Saturday, July 16, 2011

Query? Huh?

This was exactly my response to my cousin about six months ago. We were chatting on facebook, and she told me she was working on querying agents for her middle grade novel. Foolishly, I acted like I knew what she was talking about, but eventually gave in and asked her to explain. So to help those that are in the same boat, I've decided to jot down what I've learned.

What is a query?

Remember applying for scholarships? You are one of thousands of people trying to get that money into your account, so how do you get noticed? How do you prove that you deserve the money more than anyone else entering an essay? How do you get yourself noticed?

That's the query letter. Believe it or not, you're not the only person trying to publish their novel, and you're not the only person with good reason to. But no matter how well written your book, no matter how much time you've put into it, at the end of the day your letter to an agent, editor, or publisher is going to be one of hundreds on their desk or in the inbox. Even though you're facing unbelievable odds, querying really is the only way to go about it.

So how do you get yourself noticed?

How do you convince an agent in a one-page letter that your book is the one they want to represent? How do you get them to ask to see more?

I went to a wonderful workshop by Jackie Lee Miles today, author of Divorcing Dwayne, Roseflower Creek, and Cold Rock River, and here are some of her tips:

  • Be brief. Query letters should never be more than a page long. If you're sending a query by e mail, you might want to make it even shorter. Basically, the less words you use while still getting your point across the better.
  • Be bold. Don't say "I'm going to make you a million dollars," but do show that you have confidence in your book and your writing. After all, why would you be querying it if you didn't think it could get published? At the same time, don't say things like "This may not be the best book you've ever read" or anything else that gives them reason to doubt your book. Be confident, but not boastful.
  • Have a strong, succinct concept. No matter how complicated your mystery novel might be, the query letter isn't the place to reveal the entire plot. You need a short, one to three line summary of what your book is about, and it needs to be captivating. I personally find this the most challenging part, but it can be done.
  • If you're sending the query in the mail, always include a self-addressed, stamped envelope. This isn't necessarily a rule, but it is a courtesy, and it makes it really easy for the agent to respond. Remember, agents are just people, and they appreciate people who think ahead.
  • Don't send them any more than they've asked for. You should always check the agent or publishing company's web site before sending a query, because they may have specific requirements. Some want just your query letter, while some want a query letter and a synopsis. Don't send them any more or any less than what they've listed on their web site, and if you're not sure, it is appropriate to call for clarification.
  • Whatever you do, don't ask about money. They wouldn't be able to tell you what you're going to make if they wanted to, and it just doesn't have a place in the conversation. They haven't agreed to represent you yet--you're still trying to win them over.
  • And last but not least, check for typos. If you can't make it through a page without mistakes, an editor won't want to deal with your manuscript. Besides, it's unprofessional.
But what do I put in the query?

You've written an 80,000 word novel about a secret world of elves, in which there is a secret world of dwarfs, in which there is a secret world of mermaids, etc. How do you sell such a complicated concept in just a page?

The first thing you need is a hook. You have to capture your readers attention from the very first sentence. Remember, these people get hundreds of letters/e mails every day, so they won't spend too much time on yours if it isn't interesting. Think back to high school--you could start with a question, a comparison to something else, a statistic, or an interesting line from your book. Whatever it is, make sure it makes them want to read more.

After your hook, you need a short description of your book: the title, genre, and concept. This should be no more than a few lines. You don't have to include all the characters in your story, you don't have to explain how the elves find the dwarfs who find the mermaids. Discuss the overall idea of the story in the simplest way possible.

Your next paragraph should be your credentials. Now, when you're writing fiction, they'll assume you haven't published a novel before, or else why would you be looking for an agent? But it is helpful to include other things you've done or worked on. If you have a successful blog, list it. If you've written opinion articles in your local newspaper for years, let them know. If you sent a short story into a contest and it was put in a collection, by all means tell them! This can also include life experiences relative to your book. If you've been working in law enforcement for thirty years and your main character is a policeman, that's pertinent to list. But do not list anything about your life that doesn't prove why you are the best person to write this book.

You should also include your reason for querying that agent/editor. Query letters should be personalized, not just sent out in bulk (though you should send out more than one at a time). Tell them why you think they would like your book, referencing their recent successes. If something's working for them, they'll want something else that is similar. Go on to list the length of your manuscript and the intended audience. If you're manuscript is 110,000 words and it's intended for middle grade, you have a problem. This is a chance for you to reflect on your work and to let the agent know what your goals are. Also, be sure to tell them that your manuscript is fully complete. They don't want to look at a half-finished piece of work.

You should end by thanking them for their time, not necessarily in those words. It is appropriate to offer your full manuscript, but don't follow up with them. If they're interested, they'll get back to you.

Don's just whip out a query and send it. Your query should be refined, polished, and show them that your book will be as well. No matter how amazing your book is, no one will look at it if your query is sloppy.

So what now?

You've sent your query off to twenty or thirty agents and are waiting anxiously to hear back from them. The truth is, not all of them will respond, and even those that do won't always pick it up. Remember, the goal of the query is to get someone to ask for your manuscript. It is not to get representation. Though representation would be nice and is the ultimate goal, the agent's not ready to make that decision. They are ready to decide whether or not they want to see your work, and if they do you've written a successful query. The rest is up to your manuscript.

Like I said before, you should query more than one agent at a time. Even when one of them asks for your manuscript, you shouldn't tell the others your manuscript is taken until the agent actually offers you representation. You will get requests from agents you will never hear back from again, but like I said, that's still a successful query.

In the end, your novel has to be able to stand on its own. Even the best written query in the world won't get you published if your book isn't up to par. The query is the first step towards publication, and then it's up to you.

Best of luck!


For more instructions and some very helpful examples, visit AgentQuery


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