The bones of a query letter

It has been a couple years since I last posted on here, and while I ponder a lengthier, more self-indulgent post on all the major life changes I’ve undergone from then to now (the best of which is that I’m engaged to the amazing Carolina Valdez Miller), I thought I’d break the ice with something more appropriate to my readership (based on site traffic, I appear to have one).

So, here’s what I use when I put together a pitch letter of my own to send to a publisher (we agents write a fair number of these). I made a file with a skeleton so that I always have something to reference. I’ll go over differences between this and a query letter from an author to an agent below:

Skeleton of Pitch to Editor

______________________________________________________________________

[Date]

[Editor]

[House]

Dear [lucky editor],

[Something unique about author], [TITLE] is a [genre] [mention comp titles, usually]

[Big hook][1-2 plot paragraphs]

[Author background paragraph]

[Closer, with another big hook]

[Call to arms]

Best,

[Agent]

______________________________________________________________________

Three things to remember:

1. Capture the tone of the book.

2. Have one or two catchy lines that don’t feel contrived.

3. Always Be Closing (no, really!) — The idea, though, isn’t so much a hard sell as it is that you should feel like you’re continually stoking the fire throughout the letter.

Seems simple, yeah? The devil is of course in the details. The hooks that are referenced in the brackets can’t be too hokey; the comparisons can’t be too obvious (it’s Harry Potter meets Lord of the Rings!).

If you’re an author querying an agent (and, let’s face it, most people reading this either are now or will be at some point), there are a couple things that don’t fly:

  1. When it comes to self-description, it doesn’t work to be too adjectival. I may be able to talk to an editor about how the epic fantasy novel I’m submitting is a brilliant debut, something that could shake up the genre, but it doesn’t sit right to most agents to read a description like that from an author.
  2. If you are querying with an unpublished work of fiction, it’s best not to mention that it has been “professionally edited.” This raises a red flag for most, as we’re trying to find authors who can get a good book nearly there themselves.

I expect I’ll come in to revise and expand this post over time, so if you find the post useful, you may wish to bookmark it for future reference.

Some stats

Since opening to e-queries (LGT bio if you want to send me one of your own)  a little over a year ago (which is the last time I posted here!), I’ve been tracking what’s come into my query e-mail.

Here are some quick stats:

  • I’ve received and responded to 5,246 queries, 4,915 of which were e-mail, 331 of which were print (e-mail turned out to be wildly popular for us; my print queries plummeted, and quickly)
  • Of these 5,246 queries, I’ve requested 188 partials or fulls (3.584%)
  • I’ve received exactly 200 partials to date (some referrals & conference requests in there), rejecting 184 and requesting 16 full mss (8.000% of partial requests have gone on to be full requests)
  • I have requested 28 full mss or non-fiction proposals in total, offered representation 7 times, and signed 5 clients, for a .714 batting average
  • All told, I’ve signed 0.095% of what’s come in through the front door, addressed to me
  • Because my client list currently has more men than women, I tracked my requests by gender to try to ID and deal with any unconscious biases that might be coming up. 53% of my partial requests have gone out to female writers, 47% to male writers, so that’s a start; 2 of 5 new clients I’ve signed have been women (40%; both slush pile), but I think there’s work to be done here.

There are a couple other things these stats don’t address: Professional referrals, and the (very) occasional situation where I reach out to someone because I’m interested in them. I started tracking professional referrals this past August, and between current clients, other authors, editors, and agents, have had 12, from 12 different sources, in a month and a half. (I’ve also, for curiosity’s sake, started tracking authors who have fired their previous agent and are querying me — 9 since July, indicating there’s some turnover going on right now.)

So, it’s a great time to query me!

With that slightly frightening 0.095%, you might think it’s not, but I’m looking to aggressively expand into non-fiction, literary fiction, and middle grade, in addition to my current staples (YA and adult SF/F).

I’m going to try to sign any author whose work I really like (and have in most cases succeeded in doing so, though occasionally every agent loses a “beauty contest” in which lots of us vie for one writer), but I also have a burning desire to diversify my client list (balancing gender as much as I can, signing more non-American writers, GLBTQ writers, and writers of color) so that’s weighing in the back of my mind as I go through the slush pile as well.

It was a queer, sultry summer

… when I finally updated the site.

Being inside on the hottest day of the year, when publishers are certainly observing the summer Friday, has led to my finally doing a few updates.  The new header is one; I’ve also deleted the annoying category cloud, and provided links to client blogs.

And now for the piece of news with the most interest and of the most relevance to 99.9% of this blog’s readers; I have opened to e-mail queries at JABberwocky.

My e-mail address for query letters is queryeddie [at] awfulagent [dot] com.  Any unsolicited e-mail query sent to any other address will be deleted, unread.  Likewise, don’t send any attachments; any synopsis must be included below the cover letter in the body of your e-mail.

Now, why the change?  Two reasons.

The first is that, although I’m expecting we’ll get hit with a wave of material worse than what we’d see in print, we’re also finding that many people e-mail first, and send letters once they’ve finished e-mailing. If a query is good, we’re put at a competitive disadvantage, because other people get more time to read. The second is that we get fewer queries from authors who live outside the US.  This cuts us off from a good portion of the UK, South African and ANZ markets (we’ve always had many letters from Canada, though), among many others, and making it necessary for people to hunt down IRCs seemed foolish to me, after I thought about it.

So, enjoy! Let your writer friends know I’m now open to e-mail queries.

Fake Plastic Trees

If you thought WALL-E’s world of garbage was science fiction, watch this video:

Narrative development

So, since there’s a light trickle of literary people to my blog, I’m going to type up what are the beginnings of some thinking I’ve been doing about narrative theory (using this term a bit loosely). And I’d like to know what you think.

In the thousands and thousands of pieces of writing I’ve read over the last couple years, a pattern has started to emerge, and while I haven’t approached these in anything resembling a scientific manner, I do think, based on the improperly gathered evidence, that there is a hierarchy of needs related to narratives, and that the more of these needs are met, the more successful a narrative will be.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ve tentatively called it the CASE Hierarchy. You’ll see why after the jump.
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Awesome street sign

This is today’s FREAK shot on the NYT Freakonomics blog:

Run for it!

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