Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the tag “how to write a query letter”

Nuts and Bolts of Formatting Your Query (and the shit that goes with it) Part 1: Query Letter Format.

I’m a little bit tardy posting this. I have the best excuse a writer can have — I was writing my ass off. I gutted (by which I mean deleted to start from scratch) a third of my manuscript. It took a over a month, but there is a new, much better third now in there. The past week has been a writing frenzy, and it’s been awesome. But that’s a story for another post (and one that will come quite shortly, possibly even today).

But, as promised, this series is about formatting your query (and the shit that goes with your query). To the extent I can put anything on paper without being a little bit of a smartass, I will. This needs to be a reference post that you can refer to conveniently. In fact, to make this as convenient as possible, I boiled the entire post into a simple chart:

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OK, the don’t be a smartass thing might not be working out as well as I’d hoped. But there’s a reason to joke around here. This shit is simple. So lets get to it.

A Quick Overview of the Types of Materials Requested.

  • Your query letter (obviously)
  • Pages (usually, and everyone asks for a different number of pages or chapters, so pay attention)
  • Synopsis (sometimes)
  • Outline (different from a synopsis and less often requested, more on this later)

That’s it. Until, that is, an agent requests your partial of full manuscript. Also, sometimes one of the items identified above, which was not requested in the agent’s submission guidelines, is also requested. For example, an outline is requested along with your manuscript. Plus, you need to send another letter (cover letter) with your requested materials. That one’s easy, though, once you know the basic query/business letter format.

The overwhelming majority of agents take submissions by e-mail, which is more convenient and easier for everybody. Some agents still require snail mail submissions, though, and an e-mail sub will be deleted — probably without ever being seen by a human. Because of that, I’ll run down the formatting requirements for each. Today, we’re starting with the delivery system for all of it.

Snail Mail Query Letter Format

A query letter should follow standard business letter formatting. That is because it’s a freaking business letter. If you don’t know what that means, Google it, because someone has probably dedicated an entire blog to the ins and outs of business letter formatting. It’s not rocket surgery, though.

Before going straight to the formatting thing, I want to reiterate one point: It’s a freaking business letter. Remember that. You are trying to establish a business relationship, not a friendship. You are not looking for someone to share your love for a book like it’s your child. You are looking for someone to place your book like it’s the most expensive prostitute on the planet. If there’s love involved, it’s mercenary love. Be professional.

In terms of format, it’s easiest to start with a snail mail letter, because it’s, well, a letter. It should look something like this:

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If you can’t read all the shit in the middle, don’t worry. It’s what every other post I’ve done about querying covers.

Just make sure to put (normally right justified) your name (your real, big-girl name, not a nickname or something stupid) address, phone number, and e-mail address (again, if you need to set up a gmail not to have a stupid e-mail, do, but don’t be SparklyUnicorn6@mylittlepony.org or freak_on_a_leash@whipme.net or anything). Then a blank line. Next, the Agent’s name, then agency name, street address, city state, zip. Hard return, centered date, Hard return, RE: TITLE OF YOUR BOOK (in all caps), and the salutation.

The salutation is “Mr. ________” or “Ms. __________,” and I’m serious about getting this right. I cannot count the number of times agents have said they’re tired of people calling them by the wrong gender. And I’m not talking about people named Pat here, either. If the agent’s name is Janet, it’s probably a woman. More to the point, if you honestly don’t know whether the person your querying is a man or a woman, you probably aren’t paying much attention to who you’re querying, period. Pay attention, know who you’re querying, and get it right.

As an aside, I queried an agent whose assistant responded on his behalf with a request for a manuscript. The assistant had a name that is usually a men’s name, but can also sometimes be a woman’s name. I scoured the interwebz for a picture of this person or something, and came up empty. My guess is s/he is in the witness protection program. Anyhow, in that situation, I defaulted to sending my requested materials to Dear [First Name] [Last Name].

