Today will be the next-to-last installment in my series on polishing your query letter to a high gloss. Later in the week, I will be moving on to crafting a Millicent-intriguing synopsis, completing our packets. And since I’ve only just noticed that it’s been an awfully long time since I’ve made a ceremonial visit to what a professional title page looks like, I shall probably take a run by that and estimating word count in the days to come as well.
I know, I know: not scintillating, perhaps, but definitely practical.
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. 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 have been going over here 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 hard to combat — 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, for instance, it’s probably not the best time to query her with a heartwarming romance. If she slipped on the stairs yesterday and broke both her wrists, she’s probably not going to be all that receptive to even the best knitting book today. And if he 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 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 — as if that was going to make me feel any better about being rejected.
Frankly, it annoyed me far more than it pleased me, and like many writers, my mind flooded with resentful questions. 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, 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 beyond my control. Until I am promoted to minor deity, complete with smiting powers, love potions, and telepathic 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. Speaking of which, on to the checklist.
(11) Have I mentioned the book category?
I discussed this earlier in this series, 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 you are shopping around.
The fact is, any agent will have to tell any editor what genre your book falls into in order to sell it: it is really, really helpful if you are clear about it up front.
You’d be surprised at how few query letters even mention whether the work being pitched is fiction or nonfiction — and how many describe the book in only the most nebulous of terms.
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 use.
Since I posted on this fairly recently (see BOOK CATEGORIES, right), I shall not run through the 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!)
And if you’re absolutely, positively convinced that it would be an outrage upon the very name of truth to commit your novel to any one category, PLEASE don’t make up a hyphenate like Western-Fantasy-How-to, in order to try to nail it with scientific precision. In a pinch, if it doesn’t fall clearly into at least a general category, just label it FICTION and let the agent decide.
Provided, of course, that you are querying an agent who routinely represents fiction that does not fit neatly into any of the major established categories. I definitely wouldn’t advise this with, say, an agent who represents only romantica or hard-boiled mysteries.
But whatever you do, avoid cluttering up your query letter, synopsis — or indeed, any communication you may have with an agent or editor prior to clutching a signed contract with them in your hot little hand — with explanations about how your book transcends genre, shatters boundaries, or boldly goes where no novel has gone before. Even if it’s true.
Yes, such a speech makes a statement, but probably not the one the writer intends. Here’s how such statements translate into agent-speak: “This writer doesn’t know how books are marketed.”
(12) Have I listed my credentials well? Do I come across as a competent, professional writer, regardless of my educational level or awards won?
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. Ditto with any publication, anytime, anywhere, regardless of whether you were paid for writing it.
But 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. But if you don’t have anything you feel you can legitimately report here, don’t stretch the truth: just leave out this paragraph.
(13) Have I made any of the standard mistakes, the ones about which agents often complain?
I like to think of this as a primary reason to attend writers’ conferences regularly: they are one of the best places on earth to collect lists of the most recent agents and editors’ pet peeves. I’ve been going through most of the major ones throughout this series, but some of them can be quite itty-bitty.
Referring to your book as a fiction novel is invariably on the top of every agent’s list, for instance; in point of fact, all novels are fiction, by definition. A non-fiction memoir, a real-life memoir, and nonfiction based on a true story, as well as permutations on these themes, are all similarly redundant.
Waffling about the book category is also a popular choice, as are queries longer than a single page, including promotional blurbs from people of whom the agent has never heard (“Chester Smith says this is the most moving book about trout fishing he’s ever read!”), or ANY mention of the book’s potential for landing the author on Oprah. Any or all of these will generally result in the query being tossed aside, unread.
Especially the last; the average screener at a major NYC agency could easily wallpaper her third-floor walk-up in Brooklyn seven times over with query letters that make this claim — and I’m talking about ones received within a single month. Just don’t do it.
I shall be wrapping up the query checklist tomorrow, my friends, then it’s straight into the wilds of synopsis territory. Keep up the good work!