He’s Just Not That Into Your Book: How Querying Is Just Like Dating

Editor’s Note: this is a guest post by Erika Marks of Erika Marks.

I have always thought of query letters a bit like first dates. We might dread them, but let’s face it: if you want to find love, you have to go on dates—and if you are looking to connect with a wonderful agent, you have to write query letters.

Here’s how I think the two compare:

You Want To Make A Good First Impression

In the same way you want to look nice when you meet your possible soul mate, you want to present your query in a tidy, professional way. This may seem obvious, but avoiding typos, using correct grammar, and making sure you spell the agent’s name right (and yours too, for that matter—true story) will make a strong first impression. Be courteous; always thank the agent for his or her time and consideration at the end of your letter. Clearly state your word count and your genre, then summarize your novel in one to two paragraphs. Keep your query to a single page (yes, this still applies, even in email formatting.) Then when you’re ready to hit send, check your query one more time. Just think of that final read-through as the spritz of Binaca before you turn the corner and step into the restaurant.

You Don’t Want To Give Away Too Much Too Soon…

The temptation is strong: You and your date are well into the meal, the wine is flowing and so is the tongue. You think to yourself: Hey, what am I waiting for? If this guy/girl’s the one, better they know about my Welcome Back Kotter action figure collection sooner rather than later, right? Er, wrong. TMI doesn’t just apply to dating; it applies to queries too. In a query, you want to keep the information relevant. Make your query about your project. Consider leaving out the part where you explain how Papa Smurf came to you in a dream with this story.

…But You Don’t Want To Be Too Evasive, Either

A little mystery is nice. A little mystery is lovely. And I have read time after time that agents, like their readers, want to be left wanting for more—just like you would on a first date. But it’s a fine line between being mysterious and being vague. If you’re too vague in your query, i.e. if you don’t reveal the full spectrum of your plot, an agent may have concerns that you don’t have a full spectrum. You may think not giving away the ending to your story in a query is the ultimate juicy tease, but it isn’t. Agents don’t just want to know that you have a great beginning; they want a great middle and end too. Coy may work in the world of dating, but when it comes to query letters, it’s a waste of everyone’s time.

Be You

We’ve all done it: We are so enamored with someone that we can’t help but be someone we’re not to appeal to them. In writing today, it can be tempting to change our style to suit the market. Don’t. Being someone you’re not, or presenting a book you didn’t/couldn’t write, is never a good idea. A strong query letter should accurately reveal your voice and the book you wrote. Think of it like posting a photo of Angelina Jolie in your online dating profile. Sure, you’ll get inquiries, but when the truth is revealed, you’ll be stuck.

Be Patient 

You had a great date; you’re feeling hopeful, excited. You could just call, right? Just a quick check-in to make sure they haven’t forgotten you—Resist! It’s not so different when you’re waiting for an answer from an agent about a query. Like some first dates, some agents may only contact you if they’re interested. Others may need more time to consider you. Resist the temptation to check in too soon. It can be hard to wait, but just like your date, if an agent is interested in seeing more of you/your work, they’ll call.

That Said, Rejection Is Part of The Process 

Just like not every date will be THE ONE, not every agent will want to represent you. Rejection is a fundamental piece of the journey to publication—and it can be particularly hard to hear especially after several hopeful rounds of submissions to an agent (i.e. a partial, then a full, and maybe even a round of edits, and still it’s a no-go). I wish I could say I had a magic spell to make rejection easier. I don’t. Don’t seek to make it hurt less; seek instead to be more determined to get back on the horse afterwards. Date again, query again. Whatever you do, just don’t quit.

Keep A Little Black Book 

Now bear with me: this section is not to advocate being a player, in romance or querying—just that it is crucial to keep track of the agents you query. Especially (and this is where the little black book analogy comes in) the agents who show interest in your work. In all my years of querying, the number one tip I would give—besides being courteous and professional in all manner of communication—is to keep record of your contact with agents. For example, an agent may have asked to see a partial or a full of your work, and even though they didn’t decide to offer representation, they did say they’d be glad to look at future work. Goldmine! Keeping a record of this sort of correspondence allows you to build a more personalized query for your next project. Remind them of your previous work and their offer to consider any future manuscripts: i.e. “You kindly considered my last project THE DAWN OF DUSK and I would be thrilled to submit my latest manuscript for your review…”

Know When That Ship Has Sailed

A lot of times we writers want to know if we should re-query a work after a re-write. I don’t think it’s any different from asking out the guy/girl who turned you down after that first date. Don’t bother. Move on. In my experience, if an agent doesn’t say he or she would consider looking at a rewrite, don’t re-query.

