Welcome to ALL ABOUT QUERYING! Also… happy 2/2/22!
So we’ll be doing a series about QUERYING this month because ultimately, that’s the foundation upon which Path2pub was built. Over the next few weeks, each contributor will share a post about the querying steps (also known as: how to get a literary agent) and agent interviews will abound, as well as query letter analyses. This way, you can have an array of tips and tricks and lessons at your disposal and hopefully put together that successful query package!
Don’t hold back from asking questions or making suggestions!
The Query Steps
Often when the phrase ‘querying agents’ is mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind is THE query letter (dun dun dunnn). The truth though is that querying involves an entire package that goes beyond the cover letter. This package typically includes:
- The Query Letter
- The Sample Pages
- A Synopsis
Some agents might ask for all of the above and some may ask for just one. (Yup, I’ve queried an agent who only asked for a query letter!). Either way, it’s essential to have those three materials ready to go before reaching out to agents and to ensure they’re in their very best shapes. To help you achieve that, here are some tips for preparing each material.
The Query Letter
This is an introduction letter telling the agent about your book, about yourself, and why you feel they would be the best fit for your book. When writing this letter, remember:
- Do a research on the agent. This way you can ascertain they’re seeking what you’re offering. You don’t want to spend time personalizing your package only to send your YA query to an agent who only represents adult! With the information available on their wishlists, you can also personalize your query letter to entice them to want to read more of your book. Lastly, researching an agent is how you discover their submissions guidelines—which is super essential. Where can I research agents? Check out our resources for writers below!
- Begin your letter with your full name and address, and follow with a correct salutation. E.g. Dear Mr. Charles. Dear Ms. Charlotte. Yes ‘Ms.’ serves for married and single ladies. Beware of misspelled names!
- Your MS details (genre, word count, comps): This can start your query letter or end it. My advise is that you place it where feels most beneficial. Did you recently read on MSWL that the agent is seeking an MS with a lead who speaks backward and walks with her hands? Is that precisely what happens in your story? *Gasps* Then start your letter with that intro!
Dear Ms. Charlotte,
I read on MSWL that you’re seeking a novel with a lead who speaks backwards and walks with her hands. Due to this, I thought you might be interested in STRANGE GIRL, an 80,000 words, sci-fi novel that will appeal to fans of —and —.
On the flip side, is your MSs word-count too long? Is there a key detail in your query you feel might discourage the agent from continuing on with your letter? If so, and you feel your concept/synopsis is solid enough to convince them ultimately to overlook this point, place the details at the end of your letter.
- Create A Hooky Hook. This is where you hook an agent’s attention by chipping in what sets your book apart. This can be done with a rhetorical question. (Although many advice against this, don’t worry, it still works sometimes. Speaking from experience!). It can also be statements or one-liners. The goal is to introduce a concept in a way that makes your reader’s brows go up with intrigue.
Aladdin and Jasmine don’t want to explore a whole new world together. Heirs to two kingdoms at war, they want to kill each other and would stop at nothing to succeed. Here comes Genie, a vicious being who offers mortal three wishes, unknown to them that it’s at the cost of their souls.
You decide for yourself if this hook makes you want to read not just all of the query letter, but also the entire manuscript! You know, I find I like this hook so much I might actually start plotting something about it. *wink*
- Go straight to the point and be concise.
- Write A Tasteful Synopsis. A query letter synopsis should include the bones of your plot, the major characters, the conflicts that drive the story, and the stakes. When writing this, infuse your character’s voice in so it’s much more relatable.
- Length Matters. Keep your query letter within 350-400 words. It can be shorter but try not to go lesser than 250 words because that might mean your letter doesn’t contain sufficient details. Seems tough cramming your 100k words novel into a few paragraphs right? Well, just imagine you’re writing a blurb for the back of a novel!
- Don’t hold back. Don’t write a vague summary because you don’t want to give spoilers (a mistake I initially made!). Whatever element you feel will draw an agent’s attention, even if it’s the climax of your story: Put. It. There.
- Ask for feedback. Ask friends if your query letter makes them want to read more about your book. If it doesn’t, keep editing until it does!
(Need more tips? We’ll be critiquing and analyzing query letters in the coming weeks so keep an eye out for those!)
The Sample Pages
Most agents will ask to read some pages of your work in their submission guidelines. This can go from the first chapter of your manuscript to the first fifty pages. I’ve even encountered an agent who asked for the first half of the MS. With this, an agent gauges the quality of your writing, decides if your plot is in line with what they’re representing, and if they’re intrigued enough to want to read more of your story. Sounds nerve-wracking, yes? Well, here’s how to go about preparing it:
- Make sure your voice is engaging.
- Make sure those first pages are captivating. Choose an intriguing inciting incident. (Yup, I love my puns). When I first started querying my YA Fantasy, a mistake I made was assuming agents would be captivated by the story concept in my query letter hence see past my tame first chapters. I learned after several rejections that it didn’t quite work like that. So if you find your first chapters even slightly boring, work on adjusting it.
- Use active voice to keep a good pace.
She felt her insides roil. Her insides roiled with horror.
- Deepen your POV. Agents look out for this when reading those first few pages because it’s something many writers struggle with. It can show them how advanced a writer is, so make sure you’re showing and not telling!
- Ensure your sentences aren’t bulky but concise and meaningful.
(Need more pointers? I have an entire post on crafting first pages coming up soon!)
So many writers groan in frustration just from hearing this word. I used to be one of them. How do I summarize my entire story in 500 – 800 words? you wonder. How much detail should I put in? I only agonized over a synopsis with my first book. The other two times I had to write them, however, I did so at a go and didn’t have a single problem. It’s really only a big deal when we make it one. Just take out your laptop—and start summarizing your story as it happened. Some more tips:
- Don’t overthink it. You know your story, now just walk us through the key moments.
- Three-Act structure: Write your story’s introduction, the body, and the conclusion.
- Include spoilers and everything. Someone said once that the main reason agents ask for synopses is to ensure the story doesn’t take a super strange turn just when they’re starting to get invested. That is, they don’t want to be reading a romcom set in Oklahoma and suddenly see dragons appear out of nowhere towards the end to set the couple afire. So don’t be afraid to summarize your entire story in a synopsis.
- Keep it below 800 words. You can begin by writing one even longer, and then go back afterwards to snipe-snipe-snipe until it falls within the word count.
- Write objectively, BUT also include all the captivating bits.
- Polish it!
A Brief Note
One thing every querying writer should never forget is that the industry is super subjective. You could write the best book in the world and some agents wouldn’t read past the query letter. That doesn’t mean your story isn’t good. It just isn’t for them. The best thing you can do here is your best. Do your research, write the best letter, sample pages, and synopsis you can, and solicit for feedback.
On the flip side of that, don’t be afraid to revise and to up your query package if it seems they really are not working. Sometimes it’s not the agent, it’s us. And it can be easy to blame agents for rejections rather than look at our package and realize they’re not the best they could be yet. So once again, do your very best and always ask for feedback, so your awesome story can have the best chance.
I wish you the best in your querying and hope to hear your good news soon!
L.O. Nobi is an avid writer, one of her prominent projects being DESTITUTES AND FIENDS, a regency retelling of the Beauty and the Beast. She’s a lover of words, Disney, and represented by her agent. You can find her tweeting here, or visit her personal blog here.