In Art of Storytelling’s ongoing series of essays on the writing process, former New York literary agent and current writer and AofS coach Jon Sternfeld weighs in on the query letter. Jon’s insider knowledge of how to approach an agent is invaluable to any writer who wants to get published. (Be sure to watch for the next blog by Jon, where he’ll focus on the initial 10 pages of your book –the first, but hopefully not only, sample an agent will read of your novel or memoir.)
Note to new writers: Because of the enormous discrepancy between the number of writers (millions) and the number of publishers (6 majors, 12-20 independent/midlist, 30 or so small presses, some more super regional ones) literary agents serve an enormous role. They operate as the conduits through which writers grab the attention of publishers. Many smaller presses don’t require agents to submit your work, but the information below is still useful in terms of getting their attention. Nowadays, writers contact agents almost exclusively through emails which are written as query letters. A query includes a brief who you are, what kind of book you’re pitching, what your book is about, and some form of brief excerpt, usually the first 10 pages of your work. Queries should also show you’ve done your research regarding what the particular agent represents. Overall, the goal is to get their attention and spark their interest enough for them to get back in touch with you to ask for more.
As a former literary agent, I spent a good chunk of my time seeking out new and undiscovered writers as clients. Sometimes these came through referrals, sometimes through my own diligent research and scouting, and sometimes they came unsolicited right to my email inbox.
As the junior agent at The Irene Goodman Agency, I operated as the ‘gatekeeper’ regarding unsolicited writers. Those writers who have contacts or connections may get a referral to an agent, in which case, you get at least an automatic read of some of your work. The rest of the writing population (well over 95%) has to go through what is commonly (and derisively) called ‘the slush pile’. The name itself is unfortunate but it also acts a reminder that you are but one of the literally hundreds of writers getting in touch with an agent that day. I maintain that this is a good thing; writers tend to be so insulated and focused about their work and when it’s time to get out there and get it read, they need to start thinking about their audience – and their first reading audience (besides confidantes) is a handful of industry professionals.
Managing the slush pile is arduous and tedious, but it can be rewarding when an agent finds that golden query letter that other agents may have passed over. When I am approached by aspiring writer at writing conferences with questions about getting published, I always reiterate the need to impress with that first query. (You’d be surprised how many query letters start with a sheepish “I’m not really good at these kinds of things”, which if you resort to this, is the first and last thing the agent will ever read of yours.) If you are looking to break into publishing this is the golden rule: Nothing you wrote matters until someone wants to read it. Spend your time, energy, and focus on making that happen. Don’t just save your talent for the book itself or else it’ll never get seen.
It is imperative to take the query letter seriously – both in style and content. Queries are far too often lazily or carelessly or condescendingly put together and, you may call it unfair but I think it’s Darwinian, the poor query writer is never contacted again. Writing a compelling pitch about your work is part and parcel of being a writer – it’s just a reality that doesn’t go away just because writers wish it would.
A band cares about its cover art, a business cares about its logo and its commercials, and a writer needs to care about his/her query letter. It’s the way in and in this world of overstimulation and mass clamoring for attention, it’s never been more important. You spend years (I hope) on your manuscript and you’re going to dust off something bland or sloppy as its cover letter? This is ridiculous, yet it happens all the time.
The key is to be professional [show you’re a real writer] and original (get their attention).
Professional – Follow their guidelines, proofread and format your email properly (just because it’s delivered electronically doesn’t mean it should look like a text).
Original – Stand out, but in the right way. Your creativity should come across in the query in the idea for the narrative, in a character’s (brief) description, in what genres it mixes together or what reinvention you’ve come up with. It should be inventively pitched, but not so off the map that it makes the agent think you’re not serious or that your book is doomed for obscurity. Never be cute and never pretend that you’re above the whole ‘query thing’.
The query should be streamlined, so leave out the unnecessary bio; put in anything closely related to your writing or to the subject of the book itself. Delete everything else. Follow each agency’s guidelines (always posted on its website) so they know you can read and that you respect their time and standards. State plainly what the genre, word count, and title are. If you don’t know the standard word count range of your genre, look it up before you begin writing. (You need to know how long you’re staying somewhere before you pack, right?)
As for the synopsis, which is the meat of your query letter (and for some very busy agents, the only part ever read), your goal is to NEVER BORE YOUR READER:
A.) Leave in just enough story to pique an agent’s interest and seduce them to want to read more. As an agent, I would often think “if this person bores me in a single paragraph, how can I stay with them for 300 pages?”
- Good: Laura is a spunky 16 year old with a love of the Beatles and the gift of ESP.
- Boring: Laura is only a junior at Wiccamore High School (she actually skipped a grade, so she’s younger than her classmates) but since her parents divorced when she was in 9th grade after her dad got caught cheating with the school nurse and she got kicked off the swim team for the Halloween night prank she pulled on…(You get the idea)
B.) Read the backs of books at their short and sweet plot summaries. Notice how they don’t give too much away? Notice there’s a sense of anticipation? That’s exactly what your query’s plot synopsis should do. This is another case of a writer living too much inside his world or the one he created – getting people to care about your book doesn’t happen right away; it’s your job to do that, seductively and expertly. Make the synopsis something that forces an agent to stop what he is doing and contact you. This is the ultimate goal.
Think about the market for your book. Think about all the other writers out there tapping away around the world, over coffee and whiskey, in the morning and in the night. Think about the literally thousands of queries the agent has seen over the past month, the hundreds he has to get to before the next hundred comes in. Figure out how to make that agent stop everything he is doing and call you.
Good luck. Now get to work.
Jon Sternfeld is a contributing editor and coach for Art of Storytelling. Have a manuscript you need edited? Need help developing your memoir or novel? Contact us for a free initial consultation. www.artofstorytellingonline.com