This week, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Wendy Burt-Thomas, author of the Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters, which just hit stores in January, 2009.
Wendy, thank you so much for joining us! Query letters are always a serious concern for both aspiring and publishing writers. I know the Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters covers all three types of query letters: article query letters to periodical editors, nonfiction query letters to agents, and fiction query letters to agents. I’d like to focus in this interview specifically on those questions I get most often from clients about writing fiction query letters to agents.
You’ve pointed out that a query letter is a first impression and that I, the author of the query, only get one shot at it with this particular agent. So I should be able to extrapolate that the hook, like the lede of a news article, is possibly the single most important part of my query. If it’s bad, I’m finished before I’ve even started. If it’s good, bingo! I’ve got a foot in the golden door of an agent’s attention.
Agent Noah Lukeman says the hook should be about the agent—in fact, he says if I have a recommendation from another client, my hook should be about that recommendation. He even provides the sentence. Agent Nathan Bransford, on the other hand, analyzes on his blog an excellent query with a hook about the book.
What should that all-important opening sentence really be about: the agent, the recommendation, or the book? Or something else, such as the author?
I’m going to agree with Nathan, and not because I just met him at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. The guy knows his stuff! Nathan is an experienced agent and has no doubt read thousands of queries.
Unless you’re already a big deal, the only time anything should be about you is in your credentials paragraph (or page, if we’re talking about a full proposal). My advice is to always open with a great hook about your book. It’s important to remember that some agents and editors don’t read past the first paragraph or two. Wait until later in the query to explain why you chose them.
If, however, you have a referral from another agent (most agents know that other agents don’t refer writers unless the manuscript is worth a look), you definitely want to mention it somewhere. One neat trick: use the subject line of your email (or even your letter) to mention the referral. For example: “re: referral from Sue Smith of ABC Agency”. This way you can still open with your hook (and maybe get them to pay attention even more!)
I did receive examples for my Guide to Query Letters of both (queries that opened with hooks and queries that opened with referrals) that lead to book deals. I think the key is that no matter which route you choose, don’t drag out the opening of the query. If you open with a recommendation or a “Why I chose you,” keep it short and sweet. No agent wants to wait until the sixth paragraph to learn what your book is about!
Erica Jong says in Fear of Flying, “I was taught never to open a paragraph in a business letter with ‘I’. But what else could it start with?” Poor ole Isadora never does figure out. Do I need to?
It’s not so much the word (letter) itself as how you use it. I think the point is not to come across too stoic unless, of course, you’re writing a book about formal business letters. Your opening paragraph or two should match the voice/tone/style of your book. Besides, you want to stand out in the slush pile!
Ask yourself this: Which would you rather read if you were a busy, bored agent/editor?
Option #1: “I am writing to you because I have written a book about a Japanese internment in Seattle. . .”
Option #2: “I must admit I hate Asian stereotypes. You know the ones. Good at math. Hardworking. We all look alike. Come to think of it, the last one might hold water. After all, my father once wore a button that read ‘I am Chinese’ while growing up in Seattle’s Chinatown during WWII.”
I’d much rather read Option #2. Apparently, so did Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Agency. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (for which the query in Option #2 was written) by Jamie Ford sold to Ballantine.
Ford managed to capture his writing voice/tone/style in his query letter. He was still professional (the rest of the query included the vital info), but also interesting.
Is it possible to re-query the same agent with a different project? How long should I wait? Should I mention the previous query? Hope they don’t remember?
You can absolutely re-query the same agent—the key phrase being “a different project.” Don’t rewrite the same piece and send it back—unless they ask you to. But yes, by all means do send book number two when it’s complete.
I would mention the previous query only if the agent had anything good to say about it. A note like, “I like your writing style, but just didn’t feel like I could represent this with passion,” might indicate that the agent would bite on another project.
So now we’re at the whole point of my query, from my perspective, which is: “I’ve written a fabulous book! Please take it!” Some agents ask for a single paragraph about the book, and some even stipulate three sentences. How universal is that dictum? And can those three vital sentences (or more) be standardized as to what each should be about, for maximum efficiency?
Every agent is different, but the majority will ask for no more than a one-page query or a query and synopsis to start. I do see a lot of agents asking for the first thirty pages if they’ve heard your pitch in person (like at a writers’ conference), but I think for the most part they just don’t have time to read more than a page or two unless they already know they like your basic idea.
As for standardizing your first few sentences, I do think most queries can be the same. The only paragraph that would change in your query template would be why you chose that particular agent/publisher.
Given that this all has to fit onto one page and I do have other things besides my book to mention before the end of my query, what should the (frighteningly) brief description of my 200+ page opus focus on: plot? characters? voice? abstract description i.e. “charming, brooding, quirky, multi-faceted, riveting”? Something else, or a combination?
