The Query: Preparation is Ninety Percent, Perspiration is…Also Ninety Percent

Ah, the query.  The most important 500 words you’ll ever write.

Oh, man, I wish that were an overstatement.  Here you are, a newly minted novelist, having finally finished your book with all its delicately chosen words and its delicious plotting that unfolds languorously over 350 pages like an origami butterfly, and now you have to turn into a brazen huckster who crams a hard sell into one single-spaced page.  It’s mental whiplash, to say the least.  But unfortunately, if you’re thinking of going the traditional publishing route with that novel, the query letter is the key to unlocking that door, because the query letter is what will get you an agent.  This week on the Debutante Ball, we’re sharing our best resources and tips for querying while preserving a modicum of dignity and sanity.  Here are mine:

(1)  Do not rush the query letter.  You only get one chance at hooking an agent’s interest, and if you’re like me, with no prior publishing credits and no connections in the business, you are going to have to fight your way out of the slush pile with the literary equivalent of a butter knife. So make sure you have a really, really good butter knife.  I spent six years writing my 105,000-word novel, and six months writing the 500-word query letter that got me my agent.  If I’d written my novel at the same rate I wrote my query letter, it would have taken me 105 years, but I don’t regret one minute of it.  I labored over that thing.  I visited dozens of websites and read hundreds of query letters, successful and otherwise.  The first seven drafts of my query letter were appalling.  The next five were merely banal.  By the fifteenth draft it started to get better.  Bottom line:  you poured your soul into this book.  Do it the honor of taking the time to get this letter right.  Here are just some of the sources I consulted for advice on query letter crafting:

(2)  Research literary agents.  A lot.  Go to the Poets & Writers agent database, cross-reference that with the AgentQuery database, then triple-cross-reference it with the agents’ own websites.  Search out books similar to yours and figure out who represented them.  Google agents to see if they’ve done interviews, because those interviews are a gold mine of information.  Make an excel spreadsheet that lists all of this.  Be a complete nerd about it.  I ended up with 114 agents on my spreadsheet, all of whom represent literary or women’s fiction, and they were all prioritized and color-coded.  It was a terrifying thing of beauty, that spreadsheet.  But it was worth it, because agents care about this–they get hundreds of spam queries every day, and the dozen or so that show real intention and thoughtfulness really do stand out.

(3)  Personalize the query for each agent by making the first paragraph incredibly agent-specific.  Either mention a book they represented that is similar to yours, or paraphrase something from their website.  This part is not hard, but pays massive dividends. Here, for example, is a typical first paragraph from one of my query letters:  “I am writing because of your interest in emotionally rich, voice-driven fiction that explores the relationships between mothers and daughters and the trauma wrought by family secrets.  I hope you will consider representing THE LOST GIRLS.”  That bit about the agent’s interests came from her website.

(4) Keep the book summary short.  This is probably the hardest part, because it requires you to take your 105,000 word novel and distill it to one or two concise, gripping paragraphs.  For months I could not get this description under 400 words, and it needs to be 150-200. The key for me was weeding out all but the most significant plotlines and characters.  Ask yourself that old literary question:  what does my main character want, and what’s keeping her from getting it?  Your query letter should describe your main character in a few words, and state the central conflict of the story (i.e., what the character wants and what she must overcome).  Add the time and place if relevant (especially if it’s historical).  Summarize the book’s themes, usually at the end.  That’s it.  If you stick to those narrow parameters, and do it efficiently, you will get that description under 150 words.

Side Note:  You’ll also read a lot about the need for a “hook,” which boils your novel down still further to a single, punchy, attention-grabbing sentence or paragraph.  This drove me nuts.  Eventually I decided that a catchy opening hook just doesn’t work for all books, and it didn’t work for mine.  It may not work for yours, either, and that’s okay.

(5) Don’t stress about the bio.  If you’ve got it, by all means flaunt it.  Prior publications?  MFA?  Awards?  Sure.  But if not, don’t worry about it.  If an agent is intrigued by your description, they’re going to request the manuscript even if you have none of those things.  But you should put something about yourself in that last paragraph, and if you’ve got nothing else, you should (briefly!!!) explain why you are uniquely qualified to write this particular book.  A friend of mine who writes Jewish-themed middle grade books simply wrote, “I live in Israel, where I enjoy my fifteen grandchildren, and I have long been interested in Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism.”  Another friend who wrote a historical novel about a famous painting mentioned that she is an artist with a degree in history.

(6)  When you’ve got your query letter and your spreadsheet-o’-agents, take your query letter for a test drive.  Do not shoot the moon by sending your query to your top ten dream agents.  Remember, you only get one chance at this.  Pick 8-10 agents from your list — 3-5 dream agents, and 5-7 others.  Send out your query, and see what happens.  If you get deafening silence, or outright rejections, that means your query letter is not working.  Revise it, then send ten more.  When you start getting manuscript requests (yay!), consider your query letter a success, and query more broadly.  Even then, pace yourself.  10-15 queries at a time is the most you can probably handle without going completely insane.

(7) Be nice to yourself when you’re querying.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  No one in your life, no matter how much they love you, can understand the existential anguish of the querying writer.  Your work — the creation of your soul — is out there being evaluated by the gatekeepers who stand between it and the world.  You will not sleep. You will have a four-second attention span.  You will forget to pick Johnny up from soccer and feed the dog.  Forgive yourself.  Make Johnny and the dog forgive you, too.  Get a massage, or a pedicure.  Go for a long walk every day.  If you drink, by all means drink.  I had a Manhattan every night when I was querying, and it helped immensely.

In the end, my own querying time was unusually brief.  I attribute the short turnaround time to the fact that there was a blizzard that shut down New York that week, and several agents I spoke with said they got to my query so quickly because they were stuck at home and decided to clear the slush pile.  But I attribute its success to the work I put in on honing my query and targeting agents who represent the type of novel I wrote.  I am a firm believer in the power of a strong query and careful agent research to get a manuscript read, even from the slushiest part of the slush pile.  (Also, I highly endorse querying during blizzards!)

Good luck, everyone.  Let us know in the comments how querying is going for you, and if there are other resources you’ve found that we haven’t mentioned yet!

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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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This article has 2 Comments

  1. Yes! You totally nailed the “mental whiplash” of going from the pace of writing a novel to the “huckster” mode of the query letter. And yet it seems to be preparing us for the hustle of promoting the book…thank goodness those skills are transferable for something. And your emphasis on self-care is also critical throughout the process of publication and beyond!

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