editorial service, she worked for Curtis Brown, Ltd. for four years.  In this role, she developed and sold an original book concept for the Ogden Nash Estate (Line-Up For Yesterday), negotiated and sold audio rights, pitched merchandising ideas, gave editorial feedback on client and prospective manuscripts, and provided author care.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle

8 comments

Jessica Bell

Excellent interview. Thank you both! :o)

Tracy Marchini

Thanks Jessica, and thank you Michelle for having me! 🙂

Jake Henegan

Thanks for this! Especially the second last question was always a mystery to me.Thanks for the post and to Tracy for the coherent answers. My eyes didn't even glaze over once.

Tracy Marchini

Thanks Jake… I always strive to keep my reader awake!

Michelle Davidson Argyle

Thanks for stopping by, Jessica and Jake! And thank you, Tracy, for answering these questions. Really helpful advice! 🙂

J.C. Martin

Awesome advice. Thanks for the tips! I'm working on a query at the moment, so this has been super-useful!

Amber Argyle

I'm just starting to query again. I HATE it.

Great information. Thanks!