Succesful Querying: It’s Not All About The Letter.

July 16, 2014 | By | 34 Replies More

I don’t remember the year, but I remember the date. It was December 26th and I was at my parents’ house for the holidays. My guard was down. Without a thought, I opened my email and found in bold face font yet another agent’s rejection. There was nothing cruel about the rejection. It was probably even warm, if form.

Yet it was the last in a parade of many and one more than I could take.   A grenade exploded within my soul. Fragments of my heart bespattered the walls.

The query process is so blind. Was it my letter that turned him off? My pitch? My manuscript? My first chapter? The second? Was it the typo I missed? I had endless energy for improvement, but where should I direct it?


I had never felt so helpless. I had no idea what do to.

I paced the vacant upstairs hallway of my parents’ house and pleaded with… who? God, the universe, the fates, the literary agents of the world, the ceiling? All of the above. “Tell me what to do. Tell me what to do. Tell me what to do…” The tone of my voice oscillated with my anguish.

Suddenly, standing ramrod straight, I knew what to do.

Querying hurts. Writing heals.

MM FINCKI discovered a secret: Once you’ve fixed what you’ve written, what they rejected no longer exists. You’re free. I went back downstairs to my family, opened my laptop, and clacked away at my first chapter. An hour later, it was better and so was I.

You may be thinking: Okay, yeah, I relate to the heartbreak, but what about garnering the manuscript requests I covet so dearly and, better yet, an offer of representation from my perfect agent?

I am happy to tell you, but first you need to repair your exploded soul. Agents are like blood hounds. They can smell desperation. You don’t need to be thoroughly confident (who is?), but you need to internalize enough of it to sound like you are.

Agents want clients who are going to help their careers. Until then, it is a leap of faith, financial and otherwise. You want to come to your interactions with agents as a professional looking to team with another professional for mutual gain. Take as much time as you need to get yourself in form.

Then begin:

  • Be patient. Often it took me a couple hours to perfect a single query.  That sounds crazy, but once I figured out what I was doing, my request rate for pages was over 75%. When I signed with my agent, I was in talks with two others at the same time, as well as seven other top-notch agents who were reading my full manuscript. This from the same rejection-collector who pled with the ceiling in the opening paragraph.
  • After that last December rejection, I took time off from querying. For a year, I studied craft. Then, for a year, I wrote. Make sure your writing is ready.  Contests are a great way to evaluate this. The judges are published authors, agents, and editors. The feedback they give is often specific and plentiful – cheapest editing you can find. In this same vein, if critique sessions are offered at a conference you should, by all means, sign up. Take every opportunity you can find for professional feedback.
  • Once you begin querying, I know others will say to query tens of agents at a time. I would say not to go crazy. If you become aware of something in your letter or work that could be better, you have basically wasted all the queries that included the lower quality submission.
  • Print out your query letter before you hit send. Typos tend to be invisible on the screen.
  • Choose your agents carefully. Not just who you think you can get, but who you want.  Your career is in their hands. You want someone who can give you one.
  • Research the agents before you query them. This advice confused me greatly. Where? How? True story, I once queried an agent and offered as evidence that I’d researched her that we played the same position in recreational soccer. [Base of palm smacks forehead.] The appropriate way to research an agent is to find out: 1, which books she represents; 2, which authors she represents and what they say about her; 3, her sales records; 4, what she is currently looking for or historically interested in.
  • The best way that I know how to obtain this information is with a membership to  Reading the agency website and online interviews are essential but not sufficient. I cannot recommend Publishers Marketplace (or another like database) highly enough.
  • Personalization of a query letter goes beyond the To: line. Consider your comparative titles. Choose books comparable to yours that she herself represents. If she doesn’t have any, she’s probably not the right agent for you.
  • Another strategy on comp titles is to use titles which are current bestsellers in your genre (and they truly apply). It shows your knowledge of the market and gets the agent’s juices flowing.
  • Tinker the wording of your letter based on what you know she wants (while staying true). For example, if you know she likes stories about redemption and that could apply to yours, include that word in your description of the overarching themes. Every one of your letters should look slightly different.
  • Your pitch is KEY. If you can find a pitch contest, by all means, compete. Your pitch is by far the most important part of your query letter. Even if you have no comp titles or fail to personalize to the agent, if your pitch rocks, the agent will scroll down to your sample pages. Here is a common formula and the one I used –
  1. Hookline
    1. Characters
    2. Conflict
    3. Distinction
    4. Setting
    5. Action

