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letters from the query wars

books
# of queries read last week: 219
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 2
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: YA (1), fantasy (1)


I've been hearing a lot lately about how the query system is "flawed", "broken", etc. (though there doesn't seem to be much in the way of viable alternatives suggested*). I also see a lot of conflicting advice online about how to write queries. And not just from agents. Writer forums and writer blogs have a stunning amount of advice -- about half of which strikes me as tactics that would never work on me or most agents I know. And it seems like some of it may be backfiring. Too much muddying of the waters when all that's going on is that people are trying to be helpful (with varying degrees of actual success). Some writers sound resentful, intimidated, upset, frustrated. Others simply ignore the guidelines because "writing a query is too hard."

Now, I'm not going to say that it's not hard to sum up the book that the writer has spent months, or even years, producing in a way that will make someone want to read it. I think it's a challenge. And you should definitely give it your best shot. Because, yes, the query is an important part of the initial submission. It sets the stage for reading the synopsis and sample pages. It can reveal things such as the writer's background, whether their approach is professional, how they see their novel, and other intangible gut feeling responses.

Here's a quick guide to the query letter to hopefully demystify it a little more:

* Item 1: Most agents want a personalized query. What does this mean? Well, it seems many of my fellow agents are satisfied with a simple use of their name (painfully obvious example: "Dear Ms. Jackson:"). There are so many queries addressed generically, or to huge lists of cc:ed agents -- that this alone will give a query a more professional demeanor.

* Item 2: A bit of info about the book itself. Something like: "I am seeking representation for my suspense novel of approximately 100,000 words, titled THE NOVEL I HAVE WRITTEN." It could also mention here if the book is the start of a series.

* Item 3: The pitch. This is the hardest part, or at least I think it is. This is where the writer's voice can come through. And the queries where this happens are definitely stand-out. But it's tricky. Overwriting it can make it stale or too slick. Dashing it off can make it sound thin. So, give it some attention. All it needs to do, though, is this: make clear the protagonist, the conflict/antagonist they are facing, and any details of plot or setting that are important.

* Item 4: A little about the writer. This is the place for relevant publication credits and background. Notice the word relevant. Don't just pad it out here. If there aren't any previous publication credits, don't sweat it. Just skip to the end.

* Item 5: The end: A closing line perhaps thanking the agent for their time in reviewing the query or something like that. Signed with the writer's name (don't make them guess what it is) and including the snailmail address, phone number and email address all in one place.

* Item 6: The part after the end: Here's where whatever additional material the specific agent being contacted has requested in their submission guidelines goes. For the record, I ask for the first five pages of the novel and a synopsis.

Here's some links to other agents' guides to queries:
Agent Janet's Query Letter Checklist: http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/2004/07/query-letter-checklist.html
Agent Nathan's Query Letter Mad Lib: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2008/03/query-letter-mad-lib.html

So, there you have it: the "simple" art of writing the query. What aspect of query writing/submitting do you find the most challenging?


*Note: Ditch query letters and read every manuscript submitted all the way through is not a viable alternative.

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