How (Not) to Write an Agent Query Letter

(Continuing my series of blog posts about the Writer’s Digest Conference 2016 in New York City.)

My fourth session at the Writer’s Digest Conference was a presentation by the incredible Janet Reid, who is responsible for the Query Shark blog and has an entertaining Twitter feed. When I was first writing, I got an agent by giving him a copy of my manuscript, but that’s not a thing any more.  Now, you have to submit a query to an agent, and Janet Reid (now at New Leaf Literary & Media) is ready to tell you how.  She is a card.  She’s quirky, funny, and outspoken, and she joked that they won’t let her do the pitch sessions any more because she said things she shouldn’t.  At one point she made the organizers turn off the recording so she could tell people to do something everyone tells you not to do.  And her talk was pithy, straightforward, and opinionated.

In a query letter, she said, your job is to entice and demonstrate.  She told us, “You are not a dunderhead.  Don’t speak about yourself in third person, don’t state the obvious, and don’t try to be funny.”  Don’t be verbose.  Most query letters are too long.  Don’t start with your own name or say that you’re a writer.  She suggested we start the query letter with the name of the character (or antagonist) and the title of the story.  Show, don’t tell; write as if you are telling a friend why they should read it. Write a query for a novel you would love to read.  Don’t give backstory.  Jump right into the story and give the essentials of Act One at the most precipitating moment, providing the who/what/why/then of the story.  Include the word count, publishing credits (with publisher and year).  Give your contact information at the end of the query, not at the beginning like an old-fashioned business letter (unless the agent wants it first).

Before you submit, make sure your story actually has a plot.  (I can tell you that’s not a joke; I have run into far too many writers who have spent their entire writing life constructing backstory or describing their characters.)

Most agents use an electronic form, into which you can copy and paste your query, though she cautioned writers to be careful to make sure their text breaks into paragraphs–Microsoft Word sometimes pastes without any paragraph breaks.  READ DIRECTIONS if the agent gives them.  You should submit to each agent separately, and use their names.  Most agents will reject out-of-hand anything sent to “To Whom It May Concern,” “Dear Sir or Madam,” hidden addressees, or multiple addressees.  If you don’t know what salutation to use, use their whole name.  She suggested, if you use a master list of agents, that you start with the end of the alphabet, because most people start with the beginning.  Agents whose names begin with “A” are likely to get many more submissions.

Don’t put any live links in your submissions.  Spam filters tend to alert to the presence of multiple links, and your submission will disappear.

After you have submitted, you usually won’t hear back from an agent.  Don’t read rejection into that lack of response.  Don’t call, don’t promise to call.  Always have a copy of your query letter with you.  BE READY.   Have your pitch of 25-100 words memorized.  Query everybody.  There are no “query police.”

When deciding on whether to query an agent, she said, the most important question you should ask is have they sold anything.

At the end of her talk, she asked how many people had taken her advice about having their query letter with them, and said she would look at all of them if they brought the letters up to her.  Immediately, about sixteen people were standing in a line waiting to talk with her, with their papers in their hands.  As she tweeted later, “The writers at #WDC16 chewed me up and spit me out. “Bring on the queries” I challenged….and oh my god did they.”  It was very kind of her, and I was most impressed.

My takeaways:  Agents are busy, and it behooves you to do your homework, follow directions, be courteous, and don’t pester afterwards.

P.S. If you’re not a sensitive soul, look at the #tenqueries hashtag on Twitter.  It’s what happens when an agent pulls out the first ten queries in his or her inbox and comments on them briefly.  For instance:

Q4: YA Fantasy. 5 paragraphs on author, 3 sentences about the ms, did not follow guidelines of including a sample. Pass. #tenqueries

Read and learn.

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