Query Letter Tips — Researching Literary Agents

Before you send your Query Letter, you need to find the right Literary Agents.

Once your book is absolutely the best it can be, you need to find literary agents who specialize in your genre. There are several websites and books that it can help with this (Publishers Marketplace, Writer’s Market, the Guide to Literary Agents, Jeff Herman’s Guide, plus many more—check your local library!).

Do not send your query to an agent who does not specialize in your genre—even if you’ve heard great things about that agent. Why not? Because the agent will stop reading your letter the moment he/she (note: I will use “she” from now on) determines that it isn’t in her specialty area (genres).  More importantly, the agents will ignore you because they can’t help you. Agents know their genres inside and out, but they don’t know every genre. They, like you, probably don’t like every genre. Agents are people with particular tastes. In addition, agents develop relationships with certain editors. Editors, like the agents themselves, have niches. Agents will often represent several genres, but no agent represents all genres. An agent who specializes in mystery may not be able to sell romance because the agent may not know anything about romance or have any connections with romance editors—so don’t waste your time or theirs by writing to them. The only possible case when you might send your query to an agent who does not rep. your genre is if you have a personal connection with that agent. In that case, maybe the agent will do you a favor and recommend your book to another agent who can help you.

You will need to do a lot of research. Start with the above books and websites, but search the internet. Once you’ve found an agent who might be interested in your novel, go online and find out as much about that agent as you can. Google her. If she is on Twitter, follow her. You can learn A LOT about people on Twitter including what they really want, their pet peeves, likes VS dislikes, etc. Also search for interviews with the agent, see if the agent has a blog or website, etc. Once you know your audience, you’re ready to write the rest of your query (the paragraphs about your novel will probably stay the same—see my post about “Query Writing Tips Part 1 – Your Novel”).

Check the agent’s website/agency website to find exactly how she wants to receive queries.  Do not deviate. At this stage, they are looking for any excuse not to read your book (even though they want to find a great book). If you can’t follow directions, you won’t get read.

Advertisements

Query Workshop – Critiquing My Old Query Letters

I’m going to share three older versions of my query and explain why each fails. I will be brutal with my old self. Spoiler Alert! – I survive this process and emerge stronger.

QUERY # 1:

Scottish teenager Alanna O’Connor would be thrilled that her favorite mythological characters were coming to life . . . if they weren’t trying so hard to kill her. Alanna teams up with the newly arrived (and completely baffled) King Arthur to stop the nightmarish invasion, but what they find along their journey will challenge everything they believe about the world and themselves.

The story spins familiar archetypes into an unexpected adventure, challenging Alanna and Arthur in ways neither would have thought possible. Their worlds fall apart as Alanna discovers that she has a mysterious connection to the appearing legends and that she had somehow caused their arrival. Meanwhile, Arthur realizes he retains the collective memories of all the legends told about him—a fact suggesting that he isn’t a man at all, but rather a fiction made flesh. Although both struggle with an identity crisis, Alanna and Arthur must work together, battling increasingly dangerous monsters, while trying to stop the mastermind behind this mythical siege.

The first line is good (and the rest of my queries all have some variation of it) but “mythological characters” is vague. Which characters? Humans? Beasts? Greeks? Egyptians? This needs to be more specific. The details sell.

The bit about “what they find along the way . . .” is both cliché and vague. The sentence doesn’t actually tell you anything about the plot. We don’t know what they found, what their “journey” is (journey is vague anyway), what they believed first, how or why it gets challenged, how or why the world changes, how they change, etc. It is a horrible sentence.

In paragraph 2, the first sentence is just as bad as the one before it and for the same reasons: vague + cliché. More clichés arrive in the next sentence with “Their worlds far apart.” What does that mean? What worlds? How unoriginal can I be? We also find out that there is a “mysterious connection” but this is not explained, so again, it is vague. The bit about Arthur isn’t too bad, though. At least it is fairly specific—even if we don’t understand what it means or why it is important to Alanna and the overall plot.

Then I dive right back into clichés: “struggle with an identity crisis,” “must work together,” “increasingly dangerous monsters” (like what? Need the details!), an unknown mastermind, and whatever the heck a mythical siege is (I do know, of course, and maybe you can imagine it is a bunch of mythical characters invading Alanna’s hometown, but we still don’t know what kind of characters/creatures, so this is hard to picture).

In short, I would not request this book and I wrote it! Just for fun, I may challenge myself to write a query with MORE clichés than this one, though that may be impossible.

QUERY # 2

Teenager Alanna O’Connor’s world is shattered when her dreams for adventure come true . . . and come to life. Alanna teams up with newly arrived (and totally baffled) King Arthur to discover how these legends are breaking into our reality and to stop the myth invasion before these monsters lay siege to Alanna’s hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Their quest calls into question everything they have ever believed about themselves and their world. Nothing is as it appears . . . and Alanna discovers that she is ultimately responsible for the tragedy threatening her home.

The first sentence is different from Query # 1 but still works.

The 2nd sentence starts off strong but then falls into trouble with “these legends” because we don’t have the details of which legends/characters are invading. While it isn’t clear how they are “breaking into our reality” or even what that means, that bit might be okay. Yes, it is vague, but the full explanation is complicated and I don’t want to get bogged down with that in my query, so I might let it slide. It can be better, so I should work on it.

Lastly, the end bit in this paragraph where I tag on that the story is in Edinburgh is clunky (though the detail of where the story is set is nice and was missing from Query # 1).

The entire 2nd paragraph is vague. It tells us nothing. Scrap it and start over.

I should also point out that Query # 2 is very short. It clocks in at about 90 words and the query should be 200 – 250 words.

QUERY # 3

When sixteen-year-old fantasy fiction fan Alanna O’Connor sees Vikings, medieval knights, and mythological creatures step from a void into her hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, she thinks it’s a miracle . . . until they try to kill her. All her drama—being stood up on her birthday, designing a new tattoo, even the rush from meeting an interesting and potentially decent teenage boy—falls aside as she fights for her life and sanity. Terrified and plagued by the thought that she had somehow caused this myth invasion, she teams up with the one person she hopes she can trust: the newly arrived (and completely baffled) King Arthur. While battling warriors and beasts, they develop a friendship and make some important discoveries: Arthur has fractured memories and is a fictional version of himself and Alanna was born in the mysterious Otherworld that is home to the attackers, her parentage a mystery. Rattled by these bombshells, Alanna and Arthur confront their fears, defeat the legion of monsters and the evil wizard, and step into an enigmatic future.

Query # 3 is nearly identical to the one I first entered in the GUTGAA online workshop in September 2012. The feedback I received was that it was pretty good, but could be improved in several ways (you’ll notice I followed this advice if you check out my current query).

Everyone agreed that my opening line/Hook was a winner except for the “void” part, which isn’t clear (as voids often are not). The sentence tells you about the main character, includes some details about who/what was arriving, provides the setting, lets you know her attitude, and then ends with a punch in the gut that sets up the conflict. The only criticism I got was that “fantasy fiction fanatic” is a bit of a mouthful. I agreed (plus I didn’t really like the alliteration) so I made a minor change.

I was also told to break up the query into a few short paragraphs, as one block paragraph doesn’t look very inviting. Easily fixed.

The sentence beginning with “All of her drama” is good because it gives context and provides some character details. One judge mentioned that saying “potentially decent teenage boy” seemed odd because we don’t know how she can make that judgment if she just met him, so on her advice, I simply edited the “decent” bit from that sentence. Once it was gone, I didn’t miss it.

The next sentence needs to explain why she thinks she caused the mess, but people liked the baffled King Arthur, as that sounds humorous.

The fourth sentence is overloaded with plot and has several problems. There is a lot there and not much explanation. It also does not flow and sounds forced. I considered naming a few of the warriors and beasts. One author mentioned that “her parentage a mystery” was a cliché (true) so I deleted that part, but I really needed to re-write the entire sentence. I decided to go with EITHER the bit about Arthur being a fictional version of himself OR Alanna actually being from the Otherworld. Even though Alanna is the protagonist, I decided to go with the King Arthur info because it is more interesting. Besides that, the main character usually discovers that he/she is an integral part of the plot . . . that’s why the author chose that character as his/her protagonist. Since Alanna discovering that she is important to the story is really a “normal” story element, I decided not to mention it here.

The last sentence doesn’t end with enough punch. I needed to come up with something that would really make an agent say, “I have to read more!” and this just wasn’t doing it.  The “enigmatic future” sounds nice but doesn’t actually mean anything. Additionally, it probably isn’t a good idea to disclose so much of the ending and throwing in an “evil wizard” at the end seems like a curve ball. So this sentence needed major work or just an all out re-write.

And so, without further ado, my new query:

When sixteen-year-old fantasy enthusiast Alanna O’Connor sees Vikings, medieval knights, and mythological creatures appear in her hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, she thinks it’s a miracle . . . until they try to kill her.

At that moment, she no longer cares about her cancelled birthday plans, her latest tattoo, or even the charming teenage boy she met earlier. All her drama is cast aside as she fights for her life and sanity.

Alanna realizes that when she climbed the legendary mountaintop called Arthur’s Seat, she unwittingly helped open the doorway to Otherworld and unleashed the rampaging monsters. Terrified and plagued by guilt over the ensuing slaughter, she teams up with the one person she knows she can trust: the newly arrived (and completely baffled) King Arthur.

As they battle centaurs, goblins, and a dragon from Loch Ness, Alanna confronts the truth about what happened to King Arthur and the other characters while they were in Otherworld. Arthur has splintered memories from his legendary life that do not fit together into a single lifetime. He is a fictional version of himself and is as lost as anyone—a fractured myth who needs Alanna’s guidance as much as she needs his expertise. Alanna must put the pieces together and close the passageway between worlds before it is made permanent and Alanna’s city—if not all reality—is fractured beyond repair.

I apologize if this post was rambling. My hope was that if you understood my thought process and all the things I considered, I might help you make some of your own decisions. If so, I’m happy. I wish you all the best.

Query Tips Part 1 – Your Novel

The query is the letter authors send to agents or editors when the book is “ready to go.” Based on that one page, agents will decide whether or not to read the book. It isn’t a perfect system, but it actually works pretty well. Keep in mind—agents are busy and they get hundreds of “books/reading requests” each month. It would be impossible for anyone to read all the books from would-be authors (like myself). Agents need something short—something that gives them the basic information about the book, a sense of the story & author’s style, etc. If the query catches their interest, they will request the book (or a few sample chapters).

Your query has one goal: to ENTICE the agent so that he/she will request your book.

For now, let’s look at the “meat” of your query—writing about your novel. I will give tips about what to do/write in the greeting, farewell, and all other matters in a later post.

But before we begin, let’s make sure you’re in the right mindset. You must be patient. Take your time. Don’t rush the query out the door. This one page will determine if an agent reads your book. You’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time on the novel, but it all comes down to this—this one little page. Have some intelligent, honest, and critical people read it. Then revise. Repeat as often as necessary until it is great.

You might start by reading my earlier post on “Pitching to an Agent.” The verbal pitch contains most of the same elements as a query (I used my query hook in my verbal pitch and it worked quite well). I also recommend reading as many articles from agents or interviews with agents as possible. Find out what they want and tailor your query to that agent.

Break up your novel pitch into a few brief paragraphs, but don’t go over 250 words. It is probably best to write the query in the 3rd person, but if your novel is in 1st, you could try it. You do want to give a taste of your voice, so 1st person could certainly do that—it’s just harder to write the query in 1st because of all the other elements you need to include. 3rd seems to be the norm, even for books written in 1st.

You start with a 1-2 sentence HOOK. This is the line that gives the agents a sense of the conflict & characters and makes them say, “Oh! Well, that’s new and sounds awesome!” You can think of it as the “tag line” on the front or back cover of a book. Here’s mine: “When sixteen-year-old fantasy enthusiast Alanna O’Connor sees Vikings, medieval knights, and mythological creatures appear in her hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, she thinks it’s a miracle . . . until they try to kill her.” This one sentence tells us a bit about the protagonist, sets up the genre, provides the setting and basic plot (or at least the inciting incident) and has a catchy end. I wrestled with that one sentence for weeks.  

Why not take a trip to the library or bookstore? Read the back cover copy of books in your genre. What you see there is similar to what you want in your query. After all, the goal is the same: to get someone to read the book. After you’ve read several, you’ll be ready to try writing your own.