Example – A wild orphan boy in the Australian Outback who can speak to animals is swept into an illegal poaching ring by a man who claims to be his uncle and must find a way to escape while also saving the lives of the elephants who raised him.

  1. Setup
  2. Conflict
  3. Stakes/Consequence(The stakes can’t be high enough. Raise ‘em. Raise ‘em again.)
  • Names help. Use them. I didn’t know a soul in the publishing world when I started. It is not a coincidence that by the time I signed with my agency, I had compiled a community of writer-friends. Remember the bloodhound analogy? Go to conferences. Talk to the panelists and other attendees. Keep in contact with them. Social media is one of our greatest tools. Join writers’ associations for your region or genre. Keep up with new releases in your genre and reach out to the author with praise for her book. If you don’t have a name to drop, don’t fret. But if you do, use it (with permission).
  • Lastly, querying is a numbers game. My magic number was ten. I liked having ten lives ones. If two to three weeks went by, I considered the unanswered ones dead and replaced them in my count with another one. The rejections that hurt the most were the ones that left me with nothing else. If an agent asks for an exclusive submission, ask for a time limit. Otherwise, no matter how much you love an agent and hope that it works out between you, keep querying.

This article is the summation of countless sources and advisors, and every word of it was learned on my own road-rashed skin. I see now how my experiences were a beeline to where I am, but at the time, every “almost” felt like a death. This industry has a remarkable way of knowing when we’re ready. I have since signed with my perfect agent at my dream agency.

I have one novel out on editorial submission and another one about to go. It is terrifying. But it is nothing compared to querying. You are not crazy. It is hard. My heart is with you. But know that you can do it. The fact that you found your way to WWWB and opened this article proves that you have the requisite drive and determination. It’s not all about the letter. It’s what’s inside you. If you chuck everything else I said, remember this: Be the last man standing. Keep putting your face in front of agents and other writers. Keep writing (and keep in touch).

I wish you all the best.

MM Finck is a writer, essayist, and query letter coach and opening pages editor as The Query Quill. She oversees WWWB’s Interviews and Agents’ Corner segments. Her women’s fiction and is represented by Katie Shea Boutillier of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.

She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and the contest chair for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association 2016 Rising Star writing contest for unpublished authors.

Her work has appeared in national and regional publications, including skirt! magazine. When she isn’t editing her novel, #LOVEIN140, you can find her belting out Broadway tunes (off key and with the wrong words), cheering herself hoarse over a soccer match (USWNT!), learning to play piano (truly pitifully), building or fixing household things, and trying to squeeze more than twenty-four hours out of every day. She is active on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Litsy (@MMF). Say hi!


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Category: Contemporary Women Writers

Comments (34)

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  1. C.J. Sweet says:

    You’re encouragement is contagious! What excellent advice! After nearly two years of subjecting my novel to a weekly, brutally honest critique group, I feel it’s ready to put it out there! I’m working (and reworking) the query letter. Thank you!

    C.J.Sweet a/k/a

  2. Ella Olsen says:

    Good, solid advice wrapped into a emotional narrative. We writers need a shoulder to cry on AND a light at the end of the tunnel and you provided both. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Gulara says:

    Thank you very much for such a heartful and useful post. I really needed to hear your encouraging words.

  4. Thank you! I needed this. When I started querying 2 years ago, I had many rejections. Unfortunately, I listened to my writers group who told me to keep querying. I did for a while…then decided I had to take yet another look at everything. The entire ms, not just the query letter. I’ve since rewritten my book, and it’s 200% better. Soon I’ll start the query process again, and will make sure my query letter includes your suggested format.

