Why the World’s Best-Crafted Query Doesn’t Always Get You a Contract (Plus Prompt)

In No. 3 from the Top 20 Tips From WD in 2009 series, Scott Hoffman points out what may seem like the obvious—but something that can be easy to forget when lost in the mechanics of a query to sell a book to an agent or editor (or when worrying about scoring those hallowed meetings with publishing reps).

No. 3: Story First.
Remember that even the world’s best-crafted query letter won’t get you a publishing contract if your book is no good. The energy you spend getting face time with influential folks in the publishing industry should be matched only by the energy you spend polishing your manuscript.
—Agent Scott Hoffman, from the September 2009 WD agent package. (Check it out here.)

That said, with a good story on hand, here’s agent Jessica Faust on what does help make a solid query:

“The best queries don’t leave much of an impression at all. The key to a query isn’t so much in the parts—the specific paragraphs or information—but how well the author’s voice comes through. The queries that really grab me are those that make me feel like I’m already in the book, and make me drop everything the minute the requested material arrives because I can’t wait to read this voice again.”

Also, with a sizable stack of books piling up in the Promptly inbox, it’s a perfect time for a swag-away. After putting the names of every commenter per post from the last month into a hat (err, large bowl from my cupboard emblazoned with roosters), I reached in and snagged a paper, and regular Promptly writer Mark James’ name popped up. He’ll grab Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs, John Vorhaus’ The California Roll, Sherman Alexie’s War Dances, Joshua Lyon’s Pill Head, Joseph Kertes’ Gratitude, Tom Bird’s The Call of the Writer’s Craft, as well as copies of the WD newsstand-only magazines Writer’s Yearbook 2010, Guide to Creativity, and Novel Writing. Thanks for writing here, Mark! (And for that matter, everyone.)

Finally, has anyone submitted to a literary journal for the November challenge? If I can get a moment away from turkey and other tasks this weekend, I’m going to try to do some fine-tuning and send a piece in. Then, nap. And eat copious amounts of food. Repeat.

WRITING PROMPT: No Thanksgiving
Feel free to take the following prompt home or post your response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings.

It’s a holiday and you have to work. Someone throws a few coins your way, you look up, and decide to put them to work for you.

Befriend me on the new Writer’s Digest community, or befriend Promptly on Facebook!

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8 thoughts on “Why the World’s Best-Crafted Query Doesn’t Always Get You a Contract (Plus Prompt)

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  3. Zac

    Mark and Martha — love the pieces! You guys have completely rocked November (one more day!). (Martha: Sorry for the hurt brain 🙂 I like how everything evolved on this one.)

    As for the radio silence, after a tryptophan OD and several ceiling-tile induced concussions (or, I sheepishly admit, a confused router and cable company holiday), I’m back online (and preparing to load a double prompt tomorrow).

    If you celebrated it, here’s to hoping you both had a great holiday!

    (Oh yeah, almost forgot — Mark, can you e-mail your address to writersdigest [at] fwmedia.com with "Attn: Zac" in the subject line?)

  4. Mark James

    Zac: Thanks for letting me play on your playground. You got some pretty neat stuff here.
    Martha: Thanks. That is one awesome story; gave me chills.

    Who gives you New Year’s Day off, but makes you work right up to midnight on New Year’s Eve?

    My boss.

    He’s lucky I work for him. I can’t go after him. It’s in my contract.

    “No, I can’t just leave. Yeah, somebody’s gonna know if I do.”

    Meredith was a nice girl. Didn’t have a clue what she saw in me. Whatever it was, she wanted to see it on New Year’s Eve. I checked my watch. Five minutes ’til my next walk through. “I gotta go.”

    When all you have to do is watch a bunch of kids, you’d think body guard would be easy work.

    I checked the bank of monitors on the back wall. All sleeping, eyes closed. Except, something wasn’t right about the body closest to the wall.

    “I knew you’d figure it out.”

    I spun around, almost shot him. Rafe. Who else? Genius kids come in the trouble maker variety too.

