Sunday, July 25, 2010

And now a word from...Intern X

Two postings ago I promised a guestblog from Intern X, one of my fabulous query-reading interns, talking about how your querying chances are better than you think, based on the fact that many queriers disqualify themselves. So, without further ado, here is her take on the topic:

When I first heard that Jenny was looking for a few good interns, I was -so- excited to finally get to see how real authors write their queries and communicate in the uber professional writing world.

Boy was I in for a big surprise.

Before I was an intern, I had read that something like 90% of authors disqualified themselves without us even reading their query. I felt for sure that all those previous query-reading interns must have been wrong. I was going to blaze in there and find all these fab books and spend my time happily reading future bestsellers.

That’s not what happened.

Here’s what did:

That first time I logged into Jenny’s queries inbox I found it full to bursting.

About thirty percent of those queries didn’t match what Jenny was looking for (posted in her easy to find submissions guidelines). Instant rejections.

Another five percent of spam. (yes, agents get spam too) This included junk mail blasts of book promotions, invites to social media, etc. Instant deletions.

Half of those remaining didn’t include the requested ten pages (also posted in her submissions guidelines). If we didn’t like the query, we didn’t bother to ask for the ten pages. If we did like the query, we had to write back asking for them. Their query then went back to the bottom of the pile.

Another chunk, say fifteen percent of those remaining, were thank you letters for Jenny rejecting them so nicely. Jenny writes an amazing rejection letter.

When all is accounted for, that’s only about 20% of queries that come in that are formatted correctly.

And that’s not counting the ones we have to decline because of off-the-wall and copycat plots…or those that aren’t ready to be querying agents yet because they don’t have a good grasp of spelling or punctuation or grammar.

But every once in a while, a query would stand out. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, but they nearly always follow Jenny’s guidelines to a T. Those stellar books were worth hours of slogging through the queries pile. They made me rush to the “Fwd:” button and zip a copy off to Jenny with glee and then I’d wait by my inbox salivating, hoping I’d get a chance to read the novel in question.

My own query went from 0 out of 10 requests for more to 7 out 10 requests for more after joining Jenny’s query reading team. Every author should intern.

So how can you be one of those precious few that stand out? Here’s a few of the most common mistakes that we see. You can bet that those standout queries didn’t make these mistakes. Make sure your query doesn’t either.

Ten Common Query Mistakes

Spelling: You’ve proofed your MS to within an inch of it’s life (right? RIGHT?) so why would you rush through your query? Take a moment and make sure all your words are correctly spelled. You’d be amazed if I told you how many times someone has spelled query ‘queery’ or ‘querry’ or ‘quury’ (one out of every ten, usually).

Not knowing who you’re soliciting: If you query an editor, don’t say ‘Dear Agent’ because they are not an agent. Likewise, don’t address a query to a lady agent by saying ‘Dear Sirs.’ Giving us a choice (‘I am seeking a publisher or a literary agent’) means that you haven’t given the proper thought to who you’re sending the query to. Along that line, don’t say that you’re looking for a publishing house to represent you. Agents represent, not houses. There’s no need to say that you’re looking for an agent to represent you either. We know that any emails sent to the query address are queries. Just get to the point, *your book*

Not having the cajones: Don’t spend two paragraphs apologizing for ‘wasting’ our time by sending us your letter. If you don’t think you and your book are the bees knees, then how’re you going to convince us?

Using cliché/vague phrases: ‘Then a manipulated act sets a chain reaction of grim events into motion,’ could be said about anything; The Wizard of Oz, Titanic, Harry Potter, Winnie the Pooh, Prada & Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, etc. What sets YOUR book apart?

Oopsie: If you make a mistake, don’t send another email. The only time this is appropriate is if by some strange reason, your cat jumped on your mouse and clicked ‘send’ before you had a chance to paste in the appropriate amount of sample writing. In that case, immediately send the same query with the right guidelines followed. A good way to avoid this is to put the email address in last. An email cannot be sent if it doesn’t have anywhere to go. Don’t send an email apologizing for the misspelled word in paragraph three. Change it in your master query and don’t make the same mistake twice.

Not being passionate: Don’t say that the only reason you’ve written this book is because you were laid off last year/your wife left you/you found yourself with some free time. If you’re not serious about writing, why even bother? Are you just looking for a quick million? ‘Cause that ain’t gonna happen. If writing is just a hobby and you’re not willing to put your all into it, why not just use a print-on-demand service instead and save a lot of time?

