First, we at RU would like to thank Heather Webb for her fantabulous and insightful posts for the past few years. You’re the best! And we’d like to also wish her the best of luck in her writing career – she’s off to a great start!
As an editor, I’ve been working on loads of queries lately. Writers are gearing up for the big fall submissions, just as agents are with editors. I’ve been seeing many with the same mistakes so I thought, as my final post here at Romance U, I would share the laundry list of what makes a query juicy, what to avoid, and a few other points to making your query a slam-dunk success.
First off, think of the query as a form of pitching yourself and your book. If you can’t do that for yourself, who will? No one. (Well, except me. If you’d like help, check out my website here.) Now, let’s take a look at query musts and query faux pas.
WHAT’S IN A QUERY?
- A PROPER GREETING: The only acceptable greeting is “Dear Agent”. This is not the actual word “agent”, but the agent’s NAME spelled correctly! Do not, under any circumstance, leave off the agent’s name. It makes it look like you don’t really give who reps you, consequently making the agent feel like they are the hired help and not a human being who pours their heart and soul into your works.
- WHY YOU’RE QUERYING SAID AGENT: Include a sentence or two (max) of why you’re querying that particular agent and why you think they will like your novel. ***Caution, do NOT tell them that you love an author or book they rep and that’s why you’re querying them. Many agents are annoyed by this, especially when you get the information wrong. It makes you come off like a bad car salesman. Comparing elements in your novel to said author, however, is acceptable.
- BODY OF THE QUERY: Be sure to open with the protagonist by name, mention the antagonist at some point, a couple of poignant details about the plot, and finally, what is at stake. Finish with a strong sentence that makes us dying to know what will happen next. Do not go on and on about the dozens of complicated subplots and character development. The goal here is to tempt the agent to want to read more. Less is more.
- WORD COUNT & GENRE: Don’t forget these important pieces of information! Also consider listing another author, novel, or movie/TV show that has similar elements to your story.
- A SHORT BIO PARAGRAPH: Describe your writing credits or previous novels if any, writing groups to which you belong, any writing-related degrees or awards, websites/magazines for you write for, or experience that aided you in crafting this particular novel. If you have absolutely nothing to say here that relates to writing, I suggest, at the very least, you join a couple of online groups that you can mention.
WHAT NOT TO INCLUDE
- THEMES: Though themes are important, they aren’t plot points, which is the WHOLE POINT of a query. Also themes are generic and can be applied to thousands of stories that aren’t yours. For example: “This book follows a woman’s journey to find herself, to conquer her fears, and to become whole again after a life-altering divorce.” This could describe about 5 million books. What makes your book unique is the plot. Besides, agents are intelligent people. I guarantee they’ll figure out the themes, simply by looking at the plot and the main conflict. If not through your query, your pages.
- GROSS COMPARISONS: You may very well be the next Anne Rice, but don’t compare yourself to her, lest you want your carefully crafted query deleted. This comes off as amateuresque and egotistical. Anne Rice isn’t just an author. She’s a brand. It’s like comparing your church bulletin to the New York Times. It just doesn’t work.
- YOUR DEGREES: For clarification, you should always include your degrees if they meet the following criteria: A.) it’s a writing degree of some sort, B.) it’s a degree that boosts your platform, or C.) it’s related to the subject about which you have written. Do not include your degree in psychology or math, or communications if you’re writing romance novels. They don’t correlate. Get my drift? Many agents don’t care if you even graduated high school. They want a good story they can sell.
- QUOTES OR PRAISE: It’s great that your friend Kate who’s a journalist loves your book, but to include that info is another rookie move. So is going on about how you’re an excellent writer and that anyone should be so lucky to represent you. BAD MOVE. Also, an agent doesn’t want you to tell them how they should feel about your book. They like to decide for themselves.
- BUTT KISSING: There’s nothing more annoying than obsequiousness. Some agents seem not to mind because they’re used to it and they skip over your gushing compliments. But most get irritated enough they delete you immediately.
- KEEP IT SHORT: Your query should total 250-350 words. Agents like to see white space in an email. It means they have less to read, and it’s easy to read, which is a good thing when their inboxes are flooded every week. Plus, in our lightning-speed, no-deferred-gratification society, faster and punchier is better.
- GET EYES ON IT: Bang out a few versions and find another writer or query forum to give you feedback. You need at least two pairs of eyes on this sucker, just as you do for your pages. Everyone picks up on different aspects of your tone and style, your work will be stronger with more feedback.
- DON’T AGONIZE OVER WHERE TO LIST WORD COUNT & GENRE: I’ve noticed writers ask agents dozens of questions at conferences about where you should list the w.c. and genre in the query. This can easily go at the top of the query when you’re talking about why you queried the agent, or right before your bio. Agents have different preferences ultimately, and it’s impossible to tailor your query to each agent with this sort of minutiae. What matters is a concise, meaty hook that sparks interest in your novel. NOTHING MORE.
- THE GUNSHOT APPROACH IS A BUST: Don’t send out a mass query to a bunch of agents. There are a few reasons why. A.) You don’t want to play your entire hand in one go because your piece may need more feedback, ultimately, and you could be wasting your chance with many of these agents. B.) You’re demonstrating that you don’t give a damn who reps you by not being discerning. This is extremely bad form. I can’t stress how small this business is (something I’ve learned now that I’ve been a part of it for six years). Everyone knows each other. They talk. A lot. They will share your bad behavior. C.) An agent-author relationship should be a partnership. You need to be as selective as they are about choosing their authors. Not every agent will fit the profile of someone you would like to work with. An agent is like a significant other. Choose them with care.
- RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH: This refers back to the whole “one at a time” idea. Research as many agents as possible that rep your genre. Make a spreadsheet or table with their information, when you’ve contacted them, and when they’ve gotten back to you. Use www.querytracker.com to check out agent turn-around time, as well as agent behaviors and protocol. Read Publisher’s Lunch and Publisher’s Weekly to follow who is making sales and to whom, also what sort of books they’re selling. Does Agent 007 enjoy westerns? Do they sell contemporary cowboy romances with elements that match yours? Perfect. Consider querying them.
- CONTACT THE AGENT’S CLIENTS: Or better yet, their former clients. Get the skinny on how they operate. This is when gossiping is not only okay, but encouraged. Again, think partnership. You want the best person for the job who gets you and your needs and style. **NOTE: Just because an agent sells historicals doesn’t mean she likes American colonial novels. Look into their nuanced tastes.
Finally, MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU. If you find your query isn’t getting you anywhere, consider hiring an editor to take a look at it, preferably one with query experience. (Believe it or not, there are plenty who don’t. This is a very specific skill.) But keep at it! Publishing is often a game of “last man standing”. Be that person who won’t be cut down.
RU Writers, have you queried an agent? How did it go?
Join us on Wednesday for Why You Should Write Your Novel From The Middle with James Scott Bell
Bio: As a freelance editor, Heather spends oodles of time helping writers find their voice and hone their skills–something she adores. She may often be found twittering helpful links, sharing writing advice and author interviews on her blog Between the Sheets, or teaching novel writing in her community. Her favorite haunts are right here at the fabulous Romance University.org and the award-winning WriterUnboxed.com.
Her first women’s historical, BECOMING JOSEPHINE released to much acclaim in Jan 2014 and her second, RODIN’S LOVER, releases from Plume/Penguin as a lead title in 2015.
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