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/

Agents, Authors, and Query Letters, Oh My!

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. 🙂