Next, spell the name correctly. I’ll be honest here, there are agents out there with some pretty fucked up names. When in doubt, cut and paste from her website into your letter. Seriously.

Then comes the body of the text, i.e., the part every other post about querying has discussed in nauseating detail.

if you want, you can include a closing  salutation (“sincerely,”) above your name. No matter what, you need a line where you sign and your printed name. Then you sign on the line. Easy.

E-mail Query Letter Format

This is even easier:

1) Wait to type the agent’s name into the To: box until you have done everything else. It will keep you from accidentally sending it, which CAN HAPPEN. I just started a list of things to do by telling you not to do something. That’s because it’s really important that you DON’T DO THAT.

2) The subject line in the e-mail should be identical to the subject line in the snail mail version. RE: QUERY [TITLE]. The only time to putanything different in your subject line is if you do those contests and festivals and whatever on twitter or a blog. Sometimes you will receive specific instructions relating to that contest. Generally, those instructions relate to adding one or two words to the standard subject line.

You can skip your information (for now) and the agent’s address, etc., and get right to

Ms. Agent:

Here is the body of my query.

You don’t need the formal formatting and address because the date and stuff is built into e-mail.

3) BUT, (he says, with a bold, italicized, all-caps conjunction, because it’s that freaking important) You do need to include your full name, phone number and e-mail address at the bottom of the query (not the bottom of the whole package you send).

So, after 200-300 words of pure brilliance, the query letter portion of your submission should end with:

  • Your Name, which is not a douchey nickname
  • Your Phone Number (including area code and country code if you’re in Queriers Without Borders).
  • Your e-mail address (that involves your name and an ISP or reasonably good e-mail service and doesn’t make you look like an idiot).

For the query letter part, that’s it!

It Should be Called a Quarry Letter not a Query Letter (we’re hunting, not asking questions)

If you stop to think about it, “query letter” is a pretty stupid thing to call what we send out. Look at agent interviews about the things that will get them to stop reading one after the first sentence – at least half the answers are some variant of “asking a rhetorical question.” The response to, “Did you ever wonder why the Pope wears a giant hat?” is not going to be, “Gee, yes, I have always wondered that,” opening the door for the author to describe her papal alien space opera. Instead, the agent is content with saying “nope,” and sending a form reject with two mouse clicks.

The term query letter exemplifies the problem with a lot of queries – the mindset that we are asking agents for something. I prefer to think of them as quarry letters; as in “we are hunting, and agents are our quarry.” Hell I’d even prefer to think of them as quarry letters as in “I’m going to turn your brain into a pit and pull something valuable out of it.” That beats the crap out of, “I’ve got a question.”

Last time, I covered what a query letter is and isn’t, and this is the first post oriented toward explaining the nuts and bolts (and rainbows and unicorns) that go into constructing an effective query. It’s an art as much as a science, and mindset is key. Worse than literally asking questions is giving the impression that you’re the trembling little orphan from Oliver saying, “Please sir, I want some more.” Two words: Fuck that.

A good query letter isn’t asking anything, isn’t asking for anything, and sure as hell isn’t begging. Agents aren’t looking to see who can make them feel the most superior or godlike. Those godlike feelings will evaporate right after lunch, when the agent is on the phone with an acquisitions editor, trying to sell a client’s book without sounding like an orphan with an empty bowl in his hands.

What an agent is looking for is someone who shows up with a book that makes that job easy. It helps if we are not complete douchebags, too. On either end of the spectrum, from begging and pleading to being a condescending jerk, anything that comes off as being something other than a competent, pleasant, well put together person detracts. With that in mind:

The Three Elements of a Successful Query Letter Preliminary Business Proposal:

1)    It’s about my book. A good PBP (I’ll feel like a hypocrite if I call them queries through this post) is, almost entirely about your book. Even if you write nonfiction and have the greatest platform in the world, it’s more about your book than you. If you wrote a novel, it should be almost entirely about the novel – the agent doesn’t care if you’ve been writing since you were four or got into Princeton. If your book sounds good, she’ll read pages.

