Thursday, June 3, 2010

Prithee, Inform Me: Query Theory

I've oft wondered, meine Autoren, what your tips, tricks, and techniques are for writing query letters. Do you personalize every one? Do you mention a book or two from the agent's list you particularly enjoyed? Do you start your queries with rhetorical questions or pleas for leniency?

Whatever works (or hasn't worked!) for you, please share in the comments!


  1. I use one introductory sentence with title and word count and then cut straight to the story. Letting the agents/editors know the word count up front gives them a sense of your professionalism or lack of. If you submit a query and describe your YA thriller (108,000 words), they'll hit delete faster than you can say it. However, if you submitted said YA thriller (60,000) words, they'd probably keep reading, unless the agent/editor isn't interested in thrillers. In that case, you've really screwed the pooch.

  2. I try to personalize when I can to highlight some feature of my book that particular agent should respond to, but mostly it's just hook, book, me, close.

    Personalizing works well if you've met the agent. The 'ideal' query letters on agents' sites usually start with something like, 'You'll remember we discussed this last week when you discovered your stall was out of TP and I passed you a roll.'

    But if you don't have that VERY personal connection, the best you can do is say 'You represented this, so you'll like mine'. Frankly, I wonder why that's a good idea. If it's too similar to something the agent represents, then it competes with an existing client. If it's too far off, then it's too far off.

    For the unpublished and unagented, it has to be understood that we are querying dozens, perhaps a hundred agents. It should be obvious enough from the description of the book in the query that the book is something that agent might be interested in. If not, then the author wasted an email and the agent will delete it.

  3. I dig right in by opening with the heart of the story, then follow with word count, etc. The following query (for a picture book) worked for me:
    Dear _____:
    Winnie Finn’s neighbors don’t share her mania for earthworms until her worm farm—and a clever plan—help them all win blue ribbons at the county fair. May I send you WINNIE FINN, WORM FARMER, a funny 700-word story for ages four to eight? The tale begins: [brief excerpt, since the ms was not enclosed]
    [A short paragraph about my background.]

  4. I just sent my first query letter out a few weeks ago. I submitting a story to an online magazine.

    funny thing - I've read all the advice and thought I was totally prepared to write the perfect query letter. But, when it got down to actually writing the thing out and sending it off, I fell short of my own expectations. I now am left wondering if even I would read the story attached to the query letter submitted by me.

    Oh well, live and learn. I'll just have to keep doing it until I get better. By the way, It's been nearly three weeks now and I've not received an answer. Maybe the editors are trying to find the right words to let me know how they cannot accept my work because of my horrible query letter.

  5. I write the query soon after I start the novel. I usually get about three chapters or so in when I have to start stringing together events in my head. So, that's when I sit down and write out the query. Summing up the whole book in a paragraph (1) keeps me on track and focused as I finish writing and (2) makes writing the query so much simpler when I finish--I don't have to worry about too much detail, not focusing on waht's important, etc.

    This is what I did with the query that ended up snagging me an agent, and later a book deal!

  6. Drink heavily, then write.

    Oh wait that's how you write a book...

    I spend a lot of time reviewing what the specifics are for who I'm writing to making sure I'm doing it exactly the way they want. I recently started keeping a a single notecard for each manuscript which has the essentials. Sometimes it's a line or two summary of each chapter. At the end when query time comes I can glance back and make sure I haven't forgotten the Best Part or killer event that will make the agent say YES.

    Not that it has worked YET for a yes. It does help me see if something needs to be changed. But since writing the query is harder than the book, lets just say I have more books than queries at this point.

  7. I'll let you know when I finally get a query written that might work. So far, mine suck badly! But I've been reading here, reading Nathan Bransford's blog a lot, and Noah Lukeman's and I have some great advice. Now, if I can just get my fingers to follow said advice, I'll be gold.

  8. So far, my queries haven't been spectacularly successful in getting a response. I've been mostly following the queryshark's preferred format.

    Certainly, if I've been referred to them by someone, I'd mention that. I'm trying to do some networking at conventions so that I can mention, e.g. you might recall you met recently at Spudcon where I helped tend bar for your client's release party and we discussed whether any SF poetry was any good.

  9. Pitch first, then word count blah blah blah. Professional business letter format. No credits for me so just the closing. No comparison books either.

    I figure if they read 50+ of these per day, they might just like one with no BS. I guess it's working, I've gotten five partial requests (ulitmately rejected) but at least I know the query is working.