The query hook should match your book’s focus. If the book is plot-driven (thriller/mystery, for example), the query should be, too. If it’s character-driven, you still need to mention some form of plot, but you could put a tad bit more about the character in the query. This does not mean you write a character sketch or get into motivations and inner conflicts. The idea is to reflect your book’s overall focus in your query.
#1: In a mystery, you might just say that Jane Smith is a cop on the trail of a serial murderer—who recently killed Jane’s cousin. This shows motivation (justice/revenge) without saying it.
#2: In a character-driven book of literary fiction, you might need to mention a bit more about the protagonist: “Fifteen-year-old Susan is always dreaming up new ways to kill herself.” (Notice that in example #1, I never mentioned Jane’s age in the hook for the mystery. It’s not really relevant.)
Save the details for your synopsis. The query is only about enticing an agent/editor to request more.
What about comparisons to other books—some agents say they help, some say they hurt. They occasionally sound downright insane to anyone but the author. What’s the consensus? How about marketing myself a little along those lines, as in, “A bonafide page-turner. You won’t be able to put it down!”?
Ugh! Any good writer should be able to show an agent/editor that they’ve got a bonafide page-turner—not tell them. Let the writing speak for itself—even if it’s just a few paragraphs in the query for now.
As for comparing yourself to other books, I advise writers to stay away from comparing yourself to other authors and books. What I do think is fine is discussing the readership for a certain book’s genre. Citing, for example, that the Twilight and Harry Potter series have vamped up the teen readership’s interest in all things paranormal/magical. You’re not comparing yourself to those authors or your book to those books, but you’re showing that there’s a readership for them. I’d probably suggest using this more in your proposal than your query, though. It’s even better if you can find some actual stats about the readership.
You mention in the Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters “The Credentials Question.” There’s quite a lot being bandied around out there regarding the loss these days of the opportunity for me, the writer, to build my reputation, due to publishers’ expectations of debut mega-hits, which brings up the question of poor sales records. Given that, what should go into and—maybe more importantly—what should be left out of my author bio?
Published books in other genres (or on the wrong side of the fiction/nonfiction fence)?
Mention other books you’ve written for traditional publishers. If your previous books were in other genres, that’s okay. Better to show that you can write a book than not mention it.
Published books that didn’t do well? Published books long ago?
Don’t worry about sales numbers. A good agent/publisher will probably guess that the sales numbers aren’t about your writing skills or your ability to follow through—and those are two of the things you’re selling in your query letter. You’re not selling your previous book. If your other book(s) did well, even better. Mention the numbers. But many books don’t even sell out of their first print run so it’s not a deal-breaker if you weren’t on the NY Times Best Seller List.
Minor publishing credits or awards?
Definitely mention any writing awards, and publishing credits if they’re well-known publications or smaller but relevant to your book (e.g. If you sold three dog-grooming articles to small pet magazines and the book your pitching is about dog grooming, mention it!).
Attendance at writers’ conferences?
I wouldn’t necessarily mention that you’ve been to writers’ conferences or taken workshops unless you won some awards or were on the faculty.
My day-job or professional experience? (Only writing-related? Only if it helps authenticity? Only genre-related? Only the publishing credits discussed above?) My blog? My community service?
Professional and volunteer experience can go a long way, especially if you don’t have any/many published clips. Some examples:
• You’re a cop writing a crime novel
• You lived with the Amish to make your novel about the Amish more realistic
• You teach English, creative writing, journalism, etc.
• You have an MFA or other degree in a writing-related field
• You run an annual writers’ conference or author series
• You’re a single mother of 10 kids writing about a single mother of 10 kids
• You’re a marriage therapist writing a relationship (or romance!) book
• You’re a computer programmer writing a technology/spy thriller
• You volunteer at a teen shelter and are writing a book about a 13-year-old runaway
Are there any other potential items we haven’t discussed that act as red warning flags to an agent and should be avoided at all costs (like a nice, long list of other agents who already hate me)?
Some things that will be red flags:
• Mentioning that you’ve burned through agents
• Mentioning that you’ve self-published all your books
• Threatening to take your manuscript elsewhere
• Asking to meet with the agent
• Talking about movie or TV rights
• Explaining that you’ve already pitched to publishers on your own (unsuccessfully!)
One exception to the above: if you’ve self-published books and can explain that you did so because you had a major platform (and therefore sold many copies). My father is a good example of this. He sold several books to traditional publishers and then decided he’d rather get eight dollars a book than one dollar book, so he started self-publishing and sold books across New England for several years. Now he’s considering a “buy out” with a traditional publisher. FYI, these aren’t vanity press books of poetry. He was the first person in history to win the Bram Stoker Award for a self-published book!
