The query checklist, part V: the mythical perfect query letter

Ah, a gorgeous Pacific Northwest summer day: the sun is out; the sky is blue, or rather, just starting to cloud over — and the writers of the Puget Sound are inside, away from it all, tapping away at their computers. All is right with the world.

Today will be the last installment in my series on polishing your query letter to a high gloss. I’m feeling a trifle rushed, since I know that many of you are in the throes of submitting your first 50 pages (or even, in some cases, the entire manuscript!) in the wake of recent conferences, so I want to get to first chapter revision as soon as possible. If any of you are going through synopsis trauma, leave a comment, and I shall do a post or two addressing your concerns.

All right, back to the querying checklist. Some of these questions may seem very basic — or even redundant, if you have constructed your query, as I advised a few days ago, from the constituent parts of your pitch. However, there is a LOT of advice on querying out there (almost all of it in that arrogant, you’re-an-idiot-if-you-don’t-listen-to-me tone that unfortunately seems to dominate the advice-to-unpublished-writers market), and a LOT of different versions of the so-called perfect query letter, so I want to make sure to hit the points that those cooking-mix perfect letters often miss.

For the record, I don’t believe that there IS such a thing as a universally perfect query letter, one that will wow every agent currently hawking books on the planet, still less a formula where you just add your book’s title and stir. It is logically impossible: agents represent different kinds of books, for one thing, so the moment you mention that your book is a Gothic romance, it is going to be rejected by any agent who does not represent Gothic romances. Simple as that.

More fundamentally, though, I do not accept the idea of a magical formula that works in every case. Yes, the format I gave you a few days ago tends to work well; it has a proven track record. However — and I hate to tell you this, because the arbitrary forces of chance are scary — even if it is precisely what your targeted agency’s screener has been told to seek amongst the haystack of queries flooding the mailroom, it might still end up in the reject pile if the screener or agent is having a bad day. If the agent has just broken up with her husband of 15 years that morning, it’s probably not the best time to query her with a heartwarming romance, for instance, even if that’s her specialty; if an agency screener has just blistered his tongue by biting too quickly on a microwaved knish, it’s highly unlikely that any query is going to wow him within the next ten minutes, even if it were penned by William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and William Shakespeare in an unprecedented show of time-traveling literary collaboration. No writer, however gifted, can win in such a situation.

My point is, there will always be aspects of querying success that you cannot control, and you will be a significantly happier writer in the long run if you accept that there is inevitably an element of luck involved.

Frankly, this took me quite a long time to accept myself. I once received a rejection from an agent who had hand-written, “This is literally the best query letter I have ever read — but I’ll have to pass” in the margins of my missive. I was flabbergasted. Had the agent just completed a conference call with every editor in the business, wherein they held a referendum about the marketability of my type of novel, voting it down by an overwhelming margin? Had she suddenly decided not to represent the kind of book I was presenting due to a mystical revelation from the god of her choice? Or had the agent just gotten her foot run over by a backhoe, or just learned that she was pregnant and couldn’t take on any more clients, due to imminent maternity leave, or decided to lay off half her staff due to budget problems?

Beats me; I’ll never know. But the fact is, whatever was going on at that agency, it was utterly beyond my control. Until I am promoted to minor deity, complete with smiting powers and telekinetic control of the mails, I just have to accept that I have no way of affecting when my query — or my manuscript, or my published book — is going to hit an agent, editor, reviewer, or reader’s desk.

My advice: concentrate on the aspects of the interaction you can control. On to the checklist.

(10) Have I mentioned the book category?
I discussed this last month, in connection with your verbal pitch, but it bears repeating here: like it or not, you do need to use some of your precious querying space to state outright what KIND of a book it is. You’d be surprised at how few query letters actually mention whether the work being pitched is fiction or nonfiction — and how many describe the book in only the most nebulous of terms. (Hint: this is not a context in which the phrase “sort of” should appear.)

