The Query Isn’t Working, Maybe It’s the Book

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Oct 11 2011

All too often I read a query, or hear a pitch at a conference, and think how the author didn’t take the book to the next level. I’m sure many of you will say that it’s hard to convey the entire book in either a query or a pitch, but I also think it’s important to stop blaming the query process and start using it as part of your writing process.

Writing queries is hard. I know. I have to write them. I also hear that from authors endlessly. Writing a synopsis stinks. Something else I hear endlessly. But instead of looking at those two things as pieces that are separate from the manuscript, I think they should be looked at as part of the process. If you’re working on your query and finding it hard to come up with something that makes your book sound special, maybe it’s that your book isn’t special. It might be a good book, but is it good enough to grab the attention of a brand-new readership, people who already have thousands of books to choose from?

If you’re having trouble nailing down the true conflict in your query, maybe you don’t have enough in your story.

Changing our mind-set to think of queries and synopses as part of creating the manuscript might make them more useful to you, as they should be, than just getting an agent or publisher.


23 responses to “The Query Isn’t Working, Maybe It’s the Book”

  1. Avatar TheLabRat says:

    I don't know how my query writing skills are yet (nasty case of can't finish writing novel-itis) but I love writing summaries. Does this make me strange? I run around on wikipedia trimming up freakishly long plot summaries for films and stuff for fun; it's great writing practice.

  2. Avatar Lorenda says:

    After my first experience with judging in a writing contest, my attitude on the dreaded synopsis has done an about-face.

    It occurred to me that while reading the entries, I constantly referred back to the synopsis to see if the scenes made sense, were needed, and were working toward the plot arc.

    It helps that I'm a plotter, but now I'm learning to use my synopsis in the same way – to keep me on track, to force me to evaluate dead-end scenes, and to above all ask the question "is this story entertaining"

  3. Avatar Leah says:

    Writing a query and a synopsis helped me see that there WAS a lack in my story, and I've spent the last three months trying to fix the gap. So I agree with what you're saying…but it's a hard thing to go back and re-work a novel (or in my case add two new major pieces) too. Still, entirely worthwhile, assuming the book works out in the end.

  4. Avatar enewmeyer says:

    I totally agree. It's far easier to blame (and try to fix) the 250 word query letter than to admit there's a problem with the novel you spent months laboring over. When you've sent queries and sample pages but agents aren't biting, it's hard to know which one is flawed. Probably the novel, I'm guessing.

  5. Avatar Jen Chatfield says:

    This makes so much sense. I despise writing queries. However, I can't tell you the number of times I've gone back to revise a novel, sometimes changing major plotlines, because I just can't make the query work. It is an incredibly helpful tool.

  6. Avatar Lisa says:

    Writing that query letter and synopsis lent me some focus for the book. (There are times your characters/plot can take several different directions. But you're not quite sure what's the best choice. So writing that synopsis and what I wanted emerging themes to be, proved a helpful exercise.

  7. Avatar Elizabeth says:

    Good advice. As I write more, I'm finding that being able to summarize the book query-letter style before I start helps me plan and focus the story.

    Doing it again during revisions helps me identify weak spots. If I'm reaching for conflicts in the query, I have to punch them up in the manuscript.

  8. Avatar Stacy Green says:

    This makes a lot of sense and helps me to look at my book different. I know the strong points you mentioned are there, and now I just have to make them work for my hook. That's the part I'm struggling with.

  9. The same holds true for a book proposal (for non fiction). It's a pain to write (especially the marketing plan) but it's so very helpful especially when a publisher gives you the go-ahead. Now you have a polished plan, an A to Z road map. It actually makes the writing process so much simplier.

  10. This is right on. After too many rejections telling me "writing is fine but I don't love your story enough…", I realized that I had to tweak the story, not the query. As much as I think some elements are important, it doesn't matter if no one is going to read it. So I'm refocusing the story, which should make it tighter and (ahem) less about me. By the way, this became crystal clear to me after I participated in a "pitch the publisher" event. All writing sounds so different when it is read out loud in front of strangers and I knew instantly how to fix my query problem.

  11. Avatar lynnrush says:

    It's so true. There have been some times when I was working to write a synopsis and I'm like, "Hey, this story is so not working." It really does help. They can be frustrating, yes, but also very helpful.

