It’s been awhile since the last time I put a novel to market, and so I decided to seek some feedback on my current query from other writers who were strangers to me and my work. The feedback was invaluable, and improved my query 1000%, but I noticed something odd.
Counting my contact information, my query letter ended up at 339 words. I was told through gentle hints, and sometimes through blunt condescension, that spending a total of 24 hours (that’s 24 hours working, not a 24 hour period between starting and finishing) perfecting 339 words showed a slipshod recklessness that revealed me as an amateur. Any attempt to argue that this sort of energy would be better directed toward the actual product being advertised was met with resounding prophecies of eternal unemployment. I call bullshit, and here’s why.
A query is a first impression, and it matters. Every word should pull its weight in at least two ways. But if spending 24 hours on 339 words is not enough to make an agent or publisher want to work with you, you have a problem.
Let’s do the math.
Think of the average number of hours per day that you have to write. We’re not counting idea conception, research, outlining, or marketing. Just the act of wordcrafting. Decide on a number, and keep it in your head. Got it? Okay.
Let’s say your number was six. You write six hours on Sundays, and on Christmas, and on your son’s third birthday. Even when you’re in the hospital for abdominal surgery you still somehow manage to get in your six hours of painstaking word-crafting. To finish a 100,000-word novel, the 4.24 minutes per word that I’m told is lazy and impatient for a query letter would take you three and a quarter years. So take your number of daily writing hours. Divide six by it. Multiply it by 3.25. That’s how many years it would take you to lazily and impatiently finish your novel.
I’m under the impression that if you aren’t George R. R. Martin, and you expect to pursue writing as something other than a form of pro bono artistic expression, you are going to have to spend your work day doing things other than obsessing over word choice, and your publishers aren’t going to give you three and a quarter years to do it.
Allow me to remind you that 4.24 minutes per word was considered flagrantly insufficient by the writers who were assisting me with my query letter. Let’s be generous and say they expected ten minutes per word. So, take the number of years you came up with before, and multiply that by 2.4.
There is a line where effort and professionalism becomes obsession. And I get it. That “yes” to the query feels so good, and by publishing standards, it’s instant gratification. It’s tempting to feel smug about your queries’ increasing request-to-rejection ratios, but if you are accumulating these kinds of statistics in scientifically meaningful numbers, it means that no one has yet been moved to take a chance on your novel. But congratulations, you’ve gotten very good at writing letters.
My advice: spend at most two days on the query letter, make it reasonably enticing, and move on. What really matters is what happens when that agent or publisher gets to page eleven. And page thirty-eight. And page two hundred.
Is my current query letter a stunning masterpiece of ingenious marketing? No. But it represents the actual book I’ve written, and its level of polish (allowing of course for that extra “first impression” flair) represents what I feel I’m realistically capable of delivering on a consistent basis. I am advertising not just this book, but myself as a writer. I want to put on a good show, but not so good that I break hearts when I reveal what’s behind the curtain.