Tag Archives: Manuscript & Query Critiques /

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!

A New Year, a New Chapter, and a Query Letter Critique Giveaway!

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shutterstock_88462129Happy New Year, everyone!

So much news and so many things to celebrate. 2013 was amazing and part of me hates to see it go! The first half of the year was marked with lots of milestones at Nelson Literary Agency. Among them: Kristin earned the title “Admiral Nelson” for her blockbuster contributions at Digital Book World, Sara Megibow celebrated her first NYT bestseller (go Jason M. Hough and The Darwin Elevator!), and NLA authors found big success with indie titles through NLA Digital. For my work in foreign rights, I coordinated translation deals for clients’ books in Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam. As in previous years, I got to present at conferences and events around the country. And I had the thrill of seeing authors I’d first met in the slush pile rise to bestseller status, release amazing sequels, and achieve success abroad.

In July, with the support of my friends at NLA, I made the very difficult decision to leave my work there in order to pursue a path that combines my passion for the writing and publishing industry with my other loves: teaching and travel. In September I left for Dharamsala, India to spend three months as a volunteer English teacher at an organization called ES Tibet, a nonprofit that provides education to Tibetan refugees who have fled persecution from the Chinese government in their homeland. The students I worked with, like many others in the refugee community, had literally climbed over the Himalayas to reach India for education and work opportunities and to join the community of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile. (To read about the school or to see how you can help, visit their website or send me an email. You can also check out my pictures on Facebook.)

And that brings me to three things I’m celebrating at the dawn of 2014:

1) Returning from India. I arrived home to Denver just in time for Christmas with my family (at least I think I did—merciless jet lag!). To be honest, I’m both celebrating and mourning this one. The experiences I had at Kunpan Cultural School, and my subsequent travel in India, were among the best of my life. I had the chance to do meaningful work, learn about Indian and Tibetan culture, and meet some of the kindest, most courageous and generous folk on the planet. I also gained firsthand insight on the fascinating Indian book market. I’m not going to lie—leaving was rough. But the experience filled me with even more excitement and energy for my next adventure, namely…

2) The official launch of Mumm’s the Word Editing & Critique ServicesWith a name like mine, how could I consider doing anything else? I’m going with karma on this one! Armed with the knowledge I gained from my work at NLA and the publishing biz, I’m offering developmental editing and critique packages for full manuscripts, partials, and query letters. In the near future I’ll also offer workshops and presentations on writing craft, publishing advice, and other topics covered here on Word Café. Spanking new website coming soon! In the meantime, to receive an information sheet or book a project, send me an email at anitaedits(at)gmail(dot)com. My project schedule is filling up, so if your New Year’s resolution is to land an agent or polish your final draft for self-publishing, say no to procrastination!

3) The anniversary of Word Café. Yes, indeed—Word Café turns one today! It’s been such a blast and I can’t wait to kick off another year. So to celebrate, instead of cake (because my resolution is a serious reduction of sweets: Indian bakeries…withdrawal symptoms…not pretty!), I’ve decided to do a query letter critique giveaway. To enter the drawing, post a comment here or on the Word Café Facebook page (be sure to mention “query critique drawing”) and with the help of Random.org I’ll select two lucky winners at the end of this month.

I’ll close with a toast to all of my readers: health, happiness, and big writing success for 2014. Here’s to a fantastic year ahead…

Cheers!