Query Shark

If you’re an aspiring author and have not yet encountered Query Shark, stop whatever you’re doing–no… wait… you’re reading this blog, so DON’T stop what you’re doing… CONTINUE reading!

Query Shark is, I think, the most useful resource on the internet for writers. The primary purpose of the blog is to help writers write the best query they can. But in doing this, Query Shark unloads a ton of excellent writing tips that can improve your novel, not just your query. Since Query Shark was just named one of Writer’s Digest’s 101 Best Websites for Writers (see the latest edition of Writer’s Digest), I thought it appropriate to celebrate it for today’s A-to-Z Blogging Challenge letter.

Query Shark is the brain-child of Janet Reid, one of the literary agents at Fine Print Literary Management. Janet receives countless queries from aspiring authors every day, some of which immediately get her attention, but most of which are rejected after only a few lines. To help writers understand where they’re going wrong with their querying, Janet set up Query Shark–a place where writers can submit queries purely for review. Anyone submitting their query must be willing to see it ripped to shreds before the whole world. But Janet’s main purpose is not sadistic pleasure at torturing poor helpless writers. Her primary purpose is to help people improve their querying skills–and often their writing skills. She points out the flaws so they can be corