The Query: Getting It Right
Ah, the query letter – the ad, the pitch, the sell. And what does the query query? Bottom line: is the agent interested in representing your book? This letter is the one thing that will get you in the door – or not – so you better make it sing. Tra-la-la! Easy peasy, right? Well, there’s a reason that ad whizzes get paid the big bucks: selling is an art form. And the query letter is what sells your book and yourself as an author.
To start, I’ll give you the basics: one page only, single-spaced, Times New Roman font (don’t you dare try to throw in Comic Sans to be a Mr. or Ms. Sassy Pants). First comes the hook, then the pitch/greeting (or vice versa), the plot summary/synopsis, the author bio, and finally, the thank you/signoff.
Let’s start at the beginning with the hook, the easiest part (your sarcasm meter should be going crazy right now). The hook should be irresistible: the George Clooney or Angelina Jolie of sentences. After your greeting (Dear Mr. Agent; and please, please make sure you get the agent’s gender correct and spell their name right), you launch into a sentence or two that will capture the agent’s attention. How is your book different than the thousands of others out there? What is the feel, the genre, the tone, the concept, the uniqueness? For example, here’s a concept hook for Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter: “Meet Dexter Morgan, a polite wolf in sheep’s clothing. He’s handsome and charming, but something in his past has made him abide by a different set of rules. He’s a serial killer whose one golden rule makes him immensely likeable: he only kills bad people.” This clearly explains how the novel stands out from the pack and sparks interest.
Next, personalize your letter. Mention whether you’ve met the agent, heard them speak, read an interview with them, love a certain author that they represent, or have a recommendation from someone. Tailor the letter to each agent – they can tell if you’ve simply cut and pasted their name into the greeting; and that ain’t good. Some fine examples would be: “Jane Abbott at Forest Books recommended that I contact you” or “I heard you speak at the Most Famous Writers’ Conference about your love of mysteries . . .” Make sure to state your title, genre, and word count. You should also use this opportunity to compare your book to other titles in the marketplace. But beware: don’t equate your project to mega-successful ones. Even though you’re a fabulous writer, resist comparing yourself to J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. On the flip side, don’t cite totally obscure books or make strange comparisons like, “Catcher in the Rye meets Moby Dick” unless your sardonic main character really is coming of age underwater while battling a great whale.
Now you just need to write an enticing plot synopsis paragraph(s)! This is your chance to share the plot, the main characters, and the central questions or conflicts in your story. Aim for about 150-200 words or so, focusing on your main character(s) and what they have to win or lose. What’s at stake? Don’t give away the ending – leave it as a question. “Will Nora choose Michael to marry or will her lust for Randy lead her to betray her first and only love?” (But really, does poor Michael stand a chance against Randy, who has an Italian accent and saves baby seals in his spare time?)
Whew, the hard part is over – now let’s talk about you, the author. What are your credentials? Where did you go to school? What did you study? What’s your day job? What past writing experience do you have? Have you won any awards? Attended any workshops or conferences? If you don’t have writing chops, that’s okay. Did you have an inspiration for writing the book? Any fun asides about your life you can share (“I spent twenty-five years in prison for a crime I didn’t commit and now I knit microwaves for a living.”)? When in doubt, keep it short and clear-cut.
Finally, wrap it up with a simple thank you. “Thank you for your consideration. The full manuscript is available upon request.” Then get a friend or hire someone to proofread the letter to make sure the grammar, spelling, and punctuation are clean. We don’t want any “its” instead of “it’s” slipping through.
And there you have it! No problem, right? Wink, wink. Just remember: You can do it. Personalize, plot, proofread. Keep it short and simple while still showing your writing flair. You’re selling yourself and the book – this is the one page that will catch an agent’s eye – so make it count! Establish yourself as unique. Write and rewrite your query until it has flair and personalization. Make it sing…just make sure to do it in an Adele, not a Milli Vanilli, kind of way.
Erin Brown worked as an editor for almost a decade at two major New York publishing houses, William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins, and Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin’s Press. She’s had her dream job for ten years now, as a freelance editor working directly with writers in order to improve their work (and hopefully find representation and publication!). You can contact her at www.erinedits.com.