Query Fails: Why They Happen

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In my eternal quest for procrastination, I turned this morning to Slushpile Hell, a site to which writers have turned from time immemorial (since 2010) for a hearty laugh and a pleasant glow of superiority. The query letters on this site are so bizarre, clueless and illiterate that I would be tempted to believe the agent who curates them made them up, had I not been an agent myself for many years, during which time I received similar letters.

We passed those around the agency, I will admit. Agents do. It’s gallows humor of the sort ER doctors used to blow off steam. Outsiders, listening in, might have thought us heartless, but outsiders never had to wade through a literary agent’s slush pile, which for people who love literature and language is as much fun as vivisection is for animal lovers.

So I went to the site and read some of the letters and laughed at the snarky replies; but at the same time found myself feeling sorry for the clueless writers of those queries, which seemed to fall into two general categories: the misled and the misbegotten.

detergentThe misled are the writers who believe they have to sell themselves to the agent the same way you’d sell detergent. They praise their own work, which to any professional is a cringe-making gaffe that screams Amateur! “This book is different from all other books; this book will make us both rich; this book will make you laugh and cry; this book is far better than the drivel put out by [insert name of best-selling author].” Real writers don’t talk about their work that way. They let it speak for itself. It’s not impossible that the author of such a letter could have written a good book, but it’s unlikely that any agent will asked to read it.

The misbegotten are those of whom it is said “everyone has a book in him.” Perhaps everyone does, but that doesn’t mean they should let it out. Some query writers seem completely unaware of their ineptitude with the language. Anyone who would send an ungrammatical, misspelled, totally incoherent query letter cannot possibly have written a book worth reading; and there are many examples of these on the website. Other query writers are  delusional people drawn to writing in order to propagate their delusions. Every agent who’s been in the business for any length of time has received book proposals from messianic messengers of doom and revelation. These are often but not always religious, but they all have discovered the secret to life. Those letters range from sad to bizarre to scary, depending on the writer’s philosophy.

Speaking of misbegotten messengers, I’d like to give a shout out to my son’s alma mater, Vassar College, which was recently targeted by the Westboro Baptist Church, those lovely folk who like to picket the funerals of American servicemen. As a direct response to this group’s action, Vassar students and alumni raised  over $100,000 in a matter of weeks for the Trevor Project, an organization that helps LGBT youth. Way to make lemonade out of lemons, Vassar!

Writers who are currently seeking agents should not be deterred by sites like Slushpile Hell, but rather learn from them. These days there are so many excellent resources for writers available online that there’s no excuse for cluelessness. Before you send that query, run it by the savvy folks on Absolute Write, Agent Query, or CompuServe’s Books and Writers forum. You can also find a lot of advice on writing query letters on this blog—just click on “query letters” in the categories box to the right— with additional resources listed here.

Writing a decent query letter isn’t rocket science. It’s a business letter, not a confessional. From the perspective of top agent Gail Hochman : “A letter that is interesting to read means the writer might have something interesting in his manuscript.” If you present yourself as a reasonable, interesting person with a compelling story to tell and enough pride in your writing to compose a letter with flawless grammar and punctuation,  agents will want to read your work.

Or won’t they? Let’s hear about your  experiences with query letters and agents.

About Barbara Rogan

I am the author of nine novels, including A DANGEROUS FICTION, published by Viking and Penguin. I'm also a former editor and literary agent. Currently I teach fiction writing on my online school, www.nextlevelworkshop.com.
This entry was posted in Literary Agent Search, Query Letter, Submitting, Writing tips and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Query Fails: Why They Happen

  1. Ella Quinn says:

    Barbara, I have to disagree with you. Learning how to write a query letter was worse than figuring out headhopping. It may not be rocket scienc, but it’s not far off. Once everything clicks, you feel like you’ve been blessed with secret knowledge.

    • Writing is hard, period. The trick with query letters is seeing things from the agent’s POV.They’re thinking, “Does this sound like someone I could work with without wanting to shoot myself in the head every time she calls? Is the short description of the story coherent and compelling enough to make me want to read? Because if so, the novel may be the same.”

  2. S.P.Bowers says:

    Well, I haven’t seen my query letter on Slushpile Hell yet so I’ve passed the first level.

