Reader Laura A. posted the following response to Jim’s slush week round-up:
There were a lot of places where the agents seemed to want more information, and yet we're always advised to keep queries brief. I've also read that agents don't want you to give too much away - just give them enough information to want to keep reading. I realize it's a fine line to walk. Perhaps if you do this again, you could address those types of questions regarding length and how much of the plot-line you should include.”
Laura A. makes a good point, and at Jim's suggestion, I’m happy to address the “Be brief/Not enough information” conundrum. First of all, while I cannot speak for all agents, I have no inherent objections to long-ish query letters. In fact, I just received a terrific pitch letter for a novel in the vein of Donna Tartt’s Secret History. It stretches, beautifully and unabashedly, over the better part of two pages, and I read every word. And just as soon as I finish this blog entry, I will request the manuscript.
On the other hand, I sometime receive queries that are just a few lines long:
Dear Ms. Papin,
I am looking for an agent to represent a work of literary fiction, a coming-of-age story of a young woman who overcomes abject poverty to succeed—both against all odds and on her own terms. Kindly let me know if I may send you my manuscript.
This letter is correct. It is certainly concise. It is also devoid of any detail that might pique my interest. A pitch letter is a space to showcase your talents, and you are well served to take advantage of it. Give yourself some room to maneuver (or enough rope to hang yourself, as the case may be) find an elegant summation of your story, deploy an original turn of phrase. Don’t hide your light under a bushel.
As for the nitty gritty: take a page from journalism 101 and be certain to establish the who, what, when, where, why and how of your story. In prose as clean and effective as you can make it, give me the set up. Lay out the setting, characters, primary conflict, and give me a sense of the pace and the tone. Is the ending a surprise twist? Thereafter, turn your attention to the two additional “w’s” of book publishing, namely: the “who cares?” and the “why you?” Establish your readership—will your novel appeal to fans of Carl Hiassen or Jodi Picoult, Chang Rae Lee or Dennis Lehane? If you are writing non- fiction, who is your target market? Why are you uniquely suited to write the work at hand?
Resist the impulse to describe the book in its entirety. Few things are harder to write than an interesting synopsis—indeed, I’ve read grant proposals that are more compelling. You’re describing events, not the mood or the logic of the story, and asking your reader to accompany characters whom they don’t yet care about on adventures they don’t entirely understand can be deadly.
I tend to agree with Jim that modeling a query letter on flap or back cover copy is a helpful exercise. Jacket copy, like a query, is a selling tool, one that aims to capture the interest of its reader. Flap copy may be written by an in-house copy department or the book’s acquiring editor, in either event, it’s instructive to note the plot points a house chooses to include and those they decide to omit, as well as general the approach they take to selling a given project.
That’s not to say that flap copy is the gold standard. Once you start reading enough of it, you’ll come to spot stock phrases (“Tour de force” is a good example.) Leave these out. Ditto showy phrases that convey little actual meaning—“a story as luminous as it is unforgettable.” In fact, scrubbing your letter of clichés, literary or otherwise, is probably a good idea. And above all, be interesting. Banal is as damning as badly written.
And then bear in mind that even if you do craft a great letter, sometimes it’s the subject—and indeed, the necessary subjectivity of this business--that’s the problem. For example, while I am interested in the history of religion, I don’t represent Christian-themed books. Nor am I the agent to represent any one of the dozens of rebuttals to Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins that I have been pitched. I also like to believe I have a sense of humor, but apparently my taste in fiction runs to the mostly humorless. Madcap and zany are not my cup of tea. So even a well-tuned pitch for a quirky caper novel is unlikely to win me over—though I’ll never say never. In the service of excellent writing, I’m happy to be wrong.