Jan 13 2010

Ten Facts About Queries That Surprise Prospective Writers

A query is a page-long business letter introducing your novel or comic book proposal to an editor or agent.  Here is some advice that will help you write a convincing query.

1.  What goes with the query? A novel’s query is usually accompanied by a partial manuscript (~50 pages) and/or a 2-5 page synopsis.  If you’re writing a comic book, you’ll probably send in a cover letter– a page accompanied by some combination of the synopsis, the full script of the first issue and art samples. (Follow the submissions guidelines, obviously).  Cover letters are very similar to queries, so I’ll refer to both as queries for simplicity’s sake.

2. Your main goal is to show that your story is strong and interesting. Do NOT give them opinions like “my book is interesting!” or “everybody I know loves it!” Give them the evidence so that they will conclude the book is interesting. “I’m writing an interesting novel about a detective solving a murder case” is weak. “I’m writing about a poisoned detective that has two days to solve his own murder” is much more gripping. Likewise, if you’re writing a comedy, you need to prove yourself by making them laugh. According to literary agent Janet Reid, “if you tell me your book is a comedy, and the query letter isn’t funny or amusing, you have a big problem.”

3. Most queries include the following: an introductory paragraph/hook, a body paragraph summarizing the work in a clear and interesting way, 1-3 sentences about your writing qualifications, and contact information. Don’t worry too much about your writing qualifications. It’d be nice if you had them, but it’s not a deal-breaker for fiction writers.

4. Your novel manuscript has to be completed before you can submit it to publishers. Hardly any publishers or agents will consider an incomplete manuscript by a first-time novelist.  Finishing a novel on time is so hard that publishers won’t assume you can do it unless you have before.  In contrast, some comic book publishers consider proposals in progress. For example, Dark Horse only requires a series synopsis and the first eight pages of the first issue. Even so, I’d recommend finishing your first issue’s script before submitting to avoid deadline problems.

5. The novel submissions process is REALLY long. According to AgentQuery, agents usually take 1-2 weeks to respond to a query letter, 1-2 months to respond to a partial manuscript, and 2-4 months to respond to the full manuscript. Comic book submissions are usually somewhat faster, perhaps 2-3 months.

6. When you’ve finished your novel manuscript, you may wish to send it to literary agents rather than directly to publishers. Agents negotiate with publishers in exchange for around 15% of your earnings. According to Tobias Buckell’s survey, the typical first-time novelist earned $5500 if he had an agent and $4000 otherwise.  If you’re good enough to get an agent, she will probably pay for herself.   (Exception: comic book writers rarely use agents, but some do).

7. For more advice on writing queries, please read Query Shark, The Rejectionist and Evil Editor regularly. Whether you’re a novelist or comic book writer, you’ll learn a lot about how to present your work in a concise and stylish way.  We also have many articles in our “Writing a Query” category.  Finally, if you’re a novelist looking for agents to query, I highly recommend AgentQuery.

8. Tell your publisher how long the work is. Novelists, please provide a word count– NOT A PAGE COUNT. Page counts fluctuate based on typesetting, so they don’t say much about how long a novel is. Comic book writers, please provide just the page count.  Most of the words in a comic script are panel descriptions that won’t actually get printed, so the word count doesn’t say much about how long a comic is.  Also, please say how many issues you’re planning.

9. You’re introducing yourself to a time-strapped professional, so be polite and concise. For more advice on communicating with publishing professionals, please see this article.

10. Proofread or perish. More than one typo in a page-long query letter? You’re dead on arrival.  You want your writing to say “I’m a well-polished professional,” not “My editor will have a stroke.”

11. Almost every publisher provides submission guidelines laying out what they’d like to see. Follow the guidelines! Remember, 99.9% of submissions get rejected at major publishers, so don’t be stupid.

7 responses so far

7 Responses to “Ten Facts About Queries That Surprise Prospective Writers”

  1. B. Macon 13 Jan 2010 at 5:11 pm

    If you noticed that this has 11 items rather than 10, good eye! But I’m too lazy to change the name of the article. 😉

  2. Lighting Manon 19 Jan 2010 at 5:01 pm

    Great article, but I’ve a quick question. I’m working on a graphic novel and I’ve been considering creating a proof of concept type thing, a five page working prototype of what I’d like to achieve, not necessarily based off the script for the graphic novel, just based on the idea behind it. I’ve heard of similar things being done for films (“Saw” began as a short film, as did “9”) but never for comic books. Depending on the submission requirements, so long as it did not strictly warn against non-script based sample art, do you believe that could work as the five sample pages in a submission?

