Updated: Feb 2, 2021
Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a writer like just hitting "send." Years ago, I was a moderator for the writing forum Absolute Write and encouraged writers to get off their duffs and send that query in to an agent, pitch a magazine that seemed so out of reach, or move forward into the bold new world of self-publishing. As my writing career developed and I eventually became an agent, I see know it's not as easy as it was for me when I queried my agent (I have no fear compass--I run straight into danger) so let's go over some tips from the agent's perspective.
The query is a business letter. It's not a howdy nor the place for a memoir about how you got started writing--it's a laser-targeted pitch to someone whom you wish to be business partners with. I have hundreds of queries sent to me a week and I'm on the light end of what many agents receive. How can you make yours stand out?
-- Keep it short: The sweet spot for me is 250 words or less. I need to know that you know how to edit yourself. The query letter is a perfect test to see if you're just writing to hear yourself talk about how awesome your book is or if you have a business partnership in mind.
-- Research the agent until your eyeballs fall out of your head. As a potential business partner, you'll want to see whom the agent represents but also what conferences she regularly attends (mention those if you have also attended) and if she's been a part of events close to you.
Keep abreast of what she's looking for at that moment--try manuscriptwishlist.com or check the #MSWL hashtag on Twitter as well as her agency website--and for goodness sake, follow the submission guidelines. If you've seen a spotlight on the agent, always follow up on the agency website for her current wishlist and what she is no longer accepting so it's not an automatic rejection. Those are a drag for everyone.
-- Formula isn't a dirty word. Meh, it works for Adam Sandler. Following a 3-5 paragraph structure keeps the focus on the project and keeps you from wandering off into photos of your cat (I totally want to see those later though).
- 1st paragraph: Have you met her before at a conference or book event? Are you long-standing Twitter correspondents? Did you love an article she's written? Mention those without being too stalkerish. There's a fine line between research and putting the lotion on its skin, my friend. Get to the book quickly: mention the title, genre, and word count and why you think it's a good fit for her list.
- 2nd paragraph: Summarize the story with mentions of characters, what they're looking for, and what goes wrong.
- 3rd paragraph: Add your relevant bio. Keep it short by detailing major writing credentials and focused on your experience. If you're still building your portfolio, mention articles you've written, conferences you've attended, and/or writing organizations you belong to.
-- Submission guidelines: Writers who ignore agency guidelines are some of the easiest for me to reject--how will they be to work with later? Check for guidelines concerning attachments (noooooo, unless requested), pasting pages into the query, and links to your website where you've attached the whole book (oh, hell no).
-- Don't speak in your character's voice. It's not revolutionary--it's creepy. Since the agent will be working with you as the author, writing the query as your main character makes us question who the heck we'll be working with later. That said, it's fine to reflect the nature of the project within the query. If it's a humorous book, let your personality show; if it's horror though, I'm drawing the line at a box of doll heads at my door. Also, use your real name when querying. I'm sure Alexandrianna Hottentottendorf looks great as a pen name but I need to know who to send the check to later and this gets confusing.
Remember, you can do this. It's just a query. Agents are rooting for you and we want you to succeed [slaps you on the butt], now get out there!
SWEEP THE LEG.