The Query Process: I Want Off This Ride! - Writer's Digest

The Query Process: I Want Off This Ride!

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Here’s a guest post about the wild ride of the query process from "pre-published" author Karen Sargent. If you have a great idea and would like to contribute a guest post of your own, please send an e-mail to with the subject line: Guest Post Idea for No Rules.


Eight seconds. That’s how long your query has to get an agent’s attention—or the delete key.

"Eight seconds," you ask. "What is this…a bull ride?"

Funny you should say that because that’s exactly how the query process feels—like a brain-rattling, often painful, yet exhilarating ride. And it all begins with the query letter.


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How to Write a Query Letter

But this is your first rodeo, so you’re Pollyanna confident. You grab your literary agent dream list, go to Google, and key in “how to write a query letter.” You’re determined to ride this beast!

The bull lunges out of the chute…and so do the 1,060,000 hits on Google for writing a query. You click on the first one and skim:

Write to specific agent…state title of book (duh!)…word count and genre…proper tone…one-page only…

A Query Is Only One Page

What’s the big deal, right? You just wrote a 449-page manuscript. What’s a one-page letter? You’ve got this. So you open Word and begin to draft…and begin to draft…and begin to draft. Because that “tone” thing…it’s giving you some problems. You don’t want to sound too stiff, but you don’t want to sound too casual. So back to Google you go to look up tone, where you discover your query should “strike the same tone” as your manuscript. What? This is a letter. That is a story.

You begin to feel the power of the beast, but you refuse to be intimidated. Instead, you search for sample query letters to see how other authors strike the tone. You click a letter and skim. You click another and skim. You click and…the beast makes an unexpected twist and throws off your balance.

Because this query looks different than that query. And that query looks different than another query. And none of them look like the query you tried to write based on the criteria you found. And tone? Forget that. You’ve got bigger problems.

Just Follow the Guidelines

Then a disclaimer typed beneath one of the sample letters gives you hope. It reads something like this: Agents may have their own preferences for a query letter. Be sure to follow each agent’s guidelines exactly.

Well, that makes sense. Kinda. So you find the first name on your agent dream list and check the agency website for her query guidelines, which look familiar—except for that one thing about target audience. Why must you identify who will want to read your book? Everyone will want to read it, of course! It’s the next NY Times bestseller! You also notice the agent wants the first five pages of your manuscript pasted into the e-mail, NOT as an attachment which will NOT be opened and will be IMMEDIATELY deleted lest you send her a virus.

You move to the next agent on your list and do a guideline check. Now, that’s strange. Along with the query, this agent wants a synopsis—ATTACHED to the e-mail and NOT pasted in because pasting causes HORRIBLE formatting problems, which is a TERRIBLE way to present yourself (and which is apparently much worse than sending a virus) according to the guidelines.

What the Heck Is a Synopsis?

But wait. What the heck is a synopsis? So….back to Google you go…to discover a synopsis is a one-page summary of your 449-page book. Or it’s a two-page summary. No, wait. This other article says it can be a 5-6 page summary, double-spaced. But didn’t the previous site say it should be single-spaced? You continue to read that agents will use the synopsis not only to judge your story but also your writer’s craft, so the synopsis should be sublime. Are you kidding me? No, I’m not. And now the beast is air born and preparing to contort in ways that are unnatural.

The synopsis, you determine, should be easier than the query because, after all, you know your story intimately. How hard can this be? So you decide to write the synopsis first. Before long your cursor is at the end of one single-spaced page and you’re only five pages into the first chapter and you’re certain this is the worst writing Microsoft Word has ever processed! Pollyanna has left the arena.

So you go to YouTube to watch cute baby animal videos instead. But your manuscript, which is printed and bound with a big black clip, sits next to you, reminding you of the endless hours you spent together, and how some of them felt like obstacles you’d never complete. But you did.

A New Proposal

You force your eyes from the baby orangutan kissing its mama and look at the next agent name on your dream list. Your fingers key in the web address. You click SUBMISSIONS, but instead of a query, this agent wants a cover letter (what?)—and a proposal. But wait. Isn’t a proposal for nonfiction? Your manuscript is fiction. You read the guidelines again. Yep. The agent wants a proposal for fiction, too, and he’s even provided a handy-dandy link to a sample. Fear flutters in your chest. Do you dare click the link?

Yes, you dare. And more words pop up that you don’t know how to write: tagline, elevator pitch, back-cover copy, author bio (brief), author bio (expanded), comparable titles, market analysis, marketing strategies, platform, endorsements.

The unharnessed power of the beast explodes, and you start to spin. You want off this ride! You don’t belong in this arena. What were you thinking? All you wanted was to write a book and get published. You consider your dream and feel foolish for believing you could ride the bull… because now you realize you’re just the rodeo clown.

Is This Even Worth It?

All that work—the manuscript, tailored queries, a synopsis, a cover letter, a proposal—just to end up in some mysterious thing called a slush pile? Where 95-98% of the slush remains in the pile? Is this brain-rattling, painful ride worth it?

When that 8-second buzzer sounds and you’re still hanging on, your first call from an agent will be exhilarating. So we have to keep riding the beast. I am. You should, too.


Karen Sargent

Karen Sargent

Karen Sargent is a pre-published author who, after teaching literature and writing for 22 years, transformed from a teacher of writing to a student of writing and completed her first Christian fiction novel, Waiting for Butterflies.

She blogs at


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