Eleven Things You Should Know About Query Letters

by Colby Marshall, @ColbyMarshallDoubleVision_300dpi

You’ve done it. You’ve finished and polished your first manuscript. Let’s see, what’s next.  Whaaat to do next…

Oh, no… Not that…

*cue Jaws theme*

The query. You have to write a damned query.

This one page pitch beast is to publishing what that obnoxious 900 sheet stack of mortgage paperwork that requires a signature every page is to a homebuyer who just wants the damned key to their house already. But it’s a necessary evil. And it’s not easy.

Query letters vary greatly in quality, and the range of reactions they elicit can be as diverse as the types of queries themselves.  I’ll go ahead and tell you, this post isn’t a how-to on writing a query letter, nor is it all-inclusive regarding elements to include in a query letter.  The topic of how to write a query letter has been covered more than the measles outbreak at Disneyland, the Obamacare debate, and every Walking Dead theory ever conceived of combined.  If you need something more instructive, check out this wonderful post of Elizabeth’s:  http://mysterywritingismurder.blogspot.com/2010/12/querying.html . It contains lots of links with that sort of info and was very helpful to me when learning to write a query.

So, I won’t give you a tutorial, but I can relay some things I’ve noticed along my way: a few intricacies people tend to over-think, some successful techniques, and a few aspects of queries that sometimes don’t get quite as much emphasis as they should. I can’t offer a final, perfect query formula. This powerful dark magic does not yet exist. But what I can do is pass along some things I’ve learned through securing an agent and getting editor requests over the years that will hopefully add a little extra insight. So without further ado, I give you the Top Eleven Things I’ve Learned About Query Letters:

11.)  Go the extra mile when researching an agent or editor’s preferences.

We’ve all been told it’s a Cardinal sin to mass blast a query to 100 agents and to be sure to address them by name instead of “Dear Agent. But more in depth preferences on how some agents wish to be address can fall through the cracks. I once queried an agent who, deep in the bowels of his blog asked that all queries address him as Neil* (the names have been changed to protect the particulars). While Mr. For-Some-Reason-Doesn’t-Like-Seeing-His-Last-Name-on-Queries might not send you a form rejection just for using the surname that shall not be-erm-named—after all, it is standard querying practice and you bothered to personally address him—obliging his request can only show you did your homework and maybe give you a leg up.

10.)  Just say no to attachments.

Agents and Editors (and anyone on the internet with a brain) know opening attachments from unknown senders could result in a nasty virus.  Not only that, but e-mails with attachments coming from anyone other than regulars in that agent or editor’s inbox are spam folder magnets.  You might think that Best Agent Ever would rep you in a second  if only she saw your first five pages/your professional headshot/a picture of your kitten Squishy Face. Only the first of those is possibly wanted, but the point is, she won’t see your query letter (or Squishy Face) at all if the attachments give it a one-way ticket to the spam folder.

9.)  Pimp your bio

Traditionally, at least one paragraph of a query letter is devoted to a bio of the author.  Obviously, the agent or editor reading wants to know more about the person behind the work she’s considering.  But some pieces of bio information benefit your cause more than others.

In addition to your education info, published works, and awards or other writing-related credentials, pack your bio with facts relevant to your book or a potential platform you have or are building that could make you more marketable as an author.  If your main character is a meteorologist and so are you, include your day job, but if you’re a theme park tour guide, maybe hold that one back for this book. Is your book set in Italy and you lived there for five years?  Yep.  Mention it.

8.)   Suppress the urge to—*ahem* “enhance” your bio.

You’d think this would go without saying, but don’t lie in your bio. It’s never good to start off a business relationship with dishonesty.

7.)  It’s okay to leave out that couple of sentences in which you gush about a connection you don’t have.

Lots of articles about how to write a query letter encourage writers to include a sentence or two about why they’re querying this agent specifically. Some advise mentioning some of the authors or books you love that the agent represents or editor edits, or to explain you thought agent/editor might be a good fit for you and your book since agent/editor’s client’s book showed a similar writing style, sense of humor, or appreciation for main characters with smokin’ fictional six-packs.  If you have read and enjoyed agent/editor’s client’s work and/or legitimately have a similar writing style, then it can’t hurt to say so.

