Uh, wow?

So apparently the little piece of information that I did not write my own query letter has touched off a bit of a firestorm.

Over on Nathan Bransford’s blog, there’s a lengthy (and really interesting) discussion about whether it’s okay to write your own query letters.  Some people say that a query letter is your own work and anything else is dishonest.  Other people say, whatever works, works.  Jennifer Jackson says, unequivocally, no, you should write your own query letter.

I do want to point out one thing, which I hope doesn’t piss off anybody.  On this point, the interests of agents and writers do not align 100%.  As a writer, you want someone to pay maximum attention to your pages.  But an agent wants to focus her very valuable time only on the projects that are most likely to pay dividends.  If I were an agent, I think I would shiver in fear at the thought of everyone being able to produce really awesome queries–because then how do you allocate your valuable time?  How do you filter out manuscripts?  As an unagented writer, I didn’t care about any of those concerns.  I just wanted to hop the filter.

But I do have to say that I think it worked in my case for two reasons.  First, the query letter that Sherry wrote was one that I rewrote until it was in my voice.  Sherry did an awesome job of highlighting the conflict.  And because she doesn’t do this regularly, and wasn’t getting paid for it, and read the pages and got the manuscript, she really understood the crux of the conflict in my book and to help me get it right in the query letter.  I doubt you could pay someone to do what Sherry did for me, and I seriously doubt that someone could start a query service that would make money on such an endeavor.  And when Sherry sent me the version with the conflict highlighted, she specifically did not edit it–so that I would be forced to go and write it in my voice.

I wanted to hop the filter, but I also knew I wanted to hop the filter with the right agents.  And so I knew it was my responsibility to take what Sherry had given me and both make it representative of my voice, and make sure that it captured the heart of my book.  I wanted an agent to read it and think, “how cool”–and then read my pages and think, “yep, that’s what this query told me.”

In some sense, a query letter is like giving an agent a sniff of your book before they take a bite.  Have you ever bitten into something expecting raspberry, and gotten ketchup instead?  Even if you like ketchup, the difference between expectation and actual delivery will make you recoil.  I knew that if the query did not represent my book on all levels, it wouldn’t be a good tool for me in the long run.  So I didn’t send it out until I was sure that it represented my book.  More importantly, I also felt like the query letters I tried to write myself did not represent my book, either–they weren’t good enough for it–and so I wasn’t going to send them, either.

I think you should do as an author whatever works.  I don’t think it would work to have someone else write your query, and not have it represent your book, both in terms of plot summary, quality of writing, and voice.  And I think that if you don’t know what represents your voice and quality of writing and the plot of your book, you have bigger problems then a mere query letter.

10 thoughts on “Uh, wow?

  1. So, did you write your query or not? Because from your The Call story, I got the sense that Sherry was like Super Critique Woman, complete with Awesome Connections action pack, not ghost-writer. And if you re-wrote in your own words, is that still writing, or is that editing?

    I’m new to the debate, so I’m just asking. Clearly, Kristen and the folks over at Harlequin have gotten over any query letter debate. And I’m just too darned happy for you to get my knickers in a twist!

  2. While I can see why this might concern some agents, most authors also don’t end up writing their own back cover copy either. Should I, as a reader with limited reading time, be concerned that back cover copy is produced with the help of editors and marketing departments? If you’re a smart reader – or a smart agent – you learn to weed through it. I know what kinds of stories and conflicts appeal to me. Sure, occasionally I’m misled, but there’s really no foolproof way to know if you’ll like a book without trying it. As you suggest, the point of a good query is to get at the heart of what the book is about, so I’d think in the long run, better, more focused queries would help agents see more quickly whether this is the kind of story likely to interest them.

  3. After much going back and forth, Sherry basically wrote my query letter–I couldn’t say anything other than that. She wrote the bones of it, and left it for me to polish into something that was representative of my book, which I did, but if you compared the one on Kristin’s blog to what she sent me, you would say that Sherry wrote my query.

    Ultimately, I didn’t even use the query letter to land an agent. Kristin requested the full at the conference, sans query, and I already had Sherry’s recommendation.

    There’s a difference between things that must be your own work and things that are not your own work. Everybody agrees you can’t pass someone else’s work off as yours in an academic paper. But if someone else wrote your abstract–and indeed, other people often do–nobody would even blink. It seems to me that there are multiple classes of items:

    1. Things you must do yourself, without any outside help at all. These include, for instance, exams.

    2. Things you must complete yourself, but you are allowed to ask questions and seek feedback, but must attribute for feedback. Thus, for instance, the academic paper, with the mile-long footnote thanking X, Z, and their dogs for helpful comments. Likewise, I think, in books, one thanks one’s critique partners and editor and copy-editor and agent.

    3. Things you must complete yourself, but you are allowed to get feedback, and you need not attribute. This includes, in my mind, homework. It also includes query letters. I think this class of things includes anything where it is assumed that working together is okay.

    4. Things you need not complete yourself, but which generally contain some form of attribution. These include, among other things, business letters (so would this all be okay if I added CM/st at the bottom?).

    5. Things you need not complete yourself, which are not attributed. This includes, in my mind academic abstracts of papers, back cover copy of books, copy on website pages, and advertisements about a product.