  12. Avatar Anonymous says:

    But, what if you are just confused? You think you have a good query. You think you have a good synopsis. You think you have a good story. You go to writer's groups, conventions and even have your work read by children who have no connection with you and get positive feedback all around…but you can't seem to find an agent. Do you scrap the book? We're not blaming the query process, which is absolutely necessary, just generally confused on what we are doing "wrong"…

  13. Avatar Ms. Snip says:

    I think the query & synopsis are essential to the writing process. After reading through the "Query Shark" archives, I realized I needed to tighten my writing. After trying to write a query, I realized I needed to scrap my project. Now, I start with the query and the synopsis and let that be my outline for writing. They can shift during the process, but I feel much more focused on conflict and unique story-telling. Great advice!

  14. Avatar Anonymous says:

    This may seem strange but I actually wrote the query before I wrote the manuscript. Maybe it's my legal writing background but it's so helpful to me to start with a general statement then fill in the details.

  15. I almost always write the query before I start writing now. I don't outline or plot before I start, so having those 2 or 3 paragraphs reminding me what the book is about, helps.

  16. Avatar FoolPlusTime says:

    @Anonymous 11:41

    Get your Query critiqued. The message board Absolute Write has a section for this very task. It's harsh, and you will leave weeping quietly over your mutilated ego, but they generally know what they are talking about.

    Otherwise, this may just not be a book which will be picked up. There are plenty books which aren't. There's nothing particularly wrong with them, they just don't do quite enough to make somebody want to buy them. The bottom line is always the money.

    Write your next book. Move ever forwards.

  17. Thanks for that, Jessica. Straight up, as usual!
    Had to put together my first synopsis two weeks ago for a competition. I'm on Chapter four or five of my first novel and it definitely made me see where the holes were in my plot and my character arcs. It will make it a much better story!
    Lizzi Tremayne

  18. PS, next MS will begin with the synopsis and query (better write a query letter for this today… then on to finish the MS!)
    Thanks for your great posts.

  19. Writing practice queries has really helped me figure out when a story has a cohesive plot. If I can't sum it up in a reasonable amount of words, I have to assume nothing's really happening. Even if I write a query that's too long, as long as there are points of conflict and the like to highlight, I know I have a story structure there, not a meaningless collection of scenes.

    Now I just have to write a really gripping query, not one that's just for practice!

    And I'm like TheLabRat in that I like writing summaries and am looking forward to writing synopses for my novels. I can be pretty wordy, but trimming up things others have written has been great practice at cutting my own stuff, too.

  20. Avatar Elissa M says:

    It's a hard thing to face, but writers have to accept that sometimes a novel just doesn't sell. You find an agent, but she can't find an editor. The agent finds an editor who's in love with the book, but the publisher won't pick up the project. The publisher buys the book, but doesn't have any faith in it and it languishes. The publisher gets behind the novel and promotes it in every way possible, but readers just don't buy it.

    This is a little off topic, but my point is that aspiring authors have to not only be willing to change the novel when necessary, they have to move on to other projects if the current WIP isn't going anywhere. Putting a novel aside isn't necessarily giving up on it, nor does it mean giving up writing altogether.

    It's all about eggs, baskets, omelets, and priorities. Success is earned, never given.

  21. Avatar ryan field says:

    I think I still have two novels, in hard copy, buried somewhere that I abandoned after I didn't get any positive responses. And I'm not shy about aggressively hawking for responses either. But sometimes we have to rethink things and change course.

  22. Do you know how many books there are in the world? I bet I have 2 or 3 hundred just under my own roof. Perspective. A good thing.

    Heard someone talking the other day about this wonderful writing that had poetry in the spaces between the words. I'm just here for the story, guys.

  23. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I have to say that I used to think the synopsis and query were the most painful part! But now they seem simple. Granted, I'm not a published writer, so grain of salt here- but this is what worked for me. I wrote 3 novels, completing them, then struggling to write the synopisis and query afterward. It was horrific. For the next novel I wrote, I used a far more systematic way of planning and plotting (still learning here, you see). Part of that process invlolved writing your synopsis as one of the very first things you do. It was a breeze. Now I can look back over my synopsis and remind myself how I envisioned the flow of the novel from the very beginning. Added bonus being that I can go back now and then and tweak the synopsis as the writing process progresses and -Voila!-when the book is done I already have a nice tight, orderly synopsis waiting for me 🙂 How much more successful this will be, I have no idea, but so far things are going much more smoothly this time around.