Guys, the conference this year was great. I got to see old buddies, make new buddies, and learn new stuff about the industry’s past and present. I was awarded a grant, and declared the guild’s Writer of the Year- now doesn’t that sound fancy! I also had a very helpful manuscript review, and then a quick query letter review. Everyone is always so generous with their time at these things!
The presenters were also very generous with their knowledge, and so we’ll have three weeks of conference lessons this time around. This week’s post is based on a query letter workshop with literary agent Paul Lucas, who works for Janklow & Newbit Associates.
For context, keep in mind that Mr. Lucas’ work day often looks something like this: 100ish emails- per day!- to writers, editors, colleagues, etc; meeting with editors; on the phone with editors; internal meetings with colleagues; researching to keep abreast of industry news; and going through queries. (He tends to do his manuscript reading after work or on weekends. The guy gets no rest.)
Queries are important. Queries are (usually) how agents find new talent and sign new authors. But agents are super super busy folks, so a query has to really stand out to make any noise in all that daily cacophony.
Here are some basic tips that Mr. Lucas shared on helping your query to make the cut:
Be polite. Don’t be crazy.
A query should have three things: who you are, why you’re writing this agent, and what the book is about. If something in your query is not one of those three things, axe it.
Never mention others who liked the book. (The only exception to this would be an author or editor who will endorse the book with a short blurb.)
Edit, edit, edit. (Side note: I got called out for an intentional fragment sentence, which Mr. Lucas feels is always a bad thing. I made a squinchy face of disagreement, but he’s the pundit, not me. So maybe stare at those stylistic choices long and hard before hitting send.)
Follow agency submission rules. Always. No exceptions. No squinchy face.
Specify age range, genre, and word count.
Keep comp titles within five years of publication. (I’ve heard other agents who suggest no more than two years.) Don’t use megastars or absolute nobodies; look for recent comps that sold 10k-ish.
Be succinct. Queries should never run longer than a single page.
Be specific. Name awards in your bio. Describe why a certain book is a good comp. Tell why you chose this agent to query.
Queries are hard, and way less fun than drafting the next book in that bubblegum space opera you’ve been working on, but they’re vital to getting your work eventually seen and published. Work to make sure that your query is intriguing and reflective of your writing style in each of the three sections Mr. Lucas mentioned: why you’re writing this agent (hook), what the book is about (blurb), and who you are (bio).
Once you think you have a good query, run it past several pairs of eyes before sending it out to literary agents. Workshops are great because you can get instant feedback from several people, but if you don’t have access to a group, send it out to several writer friends for their opinions. When you are ready to submit to agents, do it in batches so that you can incorporate any feedback you might get in order to hone your query down to its best possible form.
Finally, if you are getting feedback on your submission packet, keep sending it out to as many agents as you can find who are good fits. But if you’re only hearing crickets, consider making major alterations or moving on to a new project after fifty ignored queries. Either way, don’t get discouraged. Querying is difficult, but a necessary bump on the road of traditional publishing. Don’t give up on your dream.
Next week, we’ll get into more details for query letters and first pages with Nicole Resciniti of The Seymour Agency. Until then, happy writing!