Writing A Novel Query Letter

I’ve been reading up on the query process, and am compiling a list of tips I find most helpful, common questions and answers, and conjectures I’ve drawn in my own research on the making of an effective query.

Treat your query letter as if life (that of your book, anyway) depended on it. The query letter is your introduction. If it is weak, your synopsis and sample pages (if the agency even wants them with the initial query) won’t be read. Instead they’ll go to straight to the Slush Pile, AKA Manuscript Limbo.

You wind up here, you might as well be a veteran waiting for benefits.

Think about all of the work you give your manuscript: the revisions, the cuts, the rewrites, the trial-and-error, the air-proofing, the beta readers, the additional revisions, the polishing. If you want your query letter to gleam and sparkle the way your actual book does and be a strong representative of your writing, be prepared to give it similar efforts.

In one query blog I found, The Rejecter (let the name be a lesson), the eponymous literary assistant says she rejects 95% of what she sees based on queries. Aspiring novelists, ye have been warned.

There is no “right”/one-size-fits-all query letter.  Different sources and different agents have different opinions about the best approach to A or B or any given aspect of query letters. For example, Huffington Post says to open a query letter with the facts: “Please consider my [genre] novel of [word count] words about [your plot in a pinprick],” while many agents, in their critiques of actual queries, have praised effective “hook” openings. (I submit for your consideration exhibits A, B, and C— check out the Writer’s Digest Successful Queries series for more.) Different sources will also feel differently about what your author bio should consist of (or whether to include one at all!), where your book-classifying information should go, how to mention your book is the first in a series, etc., etc., etc. The good news: with the Powerful, All-Knowing Internet on your side, you can

Learn as much about the agent/agency you are submitting to as you can before submitting. This is probably a given, as you’ll have to match agents to your target genres and audiences anyway, but consider all that you might learn by scouring the internet: not only submission guidelines and the books an agent or agency has represented (information that is invaluable to you for personalizing each query and reaching/resonating with agents), but perhaps even what what a particular agent likes to see in query letters and pitfalls to avoid. That said,

The personalized query is an effective one. As Nathan Bransford says, efforts to personalize can go a long way. Research about the agent and the books they’ve represented gives you a better idea of how your book fits with them, then, mentioned in your query, will both pique the agent’s interest and demonstrate that you’ve done your homework. This makes the prospect of building a business relationship with you more appealing.

How long should a query be? Again, there is no magic “right” length or word count, but as Nathan Bransford and his statistic analysis of 180 queries received shows, between 250-350 words seems to be a lucrative sweet spot.

What should a novel query letter contain? Huffington Post suggests a formulaic approach to this with a clear four parts– opening, synopsis, author bio, and appreciation– but after all my background reading (again, check out the WD Successful Queries series, and countless other examples on The Boundless Information Hub) I’ve concluded that the parts of a query letter can really go in almost any order, if done effectively. That said, I would suggest a checklist for information/paragraphs your query should contain (again, not in any particular order):

  1. The hard information about your book: title. Genre. Word count.
  2. Who your target audience is (implied or stated directly); an effective synopsis can say it without, ya know, saying it.
  3. Possibly: comparative titles. (I was surprised by how few of the successful queries actually used them. But they are great for classifying tricky genres, giving the agent an idea of who your book might appeal to, and demonstrating that there is a market for your book.)
  4. Your novel’s setting (inside or outside the synopsis).
  5. If your book the first in a series, mention that. See relevant point below.
  6. The synopsis. Obviously.
  7. Your author bio (or not). See relevant point below.
  8. A simple thanks/gratitude to the agent for consideration.
  9. Standard contact information for reaching you.
  10. What’s enclosed (if relevant) and/or what you will be glad to send on (relevant to the agent’s guidelines) at the agent’s request.

Yeeeah, about that author bio. What if I don’t have any credentials? There are many takes on this question, but I like Noah Lukeman’s answer best. Lukeman suggests, rather than trying to fill space or spit shine some non-impressive accomplishments, that you don’t say anything. This might initially seem counter-intuitive, but think about it: in excluding a weak bio, you’re trimming excess content (a skill that agents value); saying nothing won’t draw any more attention to the fact that you have nothing to say than a few frill-filled sentences would (and makes a neater presentation); even Bransford’s Query Letter Mad Lib counts author credits as optional.

How should I present my book when it’s the first in a series? Again, answers vary. Chuck Sambuchino suggests a delicate, open-minded approach: wise phrasing can indicate both that the book could stand on its own AND has the potential to grow into something more. Present yourself and your book as options-open and there’s a much better chance that someone will want to form a work relationship with you. However, some agents like to see confidence, too.

Well– I think that about covers it for the basics in the contents of a query letter. What am I missing? What have you learned in your own research and/or query submissions? Feel free to share below!

