Before You Hit “Send”: The Three Essential Elements of a Successful Query Letter

Standard

checklistToday I’m gearing up for one of my favorite annual events—the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference this weekend. I love writers conferences in general, but this one is extra special because it’s in my backyard—which means a reunion with lots of friends and colleagues, and a chance to meet writers from Colorado and all over the country. Hooray!

I’ll be giving a workshop about query letters and landing an agent, so I thought this would be a good time to share a snapshot. Here’s the million-dollar question:

WHAT ARE THE THREE INDISPENSABLE, MUST-HAVE ELEMENTS OF A QUERY LETTER? 

Answer:

  • It grabs the reader’s attention in the opening paragraph (and preferably, the very first sentence). A query letter is a single-page, one-shot opportunity to impress an agent. You can’t afford to waste a single line. Whether it’s a provocative tagline or hook, or a reference to a personal connection with the agent (“We met at the RMFW conference last month and you expressed a lot of interest in my contemporary YA novel, XXXX…”), make sure your opening lines pack a punch. As in good fiction writing, don’t get bogged down in background information (“This is my second novel but the first one I’ve submitted. I think I’ve reached the point where I’m ready to take my career to the next level. Blah, blah…”).
  • It shows off your writing style and personality as an author. One of the best ways to show an agent you are a good writer is to give a taste of your writing style right in the query letter. I don’t mean grabbing the first paragraph of your novel (or a random chunk) and plunking it into the opening of your query—that’s hard to pull off and can be a major turnoff. Instead, try to convey a sense of your writing voice—if the novel is funny, sprinkle some of that same humor in the query. If it’s a light-hearted YA, let the agent hear that. If it’s a macabre mystery, give a sense of the darkness and suspense your story contains.
  • It intrigues, amuses, or shocks your readers—makes them want more. The worst thing you can do is try to tell the entire story of your novel. A query letter is a sip that makes the reader want to chug the whole glass. A good way to master this technique is to go to your favorite bookstore or online bookseller and read the back cover copy of novels similar to yours. What is the tone? At what point does the blurb cut you off, leaving you to wonder what’s next? What questions does it plant in your mind as the reader? Try typing up a few of these blurbs on your computer—not to plagiarize, of course, but copying them will help internalize the kind of rhythm and flow that captivates readers.

Want an example of a query that encapsulates all of these elements? Read this story of a successful query from my wonderful colleague and friend, agent Sara Megibow. It’s about her client Stefanie Gaither, whose debut YA novel FALLS THE SHADOW comes out this fall from Simon & Schuster. I’d have to agree with Sara—this query is pitch perfect. 

Need help with your query letter? I offer a double-pass critique (including a look at your second draft once you have revised) for $45. Email your query, or any questions, to anitaedits(at)gmail(dot)com. I look forward to helping you break out of the slush pile!

Five Ways to Impress an Agent with Your Opening Pages

Standard

[ Note: This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter. Go RMFW! ]shutterstock_138099389

Today I’d like to tackle one of my favorite FAQs: What does it take to hook an agent with your opening pages? (Insert profanity if you’ve been through or are in the midst of this process!)

The truth is, on any given page of your novel, agents weigh dozens of factors based on their knowledge, experience, and personal taste. They’re also employing another vital skill: instinct. If their gut isn’t telling them to read on, their brain probably won’t win the argument. But I think I can boil it down to five key elements that really make agents swoon:

A Remarkable Voice. Every author has a voice, but what makes one captivating and another lackluster? One major element is uniqueness—both at the “big picture” level (how your characters see the world) and in the details (word choice, flow, syntactic quirks). Another is authenticity. Do the narration and dialogue ring true with our understanding of the characters and story? A third is unobtrusiveness; while not invisible, a strong voice effortlessly captures the reader without calling attention to itself.

Flawless Writing. An agent is hooked when she reaches the end of your pages and had forgotten she was reading a sub- mission. This happens when the writing is so polished that there was nothing to trigger her “agent brain” and pull her out of the story. The opening pages must deftly balance scene and summary, clear dialogue, and just enough intriguing backstory. Disappointment comes from sending out a project too soon. Find a critique group or writing partner you can trust to be brutal with your early drafts. You’ll thank them later.

Irresistible Characters. No matter how beautiful the writing, a manuscript is in trouble if an agent doesn’t fall in love with the main character(s), or at least find them hard to forget. Like all readers, agents want to feel a strong emotional stake in what happens to these people/dragons/aliens/werefolk. At the end of your sample chapters, you want to leave agents in anguish, dying to know what will happen to your characters.

