Wednesday, September 8, 2010
My Two Cents on Query Letters
For starters, remember that a query is a pitch. It's an attempt by a writer to get an agent or editor to love her novel or short story more than life itself and then, ultimately, offer representation in the publishing world and/or buy her masterpiece. Side note: Just because a literary agent loves your book, it doesn't mean that it will sell immediately. In fact, it doesn't mean that it will sell at all.
There is an art to writing effective query letters and here's what's worked for me. It may not work for you, for your style, or even for your manuscript. But if you write enough query letters, you'll get the hang of it and grow some rather thick skin in the process. Kind of like riding a bike but not nearly as fun. Here's what I recommend:
1) Immediately throw out all of the well-meaning "how to" query letter writing books that advise you to write mostly dull, business-like query letters.
2) Keep your query short--e.g. no more than three paragraphs.
3) Open your query letter with a one sentence hook about your book that'll have the agent/editor begging for more.
4) Describe your book in no more than 3-5 sentences. (Remember: It's a query, not a synopsis). Think of it as the "book jacket" or back cover copy of your book. If you read your query on the back of a book in a bookstore, would you be intrigued to open it and read more? This is the part of your query letter where you should spend most of your time. This is where it should sparkle and entice!
5) Include helpful information like the word count, genre, and applicable audiences for your book in one, concise sentence.
6) Close with one or two pertinent sentences about your qualifications, if you have any--e.g. other published works, an MFA, writing programs, writing awards.
7) Thank the agent/editor for taking the time to read your query.
Unless you hook the agent/editor in the first paragraph about your book, chances are they won't read the rest of your query, no matter how brilliant and well-meaning you are. That's why it's so important to make those handful of sentences about your book count. Keep in mind that there are other factors at play when you query--the market, timing, whether an agent is accepting new clients. That's why it's equally important to do your research about agents before you query.
There are differing schools of thought regarding literary agents, especially with the changing landscape of traditional publishing. I'm of the belief that literary agents are important--but not just any agent. A good agent is essential, especially when it comes to reading contracts, making contacts, knowing the market, giving you feedback on your novels, being available to answer your questions. Having a bad agent, however, is worse than having no agent at all.
Above all else, think of query letter writing as a challenge. If you're crazy-go-nuts about your book, it'll show in your query letter.
Talina Perkins for awarding me one of those very cute and kind blog awards on her blog. If you haven't seen Talina's book review blog or follow her, you really must. Talina reviews some pretty cool books. Click here to check out the blogging fun.