The Writing Major, Part I: What it didn’t teach me about being an author

A recent chat with a friend got me thinking: There’s a lot a formal education in writing doesn’t teach you about writing—specifically, about being a novelist. And since the start of many collegiate school years is coming up and aspiring authors will be contemplating majors and minors, I thought it’d be a good time to reflect on my own studies, what they taught me about writing, and what they didn’t.

This will be a two part post, beginning with:

Things my Writing Major Didn’t Teach Me

  1. What makes a compelling story. We always discussed what we read, why it was great literature, terminology. But did I learn what made me care about characters? What made me feel, what pulled me into a narrative, what kept me turning pages? No. These are things I’ve only found through years of personal, recreational reading and writing—things I’m still realizing today. If you’re a writing major aspiring to authordom, I highly recommend a steady diet of personal for-fun reading alongside any scholarly assignments.
  2. High concept. True, high concept (a unique premise that can be pitched in about a line—“boy goes to wizarding school,” “safari-style park of DNA-resurrected dinosaurs,” or “100 delinquents sent to test living conditions on post-apocalyptic earth”) doesn’t apply to every work of fiction. But grasping the term is invaluable in storytelling, as is being able to detail your concept—what your story is about—before you even start writing.
  3. How to write a book. My program offered courses in short stories, plays, poetry, and creative nonfiction—but no “Engw 401: How to Write a Novel.” I actually can’t even remember discussing plot in a story-craft capacity, except once in a Spanish lit class. En Español!
  4. The significance of revision. Oh, we revised—but not nearly enough. The best lessons are the ones I’ve found in my own pursuits since graduating: (1) Final draft = first draft – 10-15% (Stephen King). In other words—CUT A LOT. (2) “Revisions” =/= line edits, stronger wording, moving punctuation around. Revisions mean extreme, sweeping changes to the entire story, with large portions cut and other large portions rewritten. (3) “The first draft of everything is shit,” (Hemingway), but two drafts doesn’t do it, either. Try five or ten or twenty.
  5. That distance (time away) is a necessary part of revision. On a semester schedule, there was naturally not enough time to let our work sit between drafts so we could come back to it with fresh eyes after a month or so. But this is essential to seeing your work, especially novels, objectively: to evaluating what needs to change, and how best to change it.
  6. How to find an agent.
  7. How to write a query letter (to an agent). We did just barely touch on querying literary magazines, but in the book-writing realm that ended up being irrelevant. Why? Because
  8. You do not need publication credits to get an agent. As an aspiring author, I heard time and again that pub credits looked good in your query letter and increased your chances of getting an agent. And there’s probably truth to that. But ultimately, you don’t need credits to land an agent. Your novel is what you’re querying, and your novel is what they’re looking at. So if you want to write books, write books—don’t struggle over short works unnecessarily.
  9. To daydream. To recognize and collect things that interest you, the seeds of ideas; to connect and develop them into larger stories. This is something I’m still figuring out, and while I’m getting better at it, it’s not a skill they can really teach in the classroom.

I imagine this list will grow with time and progress in publishing, but in the interim, what about you? Whether you’ve studied writing formally or not—what lessons have you had to teach or learn for yourself?

Stay tuned for the second half of this post next week: What my writing major DID teach me about being an author!

Writing is like cooking: There’s no one way

Almost every time I cook, bake, or prepare something elaborate to eat, I find myself making the same observation: I don’t follow the recipe.

Or rather, I try to follow the recipe, but we don’t have heavy whipping cream in the fridge so I have to substitute half and half, or there isn’t any butter so I have to make do with applesauce, or, as in the case of recent chocolate Kahlua truffles I made for the holidays when I added an extra 66% milk chocolate by accident, I misread something and must adjust everything that follows to compensate. God, it was ridiculous baking macaroni and cheese and quiche in my microwave in Japan–  I had to hunt for infinitesimal bricks of cheese, a meat that resembled bacon and was pig but definitely wasn’t bacon, and then convert units (grams to ounces, Fahrenheit to Celsius, etc.) to boot.

Now, it may seem blindingly obvious to say that there’s no one approach to culinary arts or writing, but I think what I’ve learned in my kitchen experiments has greater implications than that.

Growing up, I suppose I thought of cooking like high school science labs: If you didn’t follow the recipe to the letter, you’d screw it up. Get bad data, the wrong results. An F.

But I have substituted, at times, up to half the ingredients in a recipe. I have guesstimated conversions, made mistakes, adjusted, readjusted. Added garnishes. Subtracted ingredients. And you know what? Some efforts turned out better than others. But the results were always edible, and almost always good.

