Wednesday, February 23, 2011

WRITER WEDNESDAY: Querying tips repost

Yes, these were posted once before, but the information in this post definitely bares repeating, especially because we are well over 200 followers now, and this will be fresh for many of you.

The majority of our Oasis readers are also writers, many of us struggling to land representation or that Holy Grail of a book sale. We get ya. We're all in some form of 'pre-published'ness. Well, we of the Oasis are here to uplift and support you. So, today I'm sharing my agent, Gina Pannetieri's tips for query writing.


1. Get right into the story. Agents and editors often make a decision as to whether to keep reading a query within the first few lines. This isn't because they don't want to give every writer every possible chance, or don't care about your book, it's just due to the volume of work they have in front of them. So if you start out with a long explanation about how it's always been your dream to be a writer, you're not going to really capture someone's attention and stand out from the pack when there's a tall stack of queries to get through before a meeting and a decision has to be made. So get right into the meat of your story. What's your hook? What's the most intriguing element you can lay out there?

2. Don't ever say that because of the success of Harry Potter, or Twilight, or whatever mega-popular book or series you're likening your story to, your book is destined to be a huge hit. Every agent and every editor gets at least a few queries a week that boldly proclaims 'My book is going to be the next Twilight!' or where the author proclaims herself the obvious successor to J.K. Rowling. And quite a few of my colleagues have confided to me that's where they stop reading.

3. Now, while I've just told you not to stomp around in great big boots declaring you're going to be the next Really Big Thing, it is a good idea to mention solid, reasonable comp titles. This demonstrates you're aware of your market, gives the editor or agent a better idea of your book's 'literary family' and your style, and (done properly) suggests the potential for success. It gets the wheels turning. This works best when you've done a little research into the agent's or editor's history and you can draw any parallels between your work and something else they've sold or shopped. This is where PublishersMarketplace is a handy-dandy tool since it lists an agent's or editor's projects even before they hit the shelves. You obviously don't want to tread right in someone else's footsteps but if you know what someone's taste is, you can aim your queries more accurately.

4. Mention the word count and genre of your book very clearly in your query, and be sure it's an appropriate word count for your genre. There's nothing more disappointing to me than being excited about a query I'm reading but not seeing a word count in it, and having to email the author only to have her write back and tell me the word count's 13,000 words for a YA and she considers it a full-length complete novel. If you're confused as to what the range is for your genre, many of the publishers post guidelines on their websites to help writers.

5. Don't include positive remarks about your book that you've received in rejections by publishers or by other agents. It may seem like a reasonable thing to do, and I get quite a number of queries that include quotes like 'Susie Q of Agency X felt my novel was compelling and well-written, with a truly sympathetic heroine' or 'Editor Billy Jean stated she throughly enjoyed reading my book and loved my fast-paced action'. You might feel warm and fuzzy about the positive feedback, but ultimately, the next person receiving these comments is realizing that the commentary was given in the course of a rejection, so that info is best kept to yourself. For all intents and purposes, let's all act like this is the very first go 'round for all of us, shall we? No editor or agent wants to feel like they're number 13 on your list of people approached with this book, and you definitely want to avoid your book getting a shop-worn feel to it. The only exception to this rule is when an editor or agent reads it and actually recommends you send it to someone else because it's perfect for the other person and typically you'll get a letter of introduction in that case.

6. Don't just include one form of contact. If you're doing an e-query, don't just include your email, or worse yet, rely on the agent using the 'reply' button to get back to you. Several times a week, I hit 'reply' and I get an error message for some reason. The recipient's mailbox is full, or her system is mal-functioning or some other funky problem is keeping me from communicating with her that way. So be sure to always include street address and phone number. If you make it difficult for someone to get ahold of you, you may slip between the cracks. Same holds true with snail mail. Provide the email address and phone number, even if you're using hard copy. The agent may want to get in touch faster.

7. Keep your query brief. I want all the info I need in a page to a page and a half. If you're emailing me, you can feel free to cut and paste the first ten pages at the bottom of the email, which I can read if I'm so inclined, or skip if I figure it's not really something I work with, but not all agents allow for that, so you really have to be able to get a lot of 'ooomph' into that brief query. You should be able to tell me enough about your story in just a couple of paragraphs to make me want to read it. If you find yourself trailing on for three pages, cut, and cut again.You can do it. And don't cheat by using little tiny font and single spacing and big margins. Ask for friends and critique groups to help. What is the bare bones essence of your story? What is the most important thing about you that you must include, since the writer is an essential element of the query?

8. It's okay to multiple-query agents and editors. We expect that, so just mention it in the query and it's fine. That's different from multiple-submissions. I can tackle the sticky topic of the exclusive submission another time.

9. If you're e-querying, use a subject line that states it's a query, gives the genre, word count and title. Don't just use 'Query' or the book's title or your name as the subject (unless the recipient knows you!). Agents and editors get a staggering number of queries every day, so the more help you can give her sorting the stack out, the better. If she's really hot for a new YA urban fantasy, and your subject line is 80k word YA urban fantasy, you're a step ahead!

10. Simple query etiquette. Once you send it out, give the recipient reasonable time to answer. Don't follow up in just a week or two. Don't get snippy if you don't hear. We do the best we can to answer all queries, but we do get thousands, and have only so much time alloted to reply on them. And certainly don't retaliate with a snide response if you get a negative response. You never know how that thoughtless response might come back to haunt you! Trust me, word gets around. Editors work with numbers of others acquiring in the same genre, and they move around to new publishing houses. Agents talk to each other and to editors, every day. Always be professional, always be courteous. You may just be dying to reply back 'yeah, well, I'll send you a copy when I'm rich and famous!', or 'that book, so-and-so you did wasn't so hot!' Don't. Have you ever noticed how truly successful, confident people are the most gracious? That's the image you always want to portray for yourself.

Your query is your face on the world and your foot in the door. Practice it, polish it and perfect it before you send it out. You know the saying about 'there's no second chance to make a first impression?' Dot your i's and cross your t's. Check your spelling and take the time to read it through several times before you send it out. And then always make sure you are addressing it to the correct person before you hit 'send'! and that you've spelled her name correctly!
Best of luck to all of you!

Gratuitous linkage:
Gina's website Talcott Notch Literary Services

1 comment:

  1. I'm so posting this list on my wall! Thanks for reminding us the rules of query letters


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