Monday, April 27, 2015

An Agents Instruction on Query Letters

I learned SO many amazing things at this weekends Las Vegas Writer's Conference. I'll give you guys some of the best stuff I learned over the next few posts.

One workshop, taught by a New York agent, was about what she looks for in query letters. They get dozens a day, guys, and the majority of those they only need about four seconds before they move on. So here's how to get more than those four seconds, according to An Actual Agent.

Make SURE its the right genre. Every agent I've ever talked with says that far and away the number one reason they reject a query is that its for a genre they don't represent. This seems unfortunate to me, because it's such a simple fix. Don't send your YA novel to an agent that doesn't represent YA. Basically, it comes down to doing your homework. A quick trip to the agency website's submission guidelines page can take care of this in a snap. And if you use you can even search agents by genre. (Still check their website submission guidelines. Just to be safe.)

Keep it short and clean. Don't have egregious spelling errors in the first sentence. Spell the agent's name right. (And make sure it's addressed to a specific agent. That's an obvious one, right?). And it's best if they can see your entire query on one screen.

Quick particulars right off the bat. An agent has to get through query letters very quickly, and if you give them the right facts in the first paragraph, its easy for them to see that you've done your homework and this is a book that might fit their agency. So in the first paragraph (first sentence even) give them your books title, genre, and word count.

Keep your summary simple. It's almost painful how little information an agent needs about your book in a query. But you're not selling them the book, all you're doing is hooking them. All they need is your books hook, your main character, and the driving action/conflict. This agent suggested avoiding rhetorical questions and instead using a When/Then statement. So for example, "When 15 year old Romeo meets the love of his life at a ball, Then he knows he has to meet her again despite their families generation-long feud." Or, "When 11 year old Harry gets mysterious letters in the mail, then he discovers his odd quirks are actual magical powers that can be trained." Start your pitch that way and then give two to four more sentences about what the main character does and how the conflict resolves, and then sign out. I know it's hard, and I know it means missing out on the incredible sub plot you've written, but seriously. A busy agent will take notice when you respect their crazy schedule.

Why THIS agent? Sign off by giving one or two sentences about why you think THIS specific agent is a good fit. Maybe they represented a similar book you really enjoyed? Or maybe you read a Writers Digest interview about how they really like fairy-tale retellings, and you've got just that? Whatever it is, make it personal.

Minimal bio. Especially with fiction. Basically ALL you need are two things: previous publishing experience and writing awards. Seriously, that's it. Especially if you're writing fiction. The query isn't about you, it's about your book. If you're writing about a circus and you went to clown school, then you can quickly mention that, but the agent REALLY doesn't need to know that your best friend, or even your college creative writing professor, really liked your book.

See how efficiency and simplicity are the keys here? That was my take-away from this particular session. The agent doesn't need to know every aspect of your book, and especially not your life story, all they need is to know is that this is a book they represent, and a story that they might like. Then the book itself does the rest.

Sarah Allen

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  1. Good tips. I've read some of them before, but your post was a nice summary of what to keep in mind.

  2. That's not a deep dark secret, it's common sense, and applies equally to submitting to publishers. I read slush for a speculative fiction magazine and wish I had a dollar for every submission I've had to read that was not spec fic. And you know, just KNOW, that it's a multiple submission, sent by a creative writing student to every market on the teacher's list! When we have asked in our guidelines for no multiple submissions - we never keep any submitter waiting for more than a few days or, at very most two months and that's only if their story has made it to the third round, where we might want to buy it.

    I long ago gave up trying to get an agent. The very few who had the courtesy to reply - most of them didn't, even though I followed all their guidelines - said their books were full. (One said, "I know you're a good writer, I'm familiar with your work, I just don't have any room on my books".) One agent who bothered to reply said my YA novel was no good to her if it wasn't the first of a series and 100,000 words long. Another agent was so popular she doesn't advertise. I managed to contact her via her fan club (yes, an agent with a fan club!). She needed a couple of references from people she might know. I got them. She said no, but at least she replied. Most don't.

  3. I'm sure that's a great conference to attend as long as you can steer clear of the lights and clatter. I had a brief stopover at the airport and it was awful. I felt like I'd been dropped into the middle of one of those video arcades where kids used to hang out. Anyway....agents and their "do this, don't do that's", been there, done that, tried it all. Sometimes I think I'll compose a query letter that is one paragraph, like four sentences, and see what happens!!


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