Query Letters (Part 1)

(Random aside before I start – I wonder if the 6,000 word response I wrote to handle my PITA issue counts towards that million words I need to write before I can actually write well.  If so, I am going gangbusters these days.)

Alright.  I realize that not everyone has the time or money to attend writing conferences.  But anyone starting out should know the types of things that are discussed at these conferences.  So, today I am going to share with you the advice I heard about query letters.

First, each agent is different.  Some of the agents this weekend were more willing to accept things (like rhetorical questions) than others I’ve seen on-line.  Bottom line: Whatever you do, do it well.  A query letter is your virtual job interview, so suit up and show that you can handle the job.

The below tips are for fiction queries more than non-fiction.

1.  Show that you’re a professional.

2.  Tell more about the book than yourself.  (Say 75%/25%.  This is for the fiction books.)

3.  DO NOT address your query to the agency’s cat or dog.  (I heard this multiple times from multiple agents.)

4.  Add-on to number 3.  Don’t be too cute or quirky.

5.  Even if you’re sending an e-query, make it professional.  (This means no two-to-three-line message sent from your iPhone.)

6.  Personalize the letter or e-mail.  (No Dear Agent or To Whom it May Concern.)
(And definitely no Deer Agent….)

7.  Know your book and know who you’re writing and target the query.  (Not, this is a romantic horror with a twist of mystery set in a post-apocalyptic future where cowboys ride dinosaurs. (Hm.  Maybe I should put that on my ideas list…)  Even if it is all of those things, pick a main genre for your query that matches a genre repped by the agent and focus the query.  You want to catch that one person’s attention.  Think of it this way.  If you liked a girl (or were giving advice to a friend who did), would you have more success giving the girl a bouquet of all kinds of different flowers that didn’t even match one another or more success giving her pink lilies which it turns out are her absolute favorite?)

8.  Keep it brief.  One page printed.  (It was pretty clear to me that most agents are reading these things on handheld devices, so you want that first paragraph to catch them.  And you don’t want to make someone scroll and scroll and scroll to read your e-mail unless every single word is real and valuable.)

9.  Try to show your voice and style in the query.  (Here’s a good example: Jana DeLeon’s query to the Nelson Agency)

10. Don’t talk about theme.  Or what motivated you to write or to write this story.  Talk about the story.  (See SlushPile Hell September 10, 2012 for an example of why.)

11. Don’t query the same agent repeatedly for the same work.  (As in daily or weekly.  No, no, no.  This is how restraining orders happen.)

12. Don’t make it obvious that you’ll take any agent you can find.  (I.e., don’t mass e-mail agents.  Even if you’ve learned how to use bcc and have yourself in the to line.  They’re pretty sharp cookies.)

13. Don’t use a query service.  (Their queries use the same format for all clients, so it’s kind of obvious that’s who sent it.)

14. Don’t require a sender to verify their e-mail address before they can respond.

15. Don’t use read receipt.

16. Don’t include attachments unless asked to do so.  (On a side note: My accountant must have a .GIF or something embedded in his e-mail signature, because every e-mail I ever receive from him has that little paperclip next to it.  If you might have this issue, remove it before you query agents.  Sending with an unsolicited attachment is a good way to go into the trash folder without any sort of consideration.  The process is pretty much: Attachment?  Delete.  Even if said attachment is your blog address.)

17. Don’t publicly trash the industry and then query.  Agents may actually read what you’ve said on-line.  (Hi agents!  Love you all!  I certainly hope I haven’t done this…)

18. Check your query for typos.  (This should be obvious.  But, we’re all human, and the more nervous you are, the more likely you are to miss things.  I would convert it to a PDF and have that nasty read out loud program in Adobe read it to you.)  (I tried to do that with my novel and it just didn’t work.  Hopefully, that doesn’t mean my novel sucks.)

19. Do compare yourself to a published author.  (This one is a bit tricky.  I’m including it because I heard it multiple times.  BUT, if the only way you can think to do this is to say, “I’m going to be just as successful as Jane Doe Author” or “My book is so much better than…” or anything else that makes you sound like an arrogant twit, don’t do it.  Think more along the lines of, “People who read Joe Author would like this book.”)

20. Once again, don’t be cute, don’t be chatty, don’t get conversational.  (Save that for your blog.  Hahaha.)

I repeated that at the end, because the main issue with my friend’s query that I took a look at is that it’s way, way too informal.  A query letter is not a cocktail party conversation.  It’s a “you have thirty seconds in the elevator to convince me I want to do business with you.”  If you had only thirty seconds of someone’s time to sell them a product, would you waste it on telling them your name and how many kids you have?

(This is why rhetorical questions don’t work.  At least one of you thought “yes.”  If you’re that person, ask yourself if what you just said (or wrote) helps sell your book.  If it doesn’t…)

OK.  So, this is part 1 of 2, because in all of this text I didn’t get into the structure of the letter.  Crazy, huh?  From what I heard from these agents, if you can master the twenty items above, you’ll be far ahead of most query letters.  Knowledge is power people.

Oh, and double-added bonus tip.  DO NOT CALL AGENTS ON THE PHONE!  (We’re talking query stage here, mind you.  At this point, getting a call from you is like getting a call from that time share free vacation place.  The person on the other end wants to say, “I’m not interested” and hang up.  Don’t make that your first impression with an agent.)

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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