I’ve been asked to post a piece I actually wrote some time back, about querying literary agents, so here we go:
Welcome to Hell (and producing a drop-dead query truly is). . . .
First, don’t go all neurotic over dropping into hell. It’s not uncharted territory. Second, get to work familiarizing yourself with AgentQuery and the AAR database—there’re a million other Internet resources, but AQ is my favorite (see link opposite column). It’s chock-full of info about the pub business, the agents, and it’s easy to navigate. Please follow the agents’ submission preferences! To think they’re irrevelant, or your work so dang brilliant you can enclose fifty pages when an agent clearly specifies five, is a little like flipping someone the bird on a LA freeway: it’s just not going to go well for you.
On the other hand, breathe deeply and believe. Living in hell is, well, hell, but some over-anxious mindsets make the stay harder than need be—and who’s looking for a harder way to do anything, unless of course you’re a committed neurotic? Remember you’ve already completed a whole manuscript of fiction, or, if non-fiction, manufactured an exciting, with-a-twist! proposal on the invention of the ball bearing—meaning you are already so not a slacker, my friend. So there.
That scary query . . .
A whole industry has been built on the back of the query letter (whole books! too numerous to count!!) about how to write one (and how scary the statistics are: only 1% of queries get a positive response). People have made a whole lot of money off this puppy. Now, though, all the how-to, plus examples of successful queries, can be found on the internet—again, check out AgentQuery.
Simply put, the query letter is your calling card with a pitch. Its anatomy is one page, three basic paragraphs; four if you must. Don’t forget to include genre, word count, and title!—and if you’ve done your homework, you know a bit about the agent you’re querying, so tell her or him why s/he’s the the Chosen One (because s/he repped a book you love; because you love her/his blog, etc.).
Resist making your opening a rhetorical question, as in “Ever wonder why everyone’s so surprised when their obviously insane next door neighbor turns out to be a serial killer?” Consider a “When” opening instead. Maybe like, “When the charred bodies of America’s premier artist Matthew Waterston and his wife were recovered from their burned-out mill house, all eyes turned to the reclusive Stella Grayson, and for one shameful reason only: Stella Grayson was physically repellant.”
Or, “I’ve read of your interest in representing fiction, especially commercial with a literary bent, and would like to introduce The Angry Woman Suite, a 105,000-word story about two unsolved celebrity murders in Pennsylvania, and the fallout from those murders on two generations.”
Yes, both mine–and I know, I’m shameless (but I did get an agent).
Paragraph #2 describes the basic plot, with resolution (though resolution can be “soft”). This is the hardest paragraph. Squeezing a whole book into one teensy, fascinating, lyrical, literate paragraph is the very definition of hell for writers (who, of course, love words).
Paragraph #3 is all about you. Finally! BUT–if you actually think there’s nothing particularly worth the retelling; i.e., you’re not an Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum and you’re currently unpublished, then share what inspired you to write your masterpiece. In two very awesome sentences, period.
Show your query drafts to friends and your critique group; ideally, until eyes glaze over and they plead for you to stop already.
Now, when you’ve finally got IT—a polished, irresistible query—resist the temptation to blanket the country with your little beauty. Send to no more than eight agents at a time. This is all-important, because if you don’t get one positive response (the aforementioned 1%), or any comments, you’ll want to tweak the query and make it even more irresistible (you may have to do this several times). See what I mean? If you’ve already done a mass submission, you’ve somewhat kissed that strategy goodbye.
Now put on your suit of armor and get ready for the rejections. They come in all shapes and sizes: form letters, pre-printed postcards (so the entire world can know your business), or even just a scribble across the top of your returned query letter.
On the other hand, a personal rejection letter, or phone call, is almost as feel-good as an acceptance (almost, and try explaining that to a non-writer). It means you at least made someone sit up and notice. But don’t take rejection (as opposed to constructive criticism) too seriously. Yeah, right. No, really. Agents don’t know you. Remember this. Make it your mantra. And not every agent will give a flying fig about the history of the ball bearing, no matter how brilliantly presented. So, after sending your first round of queries on their way, vow not to do the whole neurotic thing over the whole rejection thing. Instead. step out of hell and into your zen place. Go philosophical, not theatrical.
So much better for the soul.