Thursday, October 3, 2013

Ah, queries! Why must you torment me so?

A couple of weeks ago, the agents of KC&A participated in the Writers Digest Bootcamp. It was frazzling, exciting, exhausting, and most of all, illuminating. I realized that the majority of the issues with each query or manuscript lay in the presentation of either or both. Either the format of the query letter was off, or the synopsis was confusing, or the pace/plot/voice/premise hadn't been thought through enough. By this I mean, deciding on the right place to start your manuscript, deciding how much detail to put into these pages, how little, whether the voice is unique enough to stand out, if the story is set in the right time period, if it's told in the right POV...I could go on. Finding that balance between giving us too little and too much can be a nightmare to achieve, but it can be done. 

TIP: Get your manuscript critiqued by other writers or critical readers, writer folks! This is a must! It is hard enough to spend years with a book, living it, breathing it, and then revising it. Finding flaws in your manuscript can be impossible once you've stared at it too many times, so let someone else do the staring for a change. Take a break, have a Kit-Kat :). I guarantee when you return to your 'now critiqued' manuscript, it'll be with ideas and angles you've never considered before.

When this isn't done, the submissions that come into my inbox have large crater sized holes in the plot that I can jump into, and I don't think I want to spend my evenings and weekends peering into those crater sized holes in befuddlement. I'd rather be spending that time doing cartwheels of joy around a manuscript that has been done just right and has succeeded in blowing me away completely. 

With that in mind, I thought we could re-visit the query letter. Ah, yes, I can hear you lovely writer folks groaning and shaking your fists at me. Most of you do a wonderful job researching on how to do this right. Your queries are formatted right, has the right amount of information, and the information conveyed is direct, simple, and intriguing. A hard thing to achieve, but a great many of you do this wonderfully. But then we the other wonderful writer folks out there who, in their hopes to reach out to agents, give us way too much information. This information, though touching and inspiring, can take me ages to get through. Suffice to say, the pertinent information gets lost and I'm left feeling exhausted and lost. Nowadays, a query that isn't well-researched or well-written barely gets a cursory glance from me. I'm sure a great many of you think that this is sheer blasphemy. But, and hear me out for a second, if you can't be bothered to take the time to do your research and hand in your work professionally (we are professionals and this is a professional business after all), then why should I take the time or effort to go through it? I would rather help a writer who has tried to follow the rules of submission but is need of some guidance along the way. At least it shows me she or he is interested in doing it right.

SO, without much ado, here are some thoughtful DOs and DON'Ts. I wrote a blog post in my personal blog about this eons ago, so I'm going to paste that down below. This is the first step to realizing that lifelong dream of being an author, my writer friends. So do this right, because, trust me, a good query letter is the key to getting your manuscript read. 

Let me go through some examples of what NOT to do. DO NOT:

...send a query with no content in the body of the email. I get it, you've pasted the required attachments, but take the time to introduce yourself to me. Such anonymous emails could be considered as spam or viral and this would enough for your hard work to end up in my trash box. 

...send a query written to me by an editor.

...send a query that mentions a lot of unnecessary information in the author's quest to sound mysterious, while leaving out the main plot points, therefore, leaving the main questions unanswered.

...send a query that gives me a time-limit or exclusivity, when I have not asked for the latter, and do not appreciate the former.

...send a query that has been sent to me more than once within thirty days (patience is key, people.)

...send a query that clearly indicates the author has not bothered to do any research regarding agents' respective tastes.

...send a query that expounds on the greatness of the author's own writing and how he believes it's similar to (bestselling author's) work.

The first thing to remember while sending out a query letter is, the way you write one sets the tone of how the prospective partnership could be, at least in our minds.

If you sound pompous and full of yourself, then I'm going to wonder how you'll absorb my notes on revisions, if it's required. I'm also going to wonder if you'll be able to work with the team at your publishing house, especially when things may not always go the way you planned.
If you sound conscious and unsure of your writing abilities, by telling me that I should feel free to reject your work, since you've already been in this game long enough not to feel bad, it tells me you've been rejected before. That is not the best first impression to give. You must always strike the right balance between confidence in your abilities and humbleness.

If you give me a time-limit and exclusivity, it's mostly going to come off as being a tad high-maintainence, assuming that your manuscript is the only one I'm looking at (which isn't true). This does not show me that you value my time, but shows me that your time is so important, you're unwilling to be patient like everybody else.

Now let us talk about how a query letter SHOULD be. Firstly, like I mentioned earlier, your query sets the tone of your relationship with the agent. But it also sets the tone for the kind of book you've written.  Make sure the query reflects what kind of a manuscript you've got on your hands.

Start your letter with a BRIEF (a line at most) explanation as to why you chose the agent. Was it because something about the agent's profile caught your attention? Was it because you read a book she wrote, or an article she wrote, or an author she represents? Was it because something in her blog made you feel like you could connect? Was she referred to you by someone? If so, who? --This information should be concise. Once you do this, mention the title of your book, what genre your book falls into (try not to club a million genres together, be specific), and what the word count is, and any comp titles you think are similar to your book or similar audiences might enjoy.

Then move onto the pitch. Give me a paragraph of information about your story that introduces me to the main character, what his predicament is, what he needs to do to solve it, and what's standing in his way. What are his choices and inner conflicts that make things harder for him to resolve. If the story is set in an international location or a different time period, you could find a way to begin with that information, too.Of course, it's not possible to give the agent all the answers in one short paragraph, but it should distill what's important. Be specific.

The last paragraph should introduce me to you. Do you have an M.F.A (from where?), have you been writing for long? Have you published anything before? (If so, be specific- where? when? who is the publisher?)

Lastly, a line thanking the agent for her time, and saying something positive.
So there it is. A query letter is not that difficult, especially when you've gone through the battle of writing an ENTIRE BOOK. So why not spend an extra few hours researching how query letters should be?

My next blog post will be dealing with queries a little bit more, along with initial submissions. Hopefully it'll be helpful. Stay tuned for QUICK 10: MOST COMMON MISTAKES SEEN IN QUERIES/SUBMISSIONS THIS WEEK (where I'll be listing out ten things I've noticed that you should not do or should do).

Have a great day, folks!

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