The Query Quandary

By John Gilstrap

Before getting to this week’s real topic, I thought I’d preen with a bit of shameless self promotion. A while ago, I revealed that I had optioned the film rights to my nonfiction bestseller Six Minutes to Freedom. I can now announce officially that I have signed on to write the screenplay as well. Hoorah! For details, please visit my website (see above). I am thrilled beyond belief.

We now return you to our originally scheduled blog . . .

I was chatting the other day with a writer-in-waiting who was distraught that “no agent wants to represent me.” Ah, the angst. She moaned, “I’m never going to be published.”

At that point, she’d collected 7 rejections. Seven. As in one less than eight. And they’re just cold-hearted form letters to boot. Can you imagine? Oh, please.

I wager most of us have a collection of blistering rejection stories. My favorite of the 27 rejections I accumulated before I finally landed an agent was the New York publisher whose rejection consisted of my own letter sent back to me with a stamp—you know, one of those rubber things that you pound on an ink pad—that said “No.” As if it would have broken her hand to actually hand write those two words.

Okay, I have another favorite, too: the one who sent me my rejection letter two months after my book had been published.

Rejections are a constant in this business. I know more than a few authors whose rejections numbered in the triple-digits before they finally made a connection. It’s just the way it is.

During this rejection stage, you often hear dejected writers complain, “Nobody wants my book.” Self pity aside, such is never the case. Nobody’s rejecting your book; they couldn’t possibly be. That’s because nobody’s seen your book. They’re rejecting your query.

In my experience, the vast majority of query letters suck.

They’re flat, lifeless bits of business correspondence that get lost in the shuffle of the hundreds of other bits of flat, lifeless business correspondence that litter an agent’s desk or email inbox every day. It’s astonishing, really, when you think that after spending months or years crafting a novel, a writer would quickly pound out a query letter and launch it into the world where creativity and originality of voice means everything.

At the moment when a query letter matters, it is the most important document of your creative life. It’s the only tool you have. It needs to be carefully nurtured. Carefully crafted. If you’re interested, I wrote an essay on query letters a few years ago. You can read it here: .

What about you? Have you got any inspiring (or frightening) rejection stories you’d like to share? C’mon, spill. We’re all friends here.


12 thoughts on “The Query Quandary

  1. My favorite query letter response came from the (nameless) agency that produced the following check boxes:

    “Not currently acquiring”
    “Not our subject matter”
    “Not interested”

    Wow. As if a form letter would be more offensive. I’m thankful to have acquired a tough skin thanks to my previous profession as a modern dancer. If you’ve ever had Paul Taylor tell you, “Your legs look like sausages in those tights,” you end up relatively immune to form letter rejections.

  2. The query issue is a two-way street. From time to time, my agent tells me about some of the queries she receives that are so frustrating in their dire amateurism and lack of communication skills in the business world, that a giant NO rubber stamp would be a minimum response. Perhaps a more appropriate rejection notice would be to set the query on fire and mail the ashes back to the writer.

    Congrats on your screenplay gig, John. You make us all proud.

  3. Congratulations on the screenplay, John!

    Michelle, I think I got a rejection from that same agency once.

    I had about 100 rejections from agents on my first book. I got a lot of requests for partials and fulls–so they liked the query. It was the book they hated.

  4. I sent pages with a self addressed, stamped envelope and some agents tossed the pages anyway, and the stamps too. I had four or five agents say no initially, and I racked up 160+ rejections on manuscripts. I kept writing and my agent submitting because it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be published. See, denial pays off.

  5. Wow, John! Fantastic news. Loved reading “About Movies” page on your web site, with the background on your adventures in Tinseltown to date. What a rollercoaster! My one adventure in LaLa land so far is that years ago, I wrote a screenplay called “First Lieutenant” based on the life of the first African American cadet to graduate from West Point. It got optioned by the production company that was owned by Burt Reynolds. I remember I got some money out of the deal (I still have a photocopy of the check), plus I got a hug from Burt Reynolds. The movie never got made, but boy, was I ever thrilled!

  6. Great essay, John. The mark of a good query is that it’s brief, has a plot paragraph with a ka-ching factor, doesn’t lard on irrelevant background (“My critique group says this is the one!”) and gets out of the way.

    Congrats on the screenplay gig. I was amused reading of your previous experiences (been there!), and reminded again of Pauline Kael’s great line, “Hollywood is the only town where you can die of encouragement.”

  7. Thanks for the warm wishes, everyone. As far as Hollywood adventures are concerned, I think the title of Linda Obst’s Tinseltown memoir says it all: “Hello, He Lied.”

  8. John~

    Your piece on your site regarding query letters is fantastic. And not to compete with that, but to give more “ammunition” to those still honing their letters, I would offer as an additional learning tool, Marcus Sakey’s advice on writing a query letter. We all can learn to write better – even professional correspondence – and I’m a person that likes lots of “takes” on a subject in order to build my own approach.

    Oh, and I’ve been relatively unscathed in the query quandary. Just your run-of-mill “not my cup of tea” rejections. And being in sales, I’m pretty used to hearing “no.” It’s a “numbers game” – eventually, if you have a tight query letter and you ask enough people, someone is gonna say yes.

  9. Cool John! What’s really cool is that even after years of doing this for a living, you’re still excited to continue doing it. That’s a sign of career love.

    As for me, 138. That’s the number of queries it took to get started. I guess I could actually say 89, because #89 landed, too the job, did a bunch of editing…then dropped off the banks of the river and retired from fiction (so she said) and I was back to fishing. Then at 138 I finally found one who has taken me on and run it further than #89 did.

    And 138 didn’t even come from my fishing, it came as a word of mouth referral right here in my home town, to an agent who doesn’t even advertise that she exists.

    What took so long? A: initially sucky querry letter. B: initially sucky mss. C: maybe ‘cuz I live in Alaska.

    At any rate, never quite. Never, ever give up.

    Who Dares, Wins.

  10. I’m not ready to query agents yet but I’m sending out shorts. In fact I just got word from the editor of Mysterical-e I’ll have one in his fall issue.

    But…I once got an “I don’t like this.” scrawled across my cover letter. No signature, nothing else.

    Definitely have to have a tough skin. My mentor says it’s like selling apples. Your apples are great. Juicy, sweet, perfect. But that day, they are buying oranges. Doesn’t mean anything is wrong with your apples, just not the day for apples. We just have to keep trying to find someone who wants apples.

  11. Congrats on the screenplay gig John – I’m thrilled for you (and shamelessly it makes us all look good being in such illustrious company!) I never got any awful rejections from agents – probably just sheer luck as I sat down next to her at a lunch but I’ve had enough other publishing related rejections to toughen me up…sigh! But I do feel that many would be publishees give up before they’ve even given it their best shot.

  12. My favorite rejection is one I carry around to show to my students. It’s a strip of paper, with 2 sentences addressed to Dear Author.

    It is exactly 8 1/2 inches wide x 1 inch “long”, making it clear that the agent printed 11 of these messages on a regular piece of paper, and cut the strips. Also, it’s printed on scrap paper!
    Congratulations on the screenwriting deal, John!

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