Don’t Put Yourself Out There Until You’re Ready

Just as you wouldn’t want to throw yourself into the dating world too early (i.e. your boyfriend/girlfriend of ten years just broke up with you THIS MORNING), you don’t want to query too soon. So what’s too soon? For starters, your manuscript isn’t finished. Agents want complete manuscripts, projects that are as polished as you can make them. Sending in a project too soon may mean risking a chance at a lasting relationship with the agent/date of your dreams.

Erika Marks, a native New Englander who was raised in Maine, has been an illustrator, an art director, a cake decorator and a carpenter. Her first novel, LITTLE GALE GUMBO, will be published in October by NAL. She blogs at erikamarks.wordpress.com and tweets @erikamarksauthr.

Now it’s your turn, dear writers: Which do you think is harder: first dates or query-writing? What tips can YOU share that have made querying {or… err… dating} more manageable for you?

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34 comments on “He’s Just Not That Into Your Book: How Querying Is Just Like Dating

  1. I will file this information away for when I’m ready to query again…. and as far as an opinion about which is harder–not sure–haven’t queried an agent or had a first date in a long, long time! (that said, it was a wonderful surprise to see you here, Erika!)

    • erikamarks says:

      Hi Julia–nice to see you here, too, dear! (And I’m with you on the first dates–it’s been a while for me too, but oh, the memories remain, VERY clearly:)

  2. Very helpful post! I have to re-remind myself of these all the time!

    • erikamarks says:

      I’m so glad you found them helpful–thanks so much to taking the time to say so!

      • erikamarks says:

        Correction to that, Autumm: I meant to say thanks so much FOR taking the time to say so. Look at me–I didn’t even follow my own tip to re-read one more time before hitting send! Geesh, Erika!:)

  3. Christina says:

    Thanks Erika! This is hands-down the most entertaining post about querying – and also with such wise words of advice. Especially the never giving up part.

    • erikamarks says:

      Hi Christina–thanks for such kind words! Indeed, like in dating, I’ve found you have to find the humor in querying, to keep from landing in the dumps at every setback–and there will ALWAYS be setbacks, I’ve found that too. Which is why the point of sticking with it and never giving up is key.

  4. Ollin says:

    I loved this post Erika. It was such a joy to read, and so wise, too. I actually learned a lot about dating. Ha. Especially the part about rejection being part of the process of dating. I never saw it that way, too many disappointments made me feel like–what’s the use? But if you look at it your way, it’s kinda like, you just have to put yourself out there. That’s what you can control and that’s it. I really want to thank you because I’m going to have to think about that point a bit.

    Thank you so much for doing this, it is such a pleasure to have you!

    • erikamarks says:

      Ollin, it’s been MY pleasure–thanks so much for having me! I can’t tell you how many times I felt that way about the ones that didn’t work out (dates AND queries)–because let’s face it, it can get so daunting sometimes–no matter how badly you want to find that great relationship or that offer of representation, after a while you can’t help but think, as you said, what’s the use? But you hit the nail on the head to say “that’s what you can control” — THAT’S the most important point. Feeling as if you have even a modicum of control in either journey can be empowering. Putting yourself out there IS you in control of a process that often leaves us feeling without any control whatsoever–and I think that’s a huge part of the frustration.

  5. All practical good advice, Erika. And written in a style that’s fun to read (the Dawn of Dusk…Angelina Jolie🙂. Thanks for spelling it all out so clearly.

  6. This is a great analogy. Thanks for the advice!

  7. […] hope you’ll come on over and give my thoughts (and tips) on querying a read and that you’ll make Ollin’s blog a place you return to […]

  8. Averil Dean says:

    Nice post, Erika. You make it all sound so enjoyable. Next time, I’d love to know what to do when your date goes to the men’s room and never returns.

  9. Hmm. Undoubtedly Query Letters are harder than First Dates. For one: in the dating market, there are plenty of fish in the sea. Do enough dating, and you’re sure to find a soul mate. But with Agents… well… I find there are more aspiring authors than there are places for them to get published, and that there are Agents interested in new authors.

    In other words… there are a lot of people who are interested in a soul mate. Not as many interested in signing a new author. The mathematical ratio is in your favor in the first place, but against you in the second.

    All of which means… your query has got to be perfect. You can afford a mistake or two on a first date, but on on a query!

