Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Query Clinic

A query letter is the author's written introduction of herself and her work to prospective agents and editors. The irony of query writing is that it is one simple page, summarizing what you've already written, and yet most writers would rather start a new novel than face condensing their magnum opus into a hook appropriate for the back of a book.

It is absolutely vital that a writer be able to craft a finely honed query letter. If you claim to be a writer and your query letter has simple mechanical errors, convoluted sentences, or is flat-out boring, it will be hard to get an agent or editor to read your work. Remember, most agents are looking at over 100 new submissions on their desk each week! You have to do everything possible to stand out from the pack.

Query Do's and Don'ts: (culled from agent blogs and workshops at conferences)

1. Always make sure you've addressed the agent correctly. I'm always shocked at how many agents post rejected queries where the writer spelled their name wrong, addressed it to "Dear Sir or Madam" or "To Whom It May Concern". This screams "I didn't do my research" and makes you look like an idiot. Research the agents you want to approach (use sites on my sidebar for help), make sure they are currently accepting submissions in your genre and that they've sold in the last year, and then address them correctly!

2. Only send what the agent wants to see. All agents have different submission guidelines. It takes thirty seconds to read the submission guidelines on each agent's website and tailor your submission package to them. I have a query, a synopsis, and the first three chapters of DTR ready to go so whatever the agent wants, I send. DO NOT make the mistake of seeing that they want one sample chapter and sending them fifty pages instead. They can tell if they like your writing by reading one chapter. If you aren't confident that your first chapter will grab them, it's time to rewrite until it will.

3. Write a hook that makes you want to buy your own book. The meat of your query should read like the back of a book. A great way to do this is to grab four or five books you just had to buy based on what you read on the back, line them up, read their backs, and figure out what grabbed you. Then duplicate that feel in your own hook. A good hook gives a clear sense of the main characters, the conflict, and the stakes and makes a potential reader want to read more. Your query needs to be no more than one page, in business letter format, so your hook has to be only two to three paragraphs.

4. Include one paragraph listing your "stats". You need to tell agents how many words your completed manuscript contains, what genre it fits into, any previous publishing credentials or "stand out" details like finaling in the Golden Heart contest. I use this paragraph to give the agent a sense of where I see my career heading (paranormal thrillers) and that I'm in it for the long haul.

5. Make sure you use correct business letter format. If you don't know how to do this, google it and find out. It's essential that you give your contact information and that if it's a snail mail query, you include a SASE with the correct postage, not metered.

6. Be careful how you stand out. I've read stories of agents receiving queries on scented, colored paper, in envelopes marked "Urgent" or filled with confetti, and even queries that arrived with gifts for the agent. Don't be an idiot. You stand out by being more talented and more professional than the rest. You gain attention by having a unique voice and a high concept plot. You leave the confetti for your kid's birthday party. Besides, if your writing stinks, all the confetti in the world won't buy you a contract.

7. Remain professional at all times. You will get rejection letters. If J.K. Rowling, Nora Roberts, John Grisham, and Dean Koontz were rejected, you better believe you will be too. Rejections come for a variety of reasons. Maybe the agent just signed a similar project. Maybe you just didn't "wow" her enough but you will the next one you try. Maybe you need to get a hard-nosed critique partner and rewrite your manuscript. Maybe your idea has been done too often and your take isn't unique enough. Whatever the reason, be professional in your response. Every agent who took the time to read my work and send a response received a thank you note from me. Those who took the time to write a personal note on their rejection letter got an extra special thank you from me. That's time they took to reach out to me when they wouldn't make a dime. I respect their time. The literary community is a tight knit community and being rude to a few will soon get your name black-balled to the many.

Likewise, make sure any public web presence you have is professional enough to withstand a prospective agent googling your name. Google my name and you get this site. I've made sure that I'm personal enough to be engaging and entertaining without crossing the line into sharing too much info that might be off-putting to a prospective agent.

8. Avoid the following mistakes:

*Don't pitch more than one project at a time. If you want to mention that your book is the first in a series or that you are working on something else, find a way to do it that doesn't qualify as a double pitch. Usually I can work this into my "stats" paragraph.

*Don't pitch an incomplete manuscript. I don't care if you're sure you can have it finished by the time an agent asks for it. You want to make sure the agent knows the manuscript is complete (i.e. Saving Sally is a chick lit novel complete at 92,000 words.) because unless you've been previously published, you don't have the track record necessary to successfully submit a work in progress.

*Don't compare yourself to other authors. Saying "I am the next J.K. Rowling" gives the impression that you have a huge ego and might be difficult to work with, not to mention the fact that it screams "Amateur!". And if your writing sample doesn't hold up to your claim, you end up looking incredibly stupid.

*Don't say you're better than what's on the market today. We've all picked up a book and thought, "Sheesh. I can write better than this." Maybe you can, but a professional query letter is not the place to bring it up. Besides, someone might read your work and think the same thing.