After the hook, you flesh out the story a bit. This is a kind of “less is more” thing, though. Don’t overload the query with subplots and themes and do not give away the ending (actually, I did hear one agent say she likes having the ending spoiled as it tells her whether the end is satisfying). You need to use a few specific details to paint a picture (and give some evidence of your writing style/ability), but these need to be carefully chosen so as to set the correct tone or provide the necessary information.

Vague queries get ignored. That’s one reason NOT to write about your theme. If you write, “It’s a story about an unpredictable journey that teaches the protagonist that life __,” you have entered vague (and cliché) territory. The query should be about character and plot. Queries are about what happens, not what it all means.

Every word counts. Choose the right word—not its synonym. Cut all needless words. Make sure each word does exactly what you want it to do.

Mix up your sentence structure. I have a natural tendency to write compound sentences. It is only while editing that I break them up. Watch for that kind of thing. Too many of the same sentence type or sentence length is monotonous.

Query Checklist. Your query needs to:

  • Explain the premise and main conflict.
  • Show the protagonist’s role in the main conflict.
  • Explain the choice your protagonist has to make.
  • Clarify the stakes.
  • Give a “telling detail” about the protagonist so that we have some sense of him/her and know that he/she is unique.
  • Provide the inciting incident that propels the story forward.
  • Establish the tone and genre (perhaps mentioning the setting).

Some people recommend stopping the query with the story’s inciting incident. I did not. I went a bit further (you can read my full query by clicking the “About my Novel” tag at the top). The point is, your job is to make the agent want more. Once you are certain you have your hook in good and deep, end the letter. End on a strong note so that the agent must request the story.

Do yourself a favor: write several versions of your query. Try different hooks and approaches. Figure out what you need in the query VS what you want in it. Play with your query. After you have several query versions, pick the best parts from each. Can they be incorporated into one awesome one (maybe with some work, but maybe not)? Does your query make sense? Has it satisfied all the above requirements? Have you gotten a lot of constructive and critical feedback on your query? If so, then you are ready . . . to enter a pitch contest. Find some online ones (like GUTGAA, Pitch Mad, etc.) so that you can get writers and editors to help you with it. Then, once you’re sure it is the best it could possibly be, send it to a few agents.

Remember, you only get one shot with each agent—so be a marksman and make the shot count.

Gearing Up To Get An Agent

In special thanks to Deana Barnhart’s amazing pitch polishing contest called Gearing Up To Get an Agent (#GUTGAA on Twitter), I’ll be sharing notes about Query Writing and Pitching all week long. Check out my schedule below.

For the full story about GUTGAA, visit Deana Barnhart’s blog at http://deanabarnhart.blogspot.com/. If you want “the basics” on the event, keep reading.

GUTGAA began a few weeks ago when Deana and her many friends hosted a blog hop so writers could meet online. This was before I began my blog, but I was still able to find a critique partner by reading other people’s information.

A week later, people emailed Deana their query letters + the first 150 words of their novels. For five days, my query was posted on her blog for all to see. I read many queries and left comments for those authors while they returned the favor.

I was lucky enough to get my revised query in to the 1st round of the Agent Pitch Contest the next week. At that point, several published authors (Deana’s insightful friends) gave helpful comments on my query and first 150. They were given the task of selecting their favorites. The top 25% of these queries made it into the Agent Round. Those fantastic 50 entries will be read and judged by several notable literary agents this week. I am confident many of these authors will find representation. Next week, people can submit entries for yet another contest—this one with small publishing houses.

Agents are critiquing right now (September 24 – 28, 2012)! Go to Deana’s blog and read what they have to say!

While several of last week’s judges/authors left positive comments on my query and one judge wanted me to move on, I didn’t quite make the cut into the Agent Round. Oh well. With two weeks of excellent feedback, my query has gone through a crucible. It is vastly improved and I am both confident and eager to send it out into the world.

Before GUTGAA, I thought my query was decent. Turns out, it was merely okay. I had a good hook (first line) but it floundered after that. Everyone who commented on my query helped me tremendously. I also shamelessly read all the comments authors left on other people’s query letters. This enabled me to come away with loads of good advice about what to do and what NOT to do in a query. I recommend people do the same thing this week as agents make comments on Deana’s blog. I will take notes and include my observations and advice all week.

