5 Reasons for “Quick Pass” on a Query Letter

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Agents do inhale query letters. We get 1,000’s a year and go through them periodically; usually consuming them in batches of 20-100’s at a time. I try to read them once or twice a month.

Your query letter is my first encounter with you. It doesn’t have to be “perfect” (I mean that!), but it does have to convince me why I need to read your writing, get lost in your voice, and why this particular story matters more than the others.

Your query letter is the first opportunity to engage me and show me how you’re a storyteller no matter the medium. Storytellers can write a novel and explain it in a few paragraphs–they have to.

FIVE REASONS FOR A QUICK PASS:

  1. Novel that’s under 70k or over 110k. Storytellers know how long it takes to tell a story and a novel-length project requires a certain depth of story.
  2. Wordy descriptions that are better suited for a synopsis than a pitch. No need to show off. Use plain language that shows your voice and range.
  3. Inaccurate or wildly inflated comparative titles. You don’t have to use the title du jour or name every bestseller (I assure you, this doesn’t wow us); instead, pick comp titles that are successful but not ubiquitous.
  4. Lack of core conflict. If you can’t tell me what your book is actually ABOUT then we have a problem. Storytellers can distill because they start from the main question of the plot and work backwards.
  5. Picked the wrong agent. Information floats around the web and often gets attributed incorrectly. Always go back to an agent’s website or blog for the most accurate information.

Next time you’re crafting your query think about what agents need to know and why. From those 80,000 words, extract a hook that shows me you can tell a story in 350 words–or 350 pages. That’s your job.

Your query letter tells me what kind of storyteller you’re going to be and I want to work with writers who understand the difference between writing and storytelling. Anyone can write, but not everyone can be a true storyteller.

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5 Year Blog-versary Round Up!

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9e4073d6863e21b9a5b923c3e62390afWow, 5 years since this blog began!

Thank you to the loyal readers and commenters for your engagement with my posts.

I decided to do a round up of some of my top posts over the years.

Craft:

30 Questions to Ask Your Main Character

When You Start Comparing Yourself To Other Writers

7 Things Writers Should Stop Wasting Their Time On

6 Tips To Hook A Reader on Page One

4 Ways To Edit Your Book Back on Track

Business:

Do You Know The Difference Between Literary, Upmarket and Commercial Fiction?

5 Secrets To Publishing Your Debut Novel

7 Ways To Make Yourself An Easy Author to Work With

Queries:

How To Write A Synopsis

8 Query Tips No One Tells Writers

How I Read Slush: 3 Lessons for Writers

Agent perspective: What’s wrong with your manuscript

Social Media:

7 Ways To Build a Platform Through Your Online Community

6 Ways Social Media Doesn’t Help You Get Published

Q: Do you have a favorite post? One that changed your opinion of the industry or changed your manuscript for the better?

5 Things You Didn’t Know About Querying as a Debut Author

I really enjoy talking about debuts.

Many debut authors are nervous about their credentials (do I have enough? do they mean anything?), their contacts (who do I have to know? what if I don’t “know” anyone?), and their book (what if it’s not good enough? what if it’s the best I’ve got?).

I think it’s time debut authors gained their confidence and started to tap into the excitement that agents feel for them.

Here are 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Querying as a Debut Author:

1. Agents look forward to your work. Any agent who is building a list is looking for work. Not all agents are building a list however, so save yourself the heartbreak and query agents who advertise that they’re looking for new talent.

2. Your credentials aren’t holding you back. No bylines? No problem. I never brush off writers who haven’t been published in literary journals or newspapers. Everyone starts somewhere. And, as an agent whose talent is breaking out authors, I’m looking for writers at the early stages of their careers. It’s okay to tell me in your query that this is your first novel.

3. You don’t have to know anyone. Yes, referrals get you in the door, but agents still have particular tastes. The best way to get an agent is to query properly. The only people you need to know are authors whose work you love and then see who represents them. Start there.