*Don't tell the agent you have a life-changing book or an important book or anything that smacks of hyperbole. If it's life-changing (and fiction rarely is) or if it's important, the agent is certainly smart enough to decide that for themselves but saying things like this makes you look like you don't visit reality very often and that makes you a risky business partner.

*Don't dare the agent to take you on or threaten that if you don't hear from them soon, you'll shop it around elsewhere. Most agents expect that you are doing simultaneous submissions. Don't do anything that makes you look like a difficult diva. Your writing would have to truly be better than Koontz at that point for an agent to ever call.

*For more mistakes to avoid, I recommend browsing the blogs of Agent X, The Rejecter, and Kristin Nelson. Links are on my sidebar.

I will do a hook "how to" soon but here is my query letter for DTR:

Dear Ms. Faust, (Name spelled correctly, I've researched and she is accepted submissions in my genre and I like her sales record.)

(I start immediately with the hook. I leave the stats paragraph for the bottom because I want to instantly grab her attention.) Emily Gallows is sick of living in fear. Armed with some kickboxing lessons and a take-no-prisoners attitude, she relocates to the picturesque town of Eavanbaugh, Ireland. She has mere days to set a trap to catch the murderer on her trail. Her new landlord, ex-mercenary fighter turned security consultant Quinn O' Reilly, is going to help her do it. He just doesn't know it.

Quinn is a hero with a few unvanquished demons of his own. When an in-depth background check on his new tenant reveals frightening discrepancies, he is surprised to find he wants to protect Emily as much as he wants the truth. Protecting the fiercely independent Emily, however, is easier said than done.

Emily and Quinn form an uneasy alliance to recover her memories that identify a killer who has nothing left to lose. As the body count rises, and the investigation raises more questions than it answers, the chemistry between Quinn and Emily heats up as well. Too late, they realize the truth may not save them from a killer disguised as someone they've grown to trust.

DYING TO REMEMBER is currently a finalist in RWA's Golden Heart in the romantic suspense category and is finished at 94,000 words. (Pertinent details handled in one sentence: length, genre, special credentials) The full manuscript is also with Alex Logan at Grand Central upon her request and she has asked to see my current work in progress, a parnormal thriller. (Now I've told her I'm serious about my career and I'm working on a new genre. If she isn't interested in romantic suspense right now, she might want to see my paranormal.) I am interested in partnering with an agent who is committed to building long-term careers with her authors. I've included a synopsis and the first three chapters. I appreciate you taking the time to consider my work. (Always thank the agent for their time.)

Sincerely,

C.J. Redwine

7 comments:

  1. This is a great post. Querying is daunting! I haven't started yet but I've copied and pasted this to refer to when I'm ready.

    Now...how do I condense a 100,000 word manuscript into three small paragraphs?!

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  2. Excellent post. *nods* I've heard similar horror stories of awful queries on Rachel Vater's site and it's hard to believe some people don't understand the basics.

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  3. I agree with previous posters. What I don't understand are people who get rejection letters and then flame the agent, I know it has to be extremely frustrating but all they do is gain a bad name for themselves and since agents network I'm sure if he makes himself memorable that way he'll have an even harder time later on.

    Also like to make a point about SASE [self adressed stamped envelope], send one of thsoe as well so they can return your manuscript.

    But yeah, when I get around to querying [have to finish/rewrite/edit] lol.

    This isn't directly related to querying but I thought she made a lot of good points about choosing the right e-pub and how you should feel about your work, not just being able to say you're published.

    http://ilona-andrews.livejournal.com/

    http://ilona-andrews.livejournal.com/ [

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  4. Awesome post CJ.

    I'd add one codicil to the note about comparing your work to other authors - the single time I've seen it to be appropriate is if you're querying an agent who reps someone and your book is similiar to their work.

    Something like this:

    I'm writing you because I noticed you in the acknowledgments of X's book and thought if you liked her work you would be interested in mine also.

    Katy

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  5. Now...how do I condense a 100,000 word manuscript into three small paragraphs?!

    *grins* Mayberry, that's the million dollar question. ;) It's even more fun trying to knock it into one sentence!

    The best way to go about it is to ask yourself what the story is about. Every story does have a plot that could be condensed into just a few words.

    Then you flesh it out a bit with pertinent information, major character names (the BIG players only), what's going on.

    CJ can tell you it usually takes a try or seven for me to get a good hook going. :D

    Katy

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  6. Mayberry - writing hooks is an art unto itself. Katy can tell you that my first version of a hook for SHADOWING FATE stunk. Truly. The hook I have now rocks. You learn as you go.

    Jage - thanks for the link!

    Katy - *laughs* You're right about how to correctly compare to give an agent a frame of reference for your work. I was thinking of those people I've heard who announce that they are the next Grisham and Hollywood will be lining up with their checkbooks open so if the agent is smart, she'll snatch up the author before she misses her gravy train...

    Hook workshop coming soon! I wonder if I can find my old hook for Alexa? Katy?

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  7. Heh. I may need to dig around but I'll bet I can find it. :D

    K

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