Saturday, August 28, 2010

On Query Letter Madness

Having completed and revised a novel numerous times, I am now paralyzed at the next stage—the query letter. If one does not have connections, the query letter is deemed to be the main foot in the agent’s door. It needs to be perfect. But what does perfection look like when the advice and examples do not agree?

Here are the indisputable points:
• Addressed to a specific person at a specific agency, using a formal salutation (Mr. or Ms.)—include their title, name of agency, full address (unless emailed)
• Agent chosen after researching appropriateness of agency and agent because of your type of book
• Clean grammar, no typos
• Focuses on one project not multiple projects
• Concerns a finished novel only
• Gives title of novel
• Gives approximate length of the novel
• Provides a quick overview of writer’s key credentials—special qualifications for writing this particular book and your fiction credits
• Better to keep to a page
• Avoid gimmicks.

Here are some areas where the experts diverge:
• Giving genre? Most want this, but some say leave it out if you can’t slot yourself into one of the standard genres. Avoid the use of the word “mainstream?”
• Reason for selecting an agent, such as referring to books they’ve published that are similar to yours?
• Where to begin—plunge right with a hook? Begin with “I am currently seeking an agent for my completed x word genre book [give title]. Pose a rhetorical question—what if…. (some agents hate these). Expository description of something about the book—setting and time period?
• Focus only on the main character (or protagonist and antagonist) or share something about other characters who may be key to the story?
• Themes of novel? Again, some agents do not want to be told this, but want it to come through in whatever else you write about your novel
• Include non-fiction publications?
• Compare your novel to others out there? (But don’t compare yourself to well-known great literature or best sellers….)

As a former career counselor, I advised my clients to put their energy into networking rather than answering ads or worse, sending cover letters into the abyss of organizations. To minimize the query dance, I’m seeing the parallels with the publishing world. It’s hard work, as I recall. On the one hand,there is a certain satisfaction to saying I sent out 20 or 100 letters, but if none of them yields anything, you have faced 20-100 rejections. Perhaps it is better to spend your time cultivating a few contacts for whom you are more than a page of type and from whom you may at least get an honest response.


  1. Didn't know you were also a novelist! A woman of many talents...

  2. If it's okay to call myself a novelist if I'm not yet published....