Happy summer, everybody! For the next while, there are going to be some absences from the blog as we take vacations, but we'd hate to leave you guys hanging. It's no secret that we blog much more now than when we started this baby, and there are far more of you reading than there were way back when. So we thought we'd bring back some blog entries of days gone by that you may have missed if you just joined us in the last year. We've cued up enough, but if you have any favorites you think your fellow readers might enjoy, give us a shout below!
The perfect query letter does not exist. (Well, perhaps it lives in the fantasy realm of unicorns and dragons, but certainly not in our day-to-day publishing world.) And, yet, everyone seems to be chasing the formula for that elusive, perfect query letter (EPQL) and its pursuit is giving a lot of people agita and heartburn. It's a recurring theme during the Q&A portion of agent presentations at writers conferences. Many internet sites and print publications aimed at writers spend a lot of time on the subject and, in talking with individual authors, it seems that confusion about this subject is universal.
So, I will try to elucidate what makes a query effective -- not perfect, mind you, just effective -- for us here at DGLM:
1. It should be succinct and to the point. The purpose of this missive is to introduce yourself and your project and ascertain if the agent wants to take a look at your proposal/manuscript. It is not the place to go into longwinded detail about the weather, your passion for shell collecting (unless, of course, the book is about shell collecting), or your great-aunt Mary’s faith that you would one day be a published writer. It should, however, be no more than a page long and look and read like a letter not a report.
The first paragraph might mention how you came to query this particular agent and/or agency – perhaps noting that you saw a nice acknowledgement of the agent in a book you admired or you looked on the agency’s web site and identified with the agent’s profile somehow or anything that shows that you did your homework and that this is not just a form letter being sent to 6,000 agents.
The next paragraph should tell the prospective agent what the book is in a couple of sentences. Here is not the place to summarize your entire book. You want to highlight the strongest themes or the elements that make the book distinctive (e.g., “My novel tells the tale of star-crossed teenage lovers separated by their families’ bitter feud.” Not, “Romeo grew up in Verona and was part of the Montague clan. He met and fell in love with Juliet who was a member of the Capulet familiy and who spent an inordinate amount of time on balconies or talking to her nurse….”) Unless you’re very good at writing concise plot summaries, the less said the better. The idea is to get the agent to the actual manuscript.
The final paragraph should tell us anything relevant about you – this is your first novel or you’ve been published in numerous literary journals or John Cheever was your godfather or you’re a neurosurgeon who has an MFA from the Iowa writing program, etc. – and ask if you may send a sample of your project or the complete manuscript.
2. On the technical side of things: Spell check and then carefully proofread the query. We have had instances of great hilarity over a dropped letter in a strategic spot. Someone once queried us for a book about “pubic policy” and, juvenile bunch that we are, we didn’t stop laughing for days. You don’t want the query to go directly to the form rejections pile because of typos, grammatical errors or because you addressed the envelope to one agent and sent it to another.
It’s okay to single space query letters – as you would any other letter – but it’s not okay to make your margins less than one inch wide and your font teeny tiny so that you can fit a three-page description into one page. Ease of reading is half the battle among us bleary-eyed publishing people. (Everything else in your submission package should be double spaced and single sided.)
Finally, unless you’re in prison, type your queries rather than handwriting them. One of my favorite queries of all time was a six-page handwritten saga describing the author’s genealogical connections to everyone from the British royal family to Lassie.
3. Did I mention doing your homework? If the agent you’re querying only represents science fiction and fantasy, don’t send him/her a query for a self-help proposal. That’s a waste of everyone’s time and postage, and there are so many places where you can find information on agents and publishers that it should be relatively easy to identify your target.
4. Use any edge you have. If you met one of us at a conference, lead with that. If your father went to school with one of our spouses, tell us that. Anything that helps us identify yours as something we should pay attention to is fair to include. Ultimately, it’s the actual idea and writing that will determine whether we offer representation, but that won’t happen if your query doesn’t make us request your material.
Caveat: Even if you follow my directions slavishly, there’s no guarantee that your query will be that EPQL we’re all looking for. As with everything else in this quixotic business, you can sometimes do all the wrong things and still end up with an agent and a book contract. And, conversely, you can do all the right things and not get your foot in the door. So, my advice is to better your chances by crafting as good a query letter as you can and then trust that your efforts and the strength of your work will pay off.
Originally posted in December 2006.