  5. Thank you for the excellent information! I haven’t even started the stage of looking for an agent (and have no idea how to do that), but your article provides some really clear, practical steps that I can start on right now. Thank you, thank you! 🙂

  6. Hollie Overton says:

    This is a truly insightful article about the querying process. A must read! Thanks.

  7. MM, this post resonated with me on so many levels. It took me a decade to get my first publishing contract. At times it felt as if my heart was too shredded to take another no. But through it all, I couldn’t stay away and soon I’d be at it again, pounding out words and somehow it has paid off in a contract. I appreciate how you freely give away what cost you so dearly to learn. You are an inspiration!

    • MM Finck says:

      I’m not sure how to start! Your comment touched me deeply. I am honored. I don’t feel like an inspiration, but how wonderful it would be if someone gained greater courage, faith, or achievements because of me? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all used our trials to spare or lessen the pain of others? It is one of the tenets of my life. At my lowest moments, I’ve been blessed by people who’ve done this for me. When my heart is tortured and full of doubt, the raw honesty of personal experience is the only thing that heals me. Your words, “I couldn’t stay away” – I can’t even explain why, but YES. “Freely give away what cost you so dearly to learn” – thank you so very much. Please accept my virtual hug, and please keep in touch.

  8. Jennifer Bryson says:

    Thanks especially as I got another rejection email today. I’m going straight back to chapter one to make it even better and am doing lots of reading on how to write query letters!
    Good luck Myra in your search.

    • MM Finck says:

      Jennifer, You can do it! Start with a great line, in the middle of a scene, and keep your first two pages tightly related to the book’s main plot. Sentences sharp and characters clear. I keep a list of first lines of every novel I read. Before I start a novel (often, a new chapter), I scroll through to get myself fluent in that language. It’s not like other writing. Don’t be afraid to ask friends for feedback. Choose ones that read a lot and will tell you the truth. I’m so happy for you that are keeping at it. You’re finding out how strong you are! Congratulations! Best of luck!! 🙂

      • jennifer Bryson says:

        Thanks MM for taking the time to get back to me. Really good idea about keeping a note of the first lines in books. Have just started the 39 steps, which I didn’t think I would read but the writing is excellent.
        Will also use your tip re query letter and using a great one liner.

  9. Tina Hoggatt says:

    What a fabulous article! So heartfelt and helpful, with concrete actions and resources. Thank you!

  10. You lifted my spirits, MM. I self-published believing that if it is good enough I could back into the process of getting an agent and a publisher. Won a best fiction award and a Kirkus Star Review, which opened the publisher door and agent door. Just received my kind agent rejection. Publisher says I need an agent for her house to represent me. Your post is moving me along on the search. Thanks

    • Amy Kierce says:

      Keep going, Myra! What validation to earn those awards! We can do it!! I’m in the middle of re-editing/re-writing my novel and was re-energized, too. 🙂 Amy Kierce

    • MM Finck says:

      Hi Myra, I agree with Amy’s every word. I wrote a blog post once about the compliment of “natural talent.” If you have that, then every things else is coming. Keep getting better. Keep putting it out there. With those accolades, you can feel 100% that you do. Best of luck! Thanks so much for sharing your story.

  11. Amy Kierce says:

    Loved your piece! Am forwarding it to another writer friend. I did the query route then realized I needed to edit more, so that’s what I’m doing. I admire your persistence and hope I have the same. Good luck with your book!!

    • MM Finck says:

      If you ask me, you are doing it EXACTLY right. Stick with it, listen to your reviewers (mostly), and it will work out. When it does, I want to hear about it! I’m pleased we connected on twitter now so I will. 🙂

  12. MM Finck says:

    Thank you, Miss Leah. :). Now I follow in your shoes, ALL THE DIFFERENCE. Write an article for me! 🙂

  13. Great post, MM. You offer hope–and empathy!–along with really solid helpful strategies. Man, I wish I’d read this a couple of years ago! It sure would’ve helped me to just take a step back and relax…and realize it all doesn’t have to happen at once, on our time.

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