Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Welcome to Hell!

It's not the best place to be, but at least you're not alone. Those of you who have written a query letter know what I mean. Those of you who have not are about to find out. Let me warn you, it ain’t pretty. But although it isn’t the easiest thing you’ve ever attempted, you can do it. Writers do it every day. Successfully. So, we’re going to start out with the basics and move forward from there.

The only purpose of a query letter (the ONLY purpose) is to arouse an agent’s interest enough for them to request a sample of your work. It’s a sales tool. It’s an opportunity for you to condense 70,000 words (or whatever amount) down to one page. And if you think that’s easy, try stuffing 100 pounds of pudding into your pocket. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. Well, maybe the pudding stuffing isn’t possible, but writing the perfect query is — once you know how. And that’s why we’re here. So, let’s begin with the basics.

Subject line: I usually just say something like “QUERY – MG adventure” unless the agent has indicated something else for the subject line.

Salutation: Dear (agent’s last name) (colon) (double return)

And you thought this was going to be hard, didn’t you? Hang onto your hat when we round this next corner.

Opening Line: The majority of queries begin with “I am seeking representation for my…” followed by the genre, the title and the word count. That's a little redundant. It’s obvious you’re seeking representation. Starting out this way isn’t going to hurt your chances too much, provided the rest of your query is good, but it’s possible to be a bit more creative with that opening if you work on it. Remember our recent contest on opening lines? Keep that in mind when you begin your query. That standard, overused line above isn’t going to attract much attention. I veered from that format on a recent query. I’ll paste the line below to give you an example of another approach. It’s proven to be a successful query so far with multiple requests for samples. As you’ll see, it contains the necessary info: title, genre, word count. But it also makes it a bit more interesting than the standard approach. That’s what I’d like you to try to do. Here's what I'm talking about.

Your turn-of-the-century cabin is waiting on The Seahorse for a voyage to CANNIBAL ISLAND, a MG steampunk adventure that will take you from England to the South Pacific in 65,000 words, complete with a Light Emitting Oscillator and Perpetual Matches.

Body: This is the main course, the meat and potatoes of your query. It has to accomplish a couple of things. In addition to maintaining the interest of the reader, it also needs to describe the GASP! of your story. (I made that acronym up, so don't expect to find it elsewhere.) All of these elements should be included, and they don't necessarily have to be in this order, except for the last one.

G = Goal of the protagonist.
A = Action required to achieve the goal.
S = Stakes at risk for the protagonist.
P = Problem interfering with the accomplishment of the over-arching goal.
! = Cliffhanger. Always leave them wanting more. However, be careful with this last part of your query. It’s easy to blow it at this point. Phrases like “has to decide,” “has to make a decision,” etc. are quite common and not well-received by agents these days. You can do better than that.

Writing credits: If you have them, list them here. Be as brief as possible. If you don't have any, don't mention it. A query without writing credentials is not necessarily a slush pile candidate. But even a query with writing credits won't keep it out of the slush pile if that's all it has going for it.

Close: Most closes simply state that the writer would be happy to send a partial or the full upon request. That’s a perfectly acceptable close. Finally, be sure to thank the agent and indicate that you look forward to hearing back from them. Also be sure to list your contact information so they can reach you.

Format: Since most agencies (thankfully) accept email queries now, a standard email font and size are appropriate. Try to keep your query to 250-300 words. If the agency you’re querying asks for a few sample pages or chapters, paste those into the body of the email directly below your signature and contact info. DO NOT attach a file unless told specifically to do so. It won’t be read in most cases.

One final note: The fact that your friends and family love your work is of no concern to the agent. Don't even go there. Ever. And please don't direct them to your blog or website to read more. Ever. Literary agent Colleen Lindsay has a collection of things not to include. Some are hilarious. Log into Tweetchat and type in this string: #thingsishouldnotseeinaquery

If you'd like an agent's take on the query and what makes it pop, here's a link to a post by Nathan Bransford from November 2006. HERE!

So there you have it. The very basic basics of the dreaded query letter. As I mentioned in a previous post, we have a very exciting contest coming up. (More on that later.) Before the Call for Entries, I want you to take some time to write a killer query and get some feedback on your efforts. When you get it polished as best you can, email it to me at michaelvette (at) gmail (dot) com. Each query will appear in a separate post so reviewers can comment on it. Don't put your contact info at the bottom. And don't put an agent's name at the top. Just "Dear Agent" will suffice.

Tomorrow, when you come back, take some time to read the other queries that have been added and leave your constructive criticism on as many as possible. There is no voting this time. Leave your thoughts on whether the writer has included everything necessary. Is there anything missing? Does it start out strong? Does it hook you and keep you moving through it. Does it leave you wanting to know more? Would you, if you were an agent, ask for a sample of the work?

This exercise will help hone your skills in creating this necessary document. The comments left by others will tell you what areas you need to work on in order to refine it all down to that perfectly-written-attention-getting-sample-requesting-killer query that I know you can write.

But it doesn’t end there. After a couple of days, when the comments subside, I’m going to direct you to another site where I want you to post your query. This site is much more direct and a great deal harsher than we are here, so I want you to have the best query you can create before heading into that territory. You will get beaten up terribly, but it will make you stronger and make your query more stellar. After you spend a day or two refining it, based on the input you receive from those experts, you’ll be ready to enter it in the contest.

So, what are you waiting for? Get started already! If you have a query you’ve been sending out, post it below. Just hit that Comment thingy and paste it in. If it hasn't been producing the results you’d like, perhaps another reader can give some suggestions for improvement. If you don’t have a query but do have a completed manuscript, start writing your query for it.

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