Monday, October 12, 2009

Writing Extraordinary Queries

The journey to signing with an agent is almost always a long and hard one. There are the few exceptions, where the writer got it right in the first book, and the first query letter, and nailed the agent research in the first try. But that doesn’t usually happen. Most of the time, it takes years of hard work. Not including the time it took to write however many books in order to get your writing to a certain level of quality.

But, once you’ve finally written that book, had it critiqued, and revised it, and revised again, then it’s time to move on to the next beast: the query letter.

I wrote a post a year ago about query letters, and how the key to a good query is to put a bit of yourself in it. But today I wanted to break down the query letter itself to examine the different components, and figure out how each part can be the most effective.

First, let’s talk a bit about query letters in general.

The standard length of a query letter is one page, single-spaced. The font should be 10 to 12 points, usually in Times New Roman (this font seems to be the favorite in the industry). If you’re sending an e-query, it should still be one page, and it goes in the body of the email. If you send it as an attachment, it will likely be deleted, unread.

While we’re on the subject of e-queries, never never NEVER send a query to multiple recipients. Copy and paste each query into a new email, addressed to one specific person, with the word QUERY in the subject line.

Now that we have the overall basics down, let’s look at the components of a query.

“Dear Mr./Ms. ,”
Be sure you get the name right. When I get letters in the mail from a company advertising a new service or product, nothing turns me off faster than being addressed by the wrong name. Or even “Resident.” Makes me feel like the company couldn’t be bothered to look me up, and therefore doesn’t really care about me as a consumer. I would imagine that agents feel the same way when getting an incorrectly addressed query. Worse, actually, because a good agent/client relationship has a connection on a personal level. So, never address a query to “Dear Agent.” It makes you look bad.

Opening paragraph.
If you have a specific reason why you are sending your query to this agent or editor, this is a good place to state it: she worked on a book similar to yours, you read her blog and like her style, you met at a conference, etc. No matter what you say, keep in mind that this is your query’s hook, and it needs to be good. Stating that you found this person on Agent Query or Query Tracker shows that you’re doing your research, but it’s also pretty generic (this information can be said later on). Same with things like “I am seeking representation.” That’s obvious, or you wouldn’t be sending the query. Instead, open with a specific reason why you think this agent will love your work. If you don’t have a specific enough reason, then skip this paragraph and go straight to your story’s summary.

Story Summary.
This is a compelling summary of your work, similar to what you’d read on the jacket flap (or the back of a paperback). In fact, before writing this piece, read a bunch of summaries on published works to see how those were done. Then, sit down with your story and capture its essence and flavor in a few short sentences. If it’s funny, then inject it with humor. If it’s dramatic, show some drama. If it’s horror, well, you get the idea. :) If all else fails, write this paragraph as if your main character is writing it, and his/her voice will shine through.

This is about you, the writer. If you have any publishing credits, this is where you list them. If you don’t have any, don’t panic because they aren’t necessary. The focus of your query is the story you’re currently selling, not stories you’ve sold (or haven’t sold) in the past. If you like, you could mention why you write – just don’t say it’s because all the other books out there are terrible. If you are working on another story, then a one-sentence summary could be included here. You can list memberships to writing organizations, like SCBWI, as well. But try to keep this paragraph short and sweet.

Closing Paragraph.
If you haven’t yet mentioned word count, genre, age group, or potential marketing (as in, fans of Author or Book Title will like your work), do so here. If the submission guidelines state to send material, like a synopsis or the first few pages, you can state what you’re including, as well as where you found those guidelines. Also, always thank an agent for her time. That’s something they don’t have a lot of, especially nowadays.

Writing compelling queries is an art in and of itself. And it’s not easy, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t get it right the first time. In fact, you’ll probably revise several times as you get responses...but that’s the subject of my next post. :)

An additional resource on queries is Elana’s Johnson’s ebook, From the Query to the Call. It's excellent, mostly because she has good examples of query letters. Definitely worth getting a copy.

Happy Querying!


Unknown said...

Excellently written! Thanks for sharing--I'm sure this will be a great resource to others as well. And I agree--Elana's book is totally worth it!

Tabitha said...

Thanks! Writing query letters sure isn't easy, and it took me over a year to finally write a decent query - which I'm pretty proud of, because it got me a consistent 40 to 50 percent request rate. :)

I'm glad there's more good resources on queries out there now, like Elana's book. Especially her examples. Those are gold. :)

PJ Hoover said...

Very good query comments! Queries are both fun and frustrating at the same time. Kind of like writing :)

Write2ignite said...

Thanks, Tabitha! Query letters have long been one of the "hard" bits of submitting for me. I'm getting better, but it's still not an easy task. I love the way you've laid it all out in an easy to understand plan.

Great job!

Danyelle L. said...

Great points! It makes writing a query letter look so easy. :p

Tabitha said...

PJ - ain't that the truth. :)

Donna - glad it was helpful! Queries were the bane of my existence when I first started writing them. I had no idea what I was doing, and there weren't many resources at the time. I hope others can skip some of that and learn from my mistakes. :)

Danyelle - LOL!! And, yet, we know they're NOT easy. :)

Kelly Polark said...

Wonderful tips. I just started writing my agent query (for the very first time ever) this weekend. I want to get it just right, I thank you for the info!

Northwriter said...

Good solid information Tabitha.

I'll just add this:

When I was querying I had a one sentence summary of my book, then I followed it with back cover copy. I had a high request rate so whatever I did worked. I know querying can be frustrating. My log line and back cover copy are posted on my blog on the page, Placement, if anyone is interested, if it would be helpful to people querying.

Bish Denham said...

Excellent. Simple and to the point. Thanks!

Christina Farley said...

I like how you broke this down point by point. Thanks.

Tabitha said...

Kelly - that's great! Congratulations on getting to the query stage! That's no easy feat. :) Good luck with your query!! :)

Northwriter - I totally agree that a one-sentence summary could add that much more to your story's summary. I had one, too, and since my story is high concept it was a pretty good hook. For stories that aren't high concept, though, that might make things difficult. But, yes, a one-sentence summary is usually a good asset.

Bish - glad you liked, it, thanks! :)

Christina - thanks! Breaking things down into little pieces help me to understand things. So that's what I did with the query. :)

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

great advice - I agree! :)