Last weekend, as many of you know, I had the opportunity to attend my first writer’s conference. At first I came out more on the negative side of that experience, but I have to admit that I received tons of great information and useful* advice (*actual usefulness to be determined). I also heard a veritable wealth of direct contradictions, of course, about writing query letters. One person on our panel would say “never include a bio” and the next person would say “always include a bio”. One person would “tell us how it ends in the query” and the other would say “never give away the ending”. Advice on query letters should be taken not with a grain of salt, but with an entire salt lick.
I’m really surprised that query letter advice doesn’t attract more deer.
Anyway, here is what super nice agent Sorche Fairbank (awesome name, huh? How many of you are planning to put that in your next fantasy novel? A show of hands?) had to say about writing query letters:
#1: Don’t take the life out of your query letter – All this means is that your query letter should read like an extension of your book. If you’ve written a heavy, self-serious historical war piece like my book The Notice, then your query letter should reflect that same gravity. If you’ve written a comical memoir, then your query letter damn well better elicit a chuckle or two from the agent reading it. Try to mimic your narrative and never lose the heart of what you’ve written. If this sounds like a delicate dance, it’s because it is. This is not nearly as simple as it might sound because your goal is to be concise (much more concise than your novel probably is) while also keeping your language true to your prose.
#2: Who is your audience? Who is your genre? A no-brainer. Research and spell out your genre and, ideally, briefly mention who your target audience is. This will not always be clear to the agent reviewing your work. Try to point them in the right direction of your market.
#3: What is the protagonist/antagonist conflict? This seems to be a pretty unanimously agreed upon point among the agent world. Agents may disagree profoundly on things like structure and whether or not a bio is necessary, but they all seem to agree that your query letter should get to the heart of your book’s conflict. And why shouldn’t it? If your query letter has no conflict, why should they assume your book will? You need to spell out who the protagonist is and who or what the narrator is and how the conflict between those two forces will result in decisions or choices that move the story through your standard beginning, middle, climax, end arc.
#4: Remember the 4 S’s (Style, Story, Setting, Someone): Sorche said something that sounded a lot like “you can only pick one of these” in your query letter, but I’m not sure I understood her correctly or perhaps she misspoke. I don’t see how you could only pick one of these in a query letter. You can’t base a whole query letter on “setting” without mentioning the story or “someones”, obviously. Or at least that doesn’t make any sense to me. Your query letter should incorporate your style and story, while briefly dispensing with the setting and detailing the key characters and their dynamics, as I mentioned above. At any rate, remember the 4 S’s. They seem pretty universal.
#5: Discuss your platform: I’ve blogged about this in other entries but you should discuss your platform. What abilities do you have to ensure that this book is sold? Do you have a considerable Twitter presence? Do you do speaking engagements regularly at which this book could be sold? Are you George Clooney (if you are, um…use that.). I built this website partly to nurture my platform. This site gives me a venue through which I can gain exposure, market my books, deal in mirth and snark, and attract others within the literary community. This is really increasingly important in this economy, where agents and publishers are perhaps less willing to gamble on unknown writers with experimental or high-concept stories.
I don’t condone the lack of risk-taking. Frankly, it annoys me. But we still have to be practical. It makes sense from a business standpoint and business is everything. Hollywood does it too. That’s why we get four Transformers movies and just as many Alvin & The Chipmunks “Squeakuels” (shudder) for every District 9 that comes out.
#6: Author Bio or Contact: Another thing on which agents seem to be in agreement is that contact information should come at the bottom of your query letter after your name. If you’re like me, that goes against everything you ever learned about writing business letters. But these aren’t business letters, they’re queries. Checkmate! As for bios, really study any agencies requirements and you’ll often find indications of how they feel about bios. Some will tell you explicitly to give a brief paragraph about yourself. If nothing about a bio is mentioned but the agency instructs you to keep your letter short, I say don’t feel obligated to include one.
Sorche also gave a brief lecture on what to include in memoir queries. Having just finished Naked in Korea, I thought her advice was worth repeating. Firstly, agents need to know what about your memoir will attract readers to your story. How will your narrative transcend the individual? A memoir about your trip to Jamaica, for example, is useless if you don’t have an angle. What happened in Jamaica? Did you see a part of Jamaica that few people get to see? Were you abducted and molested by howler monkeys? (if that actually happened to anyone…I’m really sorry) What I’m trying to say is that your memoir won’t matter to anyone but you if nothing interesting actually happened to you. The memoir-verse is full of books by the likes of Hillary Clinton, Kofi Anan, Bono, Angelina Jolie, Snookie, and the Dalai Lama. How are you going to compete with them if the only thing that happened in Jamaica was that you went to the beach?
Another point Sorche made is that you should mention if your book is the first to do something. Also, why are YOU the best person to write it? What it is about your experience or observations or humor that qualifies you to write the definitive memoir about that experience? If you battled cancer, what can people learn from your battle with cancer that they can’t get anywhere else? Always put your most interesting material first.