Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Improving the Luck O’ the Query

Tip of the Day: As Kate mentioned yesterday sometimes querying is about luck and timing, but to improve your chances there’s always ways to improve the query. So for Luck O’ the Query Week day 2, my whole post today will be tips I’ve learned on querying.

Even though I haven’t landed the agent right for me yet, I have written my fair share of queries and had some luck of my own on getting requests.

At the beginning it was a bit shaky, but once I compared writing queries to something I was more familiar with: employment cover letters, fundraising letters, and any other basic business letter I’d written in my marketing and public relations career, the process became a whole lot easier. Because I figured out selling myself and my book was no different when writing a query than selling myself for a job or selling a product.

Here are some of the tips I’ve learned that might make some sense to you when writing query letters:

In the letter itself:

  • Tell the agent why you wrote to them and why you want to work with them. When I was part of a new employee search and had to read hundreds of cover letters, it was obvious who sent form letters and who took the time to customize it just a smidge. And to be honest it was very hard to want to put people with form letters through to the next round. If they didn’t take the time to personalize the letter just a bit (and it doesn’t take much with queries. A simple I saw your listing on XYZ and saw you are interested in XYZ genre…I like your clients XYZ books…etc. Just be honest and truthful in why you picked them.) then it makes it look like they didn’t want to work there. And you don’t want an agent to feel that you don’t want to work with him or her, do you?
  • Don’t forget the basics. Sometimes with making event flyers, I’ve spent hours creating this beautiful work of art only to realize I left off crucial information that can affect people attending the event. You know, like say when the event is going to be. If you forget the basics in queries, such as your book’s title, your word count, your genre, your contact information, etc, it’s going to be hard for the agent to know exactly what your book’s about and/or how they can get a hold of you. This is why a second eye on the query can help immensely.
  • Always thank them at the end. I just read something that mentioned there was an agent that doesn’t like thanking him or her in the query letter, but for that one that doesn’t, I’m sure there’s more that appreciate a short, sweet and to the point polite ending to the query letter.

In the hook or book summary:

I’m not exactly an expert of these things. I’m still learning how to write queries, just like many of you are. But here are a few tips I’ve learned so far:

  • Be specific. When selling a product such as a vacuum you’d never put “it sucks up stuff” would you? We’ll yeah, pretty much every vacuum does that. But the more specific and to the point with your pitch it’s going to make it sound more interesting and make it so the agent won’t want to resist it. For example, instead of saying: “After Nicole moves to a new city her life turns upside down,” I’d use specific examples from the book that feel out of the ordinary and could cause a life to “turn upside down.” Plus, I’d use specific city names, people names, store names, etc. The more specific you get, in my opinion, the better the pitch sounds. Plus, you can explain what your book is about in fewer words.
  • Be short and to the point. Yeah, you want to be specific, but at the same time don’t get too specific it bogs it down. Stick to the main points.
  • Don’t use clichés. For a number of reasons you should probably not use clichés when querying, but the biggest reason I can think of is that subconsciously it makes the book sound unoriginal. I’m sure a cliché could be done well, but instead of using things like “love is blind” or “started seeing eye to eye” or something like that, it’s probably best to give specific examples from your book for the same reasons as to "be specific" above.
  • Sound like your book. You have a one-page letter to sell your book and give the agent or editor a feel for your writing. The more the hook sounds like your book, the better off you are going to be.
  • Highlight the conflict. In novels, usually conflict sells. All novels need conflict of some kind. And in advertising you highlight why your product is unique and why people should buy it (without coming right out and saying “buy it, or else.”) It’s essentially the same thing with query writing. You have to show them it’s good by highlighting the conflict. A good way to try to highlight the conflict is to try writing the “when” X happens Y happens for the very first sentence. For a rough example, for The Princess Diaries the first sentence could be: “When 14-year old Mia Thermopolis, who’s perfected the yield-shaped hairdo, gets a phone call from her grandmother the last thing she expects is to find out she’s a princess.” The “when” sentence might be kind of formulaic, but I still think it works. Others might disagree; you’ll have to tell me.
  • Remember you are trying to “hook” the agent, editor, or reader. Read tons of back cover copy to get a feeling for how to hook them. You don’t want to give the entire story away; you want to give them a reason to keep reading. So this usually means, you only give away the beginning and the main conflict of the book and a hint as to what’s to come. Plus, it’s better when written in present tense to “hook” them to read more.
  • Experiment with writing the hook in different ways. In general most of the hooks I’ve written take me on average of 15-20 drafts. I try out different ways of saying the same thing. Because your first way might be good, but your 15th way might be even better. And with really one shot to impress, you want your best foot forward.
  • Remember it’s not going to work for everyone. You have to remember that no matter how well written or how unique your query is it’s still not going to appeal to everyone. And chances are there’s still always room for improvement. And sometimes working on making the book the best it can be is a better use of your time, since essentially that’s what will sell the final product. But a good foot in the door with a good query certainly helps that process out.
ETA: two more amazing tips that came from your comments: 1.) Always follow directions! Yes, there's a reason agents take the time to write out their guidelines on their Web site, so it's probably wise to follow what they like. And 2.) Include relevant experience in the brief bio about yourself! And it doesn't have to be only previously published books or articles. Include experience related to the book you are pitching as well. Do you work with teens in your day job? Are you a former competitive cheerleader or cheerleading coach for your cheerleading-themed novel?

--Emily, Miss Awaiting an Agent


Ghost Girl (aka, Mary Ann) said...

You have a lot of great points here, Emily. I think one of the toughest things is to "sound like your book" in such a small space. I mean, you've taken real time to develop a voice, but that's not so easy in 100 words or less. But it can be done.

And that last bit of advice is key...not everyone will go for your query. That's just the way it is. In the BB, someone just posted their disappointment over 2 rejections that seemed to contradict each other, but when it comes down to it, the book just may not have been a good fit for either of them. And that's all. If you get a rejection with feedback (congratulations!), weigh the comments careful and decide whether you should make a change based on those comments before you submit elsewhere.

Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Em, and good luck!

Emily Marshall said...

Yeah I agree GG getting your voice in a small space is tough. For some reason using specific examples from the book really helps with that for me. I don't know if it gives the "voice" a better feel or it just feels more like the book voice. Either way it seems to work.

Yeah, I saw that about the conflicting info on the query, which can be annoying. But it's such a subjective business.

And glad you found this post somewhat helpful. I actually love writing query letters and hooks. I think I would love a job writing only writing back cover copy.


DeenaML said...

Em, this is a great post! And after hiring my first person and reading through a dozen + job apps, I TOTALLY agree with your one about saying WHY you queried that person.

And I will add...


Like for my job posting, it said to send a cover letter, resume, and completed application. Bc I had so many to go through and wasn't going to interview everybody, those who didn't send all those pieces were immediately sent to the No pile.

So if the agent says on their webpage to email the query, then don't snail mail it. If they say to include the first 5 pgs, make sure to send them.

Emily Marshall said...


How on earth could I have forgotten Follow the Directions. Yes, I 100% agree with you!!!

The only problem is that sometimes listings are wrong, that's why I agree with someone that mentions to say where you say the listing. Because my husband just got one back saying he needed more info, but all the listings he say didn't include the added info he was supposed to see. It's hard. So using the main web page as a source is always key if it can be found. I agree!!

Emily Marshall said...

OMG did anything I just type make sense? I think all my "say's" should be "saw's" and not sure about the rest of it :) I guess it's one of those days. Good thing I wrote this post last week.

Lisa Schroeder said...

Wow - excellent suggestions, Em!!!