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

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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!

The Winners of the Query Critique Giveaway—And A Little Something For All My Readers

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shutterstock_173928185It’s official! Today was the final day to enter my query critique drawing, and with a little help from my friends Excel and Random.org, I’m thrilled to announce the two winners. Congratulations, Rose G. and Donna Marie V.! I’ve sent instructions for the next step and I look forward to hearing from you.

Many thanks to everyone who entered the drawing, and for all of your enthusiastic feedback. As a consolation prize, I’ve decided to offer a discounted price of $35 for query letter critiques throughout the month of February (the regular price is $45). As always, this service includes a “second pass” at no charge, where I will look at your revised query and let you know whether you are on the right track. And it’s for everyone—not just those who participated in the giveaway. You can simply email your query to me at anitaedits(at)gmail(dot)com, or use that same address for questions or to request additional information about my services.

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Need some quick tips? Here is some advice from one of my previous posts on query letters. And you can always find more by clicking on “Query Letters” in the side bar.

Five common reasons agents say no to a query:

  • You’re targeting the wrong agents. Use AgentQuery.com or Publishers Marketplace to make your wish list of agents who specialize in your genre. Getting that part right is crucial, but don’t stop there. Find up-to-the minute information on what each agent is looking for: on Twitter, Facebook, their agent blog, agency newsletter, etc. Yes, I’m saying that light cyberstalking is not only okay—it’s a must! It puts you in a position to know which agents are asking for just the type of project you’ve got, and to impress them by mentioning their tweet or post.
  • Query is unprofessional or unpolished. Agents want writers with personality, but that takes a back seat to professionalism. “Quirky” rarely gets you points here (examples: addressing the query to the agent’s dog, writing the query in rhyming verse—sadly, I saw both of those way too many times in my slush pile days!). It’s great to come across as friendly, but your query is a business letter and it needs to look like one: correct formatting, no spelling or punctuation errors. Most agents now accept queries only by email, a medium that is inherently less formal than printed letters. You can leave out the return and recipient address at the top, but resist being overly chatty or informal with the rest.
  • Query is wordy or convoluted. The number of queries most agents receive in a week is in the hundreds. So, reason number one for keeping your query concise is they simply don’t have time to scroll and scroll to get through your query. Reason number two is agents will assume that if your query is wordy, convoluted, or disorganized, your novel probably is, too. While this isn’t always true (believe me, I know it takes different skills to write a query than a novel), with that many submissions to consider, agents don’t have time to second-guess their first impressions.
  • Query is vague or too brief. Just as too long won’t win you any points, the converse is also a problem. I’ve seen a lot of queries that go like this: “My novel is an action-packed story with characters you’ll fall in love with and a plot that keeps the pages turning.” But what the heck is it about? Who are these endearing characters? Yes, you have only a paragraph or two to hook the reader—so use them! Introduce your main characters and what they are up against without giving away the ending. Check out the back cover/flap copy of some of your favorite books to see how this is done.
  • Story sounds unoriginal or like too many others the agent has seen. While it’s not a bad idea to compare your novel to highly successful ones on the market, the key is to also show what sets it apart from them. What’s special or unique about your characters, the world they inhabit, the challenges they face? This is particularly important if your story fits a recent trend; by the time a trend hits its peak, agents are buried in queries for the “next” Twilight/Percy Jackson/Fifty Shades of Grey. Being the tenth one the agent reads today will put you out of the running—unless you work very hard to make yours sound fresh and unique.

Happy querying! May this be your year of big success.