It’s been several weeks since I posted anything about query letters on this site. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve said anything about them since my first writer’s conference in June and even though that was only a month ago, it feels like that happened years back. To be honest, I have spent hours (days, even) researching what makes the perfect query letter and I’ve probably written damn close to 100 of them myself. I’ve written bad ones, I’ve written mediocre ones, and I’ve written letters that literally had me thinking, “If I don’t hear back from an agent about this letter I swear I’m throwing in the towel for good.” Of course I never heard back anything even on those last letters and I’ve still got that towel optimistically in hand.
We’ve been through a lot together that towel and I and, while there are still far too many glaring contradictions in the industry for me to be able to say definitively what makes for a “perfect query letter”, I can say that I’ve stumbled across a few things that everyone in the industry seems to agree you should NOT do in a query letter. Let’s have a look:
Overconfidence/Arrogance: If there’s one thing I can say it’s that I am overconfident and arrogant about my work. Every time I finish a book, I think it’s the greatest thing in the world and I think it can outsell any other book. It doesn’t matter whether or not that’s actually true, but it’s what I tell myself because I am proud and secure in my abilities. HOWEVER, I never let a drop of that overconfidence trickle into my query letter. In fact, I never try to be anything but a humble and respectful little kitten.
And it’s gotten me absolutely nowhere, but I digress…
First, just let me spell out what I mean by overconfidence. If you have ever written some variant of the following line, then you may want to check your ego at the door: “My forthcoming sci-fi novel has been likened to H.G. Wells by way of Hemingway if Jesus Christ had written it while roundhouse kicking a velociraptor in the face.” Actually, if you have ever written that EXACT line in a query letter, forget everything I’m about to say because you’re almost definitely going to get published—that sounds INCREDIBLE. But you get my point. Don’t compare yourself to the industry’s leading writers. You aren’t the next Stephen King. You aren’t the next J.K. Rowling. Become successful first and then let other people make those comparisons.
As good as I think my books are, I would never call myself “the next J.K. Rowling”, because right now being the next J.K. Rowling feels a lot like sitting at my computer in my underwear in a sweltering apartment in Kentucky ranting on a blog and eating applesauce out of a jar.
No Plot: This was my major shortcoming with all of my early query letters. I made an innocent mistake that probably 75% of unpublished writers make when they are sending out their first query letters: Describing the book without actually getting into the plot. By plot, what I mean is that you outline your important characters (especially protagonist/antagonist) and you outline their conflict. A novel has to have some sort of conflict, Folks. All agents seem to agree on that and I don’t think I have to linger too long on this point.
Get to the point quickly. Don’t spend too much time talking about what your book is or isn’t. Show what it is by digging deep into the central drive of your story. What does your character want? Who or what stands in his or her way? What must he/she do to get there? You don’t have to give away the ending (in fact, it’s best if you don’t), but you should give the agent a clear sense of what is at stake.
No Voice: Another flaw in many query letters is that the letter does not reflect the voice of the manuscript. Your manuscript can be the greatest thing ever, but if your query letter is full of redundancies, no confidence, sloppy editing, etc. the agent will assume that your book will just be more of the same. Make sure that your query letter represents a concise example of your best writing and that it draws in the readers just as much as your book. Convincing readers to come along for the ride? That’s the easy part. Convincing an agent? That’s the true test.
I’ve heard several agents say, “I can tell everything about a writer’s book from the query letter.” That’s only partially true. If you’re like me, writing the book was a breeze compared to trying to get it published. I think my book is in fine shape now, but my query letters are a mess now because I’ve been told 20 different and conflicting things about how to write them. My book has confidence. My book has a voice. My query letters have less confidence and less voice because the more I try to change or improve something, the more someone tells me, “Sean…I don’t really like the font you used on the date at the top of the letter” or “What is this query letter printed on, Boise X-9 Hi-Brite Multipurpose Paper? No way in Hell am I reading this!”
I’ve only had one agent give me good feedback on query letters and I met her at a conference. Too bad several other agents with whom I’ve spoken since have told me they disagree with her, but whatever. At the end of the day, professionalism and persistence are key.
Baffling or Unprofessional: I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time here, because this is just talking about the ludicrous and absurd things that people try to pull on agents. We’re talking about stuff that makes the rest of us look bad. One example I heard an agent tell was a story involving some person who said in their query letter, “I have chosen you to represent my new novel” or “my novel is the first in a twelve-part series that I have written which will quickly make more money than the Harry Potter series”. If I have to spell out for you what is wrong with both of those statements, please reconsider your writing endeavors, because ultimately these sorts of efforts only polarize agents that much more and make it that much more difficult for aspiring indie authors who are trying to play the game right to get published.
