Querying: A Guide to Knocking My Socks Off, Part II

Hi all.  We’re back for the second intern post on querying.  Again, a big thank you to the interns for these!

Query Polish

Working as one of Susan’s four intern/readers is a crash course in queries. In my first ten weeks, I read about 350 of them. As you might expect, they ran the gamut in terms of quality. What struck me, though, was how much better many of them could have been with a few simple tweaks.

Your query introduces you and one specific polished project to an agent. But a good one multi-tasks, and understanding that can help you strengthen yours. Here, four roles a query plays, and how to make the most of them:

A query is a business letter. Start with a greeting and the agent’s name. This sounds elementary, but plenty of people don’t do this or simply write “to whom it may concern.” This is not a positive first impression. In your query, you’re basically proposing a business partnership; don’t be overly formal—or too familiar. Use standard English, including conventional capitalization and spelling. (Again, obvious, but . . . ) Include your phone number and email address. Finally, make sure you sign your letter. I’ve been surprised by the number of queries I see in which the writer does not include his or her name anywhere in the email. Susan replies to each, and it’s awkward if she has to guess your name from your email address. (“Dear LuvsCats . . .”)

A query is an amuse-bouche. It’s not a meal; it’s not even an appetizer. It’s one of those carefully crafted singular bites (an “amusement for the mouth”) served on Top Chef and at fancy restaurants to get diners excited about the upcoming meal. A good query makes an agent eager to read your full manuscript. That’s your goal, to get that request. Therefore, a solid query is brief and focused. You may be tempted to share why you wrote your story, how you’ve included Important Themes and Necessary Life Lessons, and why you feel passionately called to Write (with a capital W) despite family pressure to be a ferret farmer. Imagine an agent reading hundreds of queries a year, and perhaps you can see how this information is superfluous and, frankly, distracting. Queries are difficult to write because you need to be able to describe the essence of your project in a powerful, concise way. Get in. Get out. Make the agent hungry for more.

A query is a pop quiz. It shows the agent you did your homework. Note the word “show.” You don’t need to tell the agent what you’ve learned. (“With the success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, today’s ‘young adult’ novel is popular!”) Show your market knowledge with thoughtful comparisons. (“My contemporary fairy tale for middle graders might appeal to fans of Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs.”) Of course, your query will include your project’s genre and word count and this also offers a simple and effective way to show the agent you know your stuff. For example, if you use a genre that doesn’t exist or the length is way off—“BOB THE CAT, my Middle Grade YA thriller novel in non-fiction verse, is complete at 10,034 words”—it raises red flags.

A query is a mirror. It reveals more about you than you might realize. If you write, “say hello to the next J.K. Rowling,” it's another red flag. Providing detailed marketing plans or suggesting the perfect actress to play your protagonist in the film version of your novel does the same thing. (Remember the goal of the query? Stay focused.) Describe your project with care. You might call your hysterical middle grade novel a “lighthearted adventure,” for example, and let the agent discover for herself that it’s a true knee-slapper. Too often, writers hype the hilarity and under-deliver.

When you query, you’re essentially saying you’re ready to be a professional, published author. Those almost-pros are working hard at revision and reading voraciously—in their genre and everything else—to improve their craft and understand the market, sure, but also because they love words and stories. Their passion and commitment—as well as a quiet confidence—resonates in their queries and sample prose, and reading them is a true joy.

8 comments:

  1. Welcome back to the slush pile. My Feb. 13 query was sent early in the a.m. in anticipation of Susan's return to query letters. I received an automatic response, which indicated she was closed to queries. The automatic response had not yet been turned off. Was it automatically deleted? Do I need to resubmit?

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  2. No, you don't need to re-submit. The auto-responder is turned off now, and I will be looking at every query sent today. Thanks for checking!

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  3. I liked both Part I and II on Querying, posted by the interns. It's great to hear from the other side and remember to consider your perspective at moments when tempted to query "our" way, instead of the right way. It's not uncommon for those little distractions to sneak in on us, even when we try to stay alert. But with more practice, revision and research we'll learn to spot them in our queries and nip them at the bud.

    Thank you for your hard work and for the reassurance that following the query rules will get us a fair consideration.

    Rosie

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  4. This is a great reminder post! I rechecked my query before I sent it off tonight. :)

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  5. Hi Susan: I sent my two queries (Puck, and The Boy with the Horn), in before finding this blog, and so I apologize if you are at all put off by my extensive marketing plan. I only mentioned it to show you how aggressive I've been with my own self-published non-fiction book, and how hard I am ready to work to market future books as well.

    Thanks for having this blog. It is very helpful. I am a very prolific writer and am hoping ultimately to find an agent to represent all my books (though I understand that most agents like to start with just one). I hope you like the two submissions I sent you. Kevin

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  6. I am one of those folks who think writing a query letter is enjoyable... until after I hit send. Then I worry myself through a half a pan of brownies.

    Glad you are open to queries again, but it has caused me to hit the gym. The brownies are now happily settled on my thighs and I'm taking up the whole couch.

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  7. These are some good tips. Sometimes it's so easy to get caught up in making the pitch sound right that we can forget the other things that are important. I too, was pressured to become a Ferret Farmer by my family... but sometimes you just have to give up the family business for a love of words. Thanks for the reminder of things to think of when querying.

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