Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Query Death

What makes a query successful? If there is a how-to guide out there, and if yes, where can I buy it? Or better yet, a Queries Letters for Dummies.

A query letter is like an audition or a job interview; it gives a potential agent/editor a taste of what they will get from your novel. As Katherine Sands from the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency points out, it’s your opportunity to show them why your novel is special, unique. This is where you show them the perfectly distilled profitable elements from your story.

Her are some tips Ms. Sands provides about querying:

  1. Never misaddress agents. Do you like having your name misspelled or mispronounced? My grandmother used to address my birthday cards “Jo-Anne” and I hated it! Agents and editors are the same.
  1. Don’t waste your first paragraph. You have one page to sell to them why your story is awesome. Don’t screw it up (no pressure!). They’re looking for sparks immediately. So skip the description of the theme of your book (better yet, eliminate it altogether!), and don’t bother saying it’s complete, because it isn’t really true (not once they’re through with you).
  1. Do not talk about the process of writing. Don’t ask for a critique. Don’t talk about your passion. Don’t discuss how you fit writing into your life. All of these are irrelevant. Keep the acquisition editorial committee in the back of your mind when you are writing your query – they are like a jury trial, their goal is to market you and your book. You need to impress them.
  1. Give the editor/agent a reason to want to read more by having something fresh and authentic, and by asking a provocative question.
  1. Consider what pitches work for you. When you hear a movie trailer, or read the back cover of a novel, what hooks you? Lead with your strongest point in the first paragraph. Degrees and experience should be in the third paragraph, because at the end of the day, you’re selling your book, not yourself.
  1. Don’t be too humble but don’t showboat. “I’ll be the next J.K. Rowling” isn’t likely to impress.

Have you struggled with a query letter? Do you have any query writing tips?


Janet said...

As I get ready to hit the Query Trail yet again, this is a great reminder, Joanne. Thanks.

I'd be interested in knowing from others their take on ending with a "provocative question". I've read in a variety of places that ending a pitch or a query in a question is not the way to tempt an agent or editor into reading more. Yet, I've seen it done in many successful query letters posted online. What's your take on it?

LOL - the name thing! I'm usually mistaken for a Janice - a lady I worked with continually called me Janice even though I corrected her on numerous occasions. Finally, I turned the tables - her name was Dona and I started calling her Donna. Yep, got her attention and she immediately started to use my real name.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Good luck with the query quest, I hope it goes well.

I'm not sure if she meant a literal question at the end of the pitch synopsis, or just leaving it with the feeling of a question. to be honest, I don't know what I think anymore.

Heather said...

This is a very interesting and useful post. I had imagined writing a query letter, but thought I would start just as you said not to. Always so much more to learn. Thank goodness I can imitate a sponge when needed.

Karyn Good said...

Thanks for the tips, Joanne. I hope to be querying come June! This post has inspired me to start working on a query letter.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Joanne,
I haven't written a query for a while so thanks for all the good reminders.

I'm trying to remember if Katherine Sands was the agent whose workshop I sat in on at the Surrey Conference last fall. She talked about query letters and how to approach an agent. I'll have to consult my notes when I get home. If it was the same Katherine Sands you're talking about, one thing I remember her saying was that it okay to send simultaneous query letter submissions to agents rather than waiting for a yea or nay from each one.


Joanne Brothwell said...

I think I've been imitating a sponge a lot lately. I'm happy you found the suggestions useful.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Karyn, good luck with your query. Oh and by the way - I cut another 17,000 words from my ms!

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Jana,
Yes,it is the agent you're thinking of in Surrey - I remember you sitting behind me. I still think back to her comment that multiple submissions are fine - I don't know. Seems to contradict everything I've ever read.

What do you think?

Helena said...

I am far from the query stage, so I am happy to just avoid thinking about it. It's a form of self-promotion, and I find that difficult. But I know I will never be "discovered" without going through all the hoops.

So I am grateful for your post, Joanne. Essentially, you are forcing me to think ahead to how I might approach this important stage in the quest to be published. Much like preparing for the Surrey experience by learning how to make a pitch.

connie said...

Hi Joanne

I asked someone at the conference if it was advisable to send out multiple queries. The answer was yes - but there are some qualifiers. In essence, the answer is yes, but tell the publisher in polite and quiet terms that you have also submitted it elsewhere.

I submitted a manuscript once to Harlequin and didn't hear back for more than six months. At that rate, you will probably have a senior's moment after awhile; look at the letter and say to yourself: "What's this all about? Who the heck is Ms. Thusandsuch, editor? Editor of what?"

At 69, I will send queries to as many publishers as seem appropriate, otherwise, how will I get accolades from all of you (and money)if the book is published posthumously?

Jana Richards said...

Hi Joanne,
About the multiple submissions - I think her point was that it is unfair to the writer to make her wait until each agent she queries contacts her. It would just take too long. I'd have to consult my notes here, but I think she said that if you are given an offer of representation by one agent and you've got manuscripts with other agents at the same time, you are to let those agents know of this offer as a professional courtesy. Perhaps they'd like the chance to make you an offer. The point is to always act professionally and be upfront about multiple submissions.


Joanne Brothwell said...

That sounds right.

Molli said...

Hi Joanne. Always a thorny subject, and you've laid out some very practical tips.
Something I've read, and not been able to do so far, in preparation for writing that query is to distill your story down to one paragraph. It helps you find the essence, and take from there what you feel will hook the editor or agent. As I said though (sigh) I haven't managed that feat yet.
As for ending in a provocative question, I think I'd find it more of a negative than a temptation. Unless, of course, I was drawn in by the rest of the query and attracted to the personality that came through of both the book and the author.
Thanks for getting us thinking on this.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Excellent post, Joanne. But where's your example? LOL

I've heard so many do and not do things...

When I wrote my query letters, I went with my gut. I'll be doing the same thing when I send Emma's story out.

And I'll certainly include all the good stuff you mentioned. Thanks.