This is a business run on categories, people: pick one. Tell the nice agent where your book will be sitting in a bookstore, and do it in the language that people in the publishing industry understand. Any agent will have to tell any editor what category your book falls into in order to sell it: it is really, really helpful if you are clear about it upfront.

Since I posted on this fairly recently (June 29 and 30, now available on this very site! I am transferring the archives as fast as I can.), I shall not run through the available categories again. If you’re in serious doubt about the proper term, dash to your nearest major bookstore, start pulling books similar to yours off the shelf in your chosen section, and look on the back cover: most publishers will list the book’s category either in the upper left-hand corner or in the box with the bar code.

Then replace the books tidily on the shelf, of course. (Had I mentioned that I’m a librarian’s daughter? I can prove it, too: Shhh!)

(11) Have I avoided using clichés?
You’d think that this one would be self-evident, wouldn’t you? However, there can be a fine line between a hip riff on the zeitgeist and a cliché. When in doubt, leave it out, as my alcoholic high school expository writing teacher used to hiccup in my cringing ear. (Long story.)

Why? Well, many people in the publishing industry have a hatred of clichés that borders on the pathological and, like any tigers you might happen to meet in the wild, it’s best not to provoke them. “I want to see THIS writer’s words,” some have been known to pout (agents, not tigers), “not somebody else’s.” Don’t tempt these people to pounce; this is not the place to try to be cute. Cut anything from your query and submission packets that has even the remotest chance of being mistaken for a cliché.

(12) Have I listed my credentials well? Do I come across as a competent, professional writer, regardless of my educational level or awards won?
Truthfully, unless you are writing a book that requires very specific expertise, most of your credentials will not actually be relevant to your book. But do say where you went to school, if you did, and any awards you have won, if you have. If you are a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, mention that, too: anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include.

If you have any background that aided you in writing this book, you need to make sure you mention it in your query letter. Period. Even your camp trophy for woodworking can be a selling point, in the proper context.

(13) Have I made any of the standard mistakes, the ones about which agents often complain?
Here is one of those reasons to attend writers’ conferences regularly: they are one of the best places on earth to collect lists of agents and editors’ pet peeves. Referring to your book as “a fiction novel” is invariably on the top of every agent’s list; in point of fact, all novels are fiction. Waffling about the book category is also a popular choice, as are queries longer than a single page. Any or all of these will generally result in the query being tossed aside, unread.

In seeking to stick to the single-page limit, however, do not fall into the opposite trap of margin-fudging or using an ultra-small typeface to make it so. As someone who spends her days reading thousands upon thousands of manuscript pages in 12-point type, I can tell you with absolute confidence: anyone who has screened queries for more than a week will be able to tell at a glance if you have shrunk the typeface or margins.

(14) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?
I have found that this question almost invariably surprises writers who have done their homework, the ones who have studied guides and attended workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter. “Personality?” they cry, incredulous and sometimes even offended at the thought. “A query letter isn’t about personality; it’s about saying exactly what the agent wants to hear about my book.”

I beg to differ. The fact is, the various flavors of perfect query are pervasive enough that an relatively observant agency screener will be familiar with them all inside of a week. In the midst of all of that repetition, a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative. In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, this is not the best impression you could possibly make. A cookie-cutter query is like a man without a face: he may dress well, but you’re not going to be able to describe him five minutes after he walks out of the room.

Your query letter needs to sound like you at your very best. You need to sound professional, of course, but if you’re a funny person, the query should reflect that. If you are a person with quirky tastes, the query should reflect that, too. And, of course, if you spent your twenties and early thirties as an international spy and man of intrigue, that had better come across in your query. Because, you see, a query letter is not just a solicitation for an agent to pick up your book; it is a preliminary invitation to an individual to enter into a long-term relationship with you.

I firmly believe that there is no 100% foolproof formula, my friends, whatever the guides tell you. But if you avoid the classic mistakes, your chances of coming across as an interesting, complex person who has written a book worth reading goes up a thousandfold.

Keep up the good work!

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