Query Letters

Posted Aug, 2006

Querying is amongst the most dreaded activity in writing. It is the process by which you obtain an agent (or publisher). The failure rate is astonishing (see On Publishing to get the numbers, and learn more about if in agent is right for you, vs. direct submissions, POD, and other alternatives).

A query letter is a one page letter asking if the agent will represent you.

As you would wear a suit and tie to a formal job interview, this letter reflects you, and should be the best it can be. It is a reflection of your skill. A single typo, or spelling or grammatical error will likely find your query in the trash (if you can’t get one page right, how can you do a book?)

The first paragraph is your introduction (who you are, why you’re writing, why you want this agent in particular, what makes you unique). The second is your story (summarize the plot in one paragraph. As discussed in previous lessons, you should already be able to do it in one sentence or less, so a paragraph should be more room than you need). The third is why you should be taken seriously (a little bio, a little history of your career, and again – what makes you unique). The fourth is your closing (“Thanks a lot, hope to hear from you…” yada, yada, yada,).

If you’re over one page, don’t bother sending it. If you have to make the margins or the font smaller to fit everything, don’t send it. You’re a writer, be concise.

This is the challenge, and it is done so intentionally… Can you make your story a grabber given only one paragraph? No? Well then what makes you think you can make a compelling book? You’re story’s to complicated to get into one paragraph? There are plenty of complicated stories out there, and they all did it. They are all reduced to a blurb on a dustcover, and they all were at one point a paragraph on a query letter.

This is the essence of all writing – taking a story, like a block of marble, and chiseling it down to it’s essence, to say what it is you’re really trying to express. Use too many words, and you bore your audience. Not enough, and you’re not saying what you intend. Writing is a constant exercise in finding better and more concise ways to express yourself. And if you can’t do it for a single paragraph, why should you be published?

Assuming your letter is flawless, that is no mistakes, and has the appropriate content, you’ve done better than half of all of the query letters out there. Now you have to make your letter stand out. You have to do everything you can to make your letter stand out from the others who have a letter as complete as yours.

An agent friend of mine once received flowers with a query letter. It freaked her out. Don’t do that.

So what do you do?

1) Be honest.

These agents are seeing 300 letters this week, most full of BS. Don’t lie, don’t puff yourself up. Be a straight shooter.

Sometimes people make up fake accolades, thinking it will help and the agent won’t check. They’re right on both counts. But the agent WILL check before signing final contracts (as will a publisher). It’s a small community, everybody knows everybody – burn a quality agent, it will knock you 10 rings back down the ladder, and nobody will touch you no matter how well you write.

2) Be personal:

I queried both the Dijkstra Literary Agency and the Donald Maass Literary agency (my current agency) with a similar letter, and they both accepted it. In it, I wrote “I am not a great writer. But someday I will be. This is the only profession I’ll ever have for my life.”

Now, I’ve no doubt some people put down that letter when they saw that, assuming a level of arrogance. But a number took it as well. Why? It was honest. This is where I’m going. I’ve no interest in any other profession. I write or I die. They liked that. They liked that I acknowledged I am not great (and years later, I’m still not), but that I had that goal, and I wasn’t apologetic about it.

It took a lot of time before I had the coconuts to write that line though, let me tell you.

3) Find the scene in your book that was the hardest to write:

Find a way to work that scene into your description of the book.

Now, everybody wants to put the scene most meaningful to them in the description. But the agent hasn’t read the book, and is not vested in the characters. It simply isn’t possible to get an agent as interested in the scene as you are.

But the scene which was hardest for you to write… Why was it hard? Usually a scene is hard because it’s tough to do it believably, or it’s complex, or its emotionally draining. Either way, it usually requires the acme of your skill. It’s what’s going to impress an agent the most.

In “From Inside the Mirror”, I had a scene where my main character, Hawke, convinces a man he’s God. Hawke must do this with no tricks, no slight of hand, simply through dialog… and in 5 minutes.

Imagine that? Going up to a complete stranger and, in 5 minutes, convincing him you’re god, using only dialog. Don’t you want to read my book now, if for no other reason than to see if I pull it off, see if the scene is believable?

That was one of the hardest scenes I’ve ever written. And I was never really convinced that I maintained suspension of disbelief, that readers could get through the scene and believe it. I was scared to death to mention it in my query letter. But I did, and the agents wanted to read it, and that’s a foot in the door.

And, as in keeping with tip #1, I did it honestly.