Never say things like “I worked really hard on this book” or, as Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb point out in one of my favorite publishing books Your First Novel, “I know how busy you are, so I’ll get straight to the point and not take up too much of your valuable time”. The first quote is irrelevant and, hopefully, implied. If you didn’t work hard on it, don’t even think about trying to get it published. The second quote, in trying to keep from wasting time, needlessly wastes an agent’s time. Just get to your own book, keep it focused, and try to stay confident and optimistic.
Also, don’t include a photo of yourself unless you look like George Clooney. Or you can just do what I do and include a photo of George Clooney with every query letter. By the way, I don’t actually do that. However, if I don’t start getting some interest from agents soon, I just might start doing that…
Contact Information: If this seems like a stupid thing for an agent to get worked up over, that’s because it is, but some (I want to emphasize “SOME”) agents will still get in a tizzy if you list your contact information at the top of your letter instead of at the bottom. I know, I know. It is ridiculous…but I’m being serious. I say, unless otherwise stated, always put your contact information at the bottom of the letter, ESPECIALLY IF YOU ARE QUERYING VIA EMAIL. I guess you can completely ignore the example of a “Good Query to Agent: Novel/Memoir” listed on page 35 of the 2011 90th Anniversary Edition of the Writer’s Market, which claims to be “The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published”. Even though that letter comes from what is, in my opinion, one of the most reputable and trustworthy sources on the market today and even though that resource clearly shows a mock query letter with all relevant contact information in plain sight at the top of the query letter with the agent’s address directly below that, evidently you are an idiot for thinking that’s how it should be done.
I hope you all are enjoying the sarcasm that is practically dripping off this blog right now. Yeesh.
I’m not even joking about that book: http://www.amazon.com/2011-Writers-Market-Robert-Brewer/dp/B0062GJOZS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1342108655&sr=8-1&keywords=2011+writer%27s+market There’s the Amazon link. It’s a great big helpful-looking book evidently compiled by a vast list of industry professionals and, yet, I have now had about ten agents tell me that the query letter information in it is wrong or, at the very least, unhelpful. What the Hell? Evidently, there was a meeting of agents in an ominous, shadowy lair somewhere miles below the Earth’s surface that involved The League of Evil Agents randomly deciding to reject query letters with contact information in the wrong place. It happened sometime in late 2011, by my estimate. What, you didn’t get the memo either? How about that…
Wow, I can’t believe how much I wrote about putting contact information in the wrong place. I just find that point to be the dumbest thing imaginable over which to reject a query letter. It would be like me unwrapping a Big Mac and deciding to throw it away because of the placement of a cheese slice. If the burger doesn’t have any MEAT on it, that’s a pretty big problem, but if all the ingredients are there, only SLIGHTLY out of order, I’m pretty sure I can still eat it. And, agents, I’m pretty sure you can still read a damn query letter at least through the first sentence.
Never ever ever refer to your book as a “fiction novel”: A novel is, by definition, a work of fiction, so claiming that you’ve written a “fiction novel” in your query letter is seen as the calling card of an amateur. This is yet another honest mistake that I’m sure tons of writers make and, yeah, most agents will stop right there as soon as they see that in a query letter. I wonder how they feel about someone calling his or her book “novel fiction”, though…
When all is said and done, you need to remember one thing: Almost any agent is looking for a reason to not read your book. Any agent who just read that sentence is probably throwing his or her hands in the air at that statement, saying, “How can Sean say that? We make our livings off of the books we sell!” Well, I stand by my assertion. I have read the most asinine reasons by agents for rejecting books based on query letters. I have read and listened to some of the most offensively stupid arguments imaginable for snubbing queries—things that don’t even have anything to do with the writing or the book itself. Things like, “I didn’t read her letter because she wrote it in standard business letter format and put my address at the top…like I don’t know my own address!” Yes, agents will even reject people for trying to be professional and respectful. I had no idea that business letter format was a major turn-off for many agents, despite the fact that one of the books I purchased on writing query letters provided examples written in business letter format.
However, most agents don’t care about all the contradictions and hypocrisies that are pervasive across the gamut of “Help” literature on query letter writing. They want everything done their way, and you have to do your best to accommodate them. Of course as I can tell you most of the time even that won’t be enough.