I’ve been told that I’m overhyping the query thing this week. To anyone who feels that way, I believe that you can’t overhype the, um, unoverhypable. If you have a poor query, Joe Agent will never read your book. In that respect, the query is more important than your novel. I’ve submitted probably a hundred queries to date and I’ve never heard a word of criticism against my writing; I have, however, heard problems that agents have had with various minute aspects of my query letters. On those points, I have learned more in the past week than I probably have in the past year. Here are some thoughts I wanted to share.
1. Where you put your contact information. You’ve probably heard the old saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Well, that isn’t the case with writing query letters. Here, the small stuff is precisely the sort of content that could be driving agents away from taking your book seriously. I know—it sucks. In a perfect world, your book would sell itself according to its own virtues. There are so many double standards and hypocrisies against independent writers, that I couldn’t possibly comment on them all in this post, although I will address some of them soon.
What’s important is that your contact information should come BELOW YOUR NAME at the end of your query. Forget everything that you know about business letter format. Agents can be a little, ahem, dickish about you putting their contact information and yours’ at the top of your letter. Their rebuttal will be “I know my own address” and the underlying point is that any agent is only interested in your story, so get to the damn point! If they want to get in touch with you, they WILL look for your contact information at the end. The best comment I’ve heard on where you put your contact information is that every time you put information at the top of your letter, you are increasing the need for an agent to scroll down your page (in an email or on a smart phone) and you’re also increasing the likelihood that he or she won’t.
2. The subject line of your email – The subject line of your email can be the kiss of death if you try to get inventive. If you try any mischief like “Urgent! Please Read!”, you are only making your query letter look and smell like SPAM, and if it walks like a duck and squawks like a duck, you can bet what any agent will do. Your subject line should only ever say “Query:” , followed by the name of your book. Many agents will resent or just ignore anything outside of this standard.
3. Don’t try to negotiate the rules. – Agent and famed query letter obliterator Janet Reid summed it up best on her blog when she said “The only thing about your query letter or writing that should be ‘exceptional’ is the writing itself”. Never, under any circumstances, think that your writing deserves to step outside of the submission guidelines listed by any agency or publisher. If 250 words is the limit for your query letter, don’t even think about doing 251. Agents who are accustomed to what 250 words looks like, for example, will spot a 300 word query instantly and probably throw it to the sharks. Furthermore, if an agent asks for 3-5 pages of your book, never send him or her an entire 8-page chapter. I can personally tell you that following the rules may not get you anywhere—it probably won’t—but believe when I say you got farther than you would have breaking them.
4. How you describe your protagonist – One interesting thought that I came across in researching little things that detract from query letters is how people describe their protagonists. The agent commented that descriptions about things like race, age, and (my favorite) “chest size” ultimately made him or her believe that the protagonist was not interesting enough to transcend those basic labels. There’s something to be said for that. If you have to describe your character as a “black femme fatale with an impeccable rack”, what real definition is there for your protagonist? If your heroine is little more than a walking skin color with a great figure and no personality, background, inner conflict, or decisions to be made, why would any agent want to follow your character from page 1 to 150? Basic physical descriptions are for the novel itself; in a query letter, agents need about one sentence that describes precisely who your main character is and what makes him or her tick.
5. TALK ABOUT YOUR STORY! – This is the big enchilada! The hat tamale! The…enormous Mexican-food-themed cliché describing something’s enormousness. Great, now I’m hungry again. Anyway, if there’s one thing all agents can agree on, it’s that your query letter needs to talk about your plot. Now, I’ve made a mistake on query letters of talking about the story…and NOT the plot. If you’re like me, you may not understand the difference, so let me wax poetic (I’m not really waxing poetic, but it’s a phrase I adore and one I rarely get to use, so there you go). Your “plot” as relayed in your query letter needs to address exactly what the primary conflict will be that is endured by your protagonist throughout your novel. What difficult decision will your protagonist have to make? How will it affect your character? What is the ultimate journey that your character must undertake to address said conflict? Believe me, it’s not easy—especially if you submit to the “Keep Your Query Under 250 Words” Art of Query Writing.
Hope this was helpful, Guys. I really appreciate the feedback and support I have received so far on this site. Your comments have been really inspiring. I may not have found an agency yet, but I really admire the positivity and brotherhood that encapsulates independent writing. I hope my observations might help someone else succeed where I have so far been unsuccessful. I’ll get there someday. It may not be with “The Notice”, but one of these days…