Hi, SEers. Mae here today to discuss a topic that usually makes authors cringe. There are two things I despise writing—a book synopsis, and a query letter. I’ve had to suck it up and do the former, but until the end of last year, writing a query letter for literary representation was something I’d avoided.
I have, however, been sitting on a finished manuscript for almost two years. As a hybrid author, I’ve been published by a traditional small press, and have indie-pubbed my own work. The one goal that has escaped me is to find a home with a Big Five publisher. Most of us dream of that, right?
At the end of 2021, I decided to try. The first step—almost as hard—means finding an agent. We all know this is a lengthy process, almost assuredly layered with plenty of rejection. I’ve read horror stories from NYT bestselling authors on how long it took them to find an agent. Just thinking about it can twist my stomach in knots, but nothing tried, nothing gained.
Several things I learned while writing a query:
First and foremost, make sure you spell the agent’s name correctly! You’re probably thinking that goes without saying (and you’re right), but check and double-check. Nothing will send your query to the trash pile sooner than misspelling the agent’s name.
Be wary of copy and paste. When you’re searching for an agent, you’re submitting simultaneously. If you’re doing it correctly, the letter should be tailored to each individual agent. If you copy and paste, adjust as needed for each query. Copy and paste can be a time saver but it can also be your downfall. Make sure you comb through each query before you send. Once you do, there’s no going back to fix a mistake.
Your greeting should be short, but it never hurts to mention how much you enjoy the work of a particular author the agent represents (it shows you’ve done your homework), or that you heard them speak at a conference.
According to Angie Hodapp of the Nelson Literary Agency, there is no need to state, “I am seeking representation.” An agent already knows that. They also know you’re sending out simultaneous submissions.
Be certain to include your word count and genre. Offer comparables. In my letter, I mentioned my work would appeal to fans of Kevin O’Brien and Jennifer McManhon. If you comp specific titles, be sure to use newer releases so it shows you’re current with the market.
Provide a summary of your book. Not a synopsis, but a two to three paragraph pitch about your work. This is probably the most important part of your letter, and likely the hardest to write. Avoid mentioning too many characters (stick to the main one or two) and too much backstory. Relay your character’s goal, their motivation for achieving it, what obstacle is standing in their way (conflict) and what will happen if they don’t achieve their goal (the stakes involved). Provide a sense of where or when your story takes place.
Think of your pitch like a teaser. You’re not giving away everything—especially not the ending!—you’re creating interest to make the agent want to read your manuscript
To close out your query, provide a short bio which includes previous publications, any accolades/writing awards you have received, and professional memberships you maintain such as MWA, RWA, SFWA, etc. Don’t make it a resume! A few sentences are all you need. Your entire query letter if printed on paper, shouldn’t be longer than a 8.5” x 11” sheet.
When you’re done, polish and polish again. If you have critique partners run your letter by them before you send it out. It never hurts to have a second set of eyes look over what you’ve written. Finally, be prepared to wait. And wait. The average query turn-around is six to eight weeks.
In my April post, we’ll look at some resources for locating agents and tracking your queries.
Until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts on writing a query letter and seeking an agent. Is it something you’ve done or would do in the future? What is your experience or thoughts in general? Let’s chat in the comments.
Ready, set, go!