Our RWA chapter hosted a literary agent at its last meeting. She was kind enough to share some of her hints for making your query stand out among the hundreds that cross an agent's desk.
Some of these are so basic, you'd wonder how in the world anyone could screw up something as simple as reading the submission guidelines and following them. Yet she gets a significant number of those who don't. This is a red flag, because the agent/author relationship has to be one of trust.
She told the story of an author who offered an exclusive read to agent A. Only trouble was, he'd also sent the same offer to agent B. And put the wrong cover letter with each, so agent A got the one intended for agent B. The literary community is small. Agent A called agent B and said, "Shall I decline for both of us?"
What's attractive to an agent? Your voice. The story concept. Your hook. All of these are necessary because an agent has to get your work to an editor, right? Right. But it doesn't stop there. The editor sends the manuscript off for at least 2 or 3 more reads. It has to be presented to the marketing department, the sales department. There are a LOT of people on board, and they work in sound bites.
Things to consider: Style and Flow. Read your work aloud. Hear what it sounds like. Polish to the point of minimal distractions. Nobody expects perfection (or editors would be out of a job), but it should be as close as you can get it. There's not much time anymore for taking a diamond in the rough and fixing it. You need to get it beyond that stage before submitting it.
Plotting and Pacing. Don't dump the entire problem at once. Layer in conflicts. Escalate the tensions. You need to up the stakes in every chapter. It can be related to character development, the plot, or in a romance, the relationship.
Her advice for queries.
Paragraph 1: Introduce your work. Genre, word count.
Paragraph 2: A brief summary
Paragraph 3: Any relevant information - bio, writing credits, platform, awards.
The tone of your query should reflect the tone of your book.
Oversized manuscripts - "A 250,000 word novel that is part 1 of a series."
Mislabeling. She's seen many queries saying, "this isn't science fiction," etc. Agents need to know where they can sell something.
And, back to where we started - not following submission guidelines.
From here, we divided into groups and were given 3 words to work with and about 15 minutes to come up with a pitch. The 'catch' was that the immediate response to the words would be the mundane, been-there-done-that story. She recommended taking the 1st three reactions to the word and throwing them away, because they would be the obvious, and would lead to a 'stock' story - and to the rejection pile.
Our words? Riot, Wing, and Poison. Feel free to leave your pitch in the comments!
Causes Terry Odell Supports
Pro Literacy Worldwide, The Nature Conservancy, The Adult Literacy League, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society