The Novel Query (or, How NOT to get a prom date)

So it’s come to this, finally.  Two years ago, I wrote this post about a guy waking up by himself.  Now, nearly 25 months and 97,434 words later (well, a lot more than that, actually, when you consider revisions), I finally have the novel I always swore to myself I’d write and try to get published.  Now, then, it’s time to send my precious baby manuscript* out amongst the horse traders to have it’s teeth checked, it’s height and weight gauged, and its tires kicked.

What?  It’s, um, mixed metaphor Friday.  Get over it.

MS-print1Anyway, the point is that it’s high time to put together my query package**.


Holy burnt melba toast, Batman, where does one begin?

First things first, the query is not one single thing, it’s several things, typically including, at minimum (for a novel), a pitch letter and synopsis.  And every agent, editor, and Dark Lord of the Underworld waiting to trade for your soul has different submission requirements.  And you must observe them all if you want any kind of shot, even if they demand you hollow out a sheep’s stomach and send your manuscript bundled within.

In other words, if you think you’re going to slam together a quick email and mass merge it, replacing the “Dear <publishing gatekeeper>” with “Dear Ms. Mcgillicutty” just like a bulk spam blast pimping CHEAP MAKE-IT-HARDER-LONGER pills, well, odds are good the only people likely to ever read your life’s work will share your last name.

That’s not so much the goal, here, right?

So, yes, doing this querying thing and doing it right is going to take some time, thought, and effort.  But, really, after wrestling with 90-100k words and bending them to your will, that’s not such a task, is it?

The hard part, though, is that putting together a successful query isn’t quite as simple as doing your taxes or trigonometry.

Let’s break it down.  First, the pitch letter.  In a perfect world, a pitch letter would be straight-forward and to the point:

Dear Mr. Agent,

I wrote a novel. My mom and my wife like it.  I’m pretty proud of it, especially as finishing it was more work than pushing a 13-lb baby out an opening the size of a plum.  It’s got some people in it and they do some stuff that many readers will probably find interesting.  Plus, jellybeans.  Everbody likes reading about jellybeans.  Sorry, no sparkly vampires this time.  That’s okay, though, right?

So, anyway, like I said, my mom and wife like it.  So please sell it to a publisher for 18 gojillion dollars so I can quit my day job, choke on my sophomore novel, and start abusing drugs and women with daddy issues.

In closing, please please please please please please please please please!?


Clueless Debut Author

Sadly, my sources indicate such an approach might be, um, less than effective.

All joking aside, it seems to me that this query business is a whole lot like trying to get that special prom date in high school.  There you are, sure of how you’re a great dude and would make an excellent date for some lucky girl, even if your love for collectable science fiction action figures is misunderstood.  The thing is, you’ve only got one chance to prove you’re the fellow to make her the Belle of the Ball.  When the time comes, then, for laying out that question to her, you’ve got to be smart, clever—but not too clever, confident—but not an arrogant asshole, and above all, yourself.

If you’re standing in front of a girl with nervous, shifty eyes, a pained look as if you’re weathering some serious intestinal distress, and a case of flop sweats that would make Chris Farley proud, you might as well skip asking her out and instead just explain about how your mom still picks out your clothes and cuts your Salisbury Steak for you.  Instead, what you need to do is talk like a normal person, keep it calm, be sure of yourself even if you don’t feel sure of yourself, and get the important question across without becoming a pile of blubbering jello.

The query seems like it’s kind of the same way. Be yourself: use your writer’s voice, so the agent/editor/queryee will know what to expect from your writing.  Be confident, but not arrogant: if you don’t think your work is good, no one else will either.  But don’t go too far, it’s not as if anyone who reads it will immediately begin crapping solid gold.  Above all, stick to the point and get the important information down: hook, pitch, author bio, done.  No one who might want to represent you or buy your book will care that you foster feral ferrets.

In additional to the pitch letter, your query will require an synopsis of your novel.  A synopsis is a (relatively) short summary of your book, again, using your voice.  The writer’s voice, that is, not the one tells you to stab your spouse with a fork when she tries to steal a bite of your nachos.  More importantly, the synopsis should not sound like a book report for Mrs. Hausdingle’s 5th grade English class.  In other words, avoid this:

In, “Anderson meets Molly”, Mr. Anderson is a regular guy. And then he meets Molly Maureen getting his oiled changed.  She steals his car and he chases after her.  He catches her, and then they rob a bank together with nothing but marshmallow fluff and packets of fast food hot sauce because Molly tells him she need 10,000 dollars for a cockular transplant.  Then the cops chase after them all over the city and the cars go ZOOM and the crashes go “CRASH” and the horns go “HONK” and the school kids and the nuns and the grandmothers going to liquor store for their whiskey all dive out of the way.  And then Mr. Anderson and Molly get away, but break up because he finds out the stolen money is actually to open a custom doll making shop, which really, dolls? Creepy.  Then he realizes he loves the creepy doll-making thief anyway, so he goes back to her and then they do it and live happily ever after.

So then, I’m crafting my query and building the first list of agents who’ll be getting my submission.  It should be noted that any advice I might have inadvertently provided above should be taken with a grain of salt.  I’ve done plenty of research about this, but to date I’ve successfully queried the same number of times as the plastic clown that pops out of a jack-in-the-box.  I think I know what not to do, but I’m not sure what I’m going to provide will be quite right, either.

Again, it’s like getting a prom date; you never know if the question’s going to work until someone says “Yes”.

Here’s hoping I don’t end up going alone.

And if you’re querying, I hope you find a good date too.


*Thank you, Keri Stevens, for the perfect description
**Huh-huh-huh.  He said “package,” Bevis.

5 thoughts on “The Novel Query (or, How NOT to get a prom date)

    1. Well, that stuff can be kind of expensive. The extra cash would go a long way toward helping cover the cost, you know?


    1. Thanks! It’s nerve-wracking to be sure, but I’m looking forward to finally sending out there. And thank you for taking the time to leave such a nice comment. 🙂


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