    It is my understanding that it is primarily to see your artist’s ability to handle sequential art, but perhaps it is more about seeing their ability to adapt the script, which would rule out what I’ve mentioned.


  3. B. Macon 19 Jan 2010 at 6:44 pm

    Hmm. It depends what you included as your proof of concept, but I’m inclined to think that it wouldn’t be as effective if it were based on something other than the script.

    So all of your submissions materials have to establish that your project will sell thousands of copies, right? What could you show an editor that would interest him/her even though it wasn’t based on the script of the project? Here are some possibilities.

    –If you’re an established author/creator, you might include examples of your past work to show that you’ve got high production values. But I would only do so if you have been really, truly operating at a professional level. If you collaborated on a stunning series or webcomic like Dr. McNinja, then show them your work! If you have a webcomic that you spent less than 500 hours on, it probably wouldn’t make your proposal more appealing and might well make you look like an amateur. For example, I will definitely not be passing on the SN webcomic to editors.

    –You might include concept art that won’t actually appear in the series, but I’d recommend against it unless the company specifically asks for it or you have some really good reason to suspect that the concept art adds something to the strength of the proposal. If you’re that proud of the art, why not just do some sample pages from the script? That will do much more to make your script come alive and convince them the proposal has legs. So, for example, I did a five page scene where Gary meets AO because I think it’s really funny and it shows a lot about the style of my series. A publisher would probably just be confused if I had sample pages for Gary meeting some character that doesn’t actually come up in issue 1.

  4. Lighting Manon 19 Jan 2010 at 7:22 pm

    Thanks, those are great points, I was primarily just curious. I have a recurring fear that my work will end up being stronger as a whole than any single five pages could portray, with only a single facet being readily apparent. I appreciate the input a great deal.

  5. Ragged Boyon 19 Jan 2010 at 8:13 pm

    Triumph! I just learn how to tie a tie. Not just one way, not just two ways, but three ways! I’m so proud of me. 10 days until my birthday! Woohoo!

    Nice article. I’d say 10 would be a good challenge for me. I hate proofreading, but it’s necessary so I do it. Besides, learning to clean up my writing will make it so that I don’t have to correct as much down the road as I improve. Thank goodness for learning capability. Where would we be without them?

  6. B. Macon 19 Jan 2010 at 8:22 pm

    In that case, LM, if you end up doing a sample, it might help to do pages 1-5. The editor understands that you can’t tell the whole story in five pages, so if he gets to page five and feels the story is going somewhere, he’ll probably pay much closer attention to the rest of the script. Plus, doing pages 1-5 makes it MUCH easier to write the pages so that they’re inviting and easily understandable to newcomers. (And if the first five pages aren’t inviting to newcomers, the writer has more pressing problems than deciding which pages to use as the sample).

    Alternately, if you’re feeling really gutsy, you can do a sample of more than 5 pages. That would probably make it a bit easier for you to tell a smooth and compelling story. However, I would only recommend doing extra pages if you are rolling in money. Even if you cut costs by doing just inks (and not colors), we’re probably talking about $50+ per page and $10-15 per page for lettering. If you go down that route, I would recommend asking your artist for some sort of bulk discount–we’re talking about a project worth many hundreds of dollars, so your artist can probably afford a good customer incentive. The artist also has some incentive helping you get the comic book published because that will earn him thousands of dollars and a professional credential.

    I’m a lot more comfortable with proofreading than tying ties, RB. If you’d like me to proofread your cover letter, script and/or any other submission materials, please let me know. I really appreciate your moderating help.

  7. A. Maloneon 08 Dec 2012 at 7:58 am

    Well… (ahem) unless you’re rejected agents actually respond very fast lol. Sheesh they could at least wait until a business day please don’t reject me on a Sunday! Your blogs have become my bible! Thanks !

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