I’ve always found business letters to be one of the easier forms of writing because they consist so largely of standardized sentences. Businesspeople are busy. They get the most out of a letter if they can scan it, register stock phrases or the lack of them, and move on. Given this, can you briefly tell me how and where to cite:
• recommendations from the agent’s client
• recommendations from other writers (not the agent’s clients)
• my reason(s) for choosing this agent
• “this is a multiple/exclusive submission”
• word count
• my other works that the agent might be interested in?
Again, my preference is to open with a hook about the book, but I’ll admit that I have several great query letters in my book that opened with a referral or a “why I chose you” sentence. (These are real queries that landed real book deals.) As a general rule, the most mundane stuff (“this is a simultaneous submission”) goes near the end. Word count, however, is easily slipped in after the first or second reference to the title. (For example: “ALL HAPPY FAMILIES, complete at 83,000 words. . .”)
As for other works the agent might be interested in, put them in the last paragraph.
Something like this:
1) opening hook (two paragraphs)
2) supporting info about the book (one paragraph)—word count, research
3) author info (one paragraph)
4) why you chose agent/recommendations/other works (one paragraph)
5) request to send manuscript/exclusive submission/thank you (one paragraph)
In citing a recommendation from another writer, should I include a full quote or just say, “I have it if you want it”?
I don’t think you have to include the quote. Something like, “Your client Deb Johnson read my manuscript and suggested I contact you,” should be sufficient. If they don’t believe you, they’ll contact the other writer.
Here’s a quickie: Do most agents expect to see book titles in all caps or italics?
My editor at Writer’s Digest listed all the book titles (in sample queries) in caps, but not italics. This is also how many of the query letters were formatted when they were originally submitted to agents.
How seriously should we take the stricture to use only Courier 12 pt. or Times New Roman 12 pt. in manuscripts, etc.?
I tell writers to stick to Times New Roman 12 pt. because it’s standard. Courier is fine too. The point is to use a font and size that agents/editors are used to reading so they’re not distracted from your writing. Fancy fonts are definitely out, and so is enlarged (or tiny!) print. Don’t make an agent strain to read your query. It should be about the letter—not the letters!
We know the one-page limit is carved in stone (unless I’m Molly Friedrich writing a fan letter to a potential client). But within that limit, is brevity really always best? When might it not be?
I advise writers that one page is best, but that queries for longer manuscripts (such as historical romance novels) can sometimes run to a second page.
Some other exceptions to this rule might apply if you have an exceptional platform that is worthy of more than one paragraph (by all means, if you have a way to sell 10,000 books immediately, say so!) or if your book is more complicated, such as a legal book on the changes in healthcare reform.
What is the general opinion regarding whether or not I should send a synopsis and/or first five/ten/twenty pages with my query letter?
Always follow the guidelines for that particular agency or publishing house. If you can’t find them in the Writer’s Market, check the web. Most agents and publishers list their submission guidelines on their websites. They have guidelines for a reason!
Is there any one single thing that you think writers absolutely ought to know about query letters that we haven’t touched on here, any really huge Mark of the Rank Amateur to steer clear of, maybe something from your section on “Common Novel Query Mistakes” in the spirit of the late Leo Buscaglia, who said, “The one to listen to is the one who will say, ‘Honey, you’ve got dirt on your nose”?
The buzzword in publishing right now is “platform.” My friend Christina Katz (who actually got me this latest book deal!) just wrote a book called Get Known Before the Book Deal (Dec. 2008, Writer’s Digest Books). This isn’t just a plug for her book—it’s a direct message to writers: you will have to market your book! Long gone are the days where you could just write a book, speak at a couple local bookstores, and then start on book number two. If you can’t market yourself—and indicate so in your proposal—don’t bother trying to submit to traditional publishers.
The good news is that marketing your book is cheaper and easier than ever. With blog tours (a.k.a. “virtual book tours”), Internet radio shows, do-it-yourself websites, and free blogging, you can develop a following in your pajamas—for almost nothing.
(I am wearing my pajamas as I type this. Seriously.)
Do not assume that your work is done when you type “the end.” You need to sell your book to an agent (or publisher) and then to readers!
Wendy, thank you so much for your time. This has been absolutely a golden opportunity, and I really appreciate you sharing your knowledge of the industry with all of us out here in authorland. Before we close, is anything is you want to mention—anything, especially, to send us quick-stepping out right now to get our copies of the Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters?
It’s very difficult to find query letters on the Internet that actually resulted in book deals. This book has several examples of good (and bad!) query letters for multiple genres. There’s also a great sample synopsis and a book proposal.
What better way to learn than to read real queries that landed real book deals?
Wendy will be checking in all day today and throughout next week to answer questions. Please feel free to either leave a question for her in a comment or email it to me!
Wendy Burt-Thomas is a full-time freelance writer, editor, and copywriter with more than 1,000 published pieces. The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters is her third book. To learn more about Wendy and her books, visit http://www.GuideToQueryLetters.com and http://AskWendy.wordpress.com.