“350 Queries to Read . . .” Make yours stand out!

You probably read that title and fainted, right? 🙂

Sad fact:  it’s totally a true story. 

This weekend was the Rose State College Writer’s Conference in Oklahoma City. Along with the OWFI conference in May, it’s one of two that I get to attend every year (if I’m lucky!). I picked up some great tips (and, small brag, the first chapter of my work-in-progress Ghost Hunt took first place in the Fiction category in their contest!).

I attended a lot of great sessions, which I want to talk about in subsequent posts. But one of the best was from author Tamara Grantham on how to write great query letters. Let’s face it:  agents get too many submissions. WAY too many. In fact, from Word One, they are looking for a reason to reject you and move on to the next query.

And to tie back to my title, Tricia Skinner (an agent with Fuse Literary) said she knew for a fact that she had 350 queries waiting for her when she gets back home Monday. Yup. Three Hundred and Fifty. 

That’s the competition. That’s your competition.

Tamara gave us great hints from agent Janet Reid, who runs queryshark.blogspot.com , which has more than 250 query letters, ripped apart for your benefit. She will also rip apart yours, if you’re that brave! Here’s what I learned:

1.) Do NOT talk about ‘theme’ in your query letter. Your job is to entice the agent, not beat them over the head with a freshman Literature class.

2.) Why? Because you’ve got 250 words to get your novel across to the agent. That’s it.

3.) So how do you pull that off? Simple. You basically get 2 paragraphs to pitch your novel. Paragraph 1 should include:

  • Who is the MC?
  • What does your MC want?
  • What’s keeping them from getting what they want?
  • What will they sacrifice to get what they want?

4.) Your second paragraph should be your inciting incident, and where that leaves your MC. That’s it. Leave it there. Don’t tell the agent how the book ends. Don’t give them all the things that will happen in the middle of the book. Make them demand your full manuscript in order to find all that out!

5.) Don’t include backstory. Ever. It will waste your 250 words.

6.) Here’s another way to look at it: 

  • Your MC must decide whether to ____ .
  • If your MC decides to do ___, the consequences will be ____.
  • If your MC decides NOT to do ___, the consequences will be ____.

(Hint:  this is a great way to check that you’ve actually got a pitch-able story. If you can’t answer these three questions, it’s time to revisit your story arc.)

7.) Have others read your query letter. Give them specific things to look for:  eliminate redundancy; strong vs. weak words; and most of all, that hook. Do they want more after reading this?

8.) This is not an overnight process! Tamara recommended drafting your query letter, then putting it away for about 4 weeks. Then, before you read it again, write a second query letter. Look at them together. Is one better than the other? Can you combine elements of both to create something even better?

Now, of course, sometimes our minds just don’t work the way we wish they would, and our novels may not fit into this rubric. If not, don’t fret. Remember the basic information you’ve got to get across. Then, shake it up a bit. As long as you get the agent hooked, you’ve done your job.

Practice with this. I’ve been mentally going through novels I know well, making them fit into these molds to see if I can do it for my own manuscripts. Take my favorite novel, Outlander, as an example:

  • The decision:  Claire Randall must decide whether to return to her own time in 1945, and her husband there.  
  • If she does:  she will lose her new husband, Jamie, forever. 
  • If she doesn’t:  she will risk her life, and will lose her old husband, Frank, forever. 

Or another – let’s say, The Hunger Games: 

  • The decision:  Katniss must decide whether to volunteer to take her younger sister’s place in the Hunger Games. 
  • If she does:  she may die, and her family will starve as a result. 
  • If she doesn’t:  her sister will definitely die. 

It’s all about the craft. Crafting your query letter is no different than crafting that first page. If you’re like me and nearing the end of rewrites – boy, there’s a scary thought! – then this is a great way to double-check your plot structure.

If you can’t get your novel across in this amount of space, then maybe you don’t know your story as well as you think – or maybe your story needs some tweaking. 

If you can – then congratulations! You’re on your way to writing a great query letter. 