Email: if your email has a different name attached to it than the one in the email, that sometimes triggers spam filters. Make a new email address with your name on it and use it solely for queries. Be sure to disable any ‘pingback’ emails that say that you don’t allow unapproved email and that we need to fill out a form.

Telling: ‘This novel is a story about the destructiveness of war and hatred, and the redemptive power of love’ is a waste of space. Let your book do the talking.

Anything other than a query: Don’t email and ask us how to query. That’s what Google is for. That’s what submissions guidelines are for. That’s what agent websites and blogs and query help blogs are for. Use them. Queries inboxes are for queries.

Sample pages: If the sub guidelines ask you for ten pages embedded, it means ten pages embedded. It doesn’t mean the whole manuscript attached. It doesn’t mean seventeen pages because the first chapter was only nine pages long and you didn’t want to cut the second chapter off. If we write to ask for those ten pages, it is NOT a partial request. It’s us giving you a second chance to follow the guidelines.

BONUS – Comparisons: It’s one thing to say that your book is a cross between Watership Down and The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (Funny bunnies in space? Heck yes!) but it’s quite another to say that you’re the next JK Rowling or Stephen King. They already exist. Be the next YOU, not a copycat.

Seriously, by following the submissions guidelines for each query you write and double-checking that all is professional and spelled correctly, you’ll be ahead of 85% of all other queries.


  1. As an intern myself, I completely agree with everything said here. 110%. Some of the queries I've seen just make me cringe.

  2. As an intern myself, I think you just nailed that, Intern X. :) Thank you!

  3. Insightful expose into query process. Thanks for the heads up. (Hugs)Indigo

  4. Wow, this was really eye-opening! Thanks!

  5. It's kind of hilarious that Sammy and I started our comments the same exact way and pretty much said the same thing.

  6. Intern X- this was beyond helpful and I thank you for sharing. As I await my query response from Jenny with baited breath, I can now be certain that I created not one, but two, serious faux pas. If only this has been written on July 24th! Boy, did I let my freak flag fly...

  7. Thats a great post! I learnt something interesting recently too, regarding queries, which is not to put in addresses and stuff in at the top, because its covered in the address and subject line. Just start with Dear xxx
    and then straight into what your story's about. I hadn't thought about agents and interns reading queries on handheld devices, and obviously if all you see on an opening screen is a load of addresses and phone numbers, you're not going to be very happy to read further!

  8. Also, Intern X, a question. Us polite writers like to send a 'thank you' email to agents who have politely rejected us or told us they'll be back to us later, but is it really polite to email them back?
    I have a vision of the inbox filled with such emails actually having a completely different effect than planned, and have heard its more polite NOT to respond.

  9. I wonder if Sammy and Amanda J are secretly the same person...

    :-) Thank you, Intern X. It has been both illuminating and entertaining! This post and the Freak Flag post complement each other nicely.

  10. Good advice here! Thank you for sharing this with us!

  11. THANK YOU! This is just what I needed to hear!

  12. Intern X,

    I'm one of those who didn't send in ten pages with the query. (OMG, thank you for not just punching the delete key.) A full ms. was then asked for and sent two days ago. Thank you, thank you, thank you. (May I kiss your toes?)

  13. Thank you so much, Intern X. I really appreciate taking your time to sharing your gold with us writers. :)

  14. Its always stood out as fascinating to me the mistakes people make in queries...and whenever I read a post like this, the first thing I then do is run off to my query and make sure that I'm not making any hideously egregious mistakes. (But, I have to say, it does baffle me that so many people *do* make such basic mistakes)

  15. Nice! Well done :) I'm going to go check out my query right now. Thanks for sharing.

  16. They already exist. Be the next YOU, not a copycat. -Amen!

  17. Wow. You guys put it to the curb, huh? You by far encourage me more than any of the other agents I've found, and I sent you absolutely nothing.

    Thanks again.

  18. Things like this always bring up a question, and forgive me if you've covered it elsewhere. When you (or any agent, since a whole lot of them do this) ask for 10 pages, what spacing am I supposed to use to figure out what 10 pages is? Single space? Double space? Or single spaced with an extra between the paragraphs, like most emails are written?

  19. Did love your tips. And enjoyed the laugh when I read "Prada and Prejudice".

    Do know what you were really thinking about as you wrote this. :)


  20. Marisa, hate to burst your bubble, but Mandy was no longer an intern here when this was written. To read Mandy's post, go to:

  21. Thank you for the link. Will go read post now.

    It's okay that bubble was burst :)

  22. What a great post! Thanks for sharing these querying tips with the rest of us.