If you have another genuine, specific reason you’re queryingthis agent or editor, by all means, include it.  Maybe you’ve followed their blog for years and think your personalities would mesh based on her penchant for sarcasm and low tolerance for people who mispronounce the word “pecan.”  Perhaps you heard him speak on a panel and what he said about his approach to agenting appealed to you.

Bottom line: personalization is great. But as long as you’ve researched the agent’s preferences thoroughly, it’s ok to let the query explain for itself why you think the agent might be right for your book.

6.)   It’s definitely  okay to include a couple of sentences to gush about strong connections you do have.

Definitely include that time you met her at a conference (unless the meeting involved you ambushing her with your pitch as she exited a stall in the ladies’ restroom).   Even if Conference Agent doesn’t remember meeting you specifically (agents and editors shake lots of hands at conferences!), it’s a subtle indicator that you’re serious enough about your craft that you attend industry events.  Also be sure to tell her if you’re querying because you were referred by one of her clients or if you have a manuscript that just happens to be that modern retelling of To Kill a Mockingbird  set in space she’d raved about on her blog in a list of books she’s dying to represent.

5.)   Yes, your letter should have a paragraph providing your manuscript’s vital stats.  No, its placement will not make or break your chances.

You know the essentials: title, word count of the complete manuscript, genre…Any query destined to receive a manuscript request includes these.  Easy, right?

And yet, for some reason, writers agonize over whether the placement of those few little pieces of information will be the difference between a request and a rejection.

“Leading off with it bores agents before they even get to your pitch!  Put it last!”

“Always open with the basic, pertinent information.  It’s a professional, strong opening!”

But here’s the truth, and you can take me to the bank on this one, because I’ve written queries both ways and have gotten requests off of both versions.  It doesn’t matter where the “specs paragraph” is located.  All that matters is that the pitch leaves the agent in crisis wanting more.

4.)   It’s all about the voice, baby.

Many queries are so bland they could be served on a heart patient’s diet tray alongside cottage cheese and boiled cauliflower.  You can’t knock them too hard, though. It’s tough to condense an 80,000 word book into a one page intriguing explanation.

Sometimes, stepping out of synopsis speak and stepping into your story’s voice can take a good query to a great one.  Say you’re pitching your MG novel SPELLS AND SNEEZING SPELLS.  This first paragraph might intrigue an agent:

11-year-old Alex is like every person in his family: magic.  He’s also the only one who happens to be allergic to magic.  So, he keeps to himself and tries to steer clear of mysterious orbs, but one day, he comes home from school to find his whole family vanished, a ransom note left in their place.  It looks like the only way to get his family back is to follow the magic-steeped clues the kidnappers left and hope he doesn’t run out of Kleenex along the way.

But this first paragraph might intrigue him more:

How could this be happening to him? Eleven years old and Alex had never once so much as had to use his epi-pen, despite the epidemic of magic that runs in his family and the health hazardous by-products they expose him to. He wants nothing more than to come home from school and avoid his obnoxiously magical parents and siblings, and, by extension, having to run to the store for more Kleenex. But when his family is abducted, replaced by a note demanding Alex use his own peculiar brand of magic for their schemes as ransom, he musters his bravery, arms himself with inhalers, and charges into a terrifying maze filled with pixie dander, dusty magic carpets, and high faeries higher in histamine.

3.)    Make your protagonist pop.

Your pitch should let the agent know who your protagonist is and what his conflict is, but you can do more to highlight the right things about your hero.  Instead of telling about me that Dark headed, fifty-five-year-old Tom is about to find out he’s the only person who can stop the murder of someone he doesn’t even know, tell me about how agoraphobic Tom hasn’t been out of his house since he was held up as a teller at the bank he worked at four years before. A hostage is being held across town, and Tom knows he has the only information that can save this stranger. But the only way to pass along what he knows is in person.  Unless details like age or hair color are relevant to the story, skip them in favor of your main character’s compelling features.

Another way to make sure your main characters shines his brightest is to make sure your pitch includes your character’s actions regarding his conflict and not just thing happening to him. Aladdin is much more compelling after going into a dangerous place to retrieve this mysterious lamp than he would’ve been if he’d just been sleeping under a tree when it dropped and fell on his head.

2.)   Compare, but compare alike.

