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Writing the Query Letter: Dos & Don’ts

https://www.udemy.com/course/get-writing-keep-writing/

It’s fall! You know what that means–it’s submission season. My inbox has flooded with client requests to help shape their queries and synopses. I’ve been seeing many queries, in particular, with similar mistakes or less-than-optimal structuring so I thought I’d share my laundry list of what makes a query juicy, what to avoid, and a few other points to making your query a slam-dunk success.

WHAT’S IN A QUERY?

  1. A PROPER GREETING: The only acceptable greeting is “Dear Agent”. This is not the actual word “agent”, but the agent’s NAME spelled correctly. Do not, under any circumstances, leave off the agent’s name. It makes it look like you don’t really give a crap who it is that reps you, consequently making the agent feel like they are the hired help and not a human being who pours their heart and soul into your works. It’s also lazy.
  2. WHY YOU’RE QUERYING SAID AGENT: Include a sentence or two (max) of why you’re querying that particular agent and why you think they will like your novel. ***Caution, some agents are annoyed when you tell them you love an author or book they rep and that’s why you’re querying them. Especially when you get the information wrong. It can make you come off like a bad car salesman if not done well. Comparing elements in your novel to said author or book, however, is acceptable and even encouraged. You can also reference meeting the agent at a conference or during an online pitch session, etc. Just be succinct and truthful.
  3. BODY OF THE QUERY: Be sure to open with the protagonist (by name and/or what makes them unique), mention the antagonist, a couple of poignant details about the plot that will indicate a catalyst for change in the protagonist, and finally, what is at stake. Finish with a strong hook that makes the agent race to ask for pages. Do not go on and on about the dozens of complicated subplots and character development. The goal here is to tempt the agent to want to read more. Less is more. They like white space in their inboxes. Also, here are a couple of notes on genre specifics.

If your book is:

  1. WORD COUNT & GENRE: Word count, genre, and comparison titles should come in a two-sentence paragraph after the body of the query. For comparison titles, choose one or two from another author whose works are in the vein of your story. You can use novels, or movie/TV shows with similar elements. Stick to two. If you list 3 or more, the strong comparison is lost and offers too broad a range of what your novel is really about.
  1.  A SHORT BIO PARAGRAPH: Describe your writing credits or previous novels if any, writing groups to which you belong, any writing-related degrees or awards, websites/magazines for you write for, or experience that aided you in crafting this particular novel. If you have absolutely nothing to say here that relates to writing, I suggest, at the very least, you join a couple of online groups that you can mention.

WHAT NOT TO INCLUDE

  1. THEMES: Though themes are important, they aren’t plot points, which is the WHOLE POINT of a query. Also, themes are generic and can be applied to thousands of stories that aren’t yours. For example: “This book follows a woman’s journey to find herself, to conquer her fears, and to become whole again after a life-altering divorce.” This could describe roughly 5 million books. What makes your book unique is the plot and the characters. Besides, agents are intelligent people. I guarantee they’ll figure out the themes, simply by looking at the plot and the main conflict—if not in your query, in your pages.
  2. GROSS COMPARISONS: You may very well be the next Anne Rice, but don’t compare yourself to her, lest you want your carefully crafted query deleted. This comes off as amateuresque and egotistical. Anne Rice isn’t just an author. She’s a brand. She’s a legend. It’s like comparing your church bulletin to the New York Times. It just doesn’t work.
  3. YOUR DEGREES: For clarification, you should always include your degrees if they meet the following criteria: A.) it’s a writing degree of some sort,  B.) it’s a degree that boosts your platform, or  C.) it’s related to the subject about which you have written. Do not include your degree in psychology or math, or communications if you write romance novels. They don’t correlate. Many agents don’t care if you even graduated high school. They want a good story with strong writing they can sell.
  4. QUOTES OR PRAISE: It’s great that your friend who’s a journalist/novelist/playwright loves your book, but to include that info is another rookie move. So is going on about how you’re an excellent writer because so many people have told you so, including Professor Plum of Harvard University. BAD MOVE. The agent can decide how they feel about your book and your writing.
  5. BUTT KISSING: There’s nothing more annoying than obsequiousness. Some agents seem not to mind because they’re used to it and they skip over your gushing compliments without getting too bogged down. Most get irritated and delete you immediately.

OTHER TIPS

  1. KEEP IT SHORT:  Your query should total 250-350 words. Agents like to see white space in an email. It means they have less to read, and it’s easy to read, which is a good thing when their inboxes are flooded every week. Plus, in our lightning-speed, no-deferred-gratification society, faster and punchier is better.
  2. GET EYES ON IT: Bang out a few versions and find another writer, query forum, or editor to give you feedback. You need at least two pairs of eyes on this sucker, just as you do for your pages. Everyone picks up on different aspects of your tone and style, after all.
  3. THE GUNSHOT APPROACH IS A BUST: Don’t send out a mass query to a bunch of agents. There are a few reasons why: A.) You don’t want to play your entire hand in one go because your piece may need more feedback, ultimately, and you could be wasting your chance with these agents, B.) You’re demonstrating that you don’t give a damn who reps you by not being discerning. This is extremely bad form. I can’t stress how small this business is (something I’ve learned now that I’ve been a part of it for ten years). Everyone knows each other. They talk. A lot. They will share your bad behavior. And C.) An agent-author relationship should be a partnership. You need to be as selective choosing them as they are about choosing their authors. Not every agent will fit the profile of someone you would like to work with. An agent is like a significant other. Choose them with care.
  4. RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH: Research as many agents as possible that rep your genre. Make a spreadsheet with their information, including when you’ve contacted them, and when they’ve gotten back to you, as well as how many pages they requested. Use www.querytracker.com to check out agent turn-around time, as well as agent behaviors and protocol. Read Publisher’s Lunch and Publisher’s Weekly to follow who is making sales and to which publisher, also what genre of books they’re selling. Does Agent 007 enjoy westerns? Do they sell contemporary cowboy romances with elements that match yours? Perfect. Consider querying them.
  5. CONTACT THE AGENT’S CLIENTS: Or better yet, their former clients. Get the skinny on how they operate. This is when gossiping is not only okay, but encouraged. Again, think business partnership. You will be paying this person through your advances and royalties. You want the best person for the job who gets you and your style.

FINALLY, MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU. If you find your query isn’t getting you anywhere, consider hiring an editor to take a look at it, preferably one with query experience. (Believe it or not, there are plenty who don’t. This is a very specific skill.) OR, consider tabling the project for awhile. (Meanwhile, you should be working on another sparkly new idea while querying.) But keep at it! Publishing is often a game of “last man standing”. Be that person who will rise again.

About Heather Webb [1]

Heather Webb is the USA Today bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction. To date, Heather’s books have sold in over a dozen countries worldwide. As a freelance editor, Heather has helped many writers sign with agents and go on to sell at market. When not writing, she feeds her cookbook addiction, geeks out on history and pop culture, and looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world.

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