Last week our agency served as the coaches in the Writer’s Digest University class “Agent One-on-One: How to Craft Query Letters & Other Submission Materials That Get Noticed Bootcamp.” (Catchy title, I know!) There was a seminar, a couple of fast-paced one-on-one online Q&As, and manuscript reviews (I did 22 critiques over Labor Day weekend!) After all of that, I noticed clear trends in the questions from frustrated writers trying to navigate the querying process, so I've boiled down the query advice that was most commonly sought.
Format: Shoot for THREE paragraphs containing: (1) info about your genre, your title, comparable titles, and word count; (2) a paragraph introducing your protagonist, the main plot points, and the themes; and (3) a brief bio. WHY WRITERS ARE FRUSTRATED: Different agents will tell you different things. Some want the word count, genre, and title at the top. Some want you to dive straight into the hook of the story. How can you know an individual agent’s format preference before you send your query? GOOD NEW: As long as your query is concise and well organized, agents will be able to quickly find the info they want, and they will respect your professionalism.
Query word count: Keep it under 250 words. WHY WRITERS ARE FRUSTRATED: Honestly, it is challenging to boil the plot of an entire manuscript into one paragraph. Writers tend to want to push this beyond its limits. GOOD NEWS: By keeping your query short, agents are less likely to skim and more likely to read it word for word, so YOU can focus their attention on what you think is the most important information.
Comparables: Find comparable that have been published within the last 5 years (1 to 2 years is even better!) WHY WRITERS ARE FRUSTRATED: They think Jane Austen is the best comp or they don’t know of anything that is quite like their manuscript. GOOD NEWS: Here is the deal. Comps are important because agents want to know what to expect when they open your manuscript, and publishers want to know how to position your book in the marketplace. So if you do your research and identify a book (or two) that could legitimately sit on the bookshelf next to yours (and, ideally, has had some success recently), agents and publishers will take notice.
Bio: Include previous creative writing credits, your education, jobs related to creative writing and literature, the writing organizations you belong to, web and social media presence related to your writing, and your awards. You do not need to include that your beta readers (or friends and family) love it. WHY WRITERS ARE FRUSTRATED: Some don’t have many (or any) of these things. So then what? GOOD NEWS: If you don’t have anything, just keep it simple by mentioning in one sentence that this is your debut novel and move on! An agent will value your brevity over having to weed through irrelevant info. That said, get on twitter! Join an organization! Beef up that bio!
Writing a query can be challenging. I write queries to pitch my client’s books to editors, and it takes time and work to capture a book with brevity. But with so much competition, putting in the time to create a professional query will make you stand out and go a long way toward earning you the result you seek. Good luck!
Follow Amy on Twitter: @amycloughley