Let me just speak for every writer out there and say querying sucks. It’s (almost) harder than doing the actual writing whether that writing is a magazine article or an entire book, and certainly a lot less enjoyable.
This post may not take the pain out of querying, but might take it down to just a dull ache.
WHAT’S A QUERY?
For those not in the writing world, a query is a uber-succinct letter in which you try to convince an agent or editor that your idea is worth their time (and money). The magazine query is a little less painful because you can essentially put the outline of your article in the letter. But a 100,000+ word novel? Into a single page in which you also must explain why you’re querying that agent and explain why they should take a chance on you? Hard. Painfully hard.
WRITING THE QUERY
There are probably about 50 tons of books and half a billion websites on how to write a query letter (okay, I may exaggerate, but not by much), so there’s little need for me to go into a lengthy diatribe about how to write a query letter. But the basic components are…
Hook – One to two sentences that (you hope) will be so intriguing the agent/editor drops everything to read the rest of your letter. Let’s just hope he isn’t holding his baby at the time.
Line – Where you describe in one teensy tiny paragraph the major plot of your book. One paragraph, maybe two if they are very short paragraphs. Again, not terribly hard for a 1500-word article, but damn well excruciating if you have a novel with several subplots that all tie into the main plot so the main plot sounds a tad blah without the subplots but somehow you have to make that main plot super interesting. Anyway, good luck with that and just imagine George RR Martin trying to write the query for Game of Thrones. Ouch!
Sinker – The tidbits of the query where you say how long the book is, what genre the book would be classified in, a bit about you and your writing, and a tiny bit about why you are querying that agent/editor to personalize the letter.
Obviously since I haven’t snagged an agent yet, I can’t tell you the magic formula for the query letter. The best advice I can throw out there is to look at examples and copy them (you will, of course want to throw in your own words). Great examples of queries that actually worked can be found on AgentQuery, decent queries can be found (I would think) in any book on how to write a query letter, and okay examples can be found in any copy of the Writer’s Market.
THEN THERE’S MORE PAIN
Once you’ve given birth to your query letter, treat it as a work in progress. Unless you are super famous or super lucky, you will not snare an agent in your book trap on the first try. And yes, it hurts. You think you’ve created this book that no one could refuse. You think you’ve honed your query letter to perfection. You send it off to your top agent choices.
You get rejected.
Worse yet, you get a form rejection letter in which the agent hasn’t even bothered to type out your name. It’s merely addressed to Dear Author. (Seriously Agent-Who-Shall-Go-Unnamed, that was just rude. I can accept the efficiency of the form rejection letter, but it takes only two seconds to type my name.)
Worse yet, you hear nothing.
As Douglas Adams says, “Don’t panic.”
Some agents are super quick about getting back to you – like within a week. But if you’ve included a sample chapter or the first fifty pages, it takes time for them to read things over. Be patient and don’t harass them. They are delicate creatures that frighten easily.
I know it’s tempting to query every agent on your list all at once. You are READY to get your writing career underway and figure canvassing the publishing world with your query letter is the fastest way to get on the road to fame.
Things can go wrong with your letter. Perhaps you accidentally left Agent A’s name on every query letter you sent out. Mega faux pas. Or you left out a word making your hook sound more like an insult (unless that’s the style of the book, then, Good Job!). If you sent that letter out to 50 agents, you might as well cross every one of those agents off your list.
And what happens when you cross an agent off your list? You do not get a do-over. You have one chance and one chance only (unless you make some serious changes to the manuscript).
Or, your letter could just suck. Your hook may be confusing, your summary may be boring, or your query may just be WAY too long. Again, send that letter out to 50 agents, and say goodbye to those 50 agents (unless of course you are super famous already, then you can pretty much do what you like – within reason).
YOUR QUERY LETTER CAN AND SHOULD BE CHANGED
Instead of charging out of the starting gate, go slow. Query maybe five agents a week. See how they react (if they react). A string of rejections is a clue that you need to rework your letter.
I’m up to Query #3, no wait, #4. Query #1 earned a rejection from 4 out of 5 agents, so it was quickly retired. Query #3 snagged rejections from 2 out 5 (one was just an “I’m too busy for new clients” rejection, so I’m not sure if it was the letter’s fault or not). So far, I haven’t gotten any rejections from Query #2, so I may go back to that one, but I also have a Query #4 dancing in my head.
Basically, query letters need to be flexible. Do not assume it is the agent’s snobbishness behind your rejection. I’m sure most of these people feel a tiny bit bad about rejecting writers, but they also know what works for them and what doesn’t.
TRY TO STAY POSITIVE
Okay, yes, you can feel disgruntled that there are some HORRIBLE books out there that somehow landed and agent and made it big, but hey, just remember that most of them probably started with an awesome query letter.
And maybe bribery.
Hmmm… I may have to look into that bribery thing. Anyone interested in sponsoring a Kickstarter campaign that funds my bribery money? Contact me!
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TAMMIE PAINTER IS THE AUTHOR OF THE TRIALS OF HERCULES: BOOK ONE OF THE OSTERIA CHRONICLES AND AN ARTIST WHO DEDICATES HERSELF TO THE TEDIUM OF CREATING IMAGES WITH COLORED PENCILS.