I don't think anyone claims that a 250 word query can really capture all of the complexity and art of a full novel. However, since agents and editors are beyond swamped, even 250 words is a generous allowance. So, at least for now, querying is the best way we have to sell our books to agents and editors.
But does this tactic work? Can you really tell whether or not a book will be good by reading the query? I asked some of the current and former acquisitions editors of Curiosity Quills Press:
ANDREW: I look for a well written query with a solid structure and an original idea. I appreciate a good hook! If I’m entertained by the query then I’ll always ask for more.
JAMES: I'm an idea person. If the query expresses an interesting or unique idea, I'm hooked. If it just talks about character this and love that, I'm not.
JESSA: Well, a query should be closer to 250 words, with the actual plot blurb for your book closer to 200, leaving 50 words or so for you bio. :-)
Most importantly, I don't want to be confused. If your query has me completely lost by the second paragraph, that's not a good sign. One of the issues I've seen in both Acquisitions, and in various pitch contests or query workshops I've participated in as an author, would be the mention of too many characters. You only have a small amount of space (usually 200 words or less, not counting your bio) so don't bog me down with ten different character names and all of their various superpowers, love interests, and backgrounds. Who is your protagonist? What does he/she need to accomplish? Who or what stands in his/her way (antagonist)? What happens if he/she fails? Even if your side characters are amazing, and they are your most prized creations, don't tell me about them in the query unless youabsolutely have to. Too many names/characters/plot twists, and I'll end up confused and uninterested.
What are the situations where you might reject a very well-written query?
ANDREW: If the subject matter is inappropriate or doesn’t fit our catalogue then I’ll reject it even if it’s the Mona Lisa of query letters. If the query letter doesn’t offer a bribe then I’ll also reject it...no I’m kidding! But really...bribes work guys.
JAMES: If it doesn't match what we publish, it's out. We don't do memoirs, poetry, screenplays, or mainstream fiction. So if you submit a really great story about the holocaust, we still won't take it.
What are the situations where you might say yes to a poorly written or mediocre query?
ANDREW: We generally don’t accept query letters that are poorly written. In those particular cases we have sometimes sent back a polite critique of the query. The few we’ve accepted have had a great concept but even then, a badly written query letter raises immediate red flags.
JESSA: If the theme is interesting enough, and completely unique, I'd overlook a messy query in a heartbeat. As a writer who has now queried two books, I know how hard it is to write a query/blurb. I'm more interested in what follows the blurb, and your first pages are going to be very telling.
Do you find that excellent queries usually coincide with excellent novels, or are you sometimes disappointed with the MS after reading a query that gave you high hopes?
ANDREW: I’ve experienced it both ways. Great queries generally lead to great stories.
JAMES: I've been disappointed before. Just because somebody is a good salesman, doesn't make them a good writer. Unfortunately a good writer has to be a good salesman, too. But if you can write, you can learn to write a query, I suppose.
If a querying author is trying to decide whether or not his query or his novel is leading to rejections, what advice could you give to help them decide?
ANDREW: The literary industry is very subjective. Rejections can be attributed as much to a bad query as to an acquisitions editor whose car broke down than morning and he/she now hates the world. It’s a sad truth, but a truth none the less. The best advice I can give is to workshop your query. Have other people read it and see if it appeals to them. There’s also no harm in replying to a rejection to ask if there are any changes they could recommend to the query. 95% won’t reply but sometimes you get great advice.
JAMES: If they aren't requesting your manuscript, the query is the problem. If they are requesting the manuscript and then rejecting it, the manuscript is the problem. So fix the query until you get requests. Then fix the manuscript until you get accepted. Sounds simple enough, right? ;)
Remember, we want to read really great books. So if you send us one, we'll give you a contract. If we don't, it isn't because we didn't want to love it.
Part of the submission process is finding the right person who likes your book enough to invest in it. Look for people who print books like yours. They are most likely to print your book, too.
JESSA: Critique partners! Critique partners! Critique partners! Many critique partners.
Believe it or not, I could tell when an author hadn't had a critique partner (someone who is actually in the business and is also a writer). You may have allowed your mom and distant cousin to read your manuscript, and they probably loved it, but they don't count. Not in this area, at least. You need to have fresh eyes on your work--eyes that are critical and know what they're doing. We have this strange ability to miss mistakes in our own work. Even the best proofreader misses typos in their own manuscript. Even the best editor has plot holes and inconsistencies. You HAVE to allow other writers to view your work.
On that note, if all your CPs have done is tell you how awesome you and your manuscript are, they are not good CPs. Find someone who is willing to be blatantly honest with you. Your manuscript will thank you for it, I promise. Allow your new, honest CP to rip you apart and shred your manuscript to pieces. THAT is how you will grow to create a masterpiece. THAT is how you will become a better writer.