    “You got a death wish, kid?”

    “You want to see your girlfriend tonight?”

    I holstered my gun. “Go to sleep.”

    “Don’t you want to know how I got down here?”

    “Picked a lock, hacked the ‘Net, blew up your mom. What difference does it make?”

    “You want to go out, take her home afterwards, do that thing you grown ups like so much, don’t you?”

    “Who’s gonna show up at the door when my relief gets here, you?”

    He held up a blue rectangle the size of a lighter, pressed a button. “Sorry to call you on the way out, Mitch. Everything’s online. Later.”

    It was a near perfect match for my voice.

    Part of guarding them was to let them figure out ways around us. One man in the house, armed guards on the perimeter. They might get past me, but they wouldn’t get far.

    Rafe handed me a credit card. “American Express, Black. Lose it before midnight tomorrow, and it’s untraceable.”

    The card had my name on it. Meredith would just about flip when she saw – –

    I glanced at the monitors. Damn. Two rows of empty beds. “Where are they?”

    “Around. We’re playing hide and seek. I’m it. I’ll check every inch of the house, just like you would.”

    “And you expect me to walk, let that happen?”

    “I know you will. Your psych profile says so.” Rafe’s voice was low, calm. “When Mitch checks the monitors, he’ll see us in bed, eyes closed.”

    “If they catch you, it’s isolation cells for all of you.”

    “They never let us play.”

    “Write them a memo.”

    He closed my hand around the American Express card. “Have fun. Let me be you for a couple of hours. No one has to know.”


    When I got to Meredith’s, she didn’t ask any questions.

    I didn’t get any phone calls, so I figured Rafe pulled it off. Nine years old. By eighteen, he’d be a Master Assassin.

    I didn’t make it ’til I was twenty.

  5. Martha W

    Zac – just when I had forgiven you for the last prompt that made my brain hurt… here you go dropping this one on me. *sigh* I sat here staring for an hour. Nothing. So I modified your prompt and just wrote about a man on the corner. Is that cheating? lol!

    And your post about queries, spot on. Love it.

    Mark – Congrats, man!


    As the snow slowly drifted down, I felt the rush. The bustle. People in a hurry, never giving more than a cursory glance to the man on the corner. Blaming them was pointless, they couldn’t know. How could they, in their perfect lives, know how I came to be that man? The one who played the hymns of old with his guitar, taking valuable space from the holiday crush.

    No one knew how desperate I had become, to sacrifice my entire being for one night a year, to save the one I loved. I gave it freely so she would be safe. So she could have the life she deserved.

    It wasn’t her fault the cancer spread like wild fire, the disease eating her from the inside out. I remember falling to my knees in the hospital church the night the doctor said she only had hours to live. We had tried everything. Chemo. Surgery. Radiation. Holistic. Even praying hadn’t worked.

    Until that moment.

    As I sat on the cold tile floor at the feet of Christ, I begged for a second chance for Emily. Anything. I’d give anything for her to live. I felt the warmth, the love. The sobs racking my body eased as peace and understanding washed through the darkest depths of my soul. I opened weary eyes to see the most beautiful sight- a man in long, flowing robes with soft, knowing brown eyes and wavy, silken hair.

    "Dear one, let me ease your troubles." I heard the words without even seeing his precious lips move. How could that be?

    "How? I don’t know what to do." Sinking to rest my forehead against the coolness of the floor, the tears coursed unchecked down my cheeks.

    A chuckle rumbled gently around my heart. "It isn’t for you to know, but for you to believe."

    Feeling the touch of fingers sifting my own blond tresses, I raised my head to look into his beautiful face. "I believe. Please help us. Tell me."

    "Each year on the eve of my birth, you are to use your gift to spread the Word. Every other day, you must use your gift to love the one I am giving back to you."

    While some might say this was all an illusion, a dream of wishful thinking, I knew this was true. Real. And I knew for the rest of my life, I’d be that man. Thankful for his wife, believer in miracles.

    The one who played the hymns of old with his guitar on the corner.