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How To Create a Form Query Letter That Won’t Get Automatically Rejected.

Agents and Editors always seem to reply in form letters. Have you noticed? If not, I’m hoping it is because  you haven’t sent out any queries yet. Good. That means you’ll have read this before making an ironic but critical mistake that many hopeful writers make: creating a form query letter that you believe will be universal, but will actually only get you rejected…with a form letter.

Maybe you’re thinking: their work is easy! They don’t even have to write you back. They click a couple buttons and smash your hopes and dreams. You’re looking for the short cut, the easy path. Or maybe you’re thinking that if you cast a wide, automated net you’ll eventually catch someone!

Wrong.

Form letters suck. No matter who is sending them. No matter what they say. So… What follows is a list of rules. I hope these ideas will help you construct, on demand, a form query letter that doesn’t read like one. Hopefully this will give your work the best representation  possible without injuring your credibility with a future colleague.

How do I know what will work?

Well, I’ve written a few bad and good ones (with the appropriate levels of success), I also have a modicum of experience in the industry. I’ve read a crapload of books on the subject, I’m published, and I am an intern for a literary agency. I’m the slush pile reader: the guy who makes sure all incoming submissions  meet the criteria, so that I can thin out the herd before passing the good ones along to the agents. Im not an expert, but I am pretty sure that most editors and agents would agree with me, since the following is a compilation of advice I have heard from their own mouths.

1.   Write a hook.

What’s a hook? It’s one or two sentences.that makes the character (and I mean the quality of the style, not the protagonist) of your manuscript clear. You won’t always need it. It should be used for submissions where the personality of the agent is discernible, like using a sarcastic joke or cuss word in conversation. Good example, and one of the best hooks I’ve ever heard: “My book is about how Voodoo and rock and roll prevent the apocalypse.”

If your book is a “plain old romance” and doesn’t have a nifty hook, then you won’t need it. I probably don’t have to tell you that this means your work might not get represented because it does not stand out enough. But truth is, you really shouldn’t manufacture a hook if one does not become readily apparent. Better to be honest,  than to be clever. if you can assemble one, it’d be better for you, for any query and for any elevator pitch session, but it isn’t a must. In fact, your pitch would easily function as the hook (with slight modification).

2. Write a brief synopsis of your book.

This is not, or at least should not, be easy. It should take you as much time as crafting those first few pages (a slight exaggeration). This synopsis should avoid cliches. It should be focused not on telling every single aspect of the story, but on revealing the main plot and interesting features of your book that make it different. It should be no longer than 1-2 paragraphs. You want to write more, I know. Because what if that one subtle nuance or sub-plot is the thing that might catch the agent’s eye? It won’t. They do not expect nuance in the query. The query is there to give them an impression of where your book might fit into their current list of represented texts. Even if you have an amazing hook, great story, and still manage to include subtle nuance, they still may not want to rep your book, because they already rep something similar. So keep the synopsis brief.

Once you’ve written it, it can be cut and pasted into every query letter you write.

3. Create a mini-bio.

Agents do, contrary to what you may think, want to know who you are, but usually as it relates to your work. If you’ve written something that is completely different from what you do, you can mention that too. Just keep it to a few sentences so that it doesn’t crowd out your story. I, for example, have a funny bio. I list my nerdy qualifications: “I am an author of horror and science fiction, a geek, otaku, cos-player, creative cusser, and ambulothanatophobic (fear of the walking dead. It’s not a big deal. I cope. The katana helps).” In a brief sentence, I then give my BA in English Lit, my English teaching experience, my science and freelance editing experience, and my previous publications. But it’s light-hearted and shows my personality, my brand. This is also a good place to mention any awards you may have won, other agencies or publishers reading your submitted work, editors you may have hired, etc.

Once this is finished, it too can be cut and pasted into any query letter.