    There are gray areas between these places. Take, for instance, college entrance essays. I think you’d be a fool not to seek feedback, but you generally don’t need to say in your application, “My best friend helped me with this.” On the other hand, if you pay a college admissions service to edit your essays, I feel like that does need to be disclosed.

    Ethically, I think these categories are sound. But I don’t have a good rubric for figuring out where to slot every item. To me, the query letter itself sounds precisely like back cover copy, academic abstracts, and advertisements–in other words, it seemed to fit into category 5. But some people insist it is category 3 or 4. I haven’t seen, in all hundred-whatever comments on Nathan’s blog, any sort of discussion that gets into the relevant ethical taxonomy. Everyone is just asserting, “No, it is like homework” or “No, it is like an examination.”

    Ultimately, I think people are mixing up two things. It is rarely prudent to have someone else write your query letter. It worked for me because Sherry Thomas is awesome, and I exercised a great deal of control over the final product so that it ended up as representative. But imprudent and unethical are two entirely different beasts.

  4. I agree with your categories. I also think there’s absolutely nothing wrong about submitting a query letter that is substantially the work of another person, at least as long as you had input into the process that created it.

    That said, I do understand why agents might THINK it is dishonest/misleading. And that is because, in my experience of reading both queries and manuscripts, I generally find that there is a correlation between the writer’s ability to produce a good query and his/her ability to write a good story. I think it’s because, as you mentioned on Kristin’s blog, being able to condense the essential elements of your story (particularly conflicts and goals) to a couple of paragraphs really helps you to understand what your story is about.

    At this point, I’ve discovered that if I don’t write that roughly 200-word query hook before I write the book, I will inevitably hit a brick wall when writing the book. It will happen because, even if I have a relatively detailed synopsis, I will find at some point that I don’t actually know what the heart of the conflict is.

    This happened with the last book I started. I thought I knew what the story was. Thought I understood the conflict. But I kept writing myself into dead ends. Kept finding myself trying to put the characters in situations that didn’t “fit” their personalities. And when I actually tried to write the 200-word hook, I discovered WHY. All the details of the plot I’d laid out in my synopsis had already invaded and overtaken any sense of what the ACTUAL conflict between the characters was. It was all externally motivated and the internal conflicts were weak/non-existent. Worse yet, I couldn’t figure out what they were.

    So, I ditched the book for the time being and started on another one. And THIS time, I wrote the query blurb before I wrote page one. So far, it seems to be working MUCH better.

  5. Since queries are done in the privacy of one’s office or home, nobody knows whether or not an author got help to write her query. Truly, I don’t think it matters in the end. If agents believe all queries to be 100% written by the writer without help or editing by anyone, then I think they are naive. Of course writers would seek out help in writing such an important thing. To assume anything differently, means you don’t get how hard it is for an author to condense her book down into query-form. It’s a completely different way of writing.

    Writers use their connections all the time. Whether it is to get a foot in with an agent (those who say they are closed to querying, but open to referrals from their clients) or to get some feedback from an author or agent on her query or book. This is such a competitive business, you have to do what you can to make it.

    I just don’t see an issue with this. If the book is good, shouldn’t the final comment be: Congratulations?! 🙂

  6. You sold your book based on your book, not the query. I dont see a problem with it.

    I’ve read amazing books but the query letters sucked, so should that person be punished because they can’t write a simple paragraph, yet can writer a 400 page book? I dont think so.

    As a reader, I wouldn’t give a crap if the writer wrote their own query letter, I’d just want to read a good book.

    And good for you for being honest.

  7. I say anything that gets your book read is fair game. After all, we are selling our books, not our query letters.

    That being said, after reading Jackie’s post, I feel like I need to write a query letter ASAP!

  8. Wow, Courtney, who knew that knickers would be twisted over this? In my opinion, it’s not like you didn’t have anything to do with the query! You wrote and rewrote it, got guidance, wrote some more, got more guidance, tried again, and then got the essential bones of it put together by someone else. So? But you didn’t just send what Sherry wrote, you reworked it until it was YOU even if you kept essentially the meat of what she wrote.

    And the best query in the world, no matter who wrote it, wouldn’t have gotten you the agent or the deal if your book weren’t awesome. I think people forget that. It’s also easy, in this business, when you’ve been rejected again and again and don’t quite understand why, to seize on anomalies and make broad statements about them.

    So, hugs, but there’s no doubt you deserve the deal — and I can’t wait to read the book!

  9. As someone who will face the query-writing task sometime this year and is sweating bullets over it, I wish Sherry Thomas would write my query letter! From what I’ve read, agents expect a lot out of those few paragraphs, and if you aren’t able to push the right buttons with the right person who is in the right frame of mind on the right day, you get a form rejection and that’s it. If you have a friend who is better at distilling the essence of your novel into a couple hundred words than you are, then you are fortunate and should take the help she offers. I’m sure that if your book was horrid, she wouldn’t have done so. Actually, it encouraged me to learn that someone who got her agent and her book deal wasn’t able to just sit down and dash off a winning query letter. And it says something about Ms. Milan that she is both humble and honest enough to write the whole story, and grateful enough to mention her friend’s help.

    Plus, the book sounds great–congratulations!

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