If all the agents and editors got together and took a shot every time a hopeful writer’s query said his books were similar to James Patterson’s or Nora Roberts’, there’d be some pretty nasty hangovers the next day. It’s ok to compare your work other authors that your work is actually similar to, but try to control the urge to call yourself the next Stephen King.

1.)   Doing something unconventional or debatable can be an amazing or a volatile thing. 

Sure, there will always be the Cinderella stories of how someone landed an agent because they queried their dream agent even though that agent wasn’t accepting submissions at the time.  Sometimes, out-of-the box pitches like a query letter written from the point of view in the kidnapper in her manuscript, demanding a request in exchange for the safety of the character in the book who is kidnapped.  It might just cool enough to garner a request, or it might creep the agent out and send her running.  It depends on the individual agent.  So weigh risks wisely, and always remember your story has to sell itself.  Rules aren’t a bad thing, and your query can stand out even if you play by every single one.

How do you try to make your query stand out from the pack?

Writer by day, ballroom dancer and choreographer by night, Colby has a tendency to 0-colbymarshall-headshot1turn every hobby she has into a job, thus ensuring that she is a perpetual workaholic.  In addition to her 9,502 jobs, she is a proud member of International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime.  She is actively involved in local theatres as a choreographer and occasionally indulges her prima donna side by taking the stage as an actress.  She lives in Georgia with her family, three mutts, and an array of cats that, if she were a bit older, would qualify her immediately for crazy cat lady status.  She’s uniquely qualified to write about Dr. Jenna Ramey’s synesthesia, because she has the rare condition.

Learn more about Colby and her books by visiting her website at www.colbymarshall.com

ABOUT DOUBLE VISION:

New from the author of Color Blind…FBI profiler Jenna Ramey has synesthesia, a DoubleVision_300dpineurological condition that causes perceptions of color to flash through her mind, triggered by seemingly unrelated stimuli. But she has learned to understand and interpret these associations. They help her do her job. They can help save lives…

A little girl has witnessed a mass shooting. What she knows may be the key to finding the man responsible. Jenna has been tasked with drawing her out, figuring out what she saw, what she remembers, what it means.

But Molly is an unusual child. She is sweet and bright, and eager to help, but she has a quirk of her own: an intense preoccupation with numbers. It helps her notice things that others don’t. It also leads Jenna into a maze of speculation that could turn into a wild goose chase while the body count continues to rise.

Jenna and Molly view the world through their own filters. In some ways, they speak different languages. Now Jenna must learn to communicate, to break Molly’s code, to understand the mind of a murderer…

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8 thoughts on “Eleven Things You Should Know About Query Letters

  1. Elizabeth – Thanks for hosting Colby.

    Colby – Thanks for the useful insights about query letters. They are an important form of marketing, so it makes sense to polish them and make them as powerful a tool as possible.

  2. Great tips, Colby. No one should ever open an attachment. You’re just asking for a virus. And voice is important. I’ve seen some posted queries that were really bland because they lacked voice.

  3. All very helpful and as I’m on the verge of sending my next ms out I’m glad of the reminders. Just as an aside – when you put the word Kleenex in your faked query I had to laugh. It made me think you were my age but it appears you are much younger. I’m forever getting into trouble by asking someone for a kleenex and having to quick say ’tissue’ I mean!
    Thanks for hosting Colby, Elizabeth!

  4. It’s great to meet Colby and best wishes for her and Double Vision. I don’t have much in the way of connections I can place in my query letter, but I do have a link to my Media Page whee I have a picture of me with Dean Koontz. That’s the best I can do.

  5. Putting this post in my must-save how-to favorites! It complements the other things I’ve read on the topic, and actually gives me more of a feel for an effective query letter. Thanks, Colby, and best of luck!

  6. Hi Colby.
    Thanks for your post. I’ve come to two conclusions regarding queries. One: the only time they work is when the writer gets a boost from one of the agent’s current stable of writers. If that writer doesn’t put in a good word in advance, or allow you to use his/her name, the odds are against getting any response. Two: the simplicity of submitting queries electronically has de-valued the whole process, to the degree that unless #1 applies, e-queries are virtually never answered, except by robo replies.
    Two: when an agency still accepts old-fashioned snail-mail queries (SASE included, etc), that’s the way to go. At least someone will (probably) open the envelope and use the SASE to reply, and this probably improves the chances of hearing back.
    Otherwise, I really don’t think all the good advice in your post will make much difference.

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