    • Closing line should be: “You can afford a mistake or two on a first date, but not on a query!”

    • erikamarks says:

      Hi Stephen–I love these points–and you are quite right. That’s why I always felt that extra surge of panic when I’d blunder a query, because the pool is small, so small that I’d be courting that agent again most likely.

      But that said, I’ve had dates who were far from forgiving of blunders and agents who were exceedingly so, so it can work both ways. (Or so I like to think!)

  10. I’m about to start the query-go-round again. I dread it. This will help make it less daunting.

  11. The difficult one as a new writer, is knowing when your ms is ready.I first queried too soon, but luckily, I didn’t send it to everyone at once. I got my agent after the second set of submissions. I contemplated this point the other day http://tahlianewland.com/2011/07/12/how-do-you-know-your-ms-is-finished/

    • erikamarks says:

      Congrats to you, Tahlia! Yes, that is such a tough thing to know–sometimes, for some agents, even if the project isn’t where it needs to be, they may still see enough of a spark in your voice/style/etc to want to work with you–it just depends. But I can tell you, I have manuscripts in the closet that I SHUDDER to think I sent out–they were so beyond not ready!

  12. jacquelincangro says:

    I used to feel that rejection letters were the equivalent of breaking up on a Post-It. Thanks to your post, Erika, I think I’m ready for another blind date!

  13. gaylesgarden says:

    I just have to say that I so enjoyed your article on query writing – It’s no wonder you are a successfully published author! I have no words of wisdom to offer as I am as green as grass in this business, but appreciate people like you who will share…
    Just working on starting a blog called Gayle’s Garden,- should be up soon.

    • erikamarks says:

      Thank you, Gayle! And good for you for starting a blog–I’m still relatively new at this blogging business myself but I am so grateful for the connections I’ve made with other writers and readers and bloggers–best of luck with it, and I’ll keep a lookout for it!

  14. Erika,
    Since writing is life ,you really brought the key points home for me with the dating analogy- all very wise and practical advice. I’m not ready to query at this time but I will store these pearls away for when I am. The way I see it,it boils down to the basics of being the best you can be,then moving on, taking the lessons learned if it doesn’t work out on the first try and going back to being the best again,maybe even a little wiser and tougher for the next round.:-)

    Thanks for a great post and Ollin, thanks for hosting Erika!

  15. Very clever, Erika! (Sigh) I never did get into the whole dating scene — hopefully that’s not a precursor of what’s to come in the querying world!

  16. What a great post, Erika. I never really thought of the parallels between querying and dating. Wow – they are aplenty, aren’t they?

    I definitely plan to go back to that group of agents who requested my partials and fulls of my first ms and told me contact them in the future with new work. You’ve made it easier, though, for me to incorporate that helpful sentence into future queries!

    My sad story about one query is that I compared my work to another author, but realized after I had mailed the query that I spelled the author’s name wrong. It gnawed away at me so much that I sent the letter again the next day – with a note about the mistake … And guess what? They asked for a partial. Maybe that showed my commitment to getting things right – or that I was human and willing to fix my mistakes? Alas, it doesn’t REALLY matter since I didn’t get the representation. But still, a good lesson … I think?

  17. I nodded my head, feeling somewhat self-assured, through this whole post. Until I got to the Don’t Put Yourself Out There Until You’re Ready part.

    Damn, have I screwed myself over with that one. More times than I’d like to admit.

    As I rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite… I think it’s still the deal-breaker. When is this effin’ thing really ready?

    I’m afraid to make the same old mistake. But I’m hoping I’m nearly there…

    Great post and great reminders, Erika. Thanks!

  18. Kate Hopper says:

    Great post on querying, Erika. And thank you for introducing me to Ollin’s wonderful blog. I’ll be back!

  19. Downith says:

    Late to the party, but great post Erika – analogy is spot on and advice is top notch. Plus a Welcome Back Kotter reference never goes astray!

  20. LIsa says:

    I blew it last weekend. I had a first date, my ex kept calling me over and over, I listened to the messages on speaker in front of the guy i was with and he thinks I am still in love with this guy because he is still in love with me, which I am NOT. But as the night went on we ended up getting intimate anyway and he never called me. I was tipsy and ashamed of my actions. How do I make him see i was wrong and want another date. I feel he thinks I just used him. What do I do now? My friends say he is interested but he isnt acting on it. Wish I could take that night back and never took my phone with me. Help me with advice!!!

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