2)    My book is awesome. The ultimate show don’t tell moment. The second you say “my book is great,” the agent will assume (almost certainly correctly) that it is not. The goal is to make the agent think, based on what you say happens in your book, that there is a chance your book might be great.

3)    Im not a tool. I didn’t fawn over you, I didn’t kiss your ass, I didn’t include conditions or demands in my query that make it clear that I’m a jerk who you won’t enjoy working with. In short, I treated you with the professionalism and respect that I anticipate you will treat me with in our prospective professional relationship.

Plus there’s the housekeeping stuff (genre, word count, proper business letter formatting, etc.). Because it’s all part of the important initial impression, and we get about 10 seconds to make that impression a good one, I’m not saying the boring housekeeping stuff isn’t important. In fact [spoiler alert] the title of a post I have scheduled for next week is: PBPs (a/k/a Query Letters): The Boring Housekeeping Stuff. It’s not sexy, but it’s critical.

At this point, you are sending a PBP about an awesome book to the right agent. The point behind the PBP is to let the agent know those two things (your book is awesome and she is the right agent). Hopefully, your novel makes both of those things obvious on your behalf.

Most query letters get right to the awesome book part, essentially throwing out their hooks in the  first sentence of the first paragraph. I think, as a general proposition, that’s a smart way to go. I don’t think it’s the only way to go (things get moved around to improve the flow and cadence of a query, and it’s possible this can end up moving back a sentence or two). My most recent version blended the genre/word count component with a setup for the hook in the first sentence. Something I never would have mapped out on purpose, but through dozens of revisions it just flowed so well I went with it. Even if I ended up querying 10 more novels, I wouldn’t be surprised if that formula never worked again.

What you don’t want to do is make your query about you instead of your book. If you’re a firefighter with 20 years at the department and 9 citations for bravery, you should certainly mention that: (a) after you’ve given an overview of your book; and (b) if that book is about fires or firefighting. If you wrote a compelling tale of a veterinarian who communicates with animals telepathically, that’s great. And we appreciate your service to the Fire Department. But it’s not going to help us sell books about a dude who talks to gerbils with his brain.

So you’re telling the agent about the book. And this particular agent loves stories about animals and books about paranormal activity. So this is the perfect agent for this book. If that’s true, trust me on this, she’ll know it. I am not saying you can’t mention that her interest in animal books and paranormal activity are the reason you queried her. You absolutely should. But do it in one sentence saying only that. Don’t tell her it’s perfect for her, she’d be a perfect fit, you can’t think of any agent who could love it more, or anything else like that. Keep it to one sentence providing the objective evidence (“I read in your interview with Writers’ Digest that you were looking for animal books involving paranormal activity.”). She’ll draw the conclusion you want for herself (“Holly shit, look at this book about animals and paranormal activity! It’s exactly what I’m looking for.”).

Think of this as the PBP diet plan:

You get one sentence to talk about yourself. Not a run on sentence either. Just one, straightforward: “I was President of the United States for eight years and appeared on the Tonight Show five times.” I am not saying you have to throw one of those in, but, if you do, that’s how long it should be.

You get one sentence to talk about the agent. And you don’t get to use words like “perfect,” “wonderful,” “love,” or “fan.” Again, you get to state facts: “I saw the comment on your blog that you wished you saw more YA paranormal fiction involving animals.”

That leaves about 200 words to talk about your book. Which is to say 200 words to summarize (a) who the main character is; and (b) what the main sources of conflict are. Conflict can be a Death Star or an eating disorder or a mystery. Ideally, there will be disastrous consequences if the conflict can’t be resolved (the rebellion and Luke are destroyed, the emotional and physical trauma, more people will be murdered).

And then…

The hard part…

You stop.

