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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.


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