It’s been several weeks since I visited the rather sensitive issue that is “Query Letters”. Every aspiring writer wants to know, “What’s the secret?” Every aspiring writer, at one point or another, thinks that there must be some secret to query letters or some secret code. Maybe you’re supposed to say the word “sassafras” or “kerfuffle” or something at some point in your letter, and that will be the point when the agent reading your letter says, “He knows the code… send him a book deal.” I don’t know. If you want me to be honest, the key to what makes a perfect query letter is #3 behind The Da Vinci Code and the whereabouts of The Holy Grail on the list of the world’s greatest mysteries. How mysterious is it? I have a strange feeling that Indiana Jones will be trying to find the perfect query letter if they ever make a fifth one of those movies: Indiana Jones and the Query Letter of Providence!
I just hope they bring back Shia Labeouf. What’s that, Microsoft Word? Red squiggly lines under “Shia” and “Labeouf”?? That’s because his name is like something out of a Canadian Dr. Seuss book.
In all likelihood, though—as much as it pains me to say this—the possibility of there being a “perfect query letter” is about as remote as the likelihood that Eddie Murphy will ever star in anything watchable again. There is no perfect query letter because there are no perfect agents. The querying process is a give and take, and your letter is going to be subject to an impossible range of factors over which you have absolutely zero control. An agent might pass on your project because the story of your book just happens to be close to something the agency has already taken. Your project might be passed up because Agent #17 just spilled hot coffee on herself, she’s pissed off, and, frankly, she’s taking it out on your book because what does she care? Your project might be passed up because it’s 2:00 in the morning in New York and Agent #31 just decided to browse your letter on her I-Phone while enjoying drinks at a bar with some girlfriends and “Party Rock” is playing for the fifth damn time and, while she really, really LOVED your idea, in her drunken stupor she accidentally hit delete and was too intoxicated to notice. That could happen!
Or your project could be terrible. Like really, really terrible. Like if your book were a movie, even Eddie Murphy wouldn’t star in it. Yes—that’s TWO Eddie Murphy slams in one post and you know what’s strange? I love Eddie Murphy. That’s just the way the wind is blowing today, my friends.
I think I had too much coffee this morning.
Anyway, there are some strategies you can adopt to help hedge your bets when it comes to query letters. And for this letter, I’m not going to waste time telling you the obvious stuff that you should already know. You should already know that a query letter should never be longer than one page. Some agents will tell you a letter shouldn’t be longer than 250 words, although I try to keep mine between 250 and 400. If an agent is too busy to give my project more than 250 words, I would suspect that agent is too busy to stick his or her neck out for me anyway, even I suspected I’d written the next To Kill a Mockingbird. I shouldn’t have to tell you to research any agent you query and make sure that agent represents books in your genre and I shouldn’t have to tell you to edit the crap out of your query letter. You should reread that bad boy no less than 10 times. So, with all the basic stuff out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff.
Find New Agents: I don’t divulge all of my secrets. The point of this blog is not for me to do all the research for you but rather to point you in the right direction. Rosters of new agents give you information about young, hip, and eager agents who have just entered the game and their appeal should be obvious to you. New agents are probably in the process of building client lists, which means they’ll be taking on more projects. If you’re young, there’s probably a better chance that your interests overlap with new agents. I find that younger agents, for example, are far more likely to embrace sci-fi, dystopian fiction, urban fantasy, etc. than some of their elder counterparts because our generation has always embraced those genres. It could be easier for you to get your foot in the door with a young agent than with someone who already has a client list chock full of prolific, skilled authors who are already established names. I won’t tell you where these listings are, but they shouldn’t be too difficult to find.
Don’t Spend Too Much Time Selling Yourself: This can be a surprisingly contentious issue. I have met some agents who say you shouldn’t feel obligated to say anything about yourself in your query letter and I have met agents who say, “Well, of course, we need to know something about you!” What I can say is that I have seen no discernible benefits from listing all my degrees, my background in journalism, my work as an English teacher, my extensive international traveling, blah, blah, blah. You’re trying to sell your book and, assuming you’ve written a good query, that should be the highlight of your query. Biographical information is just sort of the icing on the cake. My advice? See if the agency you’re considering has anything really specific to say about query letter specs. If they tell you they want an absurdly short query letter (250 words), then your biographical info is what you put on the chopping block first. Several agencies will specifically request that you write something about your background and credentials. In that case, go for it, but keep it short—I’d say three sentences, unless you live a really dynamic and exciting life—and don’t mention anything that isn’t relevant to your book or your writing.
Ixnay on Ebut-Day: Pig Latin? Some experts claim that you should never mention that you’re a debut writer or that you’ve never been published. I agree with most of this. With regard to the first part, use your own discretion on whether you mention a book is your debut attempt. My instinct is to say don’t mention it at all, because the fact that you’re a debut writer shouldn’t have any bearing on the quality of your book. However, some agents have a soft-spot for first-time writers and, in those rare situations, mentioning that you’re young and just starting out might make them nostalgic enough to give you a chance. If you’re uncertain how an agent feels about debut writers, don’t mention it. As I said, the fact that you’re a debut writer isn’t terribly relevant and does seem far more likely to work against you. You may not be a professional yet, but that doesn’t mean you should sell yourself as an amateur.
As for mentioning that you’ve never been published, failure in the industry should not be seen as an indictment against your abilities. Who cares that you’ve never been published? That doesn’t mean you’re out of the game. Take my first book, The Notice, for example: I still believe that I wrote a fantastic book and reviewers on Amazon seemed to agree, giving it 20 five-star reviews and 5 four-star reviews out of 25, however, I will admit that a ghost story set during The Bosnian War may not have been the most marketable book I could have written. In that respect, I understand why agencies may not have wanted to take a risk on it. However, why should I put myself on the line by referencing the books I failed to get published in any query letter regarding a new project I’m pitching? How could that possibly help me? Trying to get published is the process of continually looking forward. Never put all your cards on the table and always keep your query letter focused specifically on the book you’re trying to sell now.
Know What an Agent Does: Okay, I might be treading into “Obvious” territory here, but I still hear tons of stories from agents who receive letters from folks who are unclear what a literary agent does, and I am sympathetic to their plight. Nowhere in your query letter should you ever make a request for an agent to give you feedback on your project. You should not ask for advice or criticism. That is not what an agent does. You should not mention your payment expectations (probably not a good idea at any point in the publishing process) and you should not ask for advice on the promotion or marketing end. The first step in the game is for YOU to make your manuscript and query letter as pristine as possible, then you contact an agent strictly to attract their interest in hopes that he or she will help you pitch your project to a publisher. Leave all the business jargon and catchphrases out of your query letter. Keep it focused on your book, first, and then your credentials, if applicable.