4) Submit as much as you can:

When submitting, if the agent takes complete manuscripts, I always send the manuscript. It’s expensive (I never ask them to return it, one more burden on them they won’t appreciate), but consider this…

Being an agent is like any other job where judgment is called for. Most of the time the decision is clear. But sometimes it’s not. Sometime’s its just mood. An agent may be tired, or hungry, or just be having a bad day, just like any of us.

An agent once told me that many times she liked a query JUST enough to have her interest piqued, but not enough to actually reply and ask for more materials (which is a 2-4 week process, and she’s got to refresh her memory when the new work comes in). But if the materials are there, a chapter or two, she might just flip through, give it a chance to win her over.

I’ve heard it suggested by some agents that you should ALWAYS submit the first three chapters. I’m not sure I concur, a number of agents may get upset with you for being unable or unwilling to follow their submission guidelines. But in ANY case where more material is acceptable to an agent, send as much as you can.

When Cameron McClure from the Donald Maass agency first got my query letter, she showed the manuscript to Don before even reading the letter. They both remarked on the impedes of sending the entire thing (and most agents will feel that way). But she read the query letter, and her interest was piqued. The manuscript was right there, so she figured, why not.

She finished the book that day, and called me up to say that she wanted to represent me.

5) Work it out.

This is a LONG process. I submitted HUNDEREDS of query letters in my career. Each time they got better and better. I worked them out, I improved them, I focused on them. I weighed every decision, and every decision cost me (I did get feedback from one agent who was turned off by my mentioning of the “God” scene, saying it wasn’t possible to write, and he wasn’t going to bother reading it). But the question was, what could I do that was more likely to work, and each time I submitted, I learned new things.

This is a process.

6) Do your homework:

The very first time I every queried, I sent out 40 queries in one batch. I had different headers for each (with the appropriate agent name and address), as well as footers (with the enclosure list appropriate to that agent), but the bulk of the letter the same, a form letter.

Now going over the math (On Publishing), that may seem like a good idea. How can you take the time to do this individually, when there are hundreds of agents out there?

The answer? How can you not take the time?

Agents can spot B.S. a mile away – their lives are inundated with it. No form letter you submit, no mater how carefully crafted, will attract them.

Personalize it. Find out what conferences they attend (available in Herman’s and the Market) – see if you can attend those, or get their lectures on tape or online afterwards. Mention that you met them or heard their lecture, show some interest in them – after all, you ARE interested in them, and you want them interested in return. Find out what they specialize in, and make sure you note that in your first paragraph (“I know you’re interested in Science fiction, which is why I’m writing you…”). See who else they represent, and what they’ve worked on, and point out similarities or differences.

Sound like too much work? Maybe it is, but it’s less work than sending out a hundred form queries a year and having them all rejected for five years straight.

Now, I’m sure someone has done the bulk method and had it work. But I know a dozen published authors, and read hundreds of stories of getting agents (as I recommended earlier, get every Market as it comes out, and each has a dozen stories. I have ten years of Writer’s Market on my shelves), and none of them ever succeeded with that method.

7) Be patient.

This is a recurring theme in all of the chapters in the Business and Craft of Writing. Stephen King wrote “Carrie”, and spent 10 years trying to get it published. This is a tough field. Stick with it, you’ll get there. Give up, you won’t.

The best way to ruin yourself is to think it will be easy. It won’t be. The good news is nobody can kick you out of this field. You can’t be fired or demoted. You’re in it as long as you want to be, and can continue to improve and grow. Expect results fast, and you’ll quit when you don’t get them.

8) Learn the industry:

It’s an industry, like any other. Learn who is looking for new talent and when, and who isn’t. Like I said earlier, when an agent moves from one agency to another (a common thing), that agent leaves her agents behind at the agency. That agent, who normally takes on a new client every two years, is now looking for 10-20 new clients in one year.

9) Do it your way:

These are guidelines. There aren’t many rules, recipes guaranteed to work. If there were, everybody would be published.

More than anything, agents are looking for a unique voice. Everyone can have a unique voice, but most people don’t. Most people play it safe, stick with what’s popular, and what other people have done. That’s the toughest way to do it.

You need to go your own way.

Now, this is not to say you should ignore criticisms, or make up the rules as you go. There’s helpful advice out there, and people who know what they’re doing. You should listen to them with an open mind and open heart.

But in the end, it’s YOU that an agent will want to take on. Don’t try to be original, just try to find your own voice, and originality will come

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