Again, here’s the link to Janet Reid’s site:  http://queryshark.blogspot.com/

Tamara Grantham’s website:  http://www.tamaragranthambooks.com/

 

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OWFI 2016: Great Query Letters for Great Agents

A few weeks ago, my friend Debra Dockter and I went to the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation (OWFI) conference. It’s one of two that I get to attend every year – well, almost every year. We get to meet other writers, hear from great agents and editors, and have fun. And we also get to learn something.

This year, I was able to attend several sessions. The first was with agent Sam Morgan (“If I am your agent, I am your friend, your parent, your sibling, your coach, your cheerleader, your lover – well, maybe not your lover! – but I will be whatever you need me to be!”), who is with Foundry Media.

As an agent, Sam gets hundreds of queries in a month. Some can be tossed in the first sentence. Some lead him to new clients. What makes a good query letter stand out? Sam wanted us to know.

  • While there are some rules Sam has seen broken, there are some you can’t ignore, such as:
    1. Get his name right!
    2. Know what genres he represents! And don’t send him something else.
  • In the query, he wants to learn a few things about your book. Top of that list is: Who is the main character? Get this across – not just their name, but who they are, and especially what’s your MC’s problem?
  • Give a taste or a hint of what’s to come. Put yourself on the page. Your voice will come through. Is the novel humorous? Your query should give us a taste of that humor.
  • Having said that, don’t write your query letter in the voice of your MC. Just don’t.
  • Get him to want to read the book, by any means necessary. Ask others to read your query. Do they want to read the book? If not, keep revising. Sam generally wants to see authors follow the basic rules of querying, but noted that a couple of his current clients broke every single rule imaginable in theirs – but that’s what it took to get him to want to read their books. Not to say that you should, however.
  • In the query letter, show why you wrote the book. Show what made you stay with it and finish it. Show him why you gave up time with your family and friends, why you had to DVR the last season of Game of Thrones, why you got up an hour early or went to bed an hour later, to finish this book. (I know, I know! A tall order!)
  • If you’ve published in the past, you can put that in – it means someone else has read your work, and liked it enough to publish it. However, if you don’t, it’s not a deal-breaker for him.
  • Likewise with social media – if you have a large social media following on Facebook or Twitter, great, include that in the query if you can, but it’s not necessary.

(This is querying, as in sending a letter or email to an agent, not pitching. While similar, they employ totally different methods, so keep that in mind.)

But Sam wanted to be sure we understood that it’s not all about him choosing a new client – it’s also about you choosing an agent. Believe it or not, it’s your choice, and you are in charge! Just because the agent makes an offer to represent doesn’t mean it’s the right person for your book, or you should accept without hesitation. You need to ask questions. You need to be sure this is exactly the right person for you and your novel. You need to make sure you can work with this person for the next 6 – 24 months. So Sam gave us some questions you need to ask potential agents:

  • Editorial work? How hands-on is this person in that process?
  • How many other clients do they have? How many books have they sold? To which houses? (And, although he didn’t say it, for how much did they sell?)
  • What does the agency do in terms of advocating for TV/foreign/audio rights? What about e-book rights?
  • Then decide: is this person worth 15% of your profits? If you have any doubts at all, you need to keep looking.

One other thing Sam wanted us to know is something that Deb has been dealing with for the past couple of years:  especially if you’re a debut author, assume the publisher will do NO promotion of your book. Plan to do it yourself. It becomes a cyclical thing – the publisher will tell you that they won’t promote your book because it’s not selling. You think, “But how can it sell if you’re not promoting it?!” Their response? “Not our problem. It’s not selling.” So you need to be able to discuss promotion plans with your agent as well.

So if you’re planning to query agents soon, hopefully some of these tips will help you out. And if you write fantasy or science fiction, I would encourage you to query Sam – he’s funny, enthusiastic, and if I wrote in these genres, I would definitely query him!

Here’s Sam’s page on the site Manuscript Wish List:  http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/mswl-post/sam-morgan/