This is the first of a two post series about query letters from the perspective of a writer getting an insider’s look at a literary agency.
I’m currently interning with Andrea Hurst Literary and, though the agency is not getting as many queries as in the Summer (I think they were getting about a bazillion a week, roughly) I have gotten the privilege of working alongside agents as they go through queries, and learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.
I’m not claiming to be an expert, but I think it’s safe to say I know a little bit more than the average Joe.
So, here are a few tried and true things that agents would love for you to know about query letters.
Thou Shalt Be Professional
Publishing is a business. Yes, it’s also art, but if you’re querying, chances are you would like to sell your writing to make some moolah. That’s great! But just because writing is an art doesn’t make it any less a business. Treat it like one. Be respectful and to the point.
Good: Dear Mr. Rollins (Pleasepleasepleaseplease get their name right):
I am seeking representation for my (word count and genre) novel called (insert mind-blowing title here). Then jump into your book’s incredible hook.
Bad: Dear Billy Boy McSwanky!!!
Dude! u’ll totally love this AWESOME book that I’ve just written called SHARK KITTENS OF EXPLOSIONS AND DEATH!!! I know u don’t represent this genre and it has no plot and 0 marketability but it’s AWESOME!!!!! Give me a call ASAP and we’ll talk!
I’m sure you can figure out what’s wrong with the second one.
Never use all caps. Never use underline. And please, PLEASE (I can use all caps because this isn’t a query) don’t do more than one exclamation point. Really, you shouldn’t even have one exclamation point unless there’s a really, really good reason.
Thou Shalt Do One Ounce of Research:
This is probably the number one reason agencies reject queries. People, do some research on the agent you’re pitching. A simple trip to the agent’s website should yield their name, what genre they represent, and if you should add attachments or not (viruses, anyone?).
This is the easiest way to get your query actually read instead of getting an auto reject. Follow their rules.
Of course there are always exceptions to the rules. Once in a millennia a query comes along that breaks all the rules and doesn’t do ANYTHING right, but still gets picked. Even though it may seem like they did everything wrong, the author still probably knew the preferences and genres of the agent he was pitching.
Do what the agent wants and they’ll love you for it.
Thou Shalt Learn the Craft of a Query:
This goes along with research. Pick up a book on how to write a query or just go on to the Internet. Amazon has showed us that you can find everything on the Internet, so why not a how-to on writing a query? For starters, here are some basic tips:
Queries should usually be one page. No more, unless it is absolutely necessary, and even then think REALLY hard about it. It’s also good to note that most, but not all, agents want email queries instead of snail mail. Check their website for info.
Include comps to your book. What books is your book like? What movies? What T.V. shows? Comparisons give an agent a better idea of what to expect with your book.
Hook: Draw them in from the beginning.
Good: ‘Johnny knew Death was coming’
Bad: ‘So the story starts out with Johnny getting out of bed and brushing his teeth.’
Author Bio: This is the one a lot of people struggle with. What to say if you don’t have any writing credentials? Well, is the book about a firefighter and you’re a firefighter? Say that.
Don’t have any writing credentials or this is your first novel? Don’t say that. Try to get some writing credentials if you can.
Education that is relevant to writing? Put that down. It’s all a matter of determining what would be counted as helpful when talking about writing.
If you have nothing, just put a short blurb about yourself and leave it at that. There are many great writers who had no writing credits to speak of before getting published.
Why an Agent might reject your query:
- You didn’t do anything mentioned above.
- The sad truth is, there are some really great books out there that we just can’t sell, or it really isn’t the right fit for the agency. It hurts, but it’s the truth.
- We get past your query, but your attached pages need polishing. Sometimes the query is great; it hooks us in and makes us want more. But once we start reading your actual writing it becomes obvious you didn’t polish them as well as you polished your query.
- The synopsis of the query lacks conflict, plot or doesn’t tell us enough. Writing a query is insanely hard. You have to condense your grand, epic novel into a paragraph or two. Despite this, you have to make sure the blurb contains enough conflict and intrigue to make the agent want more. No easy feat, I know.
Lastly, there’s something very important to note about rejecting queries: most agents hate to do it. Shocker, I know. I think we’re all guilty of imagining an agent seated comfortably in a plush armchair at their million dollars condos, cackling, while they hit that ‘reject’ button over and over again.
Believe it or not, agents understand it takes guts to send your work to them, and they respect that. Your book is your baby, and for most agents it’s hard to crush that dream. That being said, up your chances by pitching the right agent correctly.
When Agents reject your book, it’s not rejecting you as a person. We don’t hate you. How can we? We don’t even know you. Sometimes the work is really good but it isn’t the right fit. Sometimes other factors are in play. Getting an agent is as much about luck and timing as the quality of writing.
It’s good to remember that publishing is a business and agents have to sell to make money and keep food on the table. If the book doesn’t strike a profound chord with the agent, and they don’t feel like they could sell it or give it the kind of attention it deserves, then they’ll probably reject it.
A typical day for me when I help read queries goes like this:
Get up at 6:00. Work out. Go to office/coffee shop. Work on other internship stuff, my own writing, etc…read queries with agent and hope to be wowed. Go work at a vet clinic for eight hours. Get to bed late. Do it all over again.
And that’s not even close to how stressful a full-time agent’s life is. Between juggling a million different things, keeping clients happy, struggling with their own problems and finally sitting down to read queries, the ones they get have to wow. It’s a harsh truth but a…true…truth, I guess.