How to Query with the Sharks

I’m back from Portland you guys!

But you don’t get to hear about that just yet.  I need some time to compose my thoughts and get some pictures up and whatnot.  In the meantime, you get this post about querying, an important part of any writing-to-publishing journey!

Would you send an application for a big job without a resume or a cover letter?

Nope.  Why?  Because your possible-future-employers need to get a sense of you as a person, and more importantly, a sense of your work history.  The same idea is behind an excellent query letter.  You’re sending your story out to a publisher or, more likely than not, an agent.  Someone whom you hope will be just as important a partner in facilitating your writing career as any employer–maybe more.  You want to put your absolute best foot forward.

But it’s pretty amazing how that foot can fall very, very short.

One of the best examples of query-writing tips I’ve found is a blog called Query Shark by agent Janet Reid.  She has strict guidelines about submissions, and she can give some pretty tough-love feedback, but she goes through real queries and says exactly what is wrong with them, working with the writers to make them better.  Sometimes the news isn’t what they wanted to hear–that they’re querying too soon, or that their writing just isn’t what it should be.  But the archives can help you polish your own query by pointing on what NOT to do.

The fact is, your query letter shouldn’t be about you.  It needs to showcase your story.  That’s what you’re trying to sell, and that’s what the agents want to hear about.  Star with that, first and foremost.  Drop your reader (in this case, the agent) right into the middle of the plot.  If you do too much preamble, it speaks to your story–and a lot of stories just don’t start in the right place.  Your query should match the tone of your story, and will usually mirror your writing (whether you want it to or not!)  If an agent can see mistakes, unfocused writing, or blandness in your query, you bet they assume that’s exactly what they’ll find in your story.

And what agent would ask for pages then?

Work your query letter often.

It’s just like your story in mini form.  You write it, let it sit, edit, let others read, let it sit again, and change constantly.  Do NOT write a novella for a query letter.   About 250 words should do it, maybe a few more if your story is very long.  Don’t make broad or sweeping generalizations about your work–let it speak for itself.  Don’t give away the whole story–an agent will want to request pages because they need to know what happens next, just like any reader.  If you tell them exactly what happens, it might not be a deal-breaker, but why not leave them with something to hanker for?  And for goodness’ sake, don’t forget the basics!  The title, accurate word count (don’t query unfinished manuscripts!) and genres are all important.  And no post-apocalyptic/romance/sci-fi/memoir/experimental, either–that just says YOU don’t know what your novel is about, either.

I think I have decided again, after a lot of deliberation and reading SOOOOO many query letters in the Shark archives, that I might query my story after all.  Sure, the chances that I’ll get an 8-book deal fresh out of the gate are slim to none, with slim a no-good drunk and unlikely to show up, but hey.  You can go from published to self-published, but it’s hard to go back again–especially with a series.  (Speaking of, if you’re querying the first in a series, try to save that bad news for later–don’t put the cart before the horse, and definitely don’t lead with it!)

Has anyone else tried to write a good query letter?  Had problems?  Read a TERRIBLE query letter?  Think that you’ve done something I listed above?  Any other good tips?  Let me know!

Celeste

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