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Querying Part One

I do not know how many parts there will be to this series of blog posts (seriously, don't even ask!) but the subject of querying involves a lot of discussion. If you are a writer (of a book you plan to publish via an agent and publisher), whether or not you have reached the stage of querying, these are the kinds of blog posts you should be reading right now whether you read the ones I write or others.

You see, I can give you plenty of advice on the things that I have learned from my own experience and reading (of other blog posts) but ultimately, the biggest thing you need to learn before you go out and query is that you need to learn before you go out and query.

Querying an agent about your book is one of the most important things that you will do as a writer. Sure, you can go the self-publishing route. You could even try to get a publisher without an agent (though there are very few publishers who accept that these days). But ultimately, if you want to be published by a publisher, you pretty much need an agent. And to do that, you need a query letter.

So how do you even go about doing that research? What kinds of questions should you be asking? Who should you be querying? How do you know when you're ready to query them?

There are about a million questions that began to flood through my mind in the months before I was ready to query even before I started to research. So before I turned to the internet for answers, I laid out some of those questions in a google doc.

How do I write a good query letter?

Who (and when) do I query?

When will I receive query responses?

What do I do if all the responses I receive are negative?

These were some of the most important questions that I laid out for myself to answer. Then I went to work researching answers.

Now, it first should be said that there are hundreds of thousands of answers to these questions out there. One of the biggest things that makes querying difficult (or at least it was the hardest thing for me) is that, though there are plenty of resources, many of them give varied or even conflicting responses. And, honestly, it makes sense. Querying will be different for everyone because everyone has a different project to query. The same things that make your project unique and exciting should make your query letter unique and exciting or else you will lose the attention of agents. Still, trying to understand the basics of a query letter was difficult with so many conflicting answers.

That being said, the following answers to my questions was what I found to be helpful and, usually, what I found to be the most common response.

How do I write a good query letter?

There are five main elements to a query letter. Many people vary on which of the elements they suggest you should start with but one of the blog posts I read suggested starting with the strongest selling point (as opposed to the hook, the bio, etc.). This might be different for each agent. For example, perhaps you met one agent at a conference and another liked your pitch in #pitmad. For these agents, the personalization would be your strongest selling point but for other agents, your hook might be best to be put first.

But what exactly are the five elements to include?

  1. The Hook: This is a few short paragraphs that first capture the agent and then describe to them the plot of your book. It should be no longer than 150-300 words. Personally, I think this section can be split even further into two subsections. There should be a sentence or two at the beginning of your hook paragraphs that is the real "hook." It should be exciting, thrilling, and make the agent want to read further. It is like the pitch in #pitmad. In a few characters, grab the agent's attention. In the rest of the hook, focus on the main character, what they want, and what keeps them from getting it. Don't introduce too many characters and don't reveal the ending.

  2. About the Book: I put this section after my hook though, again, there is plenty of room for moving the elements wherever you see them best fitting. This section should be incredibly short with a lot of detail packed in. It is the section that lets the agent know everything about your books except what the actual plot is. In this section, you should tell the agent your book's title, approximate word count, genre (and/or subgenre), age range, and if possible, give them books/authors to compare it to (ex. "my book is a mix between Water for Elephants and Wicked). Don't suggest your book will be "the next Harry Potter" or try to fit it into a mold. If there isn't a book (or books) it is like, don't add this part.

  3. Personalization: This section is where you can really set yourself apart. In personalizing each of your query letters, not only do you show that you put time into each of them (not just into one letter that you sent to all the agents) but you show that you put effort into researching the agents who would be the best fit for you. You catch the agent's attention because you show them, I don't just want an agent, I want YOU! This section should include a quote from their manuscript wishlist that you think fits your book and/or an author/book they represent that you love. If you met them somewhere, were recommended to them, or had your pitch liked in #pitmad by them, this would be where to put that as well.

  4. About the Author: A lot of the forms (as opposed to emails) that agents use for querying actually ask for this piece on its own. To be entirely honest, I am not sure if they want something more than what is in the query letter or something different than what's in the query letter. For those forms, you could try taking this piece out and simply putting it in that part of the form. As for the query letter, this portion should not be longer than 50-100 words. In general, the agent is looking for things about you that make you unique or add to your credibility as a writer. Did you go to college (for writing)? Do you have previously published books that have sold well? (don't include self-published books with a small number of sales). Were you mentored by another author? What makes you special? Are you an immigrant? Do you have a disability? etc. Agents look through a lot of queries and right now, having a few traits (a degree, an accent from another country, etc.) that make you unique can put you at the top of the pile.

  5. Thank you: This part is pretty straightforward. As I said, agents read a lot of query letters so whether or not if will get you recognized, a thank you is deserved by them simply for the time they took to read your letter. Sign off with a simple thank you and your name.

Who (and when) do I query?

This is another big one and also hugely important to do your research on. I will start with when as that is much simpler to answer.

First of all, wait until you have a totally complete manuscript to query. If your manuscript is not totally polished off (you are still making edits) then it is not ready for agents to see it. A good test is this: if the agent was to ask for the entire manuscript from you today, would you be able to give it to them with total confidence? Or would you be hurrying to add last-minute touches to it, working overnight for multiple nights to make it perfect? If it's the second one, you aren't ready.

Once you are ready (and have a list of agents to query which we will discuss in just a second), don't send all of those query letters out at once.

There are a lot of conflicting ideas about the best way to send out query letters but most of the posts I have read agree on one thing, authors benefit from having their query letter critiqued. Now, of course, there are sites that will do this for you but if you aren't willing to pay to have someone edit your query (and honestly, even if you are), one of the best ways to get feedback on your query is to have the agents do it.

I of course don't mean to literally email your query letter to an agent asking for feedback. Don't do that. I suspect you will probably get rejected on two fronts. But you can get feedback in a very natural way if you query agents more slowly (in batches) and specifically search for some newer agents that might be more likely to request a manuscript.

Let me describe that more thoroughly:

There are a couple of main reasons that an agent usually rejects your query. The first (and least painful) is that the project (the idea and plot) simply doesn't match what they are looking for. Perhaps they represent a different age range. Perhaps they don't love the genre. Perhaps everything on their wishlist suggests they'd like your book but they aren't currently in the mood for it.

An agent also might reject your proposal if the book itself isn't good (or isn't for them). Sometimes it isn't written in a style they like. Sometimes the book is straight-up BAD (like the first draft of The Criminal). And sometimes there's just something about it that makes them say, "it's good but someone else could do a better job of representing it." For this type of rejection, writers often receive feedback about what put the agent off or, sometimes, receive a full or partial manuscript request before their book is rejected.

The final rejection comes from the query itself. If the query is written poorly or is uninteresting, agents may not make it past the query. This is where an author will find that they receive no manuscript requests.

This is why it can be best to send queries in waves of 6-10. This allows authors to put together a list of agents they think represent their book well (won't reject it because it "isn't for them"), write individual query letters for each, and recognize when the queries aren't working. If the batch of queries was sent to agents that fit the genre and age range of the book, and don't represent a huge number of top-level clients already, then the author should expect to receive at least one manuscript request. Otherwise, they should consider revising the query letter (There we go. We just answered the last question as well!!)

Check back in next week to learn how to find agents to query and what you should know about each of those agents.

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