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Something isn’t right: Is it my query or my manuscript?

Photobucket [1]In our 100 Interviews post [2], Kath and I asked what you might want to see from us in the future. Vic replied,

… maybe some help with queries? Not so much how to structure a good one – there are great sites out there that help with that. (Thank you Nathan Bransford) but I think every unpublished writer in the world wants one thing… how do you know whether your story sucks or your query does?

Good question, Vic, and not always an easy one to answer.

There is a story.

There is a query.

There are a few possible scenarios:

Situation 1: You have a trusted group of critique partners who assure you–and you believe them–that your story is fantastic. It’s fresh and it’s well written, and they can’t wait to see you on Oprah. But when you send out a batch of queries, you’re rejected by not only your first-tier agents, but your second- and third-tier agents, without anyone asking for so much as a partial.

Likely answer: Your query is weak. In fact, you should’ve stopped after being rejected by your first-tier agents to rethink that query. Did you ask your CPs to look at it? Did you ask for fresh eyes outside of your critique group? Query writing is an art unto itself, so be sure you spend a good chunk of time researching how to write one for your genre, studying queries that worked, and perfecting your query. [winning story; weak query]

Situation 2: After weeks studying the craft of the query, you send yours out to a list of first-tier agents. You have multiple requests for a partial. You receive multiple rejections quickly. These are not personal rejections; they are form letters.

Likely answer: Your partial is weak. Set it aside for a while, then look at it again with fresh eyes. Are your first pages delivering everything your query promised? Are they as exciting, as unique, as suspenseful, etc…? Have you smoothed over your grammar, perfected your prose? Have you let others read your work? Have you thought hard about their critiques? Have you acted on those critiques if several people suggested your manuscript has a particular problem? If not, you know what you need to do. [weak story; winning query]

Situation 3: You send your query and receive multiple requests for a partial, then the full. You’re eventually rejected.

Likely answer: Listen carefully to any comments coming through your positive rejections. Keep trying; you’re close. [winning story; winning query]

Situation 4: You send out your query and receive multiple rejections. You attend a conference and pitch directly to a few agents. Some tell you, flat out, that they’re not interested, that they’ve heard your story before. Or maybe they offer to read a partial, but you don’t sense any true enthusiasm and/or notice they’re offering that to everyone. You send the partials. You are rejected by all with form letters.

Possible answer: It may be that neither your query nor your story is quite ready for prime time. It’s not always about bad writing, of course. There are other scenarios, loads of additional variables: a bad critique group, poor picks for agents, bad timing, etc… But we’re here to talk about what *you* can do. [weak story; weak query]

If you think you have a weak query, you can fix that pretty easily. And if you think you have a weak story, you can fix that too.

Yes, you can.

You know good story. You read books, you love books. Is your book that good? Or is there a gap between your good taste and your work? Do you read your work and know that it’s not what you want it to be? The answer, according to Ira Glass, is to keep trying. Watch this.

“You will be fierce, you will be a warrior.” Love that.

Readers, what advice do you have for Vic? How do you know if your query is weak or if there’s a bigger problem with your manuscript?

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Markwick’s [3]

About Therese Walsh [4]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [5], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [6] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [7], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [8] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [9] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [10]). Learn more on her website [11].