If you want to be traditionally published by a Big 5 publisher, you need a literary agent. And in order to get an agent, you’re going to have to write a query letter. There’s no getting around it. The others have talked about the importance of the query. But I’m going to get into the nitty gritty about how to write a good one, and I’ll use my query for THE ONES WE CHOOSE as a mentor text. But before you sit down to write, the first step is to educate yourself on how to write a solid query. Janet Reid is a renowned literary agent in New York who has two blogs: One called Query Shark where writers submit their queries to her, she critiques them, and then they revise and submit again. She has another blog about querying, publishing and writing in general. I found her regular blog to be more informative on query writing than Query Shark, simply because her archives are very extensive. Any question you have, she’s probably answered it. But in order to write a good query, you need to first develop a good ear for how it’s supposed to sound. If you read enough good ones, you’ll figure out how to write one for yourself.
The next thing you need to do is RESEARCH. Every agent you want to query. And I mean every. single. one. Don’t just look at their submission guidelines. Follow them on Twitter. Google “Agent Name Interview” and see what pops up. You can glean all kinds of information this way. For example, some agents hate it when you put the comps up top. Others prefer it. Some love the logline, because that’s what they use to pitch editors. And sometimes you won’t know one way or the other, so be ready with a query you like, one you’ve revised a hundred times and cross your fingers.
Submission guidelines matter. Some writers get bent up about how everyone wants something different – ten pages for this one! Five pages for that one! Query and synopsis only for the other one! But please. Get over it. You can set up files where you have these things ready to go. You are looking for a long-term partner. You wouldn’t go out on a first date or a job interview with greasy hair and wearing stained pajamas would you? Same thing. Put some effort into it. Land yourself someone who wants to be with you as much as you want to be with them. If you enter into things acting like what matters to them doesn’t matter to you, you won’t go far.
Keep your query short. Try to shoot for about 300-350 words. My query below is about 50 words too long. Also, avoid long, compound and rambling sentences! 20-35 words per sentence should do it. If you hit the 40+ word mark, your sentences are rambling and you need to tighten it up. Agents have limited time, so keep it snappy and simple.
NAMES! Limit yourself to two – maybe three – character names. Anything more and your query will be too confusing.
Okay, let’s take mine apart (Query in bold italic, my comments in regular):
Geneticist Paige Robson knows a lot about bad fathers. Abandoned by her own when she was young, she’s grown up to pull apart the science of his choice – discovering a gene that explains why some men stay while others leave. So when she decided to conceive her own child, she left love out of the equation and picked an anonymous sperm donor who looked great on paper but would never complicate their lives. Now, nine years later, Paige loves Liam, a man with a big heart and a steadiness that makes her want to set aside her past and build a family of three with him. This is the set up. I’ve named just two characters. I’ll name one more, and then I’m done. My sentences are short. My longest one is about 35 words. And I seriously debated shortening it.
But moving forward is more complicated than she expected. Her son, Miles, is struggling, painfully aware of how his conception sets him apart. Desperate to know his biological father, Miles rejects Liam, viewing him as nothing more than a stand-in for the real thing. This leaves Paige feeling trapped, unable to give either of them the happy ending they want. I name what my character wants, and what’s holding her back in this paragraph. You have to have this, because it sets up the stakes in the next paragraph.
But then Miles’s donor lands in their lives, unexpected and unannounced, and Paige is shocked to discover he’s already connected to them in ways she couldn’t anticipate. It quickly becomes clear that revealing who this man is would do more harm than good. Paige decides to say nothing and let her son live alongside the father he’s always craved – even if she’s the only one who knows the truth. But when tragedy strikes and Miles’s biological father is taken from them as quickly as he arrived, Paige must face the consequences of a secret only she knows, and the repercussions if she shares it…and if she doesn’t. Here are the stakes – what my character stands to lose. Your query has to have this, or there won’t be an urgent sense to read. Please also note that I’m only talking about my main story line. I haven’t mentioned anything about the genetic subplot in my query, or Paige’s relationship with her father. I’m only focusing on Paige, Miles and Miles’s donor and the fallout from that. Keep your subplots out of your query.
THE ONES WE CHOOSE (94,000 words) weaves the science of genetics with the story of a mother desperate to help her son find his place in the world. This is my logline, or elevator pitch, and sometimes this can go up top before the query starts. It will appeal to readers of upmarket women’s fiction, blending the high-concept emotional themes of Jodi Picoult with the scientific foundations of Lisa Genova’s novels. An excerpt from THE ONES WE CHOOSE recently won Honorable Mention accolades in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers, and was chosen as a finalist for mentorship in the Pitch Wars contest. I currently live in Santa Monica, California, where I teach and write full time. Here are my comps and my writing credentials…please note, I don’t have many writing credentials. You don’t need any to land an agent. I promise.
Thank you for your time and consideration. The first ten pages are below and I’d be happy to send the full manuscript for your review. Fit in whatever their submission guidelines ask you for. If it’s not explicitly stated on their website what they want to read (Query only, query + first ten pages, etc.), paste the first ten pages below the query. They don’t have to read them if they don’t want to. But maybe they will! And then request more! You have nothing to lose.
Okay. A couple more things:
Nudges: It takes a long time to query. Months. Sometimes years. It took me three years and two books to get an agent, so settle in. Agents sometimes tell you how long it will take to respond. They are almost always wrong. Be prepared to wait 3-6 months on a query (and be prepared for some not to respond at all), and about 4-8 months on a full manuscript. And don’t nudge them. Send and try to forget about it. In my experience, nudges very rarely end up with a yes, unless you’re nudging with an offer.
Batches: Send out batches of ten. Have your next batch researched and ready to go in your drafts folder. Then when a rejection comes in, you can send out a new query immediately. Keep going. Shoot for 100 queries before putting the manuscript in a drawer. If you get consistent feedback from agents who have read, you might suspend querying to revise. And if you’ve written a solid query letter (and you’ve queried agents who sell what you’re writing), you should have about a 30-40% request rate. If you send out ten queries and you get zero requests, revisit your query.
Comps: If you don’t’ have comps, don’t sweat it. Agents don’t really care. So if you can’t think of any other books similar to yours, or any movie/tv/book mashups, just say “thanks for reading” and move on. Agents spend about 1-2 minutes tops reading queries and don’t read with a check list next to them, subtracting points.
I know this sounds like a lot of work…and in many ways, it is. But you’ll find a groove and then it will just be something you monitor every week.
Good Luck! You can do it! Feel free to drop any questions you might have in the comments and I’ll be sure to answer them.
THE ONES WE CHOOSE is available for preorder!
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