  3. Jen Donohue says:

    Ooh, I hadn’t heard of Slushpile hell; I must peruse.

    In my eyes, a query letter is much like a cover letter. I can’t just knock one out that doesn’t sound all stilted and “Dear so and so, I am great. You should love me. Kisses! Me.”

    Obviously, I’m working on it.

    • It’s hilarious but a bit cruel to writers who could conceivably find excerpts of their own letters posted.

      I think it’s most helpful to think of the query letter as a business letter. You wouldn’t go into your deep-seated motives for inventing a better mousetrap or ask potential associates to love you. You’d aim to make them think, Hmm, this is something I’d better check out before some other agent beats me out. The hardest part of the letter is the short description of the book. The rest is formulaic.

  4. Zan Marie says:

    If you think agents are bad, you should be in the teachers’ workroom when badly written essays are shared. Talk about black humor. Learning how matters…I’m still working on query letters. ; )

    • I guess every profession has its way of releasing tension in private. I once shadowed docs in an inner-city ER for a couple of weeks. Learned some stuff I’m still trying to forget.

  5. Marja McGraw says:

    Query letters baffle a lot of writers, and I appreciate what you had to say about them. They’re a learning process separate from actually writing a book. Great post, and thank you for sharing.

    (Please don’t judge all Christians by what people from the Westboro Baptist Church do. Some of us are kinda nice.)

    • Glad the piece helped. As for Westboro: Good Lord, no! Not sure they’re even Christian, as most people understand the term. They’re just haters.

      • Marja McGraw says:

        I had time to think about your post and realized I left a polite reply instead of an honest one. Not everyone has the means to learn how to write a query. It kind of breaks my heart to think anyone is laughing at the mistakes writers have made with query letters. I understand they can be funny, but we all do the best we can with the knowledge we have, which isn’t always enough. When I started out I knew nothing and didn’t know where to find the information. We learn through out mistakes, hopefully. Just thought I’d update my thoughts.

        • I think the idea on SLUSHPILE HELL is learning through others’ mistakes. In Israel, where I lived for a decade or so, they have a saying: “It’s better to learn to shave on someone else’s beard.” Also, I respectfully disagree about the difficulty of finding info on how to write a query letters. Just try googling the phrase and your search engine will short out, there are so many. The tricky part is finding the useful ones, but that too is doable.

          All that said, I actually share your discomfort with the site. In my upcoming novel, A DANGEROUS FICTION, the main character is an agent who fires her assistant for starting a similar blog. “Rejections are painful enough,” she tells him, “without pouring salt on the wound.”

          • Marja McGraw says:

            I love the line you quoted from your book. So true. Unfortunately, a lot of budding authors are older and not Internet savvy, and therein lies some of the problem. Bad advice from others who don’t know what they’re doing is another issue.

  6. I love this post!

    I never understood this idea of selling your work by marketing it as something “you’ve never read before” and expect to be taken seriously. It feels like an As Seen On TV ploy and sends shivers up my spine like nails on a chalkboard. Like, Really? How do you know what I have or haven’t read?

    • Hi Diane,

      It is pretty awful, but what’s worse is that those writers think they’re doing the right thing. People are CONSTANTLY telling writers that they need to market their books and themselves, and this is the form it takes. You see the same phenomena in the unending stream of self-promotion in online forums, mostly though by no means exclusively by self-published writers. In their case, they are going it alone and it is hard going; but the result in both cases is self-defeating.

  7. deniz says:

    I’m going to be whiny again 🙂 One thing that bugs me is seeing authors revise their first novels 25 times and then sign with an agent, after which (on social media) they say things like “finished the draft for my next book and sent it to my agent!”
    It sounds, to me, as if they never need to edit anymore until their agent and editor red pens the story.
    What is really going on here? Are they just not blabbing about their editing processes the way us unpublished authors do?

    • Hi Deniz! I’m guessing they keep it to themselves. I don’t know any writers who don’t edit their own work before sending it in. I tend to think they wouldn’t stay published if they got that lazy. Personally I edit as I write AND at the end I do another complete edit, before anyone else sees my work. It’s a matter of taking pride in your work.

      • deniz says:

        That’s what I figured. Just strange how they become all silent about the process as soon as they’re signed. Maybe cos it’s less agony knowing you’re working towards something definite…

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