Thursday, October 18, 2012

Query me this, query me that

Query letters: the author's most dreaded 250 words. You may rewrite your opening pages 43 times, you might read every line of dialogue aloud (and if you don't, you should!), and you have probably stared at the blinking cursor while the words in your turning point scene rearrange themselves into alphabet soup. But you probably don't obsess over any portion of your novel the way you obsess over your query letter.

And if you're wondering, "What's a query letter?" you need to back up 5 or 10 or 20 steps and do some research to get your bearings. Query letters are what authors send to literary agents and editors to convince these industry pros to read their manuscripts. Query letters are important because said agents and editors will generally base their decision to read/request manuscript pages on what they see in your query letter. They're hard because many writers have trouble describing their work in a way that's succinct, clear, and engaging.

There are lots of fantastic resources for authors trying to write and perfect query letters (Query Shark is a great source that shows how authors have turned messy queries into manuscript-request machines, and the now-retired Miss Snark has offered plenty of, um, snarky but helpful feedback on query letters and other topics that confound new writers). Lots of agents blog, and almost almost all of them have something to say about what makes for good (and bad) queries. If you're trying to get a handle on query letter basics, it's worth it to pull up several agent blogs and see what these folks are saying. Other helpful agent blogs include Kristin Nelson's Pub Rants (this is also a good chaser after heavy doses of snarkiness and sharkiness), BookEnds LLC's blog (no longer updated but a wealth of useful archives), and agent-turned-middle-grade-author Nathan Bransford's blog (another safe place for you fragile flowers who prefer a pat on the shoulder to a kick in the tush).

What makes a good query? Assume that the agent or editor you are querying is on a sleep deficit, under the influence of burnt coffee, and reading 50 other queries alongside yours (and this is probably all true). You want to write something that will pierce the haze of caffeine and run-on sentences and compel your reader to request more. So, briefly...

  • Be specific. Don't give away the ending (and don't meander into subplots and secondary characters), but tell your reader who the main players are and what the conflict is. Think about what excites you when you read book jacket summaries. This information should come first--if you can't entice your reader to care about what happens in your book, the rest of your query won't matter.
  • State your business. If an agent/editor loves your idea, s/he's praying that your book is finished and of a salable length. The only folks who query on proposal (read: unfinished projects) are nonfiction (non-memoir) writers, and the only folks who query Game of Thrones-length mega-tomes are George R. R. Martin. Most agents and editors expect debut authors to write 70,000-100,000-word manuscripts, give or take. Oh, and don't forget your genre. It should be fairly obvious based on your summary, but this is a good litmus test for you and your prospective agent/editor. A suspense novel about a woman uncovering her husband's dark secrets is going to read differently from a women's fiction novel about the same.
  • Personalize! Remember how you're reading agent blogs? They don't just tell you query letter basics. They also tell you what that agent loves/hates/wants more of. Part of convincing an agent to represent your work is convincing him/her that your writing is a good fit for his/her particular interests. You don't have to read five books from every agent's client list, but you should show that you know what they're looking for, even if it's a simple "Your agency's website/Writer's Market listing says that you like cozy mysteries/spy thrillers/urban fantasy...." And MOST importantly... query the agent by name! "Dear Agent/To Whom It May Concern" mass emails have a tendency to land in the trash bin.
If this were easy, we'd all have three-book deals.

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