Since I'm heading down to Richmond, VA to attend the James River Writers Conference this weekend, where I'll be on a panel discussing what makes a great query, I thought I'd offer some advice here. The trick is that every agent is drawn in by something different, so I can only speak to my own experience.
Querying is an incredibly difficult art form, mostly because you need to say an awful lot in very few words. This is not the primary skill set of most longform writers. But, let's take a look and see if we can make the process any easier.
TIP #1 Boil it down to the basics by following the action.
I get queries all the time that meander through dates and names and definitions of terms and all kinds of extraneous detail that can be very important in the manuscript itself, but serve to be dull and often confusing in a query.
Take a look at these examples (these are not from anyone who has ever queried me):
"Belinda turned sixteen on March 23, 2018, three days after her mother died. Her mother, who was actually a Zolifant- a feline/fish hybrid, was born on November 22, 1984. Heligrade, Belinda's mother was an avid lyre player. Belinda hated the lyre because of all the strings and had given it up back in 2016. Now, three months later Belinda was upset because she'd lost touch with some of her friends who were also sixteen."
We can see this isn't a very engaging way to write. Think of writing your query as writing the back copy of your book. In fact, go pick up your favorite books and see what their back copy says to get an idea of what makes a good pitch. You have about two paragraphs, maybe three to get an agent to see what is new, interesting and brilliant about your book.
Back to poor Belinda, what if we wrote all that nonsense a little more succinctly?
"Sweet sixteen isn't so sweet when you're the daughter of a feline/fish hybrid. Belinda had never been like the other kids, but after the death of her mother, Belinda finds herself adrift and struggling with friendships that she thought she could count on."
I'm a lot more interested when I can parse out where the drama is without having to read the query more than once. Hint: we don't read them more than once.
Tip #2 The Hook
I know you've heard this one before. You have to have a hook! It's not just your query letter that needs it. It's whole darn book! Yipes. But, what is a hook, really?
It's the thing that makes your book stand out from all the rest! A great place to check out some one-line hooks is Publisher's Marketplace. Every day they list deals with information about who sold what and to whom, but they also give a one or two line description of the work. These tell you exactly what's exciting about any particular novel.
Here's one from October 1st that does a nice job:
"Marianne Cronin's THE ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF LENNI AND MARGOT, about an exceptional friendship between a 17-year old girl and 83-year old woman, both with a terminal illness, who paint a picture for each of the years that they have lived, pitched as THE FAULT IN OUR STARS meets THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG."
We've seen plenty of terminal disease books about family, romance, or friends, but this one adds one more layer by making a May/December friendship. It's not earth shatteringly different, as evidenced by the easy use of current comps. But, it's different enough to keep us interested.
You don't have to reinvent the wheel, but you could change the material, or add a different rotor, give it some new spokes (I'll stop beating the metaphor now. Make sure the agent you're querying knows why this book is special and more importantly, why they should keep reading. If your hook is a teenager who is 1/4 fish and 1/4 feline, you may need to dig a little deeper.
Tip #3 Be honest
This is a big one! At Ladderbird, we're super excited to find new authors who we can work with to build their careers, but the foundation of trust starts with honesty. I love a query that tells me why you chose me or my agency, but not one that predicts the future!
"I chose Ladderbird Literary Agency because their mission to support marginalized voices is also important to me, and your obsession with Helen Oyeyemi solidified that choice! White is for Witching is my favorite book."
"Beth Marshea, you and I are basically soulmates and I know that my book BORING TROPE #THREE is going to be an instant bestseller with your careful guidance."
Overselling your work doesn't make agents think it's great. It's a red flag. It shows that you're probably pretty naive about the process and possibly difficult to work with. Hint: I only choose to work with writers who I want to hug. That's just one non-negotiable criteria I have.
In the same vein, if you tell me you have published books in the past I will look them up. Every. Single. Time. So, don't lie and say you've published something when you have not. If it was traditionally published, let me know who published and in what year. If it was self published let me know. I'm basing the majority of my decision off the story you're submitting, not your past work.
If the story you are submitting to me is currently self-published and available for purchase, you should not submit it.
Tip# 4 Be clear about what the manuscript is
This one is probably a no brainer for most, but I have gotten a number of queries that haven't specified what genre the manuscript is, or have left off a word count, or I've received queries where there was no title. So, let's address these things one at a time.
Genre- For some books this is really simple and for some it's a giant pain in the butt that no one wants to deal with. Let's start with simple. You wrote a contemporary story about a sixteen year old girl whose enemy at their boarding school ends up in detention with her and becomes her lover. Their love is on fire and most of the plot centers around sexy scenes where they're together (whether or not they actually have sex). Congratulations, you have written a YA Romance. Please mention that in your query.
Okay, let's kick it up a level or two. Same time period, same girl, same enemy, but it's a boarding school for witches, the enemy is also a girl and although their relationship plays a major part in the story, the plot is centered around investigating a murder on the school grounds. Is it a fantasy? Is paranormal romance? Is it mystery? It is definitely YA. What do you do? You could leave off the genre and use comps to help set your book in the market correctly. But I like to see where authors think their book belong. So, really think about what the most important aspect of your story is? If you took away everything that wasn't the main focus, where would the story sit? Or, if you're using comps (and I love it when authors do), see what genres those books are listed under. Personally, I'd call this one a YA Paranormal Romance, but there's a case to be made for several other categories.
In the end, the genre isn't going to make or break the agent continuing forward with reading, but it helps them know what to expect.
Word Count- This is about as basic as it gets, but please do include the manuscript's words count. We like to know what we're getting into when we request a manuscript. More than that, there are general rules of thumb. Most books fall between 75k-100k, much less than that is likely too short and has issues that need to be fleshed out. High word counts usually means that the author hasn't been tough enough with their editing blade! It's true that now and then there's a book that is either high or low and still hits all the right notes. But, they're rare. So, if you find your novel outside these parameters, go back through a few more times and see where things could be added or cut.
Title- Yes, the title will change. Of course, we know this. Maybe I'll change it. Your editor at the publishing house will almost certainly change it. If they don't, the marketing team likely will. But, I still want to know what you're calling this incredible tale! It helps give it life in my mind and gives me a way to refer to it when I think back. That may not seem important, but when I am choosing between two stories and I can't remember the name of one, I'm more likely the pick the one with the title I remember.
Tip #5 Who are you?
I love to know my writers! Your writing credits are important to me and I especially want to know if you've been published in any outstanding magazines, or if you've won any awards. But, I also want to know you! Have you ever had a strange job? Been a forklift operator for a foreign entity? Ever modeled necklaces? Do you hate dogs, but adore chinchillas? Let me know. I like to feel like I have a personal connection with everyone who submits to our agency.
Ladderbird Literary Agency
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