Oh, the dreaded query letter! Who ever knew that one little page of writing could give you so much grief? There are lots of gripes about query letters. It’s so unfair. How can anyone judge the merit of a novel based on one page? (Answer: Most readers do it all the time. It’s called jacket copy, and you’re lucky if they actually read that instead of judging the book by the cover.)
It’s a tough business. And my advice to you is this: Get over it. Worry about the things you can control. You will never be able to force everyone to read your book, and even if you could, you certainly can’t force them to like it. But you absolutely can learn to write an effective query letter and increase your rate of requests from agents.
Here are my 7 query letter tips:
1. A good hook. Life’s short. Agents have a lot to read. You want to grab their attention from line one. Don’t use a gimmick, that’s annoying, but something that sets the tone of your story and tells them right away why it will be interesting. Here’s mine:
“Rump is a lousy name, but it’s even worse when your name is your destiny.”
And I’m hoping the agent is going to get a little jolt and wonder why would anyone be named Rump? How can a name be your destiny? It’s not a gimmick. It actually encompasses the heart of the entire book.
2. The Who, the What, and the How. The basic purpose of your query is to tell the agent three things. Who the main character is, what it is they want, what is standing in their way, and how they plan to get what they want. Generally you never give them the entire plot (though I did query an agent who wanted to know the resolution of the story in the query) just up to the inciting incident or a place that will entice them to want to know more.
3. 250 Word pitch. Boil down your book to 250 words. It can be extremely difficult (particularly with fantasy and sci-fi) but so important to learn. When it comes to queries, less is more. Stick to the big picture. You don’t need to name every single character, every little plot point. Probably don’t introduce more than three characters by name. If you can’t coherently explain what your book is about in 250 words, then you might not know what your book is about. That’s a problem.
4. Infuse voice. Your query should give the agent an idea of not only what the book is about, but the voice and tone of the book. This was tricky for me because my book is in first-person, but in general, writing a query letter in first person is not advised. Still, I found ways to show a little humor and quirkiness that I felt matched the voice of the main character.
5. Follow instructions!!! Failure to follow instructions just gives agents an easy reason to reject. Agents querying preferences are extremely varied. Make sure you’ve included everything the agent asks for per their submission guidelines ON THE AGENCY WEBSITE. It’s also a good idea to personalize your letter, so they know you didn’t just send out a mass email to all agents in the universe. Let them know you queried them for a reason. (i.e. because you represent author X, or I read that you enjoy X kind of books, or I heard you speak at X conference, I enjoy your blog, etc.)
6. Read Query Shark. I think Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog was one of the most helpful resources in learning how to write a successful query. I was never brave enough to submit my own query to her teeth, but I’m grateful to all others who do.
7. Have people read your query letter. Just like you wouldn’t send out your book without having people read and critique it, the same goes for query letters. If you can, get someone to read your query who has not read your book. You want to make sure that it will a) makes sense and b) make them want to read more. Those are your two big jobs. Be clear and be enticing.
And on that note, I would like to offer my own query critique services to any writers in the query trenches. I will critique a query letter and also the first page of your manuscript (up to 400 words.) All genres and age ranges are welcome and I promise to give constructive criticism. I know how hard it is to put yourself out there!
All you have to do is leave a comment that you would like a query critique. Extra entry if you are a follower. Add another entry for every time you blog, tweet, FB, or in some way spread the word about this critique giveaway. (Please let me know these things in your comment!)
I’ll close comments on Friday at 10pm and I’ll announce TWO winners on Tuesday!