Do not resolve the conflict. The ideal query letter is a snapshot of the moment the shit hits the fan and just before the first fleck has hit the wall. As rendered in the professional diagram I had commissioned for this, spare no expense, blog:

 

What does that picture tell you? Aside from the fact that I have mad MS Paint drawing skillz, it tells you what a query is. It is a snapshot of your story at the moment the shit has all hit the fan. All the conflict is in the air, nothing has been resolved, and something is a millisecond away from happening.

You need to tell enough about your characters and background for the conflict to matter and make sense. You need to tell everything you can about the conflict. Then you stop. Because if you did a good job doing the first two things, the agent will want to know what happens.

You want to know how the conflict gets resolved? Tough shit. Read my book. The next thing she’ll do is read the first sentence of the first page of your manuscript. In other words, your query did its job. She’s looking at your first 50 pages or first three chapters or whatever. Those pages brilliantly spell out conflict and characters in the voice she liked so much from your query, but they won’t resolve any of that conflict. In other words, tough shit. Read my book. So now you’re getting an e-mail asking for the rest of the book. You’ve been upgraded to a full MS request. So now she’s earned the right to see how the conflict gets resolved. And I’m sure you did a brilliant job resolving it, too.

The whole quarrying/querying/PBPing process boils down to enticement. Resist the urge to tell the agent how brilliantly you resolved the conflict. The price for that knowledge is reading your book. If you have a bunch of conflict and it looks interesting, the agent will be willing to pay that price to find out. That’s what gets your manuscript the best chance of being read beginning to end by an agent, which is the entire purpose behind sending a query letter in the first place.

Query letters aren’t about us asking for anything. They exist to make agents and publishers ask for pages.

Querying Overview: What a Query Letter is (and isn’t)

Being new fairly to the whole ‘I want to try to publish a novel’ world, the querying process blows my mind. I’ve said it before — There aren’t a lot of other arenas in which someone with no background or credentials of any kind can fire an e-mail off to an insider in a multi-billion dollar industry and say, “check out my awesomeness.” I can’t hotlink a YouTube video of myself singing and dancing to a Broadway agent and have even a theoretical chance of playing Frank in the next revival of Rocky Horror. But in the world of literature, I can do just that.

 

Publishing was doing American Idol before American Idol was a thing. I’m not all roses and sunshine here; the numbers are daunting. I was unable to find any source that reliably estimated the number of queries sent out in a year, but I’m willing to bet its somewhere between a buttload and a shitpile. One established, successful agent kept track of his slushpile for a year. He received around 11,000 queries, one of which resulted in an offer of representation. He was what I will call an A (or at least high B) list agent, so the numbers aren’t always that bad, but nobody goes on Idol wanting to hear Paula say she sings nice before getting voted off.

As much as people want to bitch about the process, it’s still one of the most egalitarian processes imaginable. There’s just a whole lot of competition. Worse than the real competition, there’s a whole lot of noise. Which brings us to what a query is (or needs to be): First and foremost, it is something that cuts through the noise. I said “first,” so I should probably start numbering this shit:

1.     (big surprise here) A query needs to be something that cuts through the noise. This is not as hard or tricky as it sounds. It does not mean sending your query about brutal kidnappers in a box with a candy (or real) human finger enclosed. It’s not about being kitschy or clever (your ideas need to be clever, the way you present them needs to be straightforward). Cutting through the noise starts with being concise, clear, and direct. Your query should be grammatically pristine. The first person to read your query will not (as often as not, assuming you’re querying top-shelf agents) be the agent. It will be a reader, often an unpaid intern or, at best, an underpaid assistant. This person’s primary job is to weed out the garbage. I want to believe (and for purposes of this post, need to assume) that your actual manuscript is awesome and people are going to want to publish, buy, and read it. That’s not going to happen if your query about a serial killer is scrawled in pig blood on a sheet. There are enough queries that fail to directly and effectively give an indication how good the book is, you can stand out from the noise best by doing that.

