Monday, March 27, 2017

What Does an Agent Really Want in a Query Letter?

I’d always thought I’d know a little about writing queries for my novel, since I’ve had some success sending out cover letters with short stories.

What was I thinking?
I visited websites with advice and rules from agents on writing this difficult life-changing little letter. Seriously, I got dizzy. I suddenly realized that I didn’t know anything. Worse, a year ago I attended a workshop on writing queries, and I still don’t feel any smarter (and yet it was an excellent investment and excellent class.).
Where to send that chunk of me that is my novel. Hmmm. With short stories, I start by researching the publishers.
1. Read their guidelines.
2. Look at titles they’ve published.
3. Get to know their tastes and something about their dislikes.
Some helpful websites are pretty blunt on what agents or publishers like and don’t like, not only mentioning genres, but also writing styles. That’s very helpful. But not all of them say what they want to see in a query other than the basics––the word count, something about the plot and characters, and a line or two about you.
Ok, so now you know everything about writing a query for your novel, right? Wrong.

Different agents offer different rules on querying your novel, such as ALWAYS put the word count in your opening paragraph, along with your title. And ALWAYS put your word count in your closing paragraph, along with your request for them to review your manuscript.
So are you clear on what to do now?

Me neither.
Often, their guidelines will specify a one or two-page query. If not, you can bet whoever’s going to read your query has a whole slew of them to breeze through, and they’ll roll their eyes if they see a lot of dense writing on two or three pages.

But if they see a nice compact little query that won’t take but a minute to read, they might give you that minute. Make it count. Naturally, the best way to make yours count is to first study some exceptional queries. Yes, back to that again. Search the web and find all kinds of contradicting advice, and then take some aspirin.
A strong hook in the first line is a given. Who would read line two if line one practically put the reader to sleep? But then what?

Then take your 60,000 to 90,000-word novel and sum it up in about 150-200 words.
“Say what?” you ask.

Yeah. Talk about learning to tighten your narrative. Maybe we should all practice writing query letters to learn about writing tight, then apply what we learn to our novels.
Those little 150 or so words in the middle paragraph should sum up your novel’s plot. You can’t really afford more words if you want to have room left for your bio, which should be very short. Still, you might need 40 words for a bio.

Now you’ve got your intro (the opening hook), the novel’s title and the word count, and a brief bio. So yes, keep that plot summation short but full. Detailed and interesting. But keep it short. This paragraph needs to sell your novel. But keep it short. This paragraph has to pull a lot of weight. But keep it short.
In your bio, restrain from arrogance, no listing of three pages of boring credits nobody is going to read. Mention only a few things about you and or your published work. If you have some writing credits, mention them. If you don’t, perhaps you belong to a critique group that you can mention. Maybe you’ve participated in it for more than three months. Five years? Good. Let the agent know. Or perhaps you are a member of specific writers’ organizations like SCBWI. Mention that. Also, list a few conferences you’ve attended.

Then there’s the little one or two-line paragraph that says your novel is ready for their review, along with a request to send them a copy. It goes something like this: Idiot Learning to Write a Query Letter is complete at 50,000 words and ready for your review. May I send you the manuscript? (Don’t include the word count if you’ve stated it in your opening paragraph.)
This request is supposed to be your last paragraph, though I’ve also read that your bio is the last paragraph. But to me it seems disjointed to put this request for representation after your bio. It seems as though it should go in the last paragraph of the part talking about your novel, not about you. So I’m not exactly sure which goes in the “last” paragraph, the bio or the request. If any of you find out, please drop me a line.

Maybe I misunderstood, and what they mean is the last paragraph before the bio.
To help or confuse you further, I want to share some specific do’s and don’ts I picked up through researching what agents want in a query letter.

A. They all seem to agree that without a strong opening hook, welcome to the slush pile.
B. One agent suggested you try opening with a question.

C. Absolutely never, ever open your query with a question. (Another agent.)
D. In your plot summary section, only tell about the plot. Do not talk about theme or what the character struggles over internally. Plot only!

E. Along with mentioning your main plot points and characters (and goals, obstacles and challenges all in those 150 words), tell something about the overall theme of the novel. Give an idea of the character’s inner self.
F. Some want the word count right in the opening paragraph and some want it in the ending paragraph (So, is that with the bio? I’m joking.).

G. Some mentioned to put the title in all caps, not in italics. The reason for this was explained. Submissions are emailed, and sometimes italics come through garbled in email (or something like that).
H. Also, consider the names of the main characters, protagonist, antagonist and other main characters. Some agents want these names in all caps in your query. Others will tell you they don’t want the characters names in all caps, because it’s distracting to the eye. (Keep in mind, this would be the case on a SHORT one-page query, because you would have the title in all caps, and then anywhere from three to five names in all caps, all one or two short little paragraphs. That’s a lot of caps.

So what’s the best advice I can give you––write a dozen different query letters and hold a contest for agents to vote on the best one. If only we could, right?
Here’s my real advice. If you are querying an agent, do a lot of research. I repeat, a lot. The agents you choose might have very specific details on their websites as far as what they expect in a query. Opening with a question or not. All caps on character names or not. Three paragraphs or four. Then be sure to research each specific agent even more. Some might have a guest article on someone else’s blog, and that article might give one detail that wasn’t mentioned on the agent’s own page. It’s worth a shot. And then write that query specific to that agent’s rules for queries, following all the sentences starting with NEVER and ALWAYS.

