by Guest Blogger Kelly Smith: Writer, blogger, Writing Practicum member, and quilting aficionado.
As a writer completing my first novel I've been doing a lot of reading and learning about how to query literary agents. While each agent has his or her own minor likes and dislikes (one might like to be referred to formally as "Ms. X" while another might say, "Hey, call me Bill," for example), and while those are important points to note, there are some general things that nearly all agents agree on.
1. Get Straight to the Point.
Agents may only look at the first line or two of your query, especially if they're reading it on their iPhone or Blackberry. Don't clutter the top of the e-mail with anything other than your query.
Don't belabor how or why you wrote the book. Don't tell them your bio or life story. They don't care. Just get to the point. What is the story?
2. Hook Them.
Jump right into the world of the novel. Don't give them back story, engage in world building, or plunge into character development. Just fling them headlong into the story. For example:
Dear Ms. Agent,
Romeo and Juliet are in love, but their families are feuding. Casting aside allegiance to their parents, and fighting against their fate to be sworn enemies, the young lovers sneak off to marry with the help of a friendly friar. Juliet's father, not knowing about the marriage to Romeo, arranges another marriage for her. A catastrophic misunderstanding ensues.
ROMEO AND JULIET is a 100,000 word novel set against a backdrop of feuding nobility in fourteenth century Verona, Italy.
Thank you for your consideration.
Somewhere in London
3. Give Enough Information, But Not Too Much.
Agents receive hundreds of queries a week. You will have less than a minute to make a good impression. Don't send enormous chunks of text. Keep sentences short, simple, and direct.
They don't care why you wrote the book. They don't care about this cool new species / planet / secret weapon / etc. that you've created unless the entire plot turns on it. Even then, keep the description short; one sentence, maybe two.
Don't introduce them to every character. Just tell them the good guy and the bad guy and the conflict. (Or, the main character and the situation he or she is fighting against, which is the same as "the bad guy.")
Leave them wanting more so that they will request pages or, if you are supremely lucky, the whole manuscript. In other words, don't spill the ending.
4. Give the Right Information.
Tell them the protagonist, the antagonist and the conflict. (There is a conflict, right?)
Tell them something that will make them like the protagonist. If they hate the characters they won't want to read it anymore than readers will.
Tell them the title, genre, and word count.
Tell them if you have published anything or won any awards, but be selective. Winning a contest is great - if they've ever heard of the contest and if it is a prestigious one. If you won a writing prize in high school, they won't care. If you won an O. Henry award for a short story, that's probably worth mentioning.
5. Don't Tell Your Life Story.
The query is about the novel, not about you, so make sure to keep the focus on the story. Also, anyone can write a novel -- you don't need qualifications. You're not applying for a job, so don't send them the equivalent of a resume, or worse, your whole bio. That comes later, if they choose to represent you.
6. Just as in Writing Your Novel, Show, Don't Tell.
Be specific. Don't write something like, "Frodo and Sam went on an epic journey where their lives were endangered numerous times, but eventually Frodo dropped the ring into the fires of Mount Doom." That's dull and leaves out all the specifics that made the journey in The Lord of The Rings so amazing.
Try something like, "Frodo and Sam walk for weeks, led by the treacherous Gollum, through swamps full of dead people, up the steep steps at Cirith Ungol until they are exhausted and starving. Gollum tricks Sam into leaving. Soon after, Frodo is captured by a giant spider, stung and wrapped in her web. Sam thinks his friend is dead, and to avenge him, charges ahead into certain death at the hands of the Orcs, only to discover that Frodo is still alive."
Details like "swamps full of dead people" and "giant spiders" show the danger Sam and Frodo were in instead of just telling it.
7. Don't Claim that Your Book Will Be a Blockbuster.
Chances are you are not the next J. K. Rowling or Stephen King, no matter what your mother thinks. Spare the poor agent your fantasies of being the Next Big Thing. Just tell him what your book actually is and let him decide if it's something he wants to represent.
Be especially careful of comparing your book to other new books that have not been published yet. On her blog, Query Shark had a message from a colleague that said, "He can't have read any of the specific books, two of the authors hadn't been published yet and one of the books will have a different title when it IS eventually published. And I may be the ONLY thing those books have in common."
Don't be the person to send a query like that.
8. Show That You Are a Professional (Even if You're a Newbie).
Be polite. Address the agent the way he or she wants to be addressed. You have researched that on their blog, right? Some are formal, some not.
Make sure each query is designed for that particular agent and not just "generic agent."
Use proper grammar, spelling and punctuation. If you can't do that in a simple letter, the agent will never believe you're capable of writing a novel.
Don't include any personal achievements or accomplishments that are not directly related to being published.
9. Sign Off Gracefully.
After you've hooked them, introduced them to the main character and described the central conflict there's nothing left to do but sign off. "Thank you for your consideration," is a nice closing.
Some agents hate to be told what to do, so something like, "I look forward to hearing from you soon," although innocuous can set some teeth on edge. It sounds like you're telling them to hurry up and get back to you. Simple is better.
10. Avoid Attachments.
Finally, don't attach anything unless the agent specifically asks for attachments. In general, agents want the query included the body of the e-mail. If they ask for pages, they often want them included in the body of the message as well. Always follow the specific instructions for that specific agent.
For some great advice and to see examples of many bad (and a precious few good) queries, visit the Query Shark blog of agent Janet Reid. She takes the time to not only critique the queries people send her, but does it publicly on her blog so we can all benefit from her expertise. It is worth the time to read over her entries and use what you learn there.
Kelly Smith is the author of Open Your Heart with Quilting: Mastering Life Through Love of the Patches (Dreamtime Publishing 2008).
She also writes about quilting for Examiner.com and was published in Quilter’s Home magazine’s November 2008 issue. She is working on her first novel and will soon publish her second non-fiction book.