Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My Two Cents on Query Letters

I've gotten more than a few emails lately from people asking me to talk about query letters.  Although I don't claim to know what works for every writer, in the interest of good karma I don't mind sharing a few tips that have worked for me in querying both agents and editors. 

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.

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Other news...

I also wanted to thank cool book blogger 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.

17 comments:

Donna Cummings said...

Liz, great advice -- once I realized the query letter is meant to entice, I had an easier time writing it.

I think it's great practice for future marketing purposes too. It helps to answer the question of "what's your book about?", so you can entice new readers.

Liz Fichera said...

Thanks, Donna. I wrote some pretty bad query letters way back when before I finally had that "Eureka" moment. Live and learn.

Joanna St. James said...

great advice Liz, I have a standard query letter format that I switch around, I hope its good because the problem is no one tells you it sucked. I wish agents had a button for this query sucks, so we'll know

Liz Fichera said...

Thanks, Joanna. Unfortunately, very few will offer feedback. There's just no time and they (at least the good agents) get way too many queries. The nature of the beast.

Kristabel Reed said...

You're right, it's all about the hook, or hooking people: agents, editors, readers. Something to think about for the opening of the book, too. Thanks for the advice! It's given me much tho think over.

Liz Fichera said...

You're welcome, Kristabel! Glad it helped in some way. :-)

Vegetarian Cannibal said...

That was helpful, thanks! :D

Liz Fichera said...

You're welcome, VC!

Candyland said...

This is fantastic advice for the newbie querier and the pros!

Liz Fichera said...

Glad it helped, Candyland!

Marianne Arkins said...

Query letters are harder to write than a novel ... because EVERYTHING rests on their success.

Thanks for sharing your ideas!

Talli Roland said...

Great tips, Liz! And congratulations on the award!

Liz Fichera said...

Marianne, That is SO true! I would rather write six novels than a single query letter. And don't get me started on synopses!

Liz Fichera said...

Thanks, Talli! Appreciate it!

Jenny Schwartz said...

I remember Angela saying (over at the Carina Press blog) no rhetorical questions. That was an ouch moment for me since I love the little critters.

Liz Fichera said...

Jenny,

That's why it's so important to read agent/editor blogs and web sites before you query. The bummer thing is that while it might not work for Angela, it could work for someone else. It's a constant guessing game, isn't it?!

Jenny Schwartz said...

LOL Agree with your rhetorical :)