Afterward, write a whole new query following different rules to fit the next agent on your list.
Also, I haven’t found anyone who said don’t do this, but I did see a few articles mention that it doesn’t hurt to have a sentence that shows you did your research. Mention something from one of their articles or their website that you enjoyed or that you thought resonated with something in your novel. But be specific about it. Don’t just say that I read your website, and I think my novel is a good fit. What exactly did they say on the website that makes you think your novel would be a good fit? That’s what you need to mention.

Keep in mind, I’m not insulting any agent for giving any specific advice, even though it contradicts another agent’s advice. Each agent is giving advice he or she wants followed in the queries to him or her, not everyone else. Why would they care what you send anyone else? What I’m trying to show you is that you cannot take the advice from one agent and apply it to queries to all of them.
Here are my absolutes for querying agents. You will note that I never mentioned the obvious––NEVER send a query in a specific genre to an agent who doesn’t represent that genre. Again, do your research.

That’s the only “NEVER” I’m going to give you. Well, besides the other one––NEVER assume you can write one query and change the agent’s name and address and be done.
ALWAYS open with a strong hook.

ALWAYS do your research. Yes, this is worth repeating over and over and over again.
And that’s it. You are ready to write your twelve different queries for twelve different agents, right?

Happy writing!


  1. Wow, a lot of good advice there! I just emailed myself a link to this post for future reference.

    I'm one of those writers who have always regarded having your book published by a publishing house is somehow superior to self-publishing. If a "real" publisher decides to put your book in print, it means that an agent and an editor have already given your book their seal of approval. So whenever I'm ready to publish, I'll probably go that route.

    Thanks for providing such a helpful post.

    1. I agree. I'm not against self-publishing, but I'd sure like to know if someone in the field considers my work worthy of the printed page. :-)

  2. Holy smokes! I never in a million years would've thought authors have to do a pitch like that to potential publishers. Wow. That seems like more work than writing the novel.

    1. I often think it would be easier to write two novels rather than one query letter. :-)

  3. Gracious that is a lot of work just to get your actual work into the hands of an agent!

    1. Yes, but unless you know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody in publishing, this is the route you have to take. :-)

  4. This was great, Debi. Writers should spend a lot of time on their queries, get beta readers, edit like mad and, as you wrote, do the research. So important.

    1. Yes, it is important. No doubt that's why it's so much work. :-)

  5. Yup, a huge lot of work! Thank you - great post!

    1. Thank you for stopping by. If I ever get one of my queries to succeed, I'm going to frame a copy of it. :-)

  6. Debi,

    Great post. And not to get off on another subject, but are you doing the A to Z this year? You really should. I know it's a lot of work though, but you have a lot to offer.

    1. I was planning on it, and it's not just my own writing that stopping me. And it's not just my day job, which is writing related. But it's also some family commitments and the fact that we have to get our former house ready for the spring market. All through May we will be laying carpet and laminated flooring, painting and refinishing woodwork. We want it ready by May 1. We didn't do it sooner because we didn't want to trek through snow to get to the door and track the sloppy weather inside. So we waited for warmer weather. Also, we didn't keep the heat very high through the winter, and there's no way I would be able to work if I was freezing. We moved into her current home last summer, and through the next months we did do some work on the other house. The reason we did is because we bought most of the supplies to do the remodeling before we ever decided to move. We only decided to move because we found the perfect house in the perfect location, and the price was right, and everything was on one level. We were at a stage where we no longer wanted an upstairs. In our previous home, my office was upstairs. So I was up and down a lot every single day. :-)
      But I do plan to be involved in the A to Z next year, and I do hope to visit a lot of blogs during whatever few days I'll have free time the coming April. I know I wouldn't have a problem getting 30 blog articles written. The time commitment is in reading and responding to other blogs. I'm assuming you are going to be joining this major blog hop. Good luck to you. I'll try to stop by a few times.

  7. I'm querying a couple novels now. Some weeks I think I spend as much time researching and writing queries as I do writing other works.

    1. Oh, I agree. I've spent less time on a couple short stories that were accepted for publishing than I have on these little letters.

    2. I went to your blog… Are you not blogging anymore? Or do you have a different blog that I'm unaware of?

  8. Very interesting. I enjoyed reading.

    Thank you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.

  9. Definitely some useful tips. I will have to bookmark this for later use. :)

    1. Thank you, and I'm glad you stopped by.

  10. They sure are good at confusing us, aren't they? :) Truth probably is each letter must be tailored to each specific agent's requirements. Enough to drive writers mad. I've gotten requests for partials from agents, based on query letters, and learned it's a tough, tough business. Oh, well... Thanks for the tips, Deb.

    1. Yeah, but you did find a publisher to publish your book, and that's great. So hard work paid off for you. :-)

  11. Oh, query letters. I remember those far too well, and not at all fondly, LOL. You're right about there being lots of research involved. (So. Much. Research.) Haven't had to worry about doing one for a few years, since I quit novel-writing back in 2012, but if I ever want to publish my art or comics in a traditional manner, I already know I'm going to have more endless research ahead of me... XD