This weekend, I went to the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation (OWFI) conference in Oklahoma City. It’s a good gathering of writers from all over – Kansas, Oklahoma (of course), Texas, and Arkansas (and I’m sure I’ve missed a few).
If you’ve never been to a writing conference, you should. It’s a great excuse to come up out of the basement, put on your sunglasses, and meet other writers. Plus, if your novel is nearly ready to query, you can pitch to agents and editors who might be interested.
There were several agents at OWFI this year, and they all shared their knowledge, experience, and opinions about the querying process. If you hope to get published by one of the Big Five – and even some smaller presses – you have to have an agent. No way around it. They’re the gatekeepers. (I will not make a comment about keymasters . . .) Anyway, they ALL want to find the Next Big Thing. They all want to discover that next Night Circus or Angels and Demons. Believe it or not, they want authors to do this properly so they know if this manuscript is a good fit for them or not.
So here’s some of the tips I took away from the conference. Some are pretty basic, and yet new authors always ignore them; some are more particular.
Follow the querying guidelines set out by the agent and/or agency. Every agent and agency has a different set of guidelines for querying them. Some aren’t even accepting queries right now. If they aren’t, they’ll say so on their website. Make sure you follow those guidelines to the letter. If they want a one-page synopsis plus the first twenty pages, send them exactly that. If they want a one-page query with a short author biography, and the first two chapters, send exactly that.
Never, ever say “Dear Agent.” This is a red flag that you don’t care enough about your project to do a proper query letter – or enough about the agent to even find out their name! At the very least, do that much. But you should go further. You should read interviews the agent has done. Follow them on Twitter. Look at the other novels they’ve accepted. Read their blog, if they have one. You can reference something in the query – “I read in your interview with Writer’s Digest that you’re looking for x and y. I’m hopeful my manuscript will be a good fit with you.” That shows them you care.
And on that note, never, ever query an agent who isn’t looking for what you’re writing. If they only represent Christian fiction, your vampire erotica is probably not what they’re wanting. (Although there is this sub-genre of Amish werewolf novels that’s sort of interesting . . .)
Be polite. Always. Something I didn’t know, but learned this weekend: agents apparently talk to each other! Who knew? If a book isn’t quite for them, but they know someone who’s looking for something similar, they’ll pass it along (especially in their own agency). They belong to online groups. They follow each other on Twitter. They’re Facebook friends. If you’re nice and your project is good, they will tell others. If they reject you and you get nasty with them, they will tell others.
Make it appealing to the eye. Brent Taylor of TriadaUS Literary Agency was very, very big on this. He wants concise queries that get the point across and hook him in just three paragraphs. Three short paragraphs. The shorter, the better. Agents get 300 queries a week – sometimes, they get 300 queries a day. If they see huge blocks of text, they’ll skim. Because of that, they may pass on your novel. Be concise. Get to the point. Tell them the following:
- Who is the MC?
- What is the inciting incident (the one event that starts them on the path)?
- What does the MC want (motive)?
- What’s standing in their way of getting it?
- What will happen if they don’t get what they want? What are the stakes?
And ideally, you’ll do all this in three short paragraphs that also provide the voice of the novel. According to Brent (and bear in mind, this is his preference; see #1 above), your three paragraphs should be structured like this:
- Paragraph 1: Introduce your MC, their voice, and their motives (what they want). Why should we sympathize with them? Voice: If your book is funny, make the query funny. If your MC speaks with an accent, make that come across.
- Paragraph 2: Introduce the conflict and the stakes. What is the MC’s goal? What’s keeping them from their goal?
- Paragraph 3: What happens if the MC doesn’t get their goal? Don’t give away too much – definitely don’t give away your resolution! End it on a suspenseful note that makes the agent want to know more.
Do your homework about your genre and your competition. Agents often want to know (again, see #1 above) that you know your competition. They need to be able to immediately compare your novel to others, to quickly get across what it’s like. (Sort of like saying “It tastes like chicken!”) By comparing your book to similar novels, you give the agent an instant inkling of what it’s going to be like. In turn, they can use that to pitch your book to editors.
Spend time on your query. Lots of time. Lots. Draft. Revise. Edit. Rewrite. You’ve spent a lot of time on your novel. Make sure your query letter is just as perfect! And see #1 above. 🙂