5 Reasons for “Quick Pass” on a Query Letter

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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4 Reasons Agents Want to Work With Storytellers

1_50e07351ddf2b32d2600b4e8Author is the name that everyone throws around. But what about storytellers? Storytelling is also known as a verbal art, but storytelling in terms of the words on a page is what agents are looking for in the slush pile. In the slush we know that writers are just beginning their journey so we’re looking for a glimmer of the future. So what that means is that we’re looking for writers who know how to craft curiously.

We are looking for interesting characters, smart but ambitious plots, hidden turns of events, and larger than life settings. Life is all in the details, are so are storytellers.

4 Reasons Agents Want To Work With Storytellers

1. Storytelling transcends the page. — Crafting a tale that is big, real, honest, curious and insightful is something that doesn’t just live in books. It can become a part of our culture that is so much bigger than that. Good storytellers write books that are cinematic, great for TV series, or live on in their fans’ minds for years to come. Good writers know how to make the details of their story the way to their readers’ hearts. If you can write rich detail, we can follow you to visit the Roman Empire, the Romanov Family, an Australian lighthouse, or 1800s Iceland. And readers will follow you anywhere you go. Details are what make settings come alive whether we’ve been there or not.

2. Storytelling is about telling the right story the right way. — There are pantsers and there are plotters, we all know. I am in awe of plotters who have their outlines down to a science–it’s an amazing thing to watch someone execute that! I’m also curious about pansters and how their stories come full circle after they’re not sure where it’s going to go. First person or third? 1 POV or 4 POVs? How do you know what you’ll need to write your novel the best way? Often you don’t at the beginning. Especially writers who are just starting out in their careers–they don’t have enough novels under their belts to best know how to craft for different tales. When you think about organization from a storytelling point of view, you’ll start to ask yourself if you’re telling the story the best way. When things don’t work–holes in your plot, characters not feeling real, a mystery that is not so secret–it’s usually because you’re not telling it the right way. Are you in the right head at the right time? Did you start in the right place? Remember to be curious about the way you tell your story and always ask if it’s the right way.

3. Storytelling is what will get you out of funks and writer’s block. — The perfect way to tell a story is to start with a question or character. What do you want to say? Who do you want to say it? What conflict is going to come into their life? Creative people are always living their lives with open ears and open notebooks. Go back to your frenetic notebooks from years past: Is there a character in there whose story needs telling? A question that needs answering? A thought that needs exploring? The truth of novels is meeting a character at an interesting point in their lives so can you do that for us?

4. Storytelling is the fabric of our lives. — Gossip about friends. That podcast you listen to. The story you make up in your head about the person in front of you at the grocery store. The song you’re listening to right now. Great storytellers are the ones who can listen to the world and boil thoughts down to complex characters and external drama. We are all multi-faceted people. We are all living dramatic lives. To simplify our existence to characters that live in boxes is inauthentic and where agents and editors lose interest in projects. All readers know that 1D characters are a lie. All readers know that obvious plotting is going to bore us. When novels come to life is when characters don’t fit a label because we, as people and readers, get curious about the unknown. Write your stories like we live our lives, sometimes messy, but in retrospect we can always see the threads. Don’t write in themes, write in stories.

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Instead of staying in your “gotta get published, gotta follow structure” mind-set, why not come back to your creative roots and think about what the story is and the best ways of telling it. When you come back to that place of being curious about your character’s secret and stories the heart and honesty of your truthful writing will prevail.

[I wish I knew where that graphic quote came from, but I don’t. Sending good vibes to the creator out there on the web.]