Today: Read my previous entry on “Pitching to an Agent” (scroll down to my last post) and visit Deana’s blog. Then, come back here tomorrow for more query writing advice! Check out this week’s agenda:

Tuesday’s Blog Post: Query Writing Tips Part 1 – Your Novel

Wednesday’s Blog Post: Query Workshop

Thursday’s Blog Post: Query Writing Tips Part 2 – Agents, greetings, endings, and hitting “Send.”

Friday’s Blog Post: Query Writing – Strategy & Feedback

Pitching to an Agent

The following advice is good for BOTH writing query letters and verbally pitching your novel to an agent.

I’ve only verbally pitched to two agents, but both asked to see my manuscript. I’ve also attended a seminar on how to pitch, listened to agents discuss what they like in a pitch, and read loads of articles on the subject. So here’s what I learned and what worked for me.

You need to be prepared. This has several components.

Research the agent(s) and make sure he/she works in your genre. If not, don’t bother pitching to him/her at all—it will only annoy him/her and waste time.

Google the agents and find interviews, bios, and subscribe to their twitter feeds—that is a great way to find out their views and interests! You might be able to slide some kind of comment into your greeting, or you can compliment their blog, say you like a book he/she represented, etc. They appreciate the fact that you’ve done your homework.

Write a fantastic, but brief, pitch. It should have a great HOOK. After that, you can get straight into WHAT HAPPENS. You don’t need to get into themes. If they want to know, they’ll ask (so be prepared for that, too!). As quickly as you can, mention the following: something interesting/uncommon about the protagonist, what the main conflict is, and explain the inciting incident (what happens that really gets the story going).

Okay, you’ve done your homework. Now you have to actually talk to them.

Don’t worry about being nervous. These agents go to conferences all the time and they’ve seen people far worse than you. And honestly, all the agents I’ve met have been super friendly. Remember this crucial bit of info: They are here to find new writers! They want to like you! If they reject everybody, they go home empty handed, having just wasted a weekend.

Be personable and professional (use the agent’s last name in your greeting). Smile. Be polite. Try to relax but don’t worry if you can’t.

Be excited and confident. They want people who are enthusiastic about their work. If you’re nervous—just cover it up with the joy that is your story.

After your cordial greeting, you may want to mention something that let’s thm know that you have researched him/her. After that (or just start with this), tell them the following information before your “rehearsed pitch” so that they have some basic context about for your book:

  • Genre.
  • Word Count.
  • That it is completed (unless it is not, in which case, don’t mention it).

Now launch into your amazing pitch . . . but be ready for them to interrupt you. Why would they do that? Because they also want to make sure you can talk about it “on the fly.” I was one sentence into my ridiculously awesome rehearsed pitch when the agents cut me off and asked a question like, “Why did that happen?” and then I was off script. Luckily, I knew my book pretty darn well and could answer whatever they threw at me, but the point is—be ready for that! They will cut you off—so be ready to rock n’ roll!

If they request a partial or even your full MS, make sure you find out EXACTLY how they’d like you to send it. Email? Paste in the body or as an attachment? What should you put in the message subject line? What is the email address? Do they want your Query as well? Do they prefer snail mail? To what address?

When it is over—whether they requested anything or not—thank them for taking the time and wish them well. Keep your dignity if they didn’t ask for a sample of your work. For God’s sake, don’t argue with an agent after he/she decided to pass on your project: you will not win that argument. If they asked for something, don’t stick around long enough to gush and become an idiot. Once you have their contact info, say “Thank you,” and get yourself out of there!

If you did not get a request, don’t despair, but do try to figure out where your pitch went wrong. Perhaps the agent gave you a clue in a question he/she asked. Take some time to think it over. Should you revise your MS? After one rejection—probably not. Get a second opinion. Your MS might be fine. Maybe it is your pitch that needs revision or maybe that agent just didn’t think he could sell your book! That’s how agents work. If they don’t know editors who might be interested, they won’t waste their time OR yours by requesting it. So not getting a request might mean absolutely nothing. Think it over, certainly, but try not to over think it.