4. Do your research.

Know to whom you are sending your email. Do not send the same letter to a huge list of people with an impersonal address like “To whom it may concern”. Do not use an automated list-serve email site like Publishers Weekly. That will get you automatically put in the reject pile. by literally EVERY person on the list. If you find an agent listed on a publishing website, write them a unique email. Do this by writing an opening to that agent based upon their interests and instructions upon their website. 

Yes, you should definitely visit any and all websites related to them. If you query an agent with a non-fiction proposal when they do not handle non-fiction…what do you think will happen? And also…if an agent says on their website “I am not accepting unsolicited submissions from anyone other than those I meet at conferences,” don’t bother sending an email. You’ll only be rejected automatically.

Point is, there is no short cut. You really must know to whom you are writing, and whether or not you are wasting your time and theirs. Trust me, they don’t like their time wasted. Especially when you’re coming to them. I know it sometimes feels like begging, and I suppose in a way it is, but if you can’t get over that ego-hurdle, well…publishing will suck for you.

5. Don’t email your entire manuscript unless it is requested, and don’t say “manuscript available upon request”.

You do either of these, and you’ll annoy the crap out of whomever reads your work. First, read their website and determine what their criteria are for submissions. If they specifically say “Do not include manuscripts,” then don’t.  And of course your entire manuscript is available upon request, or you wouldn’t be querying! Duh!

But what if there are no specifics, or you’re left wondering what you should do?

Rules of thumb:

Attachments are impolite. Most agents won’t open them. They could contain viruses, malware, etc.This does not always apply for illustrations, but…it’s pretty universal.

Don’t even think about the whole manuscript. It’s not even on the table yet. Just like if you went to the movies and someone was standing outside spoiling the plot by talking about how the film compared to the book. Don’t bring any expectations or ideas in. 

My advice, if there are no submission instructions, is to include the first chapter, or 10-30 pages in the body of the email, after your letter. That gives your work the greatest chance of being read.

6. Make sure your work is good.

I’m going to be mean for a moment. Like really harsh. It’s okay. I’m doing it for your own good. I’ve ranted about this before on this site, and you can go look at those if you want. Or you can just accept that I’m usually quite nice and am only raving because I want you to succeed.

Get your work edited.

I don’t care if you single-handedly wrote the MLA format book. You need a second pair of eyes, or more, on your work to pick out the things your brain won’t see, or eliminate the BS you think is soooooooo important. Guess what, even pros with spell check miss that the past tense of “to lead” is “led” not “lead.” “L-E-A-D” pronounced “led” is a metal.

Have a beta-reading party before you submit.

Get a peer group together. You can include family, but only if you know they’ll be honest and have some experience in reading your genre. Make sure you look carefully through all criticism. Try to give each comment a few days. Then incorporate as much as you feel comfortable using.

Spend a LONG time on those first few pages.

The first 50 pages of your work are your calling card. It must be flawless. Errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar are KILLERS. Auto-reject set to stun.

7. Make a list of titles and authors comparable to your work. These don’t need to be exact, they just need to be illustrative of where you fit into your genre.

For example: “This novel is like The Davinci Code meets Siddhartha.”  Or: “I have been told my writing style is similar to Nora Roberts.” Or: “I draw on influences from the classic Science Fiction authors like Alfred Bestor, and combine them with a more modern vernacular like Adventure Time.” Or whatever.

These can be cut and pasted into any query letter, if requested by the agent or editor you are querying. Like I said for the hook, include these if you get a feel that the agent might appreciate them.

8. If you have met the agent you are querying, put that in your subject.

Anyone who’s met an agent or editor at a writers conference or event is usually given priority in the inbox. Even if not given priority, it helps to cement you in their memory as an individual.

Your first meeting with someone is always the most important. Hopefully you’re interesting in that encounter. But if you don’t have a mohawk, at least your work should be interesting. If it isn’t, well I can’t help you there.

9. Word count can kill

This has been my particular foe, as my work tends to be more “literary” (publishing lingo for long). So I pay special attention to it when reading queries.

