Uncooperative. Defiant. Insolent. These are other words I’d use to describe the query letter. Two hundred and fifty words. One page. Should be easy, right? After all, I just wrote 70,000 words. But as I’m learning the things that should be easy are, well, often not.
I read a lot about how to write a query before I ever put one word down. I obsessively read through queries on sites like Query Shark and Slush Pile Tales – both places where brave wanna-be authors can submit queries for (
torturous) helpful critiquing. I learned some key things, like you should never (EVER) start a query with a rhetorical question (Seriously, never do this. This is a guaranteed way to get an instant rejection). That 250 words is not many, so use those words wisely (don’t mention sub characters or the fact you have a dog named Earl, which also happens to be the name of your protagonist…). Never write ‘Dear Agent’ as your salutation. And for the love of G_d, never send a mass query out. All these things make agents prickly. And a prickly agent is not going to give you a second glance.
But I also left my ‘research’ confused. Some agents say a four-paragraph query format is best (title/word count/genre, hook, synopsis, author bio); others long for the ‘unorthodox’ query. As long as you don’t write it in your main character’s voice. They hate that. Even if it’s a most clever book about a crime-fighting parrot. Or a vampire who is allergic to blood (also, vampires are out).
So after I couldn’t possibly cram any more query stuff in my brain (I was dreaming about it, for reals), I started writing. And re-writing. I emailed my writing buddy and critique partner with each version. She kindly gave me feedback. Multiple times. Then I rewrote some more. And more. And then a little more. Finally I had something I thought worked. So I sent a few query letters out (happy to report out of my first three I received two instant rejections and one request for a full manuscript) and let the words marinate a little more. Then I rewrote it again. And you know what? I bet it isn’t the last time.
I think I’m on version number 123 of my query letter. It’s better than version 90, and definitely WAY better than version 10 (if I can even remember that far back…). The other piece of advice I gleamed on queries is to make each one custom to the agent you’re querying. This is obvious, of course, but I have a feeling many don’t do this (see ‘Never send a mass query out’ above). I have a spreadsheet with all the agents I’m going to query, with links to interviews and articles where they delve more deeply into what they’re looking for, and other tidbits helpful in customizing a query letter. I have a word doc for each and every agent I’m querying. And I send one email at a time. Not only does this help me keep track, it ensures I’ll never send the wrong letter to the wrong agent.
Because the number one thing agents have to say? You have one chance to make an impression. (So don’t screw it up).