4. You’re the best advocate for your work. (Don’t hire a company to query for you.) I feel sad for writers when I see that someone has queried on their behalf. If you’re too busy/scared/uninformed to query your own book then agents aren’t inclined to work with you. You, the writer, are always the most passionate about your own work so why would you outsource it? You can’t outsource ambition.

5. Someday you won’t be a debut anymore. Yes, I’m sure you knew this, but what I mean to say is right now it feels rough. But, the most important thing is making good business decisions early on in your career to set you up for success later. Don’t be swayed by short term gains for the sake of your future career goals. A bad agent fit (either not passionate about your work, doesn’t have time for you, or doesn’t share the same vision) is worse than no agent.

8 Query Tips No One Tells Writers

typing fadeoutThere is a bounty of query letter writing advice on the web. I’ve written about it before too: The Biggest Query Letter Mistake, and How To Format Your Query.

However, here are some tips you might not have heard yet that will set your querying strategy apart from the rest.

Querying in 2015? Read 8 Query Tips No One Tells Writers:

1. There are no second chances. Send a query letter with an agent’s name misspelled and resend 5 minutes later? You might already be written off. We get so many queries that we’re always looking for reasons to say no (even though we’re looking for gems!). Sometimes there are easy no’s.

2. If you say you’ve been published we assume that means traditional. And if you don’t share the publisher, year, and maybe some sales information we’ll assume you’re pulling our leg.

3. Telling agents you’ve self published before doesn’t actually say anything. Anyone and their mother can self publish a book. Telling us you’ve self published a previous book doesn’t rub us the wrong way, it just doesn’t impact our decision at all. With the hundreds of queries we receive a week it’s something we see a lot and tend to brush off. Of course, if you’ve self published to much acclaim, that’s a different story. But a thousand copies isn’t a bestseller and doesn’t move the needle for us.

4. It’s okay to break the rules. There are guidelines for a reason. However, I’ll give you an example of when it’s okay to step out. Our agency doesn’t ask for sample material when you query. Just a query letter. So sometimes I’ll see writers paste in a couple pages into the bottom of the query email–even though we don’t ask for it–and it gives me a chance to read a bit before I decide to request more. I’m okay with that! The rules not to break are whether you can pitch more than one agent at the agency, follow up guidelines etc.

5. If we’re not confident you can pitch us your book, we’re not confident you can write a novel. I know, I know, writing a novel and writing a query are very different things. However, it’s expected of today’s writer to pitch themselves (to us, to publicists, to readers, to sales staff etc). If your query is long-winded and doesn’t pitch the plot but themes instead, we’re not convinced. Agents always want plot and stakes over themes.

6. For fiction writers, social media is not a deciding factor. Writers tend to freak out about the word platform. For good reason, it’s terrifying. “What do you mean I need to have a newsletter with a million subscribers?!”–is often the response I get. Relax fiction writers, you don’t need thousands of social media followers just to query. (Non fiction authors, the same does not apply to you. Get back to that blog.) Fiction always stands on its own, but a good following is never a bad thing! However, platform for fiction writers comes with time.

7. Referrals are under used. If you have a friend represented by an agent you think you might connect with ask for them to refer you. This type of network is often under used. Don’t be afraid to network with writers represented by agents and build up some trust. Get critique partners who have representation and work your way to agents. Having someone vouch for you is powerful and helps you avoid the slush.

8. Author bios can bring us in or push us away. Author bios that are abnormally long and reference experiences that don’t relate to the book you’re pitching can be a turn off. Author bios should include any affiliations that are relevant like SCBWI if you write kids books, or WFWA if you write women’s fiction. Author bios that reference books written over 15 years ago are not of use to the book you’re querying. If you don’t have much to say in your author bio it’s okay to say where you live, share your author website, and tell us that this is your debut novel. Don’t forget it’s okay to be a debut. And don’t forget to include a little something for us to relate to.