Monday, August 6, 2012

Query Letters for Beginners

So, you have a manuscript and you want to get it published...What do you do?

Some might tell you that you should self-publish it - you get to keep more of the royalties, it happens lickity split, and there is the immediate satisfaction of seeing your words available for download and/or print-on-demand paperback.

HOWEVER, unless you want to spend the next year of your life doing nothing but begging people to buy your book, I suggest you try the traditional approach, which involves literary agents, publishers, a lot of waiting, with only the chance of seeing your book on sale in a Barnes and Noble.  Mind you, you'll still be begging, but you won't be the ONLY one begging.  It helps, if only a little.

Me personally, I've tried it both ways.  This post is for those of you determined to break into traditional publishing.

The first step, after writing and rewriting and taking notes from your writer friends and rewriting your manuscript again and again, the FIRST THING you need to do is write a query letter.

Query letters are sent to literary agents.
Literary agents will then work with you to rewrite your manuscript again and then they will submit the manuscript to editors at publishing companies, who will then read it and IF they wish to buy it, they will spend the next six months to a year helping you rewrite it again.

SIDE NOTE: If you haven't noticed, I'm hitting the "writing is rewriting" point very hard, and this is because you never ever truly finish writing a novel.  Never.  You just decide you've rewritten it enough, and then abandon it.  That's the truth.  To get published traditionally YOU WILL REWRITE your book multiple times.  And YOU SHOULD REWRITE it multiple times, and gladly - good lit agents and editors know their biz, listen to them!

Alright, the query.
There is an industry "standard" of what should be in a query, but every agent is different.
Write a template that you will then be able to change and manipulate to follow the individual specifications of each agent - because heaven forbid they should all want the same thing.

Step 1: Know What Your Manuscript's Genre Is
That's horrible grammar, but you get the idea.
Is your book a Young Adult novel?
For example's sake, let's say it is.  That's great, but WHERE in the Young Adult genre does it fit?
Contemporary (Otherwise called Realistic Fiction)?
Romantic comedy?
Science Fiction?
Magical Realism?
Historical Romance?

If you don't know, find out - or your book is a combination of a few, then combine no more than two.
For example, "I would like for you to consider reading my Historical Romance, Martha Washington's Corset."  Paranormal Romance (Twilight). Action/Adventure Dystopian (Hunger Games).  If you don't know what your genre and sub-genre are then the agent is going to know you are a newbie, and above all else agent's want to deal with professionals.  Know your stuff.

Step 2: The Summary Paragraph
Some agents like a beginning, middle and end in their summary paragraph.  Some just want a teaser.
I have had personal effectiveness with a well written teaser.  What would the back cover paragraph of your book be like? Write it.  Try several drafts.  Set up the story, complicate it, then tell the reader what the main character's main objective is, and stop.  Leave out details.  Just give the broad strokes.
Chose your words carefully.  It should not be longer than one paragraph.  No more than five sentences.   Agents are busy.  They read thousands of paragraphs a week. Don't waste their time.  Get to the point and get to it quickly. Then stop.

In your query you should mention WHY you are querying this particular agent.  You should not be blindly sending out queries to every agent listed in Writers Market - you are just setting yourself up for multiple rejections if you do that.
Find a list of agents, either in Writers Market or on  Pick a name.  Then go to that person's agency website and read their bio.  Agents will explain what they love, what they are looking for, what they want to represent.  Don't send them a romance if they say, "I love action adventury thrillers."  If they are looking for something different, they'll say so.  Don't presume to know what they want more than they do.  "Gee, she doesn't have any historicals on her list, maybe she'd like one." NO! If she wanted a historical, she'd list it.  Then, Google the agent's name and read any interview, article, or Tweet they may have given.  Find out what they are like.  If they're snarky and a bit harsh and you are sensitive and cry easily - find someone else.  I'm not joking.  You will be working with this person on your book and taking notes from them, if they have a nasty sense of humor and you're uptight and take offense then look elsewhere.  It's just common sense.
Ok, so you've read their bio, you've read their Tweets and interviews, and they like your genre and sub-genre...THEN and only then should you send them a query.
It used to take me an hour a query - and not because I was writing a new one for each agent, but because I was checking to see if the agent I was researching was a good fit.
Take the time.
Believe me, it's worth it!!

"Dear Agent, I am contacting you in hopes you would like to consider representing my Historical Comedy, Mark Twain's Underwear.  Since you represented Benjamin Franklin's Kite G-String, and requested historical comedies on your agency biography, I thought this would be right up your alley."

Step 4: Your bio.
Short.  Sweet.  Relevant.
Don't list out every award you've ever won since the 6th grade.  They want to hear about your writing, and not much else.  Any recent writing awards, yes - list those.  Truthfully, however, they don't want your life story.  Limit your bio.  Again, a short paragraph, no more than five (5) sentences.  Less, if you can manage it.

"I began my writing career in college where I edited the university literary magazine.  I am a member of SCBWI and received second place in the writing contest on Writers Day, Los Angeles, 2011."
--Something like that.

Step 5: Stats
Agents want to know the word count.  NOT THE PAGE COUNT.  Word count.
They also want to know you've included exactly what they asked for.
99% of agents do not open attachments on emails, so include the first 10 pages (only if they asked for it!) in the bottom of the email, under your query letter.

"John Adams Goes Bald is currently 75,000 words.  Per your submission specifications, I have included the first three chapters and a one page summary in the body of this email."

If they ask for ten pages, send ten pages.
If the page ends in the middle of a sentence, they EXPECT you to include the end of that sentence, no more, no less.

Step 6: The Send Off

"Thank you for your consideration.  I look forward to your response."

Do not call their office.  Do not email once a week and ask if they've read it yet.  Don't bug them at all. In fact, if you don't hear from them in 12 weeks, consider it a "No" and don't bother them again.  If they lost your query, you don't want to work with that agency anyway!

Sign your name and include the links to your blog, Twitter account and Facebook page (if you have one) - and if you don't - you should.

Step 7: Organizing Your Query

Some queries start with the summary paragraph.  Some start with the bio.  Some start with a funny line or comment about the agent and/or agency.  Whatever is your strength, lead with it.

For example, I had a manuscript win 2nd place at an SCBWI Writers Day in April, 2011 and this totally shocked me because I had written a YA Dystopian that was so different than anything I'd seen in YA, I wasn't even sure people would classify it as a YA.  I didn't question the manuscripts genre in the letter, but you can believe I started my query with the fact it had won an award.

If your summary is spectacular, start with that.  If you've been a journalist in your life and you're writing a book about a journalist, lead with that.  Put your best foot forward, you want the agent to read your first paragraph and then be so interested, they keep reading.

Step 7: Hit Send

My method of sending out queries was this: I always had ten letters in circulation.
I sent out ten to agents I had either met, or heard speaking at an event, and waited.  When they got back to me either with a no or a request for pages, I then sent out more alphabetically off so I always had ten floating around.

To find my query stats look here:

If you have any questions, or I missed a BIG part of querying that is escaping my brain at present, comment below!

I hope this helps and good luck!