Most agents are looking for word counts that fit the genre. If you’ve written a mystery that is 150,000 words…go cut it down.

That is not to say that an agent won’t take a longer manuscript, the problem is that if they see that it’s too long there’s an assumption that it must be tailored to fit the genre or that it hasn’t gotten the attention it needs, and will therefore need their attention. This can seem like too much of a time commitment to some agents. Also it means that your work may require more serious editing than they are willing to provide. If they ask you to mention your word count in your query email be sure to mention not just the word count but that the work is completely edited by a professional. This should mitigate any strange feelings attached to a high word count.

10. If you are rejected, do not burn bridges.

Agents get hundreds of emails a month. If they reject you, do not write back and request a redo. It’s completely unfair to give any one manuscript more attention than any other manuscript. The trick is to avoid giving them any reason to reject you in the first place. Hence, the rules above.

Don’t write back with anger. I once had a several email long argument with a famous author of another country, because he wanted a service our agency doesn’t offer, and wanted to tell me why I was an idiot who was bad at my job. I just repeated that we don’t offer that service. It took time out of my day, out of his, and was utterly pointless. You don’t even need to say thank you. It’s nice, but not necessary, unless you have either met the person, or intend to meet them. Why? I was later represented by an agent who at my first query, rejected me with a form letter. Because I made all of these mistakes and had no idea what I was doing. But I didn’t freak out. I went back to the book and researched, and figured out what I did wrong. My next attempt was at a conference. And I wasn’t even targeting her. She just happened to be listening to me. When we finally chatted in person, it turned out she did remember me, and actually wanted to read the work, after having talked about it with me. It was just that my query sucked mad balls.

So what should your wonderful query letter look like when you have finished following all of these fabtastic rules?

To: ONLY ONE EMAIL ADDRESS

Subject: Met you at SDWC (query)

Dear Mr. Agent,

When we chatted at SDWC, I could tell you were extremely busy, and didn’t want to occupy a great deal of your time. You mentioned I should review your website and send you something, and so I am now submitting to you my stand-alone mystery novel, of 85.000 words.

(Paste Hook)

(Paste synopsis.)

(Paste comparable titles)

(Paste bio {if you discussed this briefly when introducing yourself to them at the conference, write in a preface like “As I said when we met…”})

The first 20 pages are included in the body of this email (see below). Thank you so much for your time.

Sincerely,

Unforgettable Human

(Paste contact info)

Or, if you’ve never met this person:

To: ONLY ONE EMAIL ADDRESS

Subject: (Obey their website instructions for query submission labeling)

Dear Mr. Agent,

(Do not simply rephrase what they said on their website) I see from your biography on your website that you make it a point to seek out new and interesting voices, specifically in the genre of horror. Not only do I believe I qualify, I’m also very intrigued by the level of attention you give the authors you represent. Blah blah etc.

My novel, (insert title), (paste in synopsis).

(Paste in bio)

The first 50 pages are included in the body of this email as specified by your site. Thank you for your time!

Sincerely,

Unforgettable Person

(Paste contact info)

__________________________

There are many great books on how to write a query, including information on how to write each one of the segments I’ve listed above, and in a much more succinct way then I can in a blog entry. What I can tell you is what I’ve learned from my experience both in publishing and in working with and for a literary agency.  

It is a fact that any query I come across that does not obey these rules, more often than not, is automatically rejected.

Just remember: don’t give them an excuse to say no. Believe me, they’re looking for one. Not because they’re mean, unforgiving, cruel people, but because they are very busy people and their livelihood depends on the attention they give the authors they represent. Don’t believe me? Look at any of their posted conference attendance lists, and you’ll see an itinerary that could purchase a car using frequent flyer mile points. That’s not even mentioning all of the flights they have to make to and from different coasts in order to put together all of the deals and publishing contracts they are arranging. And the fact is, they’re in a cut-throat business. If you really want their help, you must help them first. Make their daunting job easier, and you’re more likely to get represented.


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