What I have learned (in cooking, writing, life) is this: Because there are so many variables to play with, so many experiments to make, so many trials that result in similar, but distinctly different results, one can’t– and indeed, shouldn’t– take instructions so seriously. Not that there exists an easy recipe for a novel. But every writer has been given instructions on how to write one, or simply on how to write, at one point or another: the eight point plot arc, the hero’s journey structure, how to write a query letter, “Write what you know,” “Make your characters relatable (likeable, hateable, emotionally-invested, quirky, vulnerable, complex, etc.),” “Avoid tropes,” “Embrace tropes,” etc. ad nauseam.

The tools, tricks, and adages are endless– but like spices impulsively peppered into a soup at taste time, there will always be room for instinctive, inventive play and recipe-bending in writing. So observe the rules– and then follow them, break them, ignore them, tweak them, add them, subtract them, turn them upside down and make them dance.

Ultimately every work you make is your own. So why not treat it that way?

Benefit From My Geekage, or: How Successful Queries Open, in Stats

Recently I asked for your take on opening a novel query letter. Today I want to talk more in-depth about the two tried-and-true approaches I mentioned before as well as present a few observations from my research into query letters. You know–in numbers.

Numbers Meme

A couple weeks back I discovered the Writer’s Digest Successful Queries series. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a collection of novel query letters that successfully led to agent representation and book deals. As I read through them I am learning whatever I am able– especially comparing openings, as that’s where the query starts, and that’s your first and most important chance at a foot in the door. If you think of your first sentence as your only chance to get an assistant, and then an agent, and then a publisher to read your manuscript– and of your goal each time as simply to get the reader to keep reading to the next sentence, and the next, etc. until they have read everything– nothing is more important than the opening of your query.

So just how does one open a query letter?

Well, Timmy, I’m glad you asked. After reading 58 successful queries, I was able to find roughly five standard ways that the letters opened:

  1. Relevant Bio. This approach is used mostly for memoirs, though sometimes for fiction, and involves citing specific life experience that somehow supports your novel. And when I say “somehow supports” really I mean “is a founding pillar for”. Frequenting a sushi place or drinking a Kirin does not make one uniquely-qualified to write a book about culture shock and international exchange in Japan. Living there as a student or teacher does.
  2. Referral/”We met when…” Obviously, this approach can only be used if you’ve met either the agents themselves or someone associated with them. (Hint: a good place to network is at writing conferences!) Drawing on a positive, established connection at the start can portray good things to follow.
  3. The Hook. “When Joe Snuffleumpakiss finds a glove inside his mailbox…” “In a dystopian future where all citizens have a computer chip embedded in their wrist…” “If Martin McCharacter thought an enchanted tornado was the worst thing that could bluster into his small Kansas cow farm…” This opening jumps right into the synopsis and the meat of the story.
  4. The Facts: “I am seeking representation for my [genre] book of [word count] about [plot in a nutshell].” Or some variation thereof. This oft-used introduction states the facts right away: what you’re bringing to the table, and that you are looking to do business.
  5. The Homework: “I read [on your website/in a recent interview/in LMNOP magazine] that you are looking for [demographic/genre] fiction.” or “As you represented [a similar title the agent has sold], I thought you might be interested in my novel.” In this approach you show right away that you have done your homework: you’re familiar with the sort of work the agent represents and are declaring that your work may have a place among it.

Which do you think has the best rate of success? I’ll tell you what I found…but why not have a guess first? Here are the five again:

  1. Relevant Bio
  2. Referral/”We met when…”
  3. The Hook
  4. The Facts
  5. The Homework

Out of the 58 successful queries I read in the Writer’s Digest series, here is what I found, ranked from most- to least-often used openers:

  • Most popular: The Hook at 22 queries, or roughly 38%.
  • Second: The Facts at 16 queries, or about 27%.
  • Third: The Homework at 8 queries, or 14%.
  • Fourth: Referral/”We met when…” at 7 queries, or 12%.
  • Last: Relevant Bio at 5 queries, or about 9%.

Now, that’s not to say they were all cut and dry: at least seven blended elements of different openings (e.g., a referral that used the facts, a hook that employed homework, etc.). And those that used relevant biographies to open were for memoirs in most cases, so that might skew the rankings a bit. But you get the general idea.

How about you? How does your query open?

Book Queries: What’s Your Opening Line?

For today’s Forum Friday I want to talk about how we pitch our books, starting with our opening line in the query letter to agents. This past week I have been reading successful query letters, mostly from the Writer’s Digest Successful Queries series, and I have made several observations. I’ll talk about this more in detail in a later post, but the one I want to discuss briefly today– and get your take on– is this:

Of the two tried-and-true approaches to opening a query letter below, which do you prefer?

A) The Hook. Opens the letter with a point of intrigue or a question specific to your story. “When XYZ happens, what’s a Quirky-Details-of Main Character to do? Why, *charming/quirky/action-packed development*, of course!” There are many approaches to the hook, but what I’ve noticed is that it often reads just like a book jacket: it’s intended to pull the reader in and KEEP them reading (i.e., really sell your book).

