Turn Your Query into a Golden Ticket

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketHeard at the Backspace Agent seminar:

“Trying to find an agent through blind querying is like trying to find a job by sending out blind resumes.”

“Write your query and synopsis sometime between the first and third draft. Don’t just write and send; allow it to sit and age and improve. Treat it like your novel.”

“If you have a good story, you must write a good query to interest an agent. It’s not a crap shoot.”

Unless you’ve already made a strong agent connection and can bypass this step, your submitted work will land as another melting crystal of ice in the slush pile. Because of this, you’ve got to find a way to distinguish yourself from the other sloshy bits. The query is an important tool in this regard and can act as your golden ticket into Agent Land–if you’ve written it well.

One of the main purposes of the Backspace seminar was to allow writers to learn about the query process from the queried masses themselves. What do agents really like to see? What do they hate? And which choices will land you in the grey zone? Here’s a peek at my notes.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketYES, PLEASE.

* Look at an agent’s website for submission preferences. Some agents want e-queries while others prefer snail queries. Some may want to see the first ten pages and/or a synopsis along with your query. Because agents have so much slush to sludge through, submissions that don’t follow these rules might end up auto rejects. Do the upfront work and you’ll improve your chance at moving on to the next phase.

* Personalize your query letters. Summarize, even in a sentence, why a particular agent appeals to you. You admire the agency, authors the agent works with, the agent’s website/blog, etc… No one likes to feel like a Jane/Jay Doe.

* Make smart comparisons. Go ahead and liken your style to an author on the agent’s list–as long as the likeness is viable. Still good is to relate your work to another published book (but not a classic).

* Elevate yourself. Mention in your letter if you heard an agent speak at conference and especially if you’ve received a referral by another author. Said one agent, “A good word by another author will buy you a few more pages with me instead of the 1-3 page reading you’ll have otherwise.”

* Mention your credits. Have you published poems, short stories, magazine articles, nonfiction works? Mention your writing experience, briefly. Those with an advanced degree in a particular field should also include this info in a query.

* Mention the mistakes under the bed, too. Say if you have several other stories gathering dust. Though these old tales may not be publishable, agents like to know you’re a career-minded person focused on improving your craft.

* Reveal agents in your closet. If you’ve had an agent in the past and parted ways, say so in your query. If you’re querying a story that’s already been widely shopped, it might make hooking a new agent more difficult but it’s still info a would-be agent should have. If your story’s fresh, clarify this by saying something like, “My previous book was represented, but here are details for my next (read: better, infinitely more saleable) work.”

* Make your query unusual and attention grabbing. Of course your story is ultra-unique, fantabulous and unboxed to the max, so be sure your query is too. Got hook? Don’t be coy about it. A strong hook can help set your query above the others.

* Keep it professional. This one’s easy. Standard white paper. Black ink. Easy-breezy font like Courier or Times New Roman, 12 point. Include the agent’s name, your address, etc… Spell check everything. Sign it. If you’re sending an e-query, be sure you maintain a professional atmosphere, include all relevant information and keep the length from eee-growing beyond the equivalent of one manuscript page. Some agents noted that e-queries lean inappropriate-casual because the very nature of email is more casual. This can be a big mistake. Present your best self. Basic stuff, but still important.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketNO, PASS.

* Don’t sell yourself more than the book. Though some biographical information may be interesting and relevant in your query, focus on the story you’re trying to represent and keep info about yourself focused and to a minimum.

* Ditch the Sir or Madam approach. Don’t sent a query off to an agency without personalization. And never send a mass query to several agents at once. See the now-infamous Gawker query for the perfect example of what not to do, HERE.

* Don’t misspell the agent’s name, or use Mr. for Ms., etc… Is there a quicker route to knee-jerk rejection? Because this is one of the most easily avoidable screwups, getting basic facts wrong indictates a laziness that can turn agents off. Do your homework. There are plenty of agent-info websites you can visit for factchecking, but top among them is the agency’s own site.

* For that matter, don’t misspell anything. Agent Michael Bourret once received a query with the word “intellectual” misspelled. Erk. Use your spell check.

* Don’t write your query hastily. Remember that your query could be your golden ticket. Don’t let months or years of writing stand or fall on a slapdash query. Write a draft. Stew over your phrasings for a while. Improve upon your letter over time as you did with your novel. Create a query that is your best representative.

* Don’t dribble over into a second page. Queries that go beyond a single page may signal an author who has a too-long manuscript as well. A red flag for agents.

* Don’t use gimmicks. Rachel Vater once received a piece of toast in a query. Though the toast was somehow related to the book, the gimmick was a definite turn off. Forget about the cute kitten stationary, too, the fancy font, the glittery paperclip and the purple ink. Keep it simple and let your work sell itself.

* Don’t bother with Priority Mail. Spending more on postage doesn’t elevate you in the slush, and it’s not going to get you read more quickly either. Send your submission via regular mail.

* Don’t angst up your query. Keep the high drama in the novel–or save it for post-publication talk show interviews. The agent reading your work out of the slush neither wants nor needs to know about your recent surgery or the many children who’ve fallen in love with your book, etc…

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketMAYBE. MAYBE NOT.

* Consider business cards. Some agents don’t mind them but others complain they fall on the floor and lead to aggravation toward the author from the start.

* Use the right voice. It’s hard to say whether you should infuse your query with the voice you’ve used to good-great effect in your manuscript. Some agents like getting an instant feel for your writing style while others prefer a query stand on its own and simply do what it’s meant to: provide information.

* Think twice about slipping into character. First-person queries work for some agents but others find them a big turn off. It’s probably not a good approach unless you know a particular agent likes to see character queries.

Query on, all!


Photo courtesy Flickr’s _Kasia


About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.


  1. says

    Thanks for the link, Anthony!

    I hope it’s helpful, Thea. My notebook is just about drained now–though I still have some info on synopses to share.

    Always happy to hook a new reader, Richard. We’re glad to have you here!

  2. says

    Very informative post, Therese! What are ‘first person queries’? Do you mean, if the book you’ve written is Jane Eyre, you send the letter as if you WERE Jane Eyre? Yikes! Do people actually do this?

  3. says

    Yes, Juliet, that’s exactly what it means: Writing the query as if you were the character. People have apparently done this, and it works for some agents though most find it a turn off.