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Query Advice From My Agent
"Unforgettable" Tatiana deRosnay
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Powell's Books Powell's Books

Want to make a writer shudder? Ask them if they’ve queried yet. Last year I led a workshop on The Great American Query Letter and the participants shuffled in with the reluctance (not to say dread) of women about to try on bathing suits in an open-corral fitting room.

A co-ed one.

But like a job interview, you can’t get around the query. You have to write it. Many times. Because your query won’t be good enough on your first, second, or third draft—this is an iterative process requiring many cranky hours. But if you’re gonna do it, do it right. You’d have to be a damn fool to spend years writing a book and then skimp on the letter of introduction.

Don’t give up when you’re almost at the finish line. Spend the time to revise that query. You only have one chance with each agent, and all s/he has to work with it that piece of paper. The competition is fierce, but perfecting your letter will put you ahead of most of the pack. And keep going—don’t expect to stop at 10, 50, or even 100 rejections. Honest.

I won’t try to rewrite the 101 of Query Writing. Others have done it better than I could. Google away! (I’ll give you a tip: start with this great clear breakdown.) What I will offer is wisdom from my agent, Stéphanie Abou, from Foundry Literary + Media. She’s smart, she’s fast, and she sold my book. I love her and respect her, so I went to her with this question: “what do you want to tell writers who will be querying you?” and this was her response:

“A good query letter has simple, straightforward formatting. The tone should be professional but not too formal. It should show that the person has done their research about the agent they are querying, without kissing up.

“However, beware of sending things that might be too close to one of the agent’s bigger successes. For example, after one of my books became a bestseller, people thought they were so smart sending me everything on the same topic. Wrong! That book is so strong it is going to be tough for me to take on something similar with the same level of enthusiasm. What that success should tell the author is that I am interested in family stories, with well-drawn characters and top-notch writing, yet with high readability.

“Just send one page with a solid paragraph about the book, and another one giving some biographical info that is relevant to the book. Be respectful of my time but don’t whine ‘Dear Ms. Very Important, I know I am nobody and you receive tons of slush‘ etc. The strength of the query and the writing should be the thing drawing my attention. Correct spelling (you have no idea how many people send me something with a mistake in my name), grammar, and punctuation I hope goes without saying, and I’d like the courtesy of mentioning whether you are submitting to several agents at once or whether this is an exclusive. Always check online for information. Most agencies have websites these days and each has their own pet peeves for query letters.

“Some red flags: ’a fiction novel’ (this redundancy drives me up the wall). You want to show competence, but not write your own catalogue copy or movie trailer: You don’t have to say it is “compelling,” “thrilling” etc. etc. Let us be the judge. Your job in the query is to be engaging (you the author) and to give us the desire to read more. Don’t tell us that your mom/sister/husband and best friends loved it: I bet they did and even if they didn’t they wouldn’t tell you.

“Only give an endorsement if it is relevant. Only use comparison titles that are relevant. Saying it is ’The Da Vinci Code meets The Secret’ doesn’t make me believe in your being the next best thing since sliced bread, but flags an inflated ego and a not very well-read author. Similarly, no need to mention that you will be a ’tireless promoter’ for the book, willingly going on a rock star reading tour.’ These days, tours are only given to rock stars and your willingness to promote the book is a part of your job as a writer as much as writing the book.”

She is a straight talker, my agent. Sometimes she says things that I don’t want to hear. I pout (very unattractive!) I shuffle my feet. On days that I’m especially obstinate and stupid, I argue.

In vain.

Because damn it, she’s almost always right. So if her above advice doesn’t appeal to you, here’s my advice.

Pout. Shuffle. Write me a comment to argue.

But do what she tells you.