Writing Query Letters with Piers Blofeld, Literary Agent with Sheil Land Associates


For many, the scariest aspect of writing is sending the hard won and crafted “babies” into the world. Agents and editors are not, by trade, generous. They will accept or reject with precision, if we’re lucky, and with polite generality if we’re lucky. Sometimes, they will be brutally honest or worse, having a bad day and taking it out on our manuscripts. Whatever happens with our words, once they leave the incubation period of our desk, they move into a realm of product objectivity that is not something we can control, nor should we try.

The best we can do is write our words bravely, unflinchingly and honestly and then hope someone else will connect with them as we have. There are no formulas for creating this connection in literary fiction. There are formulas in some commercial fictions, yes, but not literary. Each literary work is a fingerprint, a set of rules and arcs specific to only that work. Though a literary work of fiction might share some similarities with other works, ultimately, the success an individual work will be gained or lost by the writer as s/he writes it. You. Your voice. Your hours. Your revisions. Your careful fleshing of details and characters. Each new narrative is a long, uncertain journey. Learn how to celebrate your artistic value, give surgical attention to the attributes you can control, and let go of the things you cannot. 



Literary agent, Piers Blofeld (literary agent with Sheil Land Associates), critiques the format of the query letter. His presentation might be alarming for newer writers, but veteran writers know he is not alone. Editors from all journals and publishing houses will be looking for reasons to reject your stories, novels, collections, etc. So don’t give them reason to quickly reject your work!

ALWAYS use universal manuscript formatting as given here, unless the editor specifically requests something different. A single flourish or individuality in this formatting could rub a staunch traditionalist the wrong way. (This happens more than you want to know. Editors and tradition are often synonymous.)

Remember, the submitted manuscript, in class or market, is not for your preference, it is for the preference of your intended reader. Do you like fancy type? Not in your submissions. Do you like to add special lines to denote section breaks? Better not do it in your submissions. Want a fancy title or header? Not in your submissions!

Why risk an editor’s or agent’s interest over some small formatting quirk you prefer? Manuscripts are not published works and therefore should always be formatted to maximize the reader’s ease, lessen eye strain and follow convention so the reader, agent, editor or instructor focuses on your narrative, not your fancy formatting. Fancy formatting in manuscript speak equals newby, unprofessional writer. There are editors who will use this visual “fancy formatting” queue to immediately dismiss the manuscript amongst the hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts they have yet to review for that week.


Is Your Story Organic to You?

Bolson comments on a query regarding its organic relationship to its writer. This is a priority for publishers and should be for you, too. As writers, we spend a good deal of time learning the attributes of people with different backgrounds, gender, motivations and so on; however, when choosing the protagonist of our story, it is essential to ask if this protagonist is one YOU must write. What is your connection point?

For new writers, it is helpful if your novel or story has an organic connection point to your experiences. This doesn’t mean it’s autobiographical, it means that if the editor asks you, Why is this story important to you, you will be able to answer with some personal  investment in the story’s context and characters. Always ask this question. Why am I the writer who must write this story? 


Keep Track of Your Submissions & Communicate Politely

There are some online tools to help you take care of the business part: keeping track of submissions, acceptances and rejections. The best one I’ve found is Duotrope. I’ve been using it for years and have found nothing else that really compares for literary fiction, poetry and creative  nonfiction.

The quickest way to be black-balled from an agency, journal, press or publishing house is to neglect letting them know that the submission you sent has already been accepted elsewhere. Always withdraw your submissions from other venues when accepted. Keep accurate records of this. Again, Duotrope is excellent for this.

An even faster way to be black-balled from an agency, journal, press or publishing house is to respond immaturely or impolitely to an editor’s, agent’s or publisher’s rejection of your work. Do not email back asking for more information. Do not snipe at the organization or person on social networking. Do not trash talk to fellow writers. The literary market is a small world and many editors and agents know each other. The word will spread and it will reflect poorly on you, not the intended target.

