Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Essential 10: The Query Letter

Great story idea? Check. Terrific writing? Check. Requests from agents? Goose egg? Near goose egg?

Before you toss that manuscript in a drawer, I want you to take a look at your submission package, which consists of three very important pieces: the query, the first page, and the synopsis.

If you’re querying, about to start querying, or hope to query in the future, this three-part series on getting yourself in tip-top shape is for you.

Necessary disclaimer: I am not an agent. I don’t claim to know all there is to know about writing the perfect query, first page, or synopsis. What I do have is my own experience, what I know has worked for others, and some perspective. As a Pitch Wars mentor for the past two years, I’ve read a lot of queries, first pages, and synopses. And I recently critiqued an abundance of queries and first pages as part of a preorder campaign I conducted for my debut Becoming Jinn (Macmillan, April 21, 2015).

With many of the same problems popping up over and over again, I wanted to share some essential tips for creating the strongest query package you can.

This month I tackle the query.

The Essential 10

1. Query the right agent. Don’t ignore this advice. It’s probably the most crucial element of querying. Agents aren’t being mean or narrow-minded if they say they only represent romance or young adult contemporaries. They say this because their job is to sell your work. And in order to do so, they must be aware of what editors want to buy. It would be quite a feat to know and have relationships with all editors in all genres at all publishing houses. It’s simply not possible. So if they say they only represent certain categories, believe them. Don’t think yours will be the exception because it’s just that good. It might be (I hope it is!), but it doesn’t matter. If the agent only knows editors who buy self-help books, he or she can’t sell your picture book. It’s a basic fact. If you adhere to this rule, you’ll cut down on the rejections in your inbox (as well as the irrelevant ones in agent’s inboxes!).

2. Personalize. How can you assure agents you are following tip number 1? By personalizing the query letter. You should be taking the time to research all the agents you are querying. If you are, then following this tip is easy because you’ve already read about them on their Web site, read interviews with them on some place like Literary Rambles, or checked them out on Agent Query. You know the genres they represent and the authors and books on their list. Which means you can kick off your letter with something akin to the following:

"Dear Agent,

Having read on Literary Rambles that you are looking for stories about sea creatures, I believe my 75,000-word Young Adult fantasy, MONSTERS OF THE ATLANTIC, may appeal to you."

Starting this way has the bonus of giving context to the pitch you are able to lead into. While I know there is mixed advice on this, with some saying to end with personalization, I’m a firm believer in starting with it—if it’s short like this. Knowing the title and genre do wonders for understanding the pitch and I think any negatives are easily outweighed.

3. Don’t forget the details. Your query is the first time you meet a blind date, a friend’s parents, your potential boss. It’s a first impression and the details matter.  They include:

  • All book titles are written in all caps.
  • Include the word count (rounded up, not 73,489).
  • Include the category (Adult, NA YA, MG, PB) and genre (fantasy; science fiction; romance; etc.). Resist the urge to create new genres. Your work will fit in one of the existing, I promise.
  • Don’t use throwaway words. The query is a writing sample. If it’s not good enough, agents won’t move on to your first page. Treat every sentence and every word in the pitch with the same care that you do your novel. That means not using the same word repeatedly, not using “look” when “ransack” is better, and of course, not having spelling, grammar, or other errors. Read your query over—many times. Ask someone else to read it over. And then you read it over again. And again.

4. Ground the pitch. One of the biggest issues in query pitches centers on the idea of grounding the reader. Remember that we are newbies. We have no idea if your book is set on this planet, in this time, has twelve POVs or one. Including the title, world count, and genre as I suggest above is one way to begin the grounding. But continue it by ensuring in your first couple of sentences that you give the reader a sense of what this world is. It can be done (and should be done) subtly with details sprinkled in that give us a clue, like if the character is in high school or lives on a spaceship. We understand the world via the details you include so you don’t have to “info dump.”

5. Be specific. Queries should tell the plot—and the specifics of your plot. With so many stories out there, agents need to know what’s unique about yours. To say someone faces a challenge or screws up is way too general. What challenge do they face? How do they screw up? Give us character, conflict, and stakes. We should know what your character’s story problem is. We should understand what he or she wants, the obstacles in his or her way, and what will happen if he or she doesn’t achieve this goal. Think of going up to the 25% point of the novel and then…

6. End with a zinger, not a cliché. Aren’t all YA novels coming-of-age stories when you get down to it? Aren’t all novels about a character facing a decision or a challenge? Instead of saying, “Will Mary find love?”—and, please, avoid the question form if at all possible—say, “Mary faces the choice of following the love of her life on a rocket ship to Mars or nursing her ailing father through the flesh-eating virus that’s slowly killing him.” End it with specifics, be as enticing as you can, and make the agent HAVE to read your novel.

7. Drop the cutesy. Agents read hundreds of queries a week. I assure you, an excess of puns, exclamation points, or “fun” facts about you that have nothing to do with the writing, get old fast. Unless you are a master of it, don’t try.

8. Ditto for the self-deprecating. Don’t welcome them to tear your work apart. Don’t tell them you know it could be better. Don’t apologize for your writing, for being a debut author, or being new to the writing world. Owning your work shows that you have confidence in it. Because if you don’t, why should anyone else?

9. Just the facts. Don’t be worried if your bio is short. It’s better to keep it to what’s directly relevant to writing or the manuscript’s topic than to try to pump your bio up by including references to the chapter book you wrote when you were seven or the instructions you wrote up for your husband on how to program the TIVO. There’s nothing wrong with being a new writer. In your bio, give your education or work background if it relates to writing or the novel itself. For example, if you are a nurse and your book is set in a hospital, that’s relevant. If you once spent the night in the ER, that’s not.

10. Closing remarks. Show that you understand an agent’s time matters. Don’t ask them to send you feedback. If they do, great. If not, never send an e-mail back asking for it. End your query with something along the lines of:

"Thank you for your time and consideration. I would be happy to send you a full or partial manuscript upon request."

Bonus 11: Overall, be professional. An agent is choosing to represent you as much as your work. And that means, never badmouth another author or book. It’s in poor taste in any context. But beyond that, here, in a query, understand that this publishing world is very small. You very well might be trashing that agent’s client, best friend, or colleague. Be professional above all else. Who knows? If you are, and your work isn’t right for this agent, you increase the chances of them passing you along to someone else or maybe asking to see your next work.

Join me next month for tips on the first page and the following month for a look at the dreaded synopsis.

Lori Goldstein is the author of Becoming Jinn (now available for preorder; Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, April 21, 2015, sequel, Spring 2016). With a degree in journalism and more than 10 years of experience, Lori is a freelance copyeditor and manuscript consultant for all genres. She focuses on the nitty-gritty, letting writers focus on the writing.

No comments:

Post a Comment