B) The Facts. Opens with something along the lines of “Please consider representing” or “I am seeking representation for” and includes the title of your book, the genre/target audience of your book, and the novel’s finished word count. This is key information that the agent will be looking for and having it at the start can save the agent valuable time.

Alternatively– if you’ve already written your query letter– would you be so kind as to share the opening line with us? It’s educational for the writing community, and free promotion for you! 🙂

At present, between the hook and the facts approach I favor the facts. Reading through actual queries, those that said “Dear Ms. Agent: When…” struck me as unnatural openings and hard sells. Granted, I understand that the purpose of a query is to get the agent to make a book deal with you. It is, in fairness, a business relationship, and when an agent opens a letter from a prospective client there’s no guesswork as to what that person is seeking.

Still, I can’t help but feel that an agent should be treated as a person first, and not as a potential buyer. That may not the best approach from a marketing standpoint, but I think that’s the main reason I favor the facts over the hook. Opening with “I am seeking representation for” or “I’m writing because” still says (and outright!) that you are looking to do business, but is more personable, and also gives the agent that crucial classification data of genre, audience, and word count.

Let us know your thoughts!

Pitchapalooza & 3 Pitch-Writing Tips

Attention, aspiring authors! Nanowrimo and The Book Doctors are accepting entries for their third annual Pitchapalooza until February 28. Now’s your chance to get your novel pitch professionally critiqued AND, if you’re the one lucky winner, be introduced to just the agent you and your book need!

Here’s how it works: you get up to 250 words to pitch your book. Twenty-five pitches are randomly selected and posted online, along with critiques, so everyone can read them and learn from them. The pros pick a winner from the 25 to get an introduction to an agent and the crowd favorite wins a one-hour consultation with the Book Doctors.

Check out the Pitchapalooza webpage for full details as well a list of 10 tips from the Book Doctors on pitch-crafting.

I just submitted my latest and most polished ~200-word pitch yesterday, and now that I’ve met that deadline I want to share with you, in brief, just a few of the things I’ve learned about writing a pitch (the kind that appears in a query letter) for a novel in the last couple weeks:

1. Simple is best. Prevent glazy eye: be concise! For your pitch you want to boil your story down to its most basic elements and simplify, simplify, simplify. Use tight sentences. Name only your most central character(s). The easier your pitch is to follow, the better you keep an agent’s attention and interest.

2. Hit the core elements. To paraphrase agent Janet Reid, your pitch should address these points: 1) Who is the protagonist? 2) What choice does he/she face? 3) What is at stake?

To paraphrase Hallie Ephron: 1) Name your MC 2) Name your MC’s problem, desire, or goal 3) Cite the bad guy, obstacle or situation that stands in between your MC and his/her resolution.

Finally, be sure to name your book and its genre!

3. Include comparative or “comp” titles. There is SO much info out there on this that I think it deserves its own post. Basically, comparative titles are books similar to yours you include at the end of the query **not** strictly for the sake of comparison (i.e., don’t boast about how awesome your book is) but to demonstrate that there is a successful market for books like yours. Also, including comp titles shows you have done your homework. I recommend checking out agent Chip Macgregor’s explanation for more.

Enter Pitchapalooza before February 28. Otherwise, good luck with your pitches and queries, and check back for future posts as I jaunt on through this process myself!

Good Writing Advice: A New Segment

Hey gang. So as I’ve been discovering some great resources on agent-finding, query-writing, synopses, general craft, etc., I have been keeping a file. That file is a running Word document composed exclusively of advice cut and pasted from various literary agents, authors, book doctors, etc. in interviews, agency websites, and magazines, and is presently twenty pages. That’s twenty pages single-spaced, and growing.

Since it’s too much information to just pour into the ear and absorb, I’m thinking I’m going to break it down (not unlike a snazzy boy band) and share it here in portions. In doing so I’ll make a regular segment called Good Writing Advice. The segment, like the document, will cover a broad spectrum of topics but is generally aimed at helping authors, aspiring and otherwise.

So here you are– an appetizer. Today’s tip is on cultivating a successful author/reader relationship. It comes from author Matt Mikalatos in a Writer’s Digest article titled “4 Ways To Build Healthy Relationships With Your Readers“. And the tip is…

Be Accessible.

You can use any medium you like for communication, so long as your readers know how to contact you.

Makes sense, right? There are many ways to communicate these days: through social media, contact forms, email, or even good, old-fashioned letters. Find the medium(s) that work for you and tell readers, in an easily-found location (a website, a fan page, or even, as Mikalatos suggests, in the back of your book itself!), how you prefer to be contacted. This opens the line for impressions, feedback, and fun (not to mention valuable!) engagement with readers.