2.     A query needs to follow the rules. Not the “rules of querying” because there are no such thing. But every agent has decided what he or she wants to consider when looking at an initial submission. Some want a query and three chapters. Some want fifty pages. Some want five pages, or a given number of words. Some want one or more of the above, plus a synopsis (and usually state a maximum number of pages for that piece). Next to pig blood and fingers, few things will kill your querying chances faster than not following the agent’s submission guidelines. I have yet to look at an agent who accepts unsolicited queries without finding a web page that has a tab with information about submissions. Read them. Follow them. There is no excuse for not doing this.

3.     A query needs to be directed to the right person. I don’t mean send it to an agent, not a butcher. I mean send it to an agent who reps the type of material you wrote. If you wrote a MG fantasy, don’t send it to an agent who exclusively reps athlete memoirs. If you sent it to a butcher, and she liked it, she may give you a couple of stakes – meaning you would, literally, be better off sending it to the butcher than an agent who doesn’t rep books in (or even near) your genre. [Note: I realize MG is not a genre, although fantasy is, but it’s easiest for purposes of this discussion to ignore the distinction between marketing categories and genres and just say genre.]

4.     A query has a specific job to do, and it isn’t to tell the agent all about your book. Or about you. Your query’s job is to get the agent to look at the first sentence of your manuscript. Period (as though the period at that sentence were not enough). That’s it (Because just saying period after typing a period was not enough). I’m not just filling space here. Understanding that’s the only job your query has to do is crucial. It’s also hard to do. We’ve poured our hearts and souls into 100,000 word masterpieces. The coolest thing in the story is the intricate way three plot lines converge in a brilliantly plotted twist. Our characters are amazing; the tribal rivalries between our gnomes and trolls or the flora and fauna of our intricate world are wonders. But the reader and/or agent aren’t going to give a shit about any of that. They look at a query with one question in mind: Is there a chance this person sent me an interesting, well written story. If the query makes one of them think there’s a decent chance the answer is yes, he or she will read your first sentence. At that point, it no longer matters how good your query was. All that matters is whether the first sentence is good enough for him or her to move on to the second. Because you’ve submitted an awesome story that people will want to buy, you’re golden. The query’s job is over when the agent reads that first sentence.

5.     A query is a business letter. And it’s not. It’s a combination business letter/sales pitch, but there need to be solid reasons for straying from the business letter courtesy and professionalism before you do. If you write erotica, and you’re querying a book about a bunch of people banging the shit out of each other on a cruise ship, your query is obviously not going to read like a quarterly report. But an agent who reps erotica (which is who you’re querying because you did your research) isn’t reading your query out of prurient interest. An efficient explanation of the plot and conflict coupled with the fact (which should both be stated and obvious from your explanation) that it’s erotic fiction will get you there. If you really want the agent to get a boner, throw in a demographic breakdown on the age of purchasers of erotic fiction and how it coincides with the demographic who book cruises in a way that makes it seem reasonable you could sell 100,000 copies. He’ll need to call his doctor in four hours.

6.     A query is a business plan – a short, incomplete, and overly generalized one, but a business plan nonetheless. Agents love books, or they wouldn’t be in that business. But it’s also how they pay for their kids’ braces and their cats’ food (don’t ask me, agents really seem to dig cats). There’s a two-part inquiry, and the parts overlap: (a) is this a great book; and (b) can I sell it. If you were to send an agent a beautifully written book about a subject she and seven other people in the world hold dear, you will probably get the nicest rejection letter imaginable. Because there is no market for your book, there’s no way she’ll be able to sell it to a publisher. A critical part of writing an effective query is accurately determining what your market is. This does not mean, “I think I write just like Harper Lee, and To Kill a Mockingbird has sold a billion copies in hardback.” It means doing some honest-to-goodness analysis of who your target market is. You can do this with similar author comparisons, but – since that’s what everyone just throws out – if you can find a better market basis, it will strengthen your query enormously. Using the above-example, which do you think makes an agent see dollar signs more concretely:

“This book will appeal to readers of Danielle Steel.”
 