A Compelling Inciting Incident. Another thing agents look for is an inciting incident within the first thirty pages or so. Granted, there are excellent novels that take longer to get there; Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is an example. But Outlander is an 800+ page tome, and long stories like that are the exception, not the rule. An author has to have a good reason to delay the spark, such as relevant scene setting or character development. In the slush pile, a long delay is more often the result of unpolished writing that needs a trim.

Smooth Mechanics. As sexy as that sounds, this one has more to do with nuts and bolts than instinct. Still, it’s important enough to make the list. One or two typos is probably not a deal breaker, but if a manuscript includes frequent mistakes in grammar, spelling, punctuation, or formatting, agents start to see red flags: Is this author unprofessional? Downright careless? Would our working relationship be a mess, too? Don’t take chances—run it by your exasperatingly anal copy editor friend before you hit that “send” button.

Whether you’re about to start the submission process, or already in the trenches, best of luck!

Dream Team: Finding the Right Critique Group for You

Standard

TeamWork

I’ve had quite a few conversations lately about how isolated the writing life can be (and believe me, I can sympathize as an editor!). So today, I’m reaching into the Archive for an article that addresses this issue. Yes, writing is a solitary task, but becoming a successful author is a team effort. Before you ever sign with an agent or publisher, or hire freelance professionals to help you indie publish, a good critique group or writing partner can be an indispensable key to your success.

Here, some advice on how to choose writing partners who will help you bring out the very best in your work:

 

What to Look for in A Critique Group  [Updated article from the Word Cafe Archive]

One of the top pieces of advice agents and editors give to writers of all experience levels is this: join a critique group. There are many advantages to this, among them: help with finding holes in your plot (and other things that don’t work), a support system to cheer you through writer’s block, and a community of like-minded people who take writing seriously.

So what should you look for in a critique group? Here are some important things to consider:

    • Experience with your genre. This doesn’t mean everyone in the group has to be working on exactly the same type of project—there are pros and cons to that. But think of it this way: if you’re writing a middle grade boy book and all of your other critique  partners write adult fiction, you might not get the feedback you need. That is, unless the other member are avid readers of MG fiction (perhaps they have children in that age range), and they know the market and what it takes to hook a young reader versus an adult.
    • Success among the members. By this, I don’t mean you should turn a group down if its members are not NYT bestsellers. After all, if you’re a new writer, that would be pretty darn intimidating! What you should look for are writers with a successful track record of some kind. Ideally, at least one is published with a traditional house, and another another is achieving success with her self-published titles. Another member has just sold a short story to an online literary journal, and a fourth has just finished his first novel and is shopping it to agents and editors. You’ll learn a lot from this variety of experience levels, and no matter where you are in your writing career, there will be someone who has been there or is going through the same steps now.
    • Reliable group members. We all have busy lives and occasionally have to cancel a commitment. But if several members of your group consistently flake out, you may end up giving a lot more than you get in return, and that’s not fair. Before you join a group, ask about their average attendance and whether there is a system to encourage accountability. A critique group can be one of your greatest assets as a writer—but only if it’s a team you can count on. And don’t forget, they’ll expect the same from you!
    • Healthy balance of encouragement and criticism. When you join a critique group, look for people you can trust to give you honest, objective feedback—after all, if you wanted nothing but praise, you’d ask your mom. The goal for each member should be to make that feedback constructive and useful; a good way to do this is to start by highlighting things you liked or that worked for you, and following them in a respectful manner with your concerns, being specific about what didn’t work and why.

Now, the question is, where can you find a fantastic group like this? A good place to start is with your local writers organization. They should be able to provide you with a list of groups open to new members, or point you to resources for finding one. You can also ask your writer friends or writers you meet at conferences—networking is a great way to find a group. And while I’m generally an advocate for face-to-face interaction, online groups work well for a lot of people, too. Try www.critiquecircle.com, www.thenextbigwriter.com, or www.writers.net . Also, check out this helpful page from Colorado State University—it has more great tips and questions to ask yourself before joining a group, or to help you start your own.

A last piece of advice: go with your gut. If you join a critique group and you feel torn down rather than supported after each meeting, or you wonder if anyone actually read your pages, it’s probably time to let go and find a group of people who are as interested in your success as you are.