Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Query Letters are the Devil

"Above all, a query letter is a sales pitch and it is the single most important page an unpublished writer will ever write.  It's the first impression and will either open the door or close it.  It's that important, so don't mess it up.  Mine took 17 drafts and two weeks to write."--Nicholas Sparks
Which is exactly why Mr. Sparks chooses to re-write the same book, re-title it, rename the characters portrayed within it, and mix up the disease that ultimately tears a family and/or lovers apart.  Essentially, Mr. Sparks could use the same query letter that way which, lets face it, is a very efficient use of those two weeks and seventeen drafts.  Genius, Mr. Sparks, pure genius.

For the rest of us who choose to mix it up a bit without serving up the same old formula for our readers' consumption, writing a query letter is a tad more difficult.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Mr. Sparks' writing is horrible.  All I'm saying is that I wish he'd change his plot lines a little--to something less predictable, deviating from his niche. My writing varies.  I have a true interest in science-fiction and that is what I've been dabbling with in the trilogy I'm working on.  However, I wouldn't be opposed to mixing it up with chick lit, young adult, horror, or a period piece.  Writing the same story is not something that's acceptable to me  which I  hope my readers will understand. 

Okay, lets hop off the Sparks soapbox. Query letters: Are they essential?  Unfortunately  for us, yes, yes they are.  Why?  Because an agent cannot possibly expend vast amounts of time on manuscripts.  Agents, believe it or not, get thousands of queries each week.  Sifting through manuscripts would require way too much time and effort.  Even if the manuscript was particularly well-written, if it does not fall within the genre that particular agent represents (and there are those authors who amazingly do not research an agent BEFORE querying them) then sending it to them was a waste of your time.

Here is a compliation of rules and guidelines, both written and unspoken, that one should follow BEFORE they begin the querying process:

1.  Research, Research, RESEARCH-do not send out a blind query letter to anyone and everyone.  Take the time to actually learn about the agency you're querying and the particular agent you want to query.  Do they represent your genre?  Are they members of the AAR?  Are they currently accepting queries?  Who are their current clients?  What sales have they made?  Are they Team Edward or Team Jacob? Okay, Okay so the last one bears no significance whatsoever--although, if an agent did mention that--I'd turn tail and run the hell away from them. Research; you get the picture.

2.  Make sure your novel is ready.  This seems so "Captain Obvious" of me, but you would be amazed at the sheer amount of people who query agents with half-written novels or just a concept for a novel. 

3.  EDTI, EIDT, EDIT (yes I misspelled "edit" on purpose)-A first draft is NOT agent-ready.  As a newb, I've made this mistake and have reaped the embarrassing consequences of my utter retardedness (<--If that's not word, it should be).  When you query an agent, you want to make absolutely certain you are putting your best foot forward.  This means going through your manuscript with a fine tooth comb re-reading every single word until your eyes bleed. If you don't take the time to make sure your work is 100%, then agents won't take the time to read it after they've hit the first typo.   Hey, no one ever said being an author was going to be easy.  Unless, of course, you're a celebrity author which is a rant I'll save for another day.

4.  Have a game plan.  Make three lists of ten agents.  Entitle these lists Tier One, Tier Two and Tier Three. Tier One will consist of your dream agents (you know, the ones you really want to rep your book but probably will more than likely reject you within the first five minutes--sorry but rejection is something to be prepared for). Tier Two will consist of those agencies you like, but aren't as crazy about as those in Tier One.  Tier Three, well, you get the picture.  After you've made those lists, make another list of ten or so agents from those you've compiled.  Take a couple agents from Tier One; a couple form Tier Two; and a couple from Tier three.  That way, you have a nice variety of agents to query and you're not blowing through the "A" team all at once.

So you've done all of the above and you're ready to begin your query letter which you expect to have hammered out within the hour.  Of course, I'm being completely sarcastic, there is NO way you can have a decent query letter cranked out in an hour.  My personal experience has proven that a half-way decent query letter has taken me a couple of days to complete and even then it still requires revisions.  In the time it takes me to write a query letter that's acceptable, I've written three chapters in my next novel.  For some reason query letters are harder to write than the actual novels they are designed to pitch.  It's a proven science and I invite you to find out for yourself. 

What I've learned about query letters:

1.  Do not make them longer than one page.  The very first query letter I ever wrote was nearly three pages long and I--GASP--mailed it out to agents.  When I started receiving rejection letters I wondered what I did wrong and then I realized how badly my letter actually did suck and that everything I'd desribed within it could have been condensed to serve a much more efficient purpose. 

2.  Try not to go beyond three paragraphs.  Agents don't have the time to read a bunch of unnecessary words.  They have rejections to issue and dreams to shatter in their efforts to find the next Stephenie Meyer.

3.  Include the genre (science-fiction, young adult, western, contemprary nomenclature, etc...) and word count (rounding to the nearest five-thousand; i.e. if your book is 93,877 words long call it 95,000 words) within the first two paragraphs.  Many rejections are based upon the answers to these two questions.  For those who sent a romance novel to an agent who represents horror, the reading stops here.  Word count may also turn an agent off especially if the word count is excessive (over 120k words) and the author is a first-time, unpublished author.

4.  Devote a paragraph (or two if your book is longer and more complicated) to give a very brief description of what your book is about.  This is the most important chapter or chapters of the entire query letter so don't f*** up the landing and make sure you've proofread/edited the hell out of it or them.

5.  The pitch.  A pitch is a one sentence synopsis of your novel that you would give to an agent in the event you and them just so happened to be standing in an elevator together and they were wearing a name tag proclaiming their profession by shouting in big, bold letters "Hey, I'm an agent, pitch me your crappy book."  Hence the elevator pitch.  For Enigma Black (of which I received one request from an agent thus far), my pitch was "Ten years ago she was the target; now, she's the assassin." 

6.  The "About me" section.  This is the section I loathe as it's, in my opinion, the way an agent really weeds out his or her prospective clientele.  Your "about me" section should state your publishing credits, your awards/recognitions and anything else pertaining to your book and why you are the one to write it.  I never understood the purpose of this section as I think a writer's work should speak for itself, but some agents only care about padding their wallets and first-timers are not something they feel inclined to represent.

7. Personalize your letter.  This goes along with your research.  Find a little tidbit about the agent you wish to query.  Do they like strong female protagonists and your book has just that, then for the love of God mention it.  Agents are looking for query letters that stand out.  If you make the effort to get to know them, they're work and the craft, they'll make the effort to at least take a gander at your blood, sweat and tears.

8.  Do not address your query letter to "dear agent".  Again, take the time to research and address it to a particular agent.  You took the time to write your novel; to edit it; to make certain it was publishable.  What's five more minutes of research?

Query letters are the devil.  There's no if's, and's or but's about it.  However, like the Prince of Darkness, they are an essential evil designed to keep us weary writers in check so that we may strive to bask in the glory of the gatekeeper's judgment. 

Resource:  http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/unpublished.html#ixzz1IcAnYdKW


Anonymous said...

I'd still rather write a query letter than a synopsis. This is a great article Sara!

Sara Furlong-Burr said...

Thanks. I thought I'd blog about something helpful for a change instead of my usual bitchery. I agree with you 100% on the synopsis but you already beat me to the blogging punch on that topic.:)