And if you did get a request—Yay! Take the time to celebrate! And then come back to reality because it will probably take the agent a few months to read your book once you send it (they always have a long back-log of things to read plus are busy working with their clients—something you’ll be happy about once you have an agent and he/she is not reading new submissions because he/she is working so hard on your project!). Oh. And I read that most agents still only sign about 1 – 2.5% of the clients they actually request material from. So . . . yeah. Reality.

Query/Basic Info about my Novel

Genre: YA Contemporary Arthurian

Word Count: 83,000

When sixteen-year-old fantasy enthusiast Alanna O’Connor sees Vikings, medieval knights, and mythological creatures appear in her hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, she thinks it’s a miracle . . . until they try to kill her.

At that moment, she no longer cares about her cancelled birthday plans, her latest tattoo, or even the charming teenage boy she met earlier. All her drama is cast aside as she fights for her life and sanity.

Alanna realizes that when she climbed the legendary mountaintop called Arthur’s Seat, she unwittingly helped open the doorway to Otherworld and unleashed the rampaging monsters. Terrified and plagued by guilt over the ensuing slaughter, she teams up with the one person she knows she can trust: the newly arrived (and completely baffled) King Arthur.

As they battle centaurs, goblins, and a dragon from Loch Ness, Alanna confronts the truth about what happened to King Arthur and the other characters while in Otherworld. Arthur has splintered memories from his legendary life that do not fit together into a single lifetime. He is a fictional version of himself and is as lost as anyone—a fractured myth who needs Alanna’s guidance as much as she needs his expertise. Alanna must put the pieces together and close the passageway between worlds before it is made permanent and Alanna’s city—if not all reality—is fractured beyond repair.

Book Review: Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury

SHADOW SHOW: ALL-NEW STORIES IN CELEBRATION OF RAY BRADBURY

AUTHOR: Various (Margaret Atwood, Dave Eggers, Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Alice Hoffman, and many more). Edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle.

GENRE: A bit of everything – Short Story Collection.

SIMILAR/RELATED BOOKS, MOVIES, TV: The Illustrated Man (book), The Twilight Zone (TV), Neverwas (film).

PREMISE: Today’s most popular and celebrated authors offer new short stories as tribute to Ray Bradbury—the man who inspired them all.

FIRST LINE: “I am forgetting things, which scares me.” (from Neil Gaiman’s “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury”).

WARNING: This book is a gateway drug. Once you’ve tasted the first story, you’ll consume the second, third, and so on. Then, feeling excited, empowered and a bit reckless, you’ll try a new book by one of the authors you sampled in Shadow Show. Even worse, you’ll want to devour everything Ray Bradbury.

And it will be a delicious reverie. With luck, one from which you’ll never recover.

Even if you’ve never heard of Bradbury, Shadow Show is a fantastic short story collection by today’s most popular, creative, and respected authors. The stories are full of hope, desolation, wonder, admiration, horror, and awe—a fitting tribute to one of the 20th century’s most imaginative influences. Shadow Show is a testament to the power of masterful storytelling.

Consider these ideas/premises:

One of two companion spaceships disappears. Or does it? The folks aboard its twin aren’t so sure.

A husband and wife discover the connection between coincidence and the afterlife.

On the verge of seizing his every nasty desire, a selfish business tycoon gets his comeuppance instead.

What happens when a young man encounters his soul mate in the funeral parlor, a few days too late?

On an alien world, young missionaries fail the old beliefs, but in doing so, may just achieve a victory.

A young magician finds what he seeks in the most unlikely and ordinary of places.

Even in the lonely post-Apocalypse, Bradbury helps an old woman find hope.

The next step of human evolution is a leap toward horror.

Children bend the boundary that holds myth at bay.

An old telephone can call the past.

I won’t tell you that every story is a knockout. Some are better than others, quite a few are excellent, and there are two that, honestly, didn’t do anything for me. But that’s 2 out of 26—a remarkable ratio. Besides, since each story is a different voice and hops from genre to genre, much of it comes down to personal taste. I can confidently declare that the overall quality is very high—we just might disagree about our favorites.

But you will have favorites. That’s the important point.

All I ask is that you give these stories a try and let them guide you later on. That’s my request. And if you comply, I’ll accept your thanks. Have fun and don’t fear getting lost—no matter where you find yourself, you’ll be in fantastic company.