  10. Eric, get out of my head! I just finished drafting a query for my current MS this morning!

    I love Janet Reid's advice of pitching first. If your query (and story) are good enough, it'll snag the agent right in. There shouldn't even be a question as to whether or not that agent reps what you write- it's your job to find out before querying him or her. If you're querying someone, then you should know for sure that they rep your genre. It's not hard to find that out, and it saves precious time (theirs) and resources (yours).

    I like to have a really strong hook with some specifics right off the bat. I write romance novels, and a lot of the basic deal can tend to be formulaic (it's not like you think for a second that everyone will die in the end, right?). I try to set my query apart by making it sound like me in the same way the novel does. A little bit quirky, a little bit brash, and a whole lot professional. I also agree with the above poster who said that she starts crafting the query as she's writing her novel. There are lines or parts of my books that, when I write them, I go, "Oh, yeah!". I scrawl those down in my journal to use as jumping off points for the query. It helps a LOT.

    I've had some success with my queries (everything from form rejections to requests for fulls) and feel like, ultimately, a well-written query really does speak of the book rather than throw it into a too-small nutshell. Michelangelo said, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free". Carve your book until you set your query free, and chances are, you'll find success.

  11. I noticed that in my case personalization does not really correlate with ms requests or personal responses, so I don't sweat it unless I actually have something personal to say. If this agent actively seeks my genre, or has clients with similar books, I usually mention it. Based on their responses, I have a feeling it doesn't really matter -- they judge based on the blurb, not on what I think my work reads like.

    I was told never to put rhetorical questions in a query, so I don't. I never plea either (does it actually work on anyone these days?), just try to keep the letter as down-to-business as possible: genre, word count, 2-paragraph pitch, and a list of credits.

    I get reasonable rate of personal responses and ms requests, usually directly proportional to the quality of my blurb. So, I put my biggest effort into having a good blurb and making sure my letter looks professional.

  12. Address the agent by name, using honorific (Mr, Ms).If you have made a personal contact -- start with that. If not, explain why this agent -- there really should be an individualized reason such as the books (s)he's published or the genre that interests. Then follow the guidelines published - repeat FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES. (and it'd do no harm to checck and re-chek the spellling)

  13. I got out a stack of recent books that I like and researched who had agented those books. I queried those agents and said right off that I was writing to them because of the books they'd repped. I didn't compare my book to those other books, though. I included the first five pages of my ms with each query, even if the agent's website did not say to do so. I only queried eight agents, over a two-week span of time. The fourth agent I queried is the one who now represents me.

  14. I stick with a tight pitch, using it right at the beginning of the first paragraph to hopefully gain interest of the agent. Always a one page 3 para-max letter. At end before I offer my endearing gratitude, I put in a few keywords of how my story relates to what that particular agent looks for in a story.

  15. I try to personalize a lot, but sometimes, an agent will have no blog, no Publisher Marketplace profile, no twitter, no Facebook page and no website that describe what they like or how they are.

    Makes you wonder if the social networks revolution reached all corners of the world.

  16. I like Richard's advice: hook, book, me, close. Easy to remember and no fuss. :-) Mine would be: book, agent info, me, close.

  17. It's difficult as every agent seems to want something slightly different. Some request that after the salutation, you dive into your book description. Some object to this direct approach and prefer a personal opening. Some want word count in the opening para. I've read the Query Shark advising that this information should go into the closing paragraph.

    Not easy.

  18. As an aspiring novelist with aprologue and 3 chaptersof my first effort, I haven't had occasion to draft or submit a query. However I've read huge amounts about them on agent blogs, and I feel that makes me a bit of an "instant expert".

    So, here's my suggestion. Many have observed that query-writing involves a somewhat different skill set from writing novels, etc. and not all writers are good at both. My suggestion is that rather than novelists wasting time and effort trying to acquire skills which are peripheral to their core professional competency, that people who already have those skills - who enjoy composing queries and are good at it - should make their services available for hire. The general quality of queries would go up, and writers would be free to focus on the core elements of their craft.

    Just a thought,

  19. The objective of a query is to provide a clean, coherent 300-word description of a book the agent might want to represent.

    That is the formula. If you can write one page that doesn't suck, and you query appropriate agents, some of them will ask to look at more of your stuff. There is no other trick.

    Personalizing the query lets the agent know you've done research and that you believe your book fits their list. If the agent has a blog, then mentioning it does not hurt. But all this is secondary to the book and the writing.

    Trying to ingratiate yourself is a mistake; it uses space that should be spent describing the book, and it can make you look creepy or unprofessional.