Or

“The largest and fastest growing segment of the destination cruise industry is thirty to fifty-five year-old women, who also happen to be the purchasers of over eighty percent of all romance and erotic fiction.

[Note: I made up every statistic in that sentence, and you need real numbers, not made up numbers for this to actually work.]

Because I come into writing and querying after decades in business, the standard comparables query makes little sense to me. It strikes me as saying, “I have an unknown, untested, and unproven product that offers the same thing as an established brand does, at the same price.” I think you are more likely to be noticed if you can: (a) identify a clear market segment who would be interested in buying your book; and (b) stating how your book fills an unmet need in that market. You don’t want to be the 30th person that day who tells Mr. Erotic Romance Agent: I’m going to be the next [whoever]. You want to be the 1st person this month the agent thinks may someday be showing up in queries from people claiming they will be the next her.

7.     A query needs accurately represent your manuscript. This is where a query that does its job (gets the agent to read the first sentence) can still be a fail. There are a number of reasons the disconnect between query and manuscript can occur, and all of them are on us. There have been times I’ve read or seen interviews with agents and thought, “That’s someone I’d love to work with,” only to discover she only represents MG and YA authors. I’m not doing either of us a favor retooling my query to make it sound more YAish than it really is. I’ve also seen this happen through well-intentioned collaborations. If a query is, well, bad, there’s still hope. Most writers’ websites have a query critique section, and a lot of extremely helpful advice is available. With enough people helping critique and polish a query, a bad query can become great. The problem is, when all people know about the manuscript comes from the query they are critiquing, they may be suggesting changes that make the query look better on its own, but take the query a few steps away from accurately representing the manuscript. Once that happens a few (or a few dozen) times, it can be like a bad game of telephone. What comes out on the end bears little resemblance to what started. Even if the agent likes the query and reads your first sentence (and your first sentence is excellent, by the way), you can still end up with a fail just because you’ve set the wrong expectations before the agent started reading. It’s like taking a sip of tea, only to discover that it’s chicken broth. You don’t stop to think about how good the broth is – it tastes disgusting because it isn’t tea. And you were expecting tea. So you spit it out, not realizing it’s probably the best chicken broth you’ve ever tasted.

8.     A query is not an ass-kissing festival. This goes back to the business letter concept. On the one hand, I didn’t query agents at random. I targeted specific agents for specific reasons, and I am perfectly happy articulating those reasons (if it works into the flow of the query I’ve tailored for that agent). For example, my manuscript is a satire that directly addresses a hugely controversial subject. One of my target agents said in an interview, “I am happiest when I’m representing books that take on controversial subject matter.” Of course I’m going to tell him I’m querying him, in part, because that’s what I’m looking for in an agent. But I’m not going to fawn on him about his bravery or his brilliant work or how much I admire the authors he represents or how hot he looks since he got that new haircut or how I friended his ex-wife on Facebook just so I could tell her off about that shitty thing she did with the kids custody in their recent divorce. Instead, I recommend approaching it from the perspective that this is a mutual selection process. The agent has to want to represent me, but I also have to want to be represented by that person. Hopefully, my criteria include something more than a pulse in that regard. Articulating the objective reason in a professional manner enhances your credibility lets the agent know this isn’t a spammy, one of 4,000 queries I sent today query. And, that is abusiness plan (between you and the agent) in a business letter, that cuts through the noise, and lets everyone know you’ve directed it to the right person.

There are many moving parts to a query, some of which I touched on in this post. I’ll get to the nuts and bolts elements of constructing a query later this week. I wrote out what is, essentially, a 2,000-word description of what a query is first, because the right query for each manuscript is going to be different. Sometimes, the right query for a particular agent on a particular manuscript is different from the right query for another agent. I wanted to start with the general concept, which boils down to this: A good query is a professional and concise sales tool that accurately describes the basic concept behind your manuscript to the right person in a way that makes her want to read the first sentence of that manuscript.

Period.

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