Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Everything You Ever Wanted to Learn about Query Letters...You Can Learn Online

In May, I attended two writers conferences. I realize I was very fortunate to do so, especially since finding good conferences is difficult, and sometimes paying to attend them is impossible.

Writer friends of mine and I took some great notes, and I'm hoping to share the knowledge with you - starting with query letters.

Here's my disclaimer: I'm not perfect at writing queries. In fact, I've been polishing my current query for some time now.

That said, I've done my research. Lots of research. And, I've sat in on several agent panels and heard feedback from more than 20 agents in query letter workshops.

The perfect query
My theory behind query letters reminds me of a scene from a movie, Cheaper by the Dozen 2. Steve Martin's daughter gives birth, and she tells her father the baby will be named after him. He's taught the new parents that there's no way to be a perfect parent but a million ways to be a good one.

So goes the story with queries. Writers are so often searching for the golden formula or phrase that will guarantee a perfect query.

It doesn't exist.

This is why: reading is subjective.

One agent may prefer you start a query with the genre, title and word count while another prefers you jump right into the heart of the story or the hook.

There's no one right way to write a query letter, but there are a million ways to write a good one.

Here's another secret: everything you ever wanted to learn about query letters you can learn online.

People who have written books on the subject may hate me for saying so, but it's true. Here's my (unsolicited but hopefully helpful) advice on how to develop a query letter that will make agents reply with a manuscript request so quickly it will be filled with typos (this is of course a joke - if you get an email from an agent filled with typos, be very suspicious).

Steps to writing a great query:
1. Research the art of the query letter. It's likely you've heard of that thing called the Internet. What? You're on it now? Good for you. While you're looking around, check out the following:

There are many other query resources out there, but these three have one priceless tool in common - in addition to offering some basic info, they all show you real query letters and offer critiques of them.

I've learned what has helped me the most in writing my query letter is figuring out what I should NOT be doing. Spending time (likely to be hours and days) on these sites will give you that same bit of knowledge. If you're looking for other sites, most agent blogs have a tendency to address the dreaded query letter.

2. Research the agents you're querying. A good Google search may yield a blog post or interview given by your agent of choice that highlights his or her preference in query letters. Look for specifics such as: "I prefer writers open the query by hooking me with a great story in a few sentences," "I never want to know the ending of the story in the query," "Please don't open your query with a rhetorical question," or "Begin your query by telling me the genre of the book, so I can get in the right mindframe as I continue to read."

If you're targeting an agent who has a blog, you've scored big. Scour the archives for his or her preferences on queries.

3. Tailor the query to individual agents. Once you know what the agent likes, give him or her exactly that. That said, there's something you should absolutely avoid. At the last conference I attended (Backspace in New York City), several agents said one thing that would result in instant deletion from their email accounts is a bulk email to several agents.

Agents know you're querying other agents, but they expect the courtesy of a personalized email. Another way to do this is to research the agent's recent sales on Publishers Marketplace or elsewhere and say something like, "I've decided to query you with my project because you represented xyz. My project is similar in that..."

Caution - if you say you've read a book the agent represents, be sure you did!

4. Read jacket copy. In workshops, I've heard agent after agent after agent say to learn how to write great queries, read the back cover copy of the books you like. In many cases, good query letters attract agents who use them to attract editors who use them to sell your books (in other words, good query letters eventually become jacket copy). The intrigue created by the cover copy is exactly what agents want to see in your query.

5. Seek a second, third, tenth opinion. To make it in the publishing industry, you need good readers, people who are willing to say when something is off and when something is great. If you're in a writing group, ask the members to critique your query. If you're part of an online group like Backspace, you may find a place in the forums to post your query and seek opinions. If you read this blog and would like my opinion on your query, send it right over.

FYI - It's ideal to get someone who knows nothing about your book to read your query.

Ask your readers if they find the story interesting. If they do, ask when they felt themselves thinking, "Hmmn. This could be really cool." Was it in the first sentence? Hopefully. If it was in the third paragraph, you may consider moving that "Aha" moment to the first sentence.

6. Query widely. As I mentioned, agents want to know that you selected them among the hordes of literary agents out there, but you're not married yet. Agents DO NOT expect you to query exclusively, wait weeks or months for a response (mathematically, the response will likely be a rejection), and then query another agent. You want to score representation and sell your book, right? So query, query, query!

7. Maintain communication. At the query stage, it's not necessary to inform agents you're querying elsewhere. They expect as much. When agents start requesting your manuscript (Yea! Congratulations! Have a cocktail!), be aware that's the time to maintain communication with them, especially if they request the full manuscript.

This does not mean you should call them at home like you're old pals.

Here's the thing, reading a full manuscript takes lots of time, which is something agents don't have much of. If they're going to read your ms (manuscript) on a weekend, feverishly taking notes, to call you Monday and offer representation, they want to know if another agent is doing the same thing.

Consider this scenario - Agent A requests the full ms. You jump up and down until you're sick, fear all the uncorrected typos you must have somehow missed, stare at the "Send" button in your email account, and finally click it to jump up and down some more. You check your email ten minutes later and wonder why Agent A has not gotten back to you with an offer of representation yet. Time passes, and you forget about Agent A, relatively speaking in the sense that you're able to function in daily tasks.

Then, while checking your email to see if Agent A has figured out you're the next Stephenie Meyer/Stephen King/Janet Evanovich/Jodi Picoult, (*Note: Don't mistake delusions such as agent responding in 10 minutes and soaring to celebrity author status as rational thought), Agent B emails to request a full ms.

Repeat jumping up and down sequence. But in addition to emailing Agent B the full ms, you should inform said agent that another agent is also reviewing the full. Then, email Agent A with the words "Update: (Your Title)" in the subject line to courteously inform Agent A of Agent B's existence. This is a great situation for you. I have heard many agents say such an update/friendly warning encourages them to move more quickly on your work.

8. Be patient. This isn't really step eight.

It could be applied at all points in the process. Once you finish your book, you're likely to be so excited to get it in the hands of an agent. You should be. Congrats on finishing that book!

But, take some time to perfect your query. Take some time to research your agents of choice. Take some time to rewrite the query 15 times to 15 different agents (keeping in mind the core paragraph(s) about your story as well as the bio paragraph will stay the same, but the order and/or the paragraph detailing why you're sending to that particular agent will change).

And remember, sending out a query before it's ready is like burning a bridge to the mainland.

9. Query again? Since I've gone and thrown out the "burning bridges" cliche (I've slapped my hand for that one), I'll add that there's a debate for whether you can requery the same project to an agent if he or she has rejected it once.

If you change your query significantly, agents may not notice. I've even heard some agents say, "Go ahead. I'll never know the difference." Yet, I attended a workshop last week where an agent recalled a query she had seen from a writer in the group nearly a year ago. A year!

I also witnessed a fit of giggles from a panel of agents who apparently have received the same query letter from the same author for the same project enough times that they all know him by name (and laugh when it's mentioned).

So, query again? Do so with caution.

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