A general rejection is, unfortunately, a necessity for many editors and agents. It is not meant to be hurtful or dismissive. Most editors and agents would send more personal relies if they could. They have lives and families, too, and do not often have the time and resources to write personal rejections or replies for most. Keep in mind that submitting stories to an editor or agent is not an acceptable form of “workshopping.” It is not the editor’s or agent’s job to tell you why the story did not work for him or her. All readers are subjective. If you want specific feedback on your story, take a workshop, join a writer’s group, find a trusted reader or two. Agents and editors give personal feedback only when they felt a connection to the work submitted. If you receive a personal rejection, celebrate. It means something stuck with the reader. 


How to Write for the Art of It, Value Your Craft & Avoid Letting the Elusive Acceptance Take Over

These are my simple rules for keeping the focus on the art, the work, the craft-building heartache and sometimes even the joy of writing.

Celebrate every victory. Finish a first draft? Have a glass of champagne with your loved one!

Take care of yourself every day. At the end of your writing session, give yourself a small reward. I like to make myself a cup of chamomile tea and rub some lotion into my hands. My hands have worked hard!

Turn this into a habit, something you look forward to. If it’s later in the evening, maybe a glass of wine or a beer. If you’re having trouble stepping out of the narrative, watch a movie or listen to some music. Shift your brain. If it’s close to dinner time, make something extravagant and yummy. Each day is a gift. Each group of words, 100 or 1000, no matter what happens to them during revision, are something to be respected. You’ve done well. So treat yourself.

Recognize and value what you can do. Let go of what you can’t control. The act of submission is less about “getting the contract” than it is in believing in your voice, courage and determination. It is not the talented writer who makes it and wins the awards. It is the talented writer with determination who succeeds! Submissions is a long game, not a short game, so form habits to weather the ups and downs. Value and recognize the act of sending submissions, not the return.

When you wait for an editor or agent to tell you it’s okay to value your words and voice, the effect can be self-destructive not only in your writing but in other parts of your life, too. Celebrate each submission or group of submissions. Have a plan for revision and resubmission when they return then celebrate again.

Remember why you became a writer. It wasn’t because you saw an agent and said, I must have a work accepted by that woman! She is so fantastic! No, you became a writer because you had something to express, because you read a novel or story that meant something to you.

If you are getting down on rejections, consider working the following suggestion into your submissions habits. Choose a very short excerpt of the work you submitted, something you love. Maybe just a few lines. Read it aloud over dinner, coffee, wine to a trusted friend, peer or loved one. Keep the reading very short, otherwise, your trusted listener might not be too keen on the habit after a while. And set rules beforehand. This is not a critique session. The listener need not say anything about the words, but rather, join you in a toast at having submitted the work. This is an expression of voice. A practice in valuing your craft and courage to share it.

*Do not share this moment with someone incapable of putting the focus where it needs to be, no matter how close they are. Spouses and parents can sometimes be good for this, but often, are not. Growing your writing talent and confidence requires a degree of emotional and artistic safety. Letting destructive personalities into this artistic bubble can be destructive for your growth and confidence as an artist. You’ll need to grow a thick skin to deal with the agents and editors but there is no reason you must do this in the space of your home. Make sure to carve out and protect your writing space in your home. It must be artistically focused, emotionally safe and spacious enough to let your craft grow, make mistakes, revise and flourish.

When you start to get down on your writing, receiving a rejection, etc. do something positive for a fellow writer. As you follow this journey toward editor/agent discovery, you want to build your network of peers, writers, readers, friends, agents and editors. So don’t waste time wallowing in your rejection letters. Don’t be self-destructive! Use this time to read a book by an author at that publishing house you LOVE. Then put out the word about how much you liked it, if you did. Meet some people at a conference. Post a boost for a fellow writer on Facebook or Twitter. Build your writing support system. One day, those writers, readers and friends you’ve been boosting so generously online and at conferences, will have the opportunity to repay the kindness and generosity. Remember, always do this with sincerity. Do not boost writers you don’t truly value simply for the act of building a network. This will work against you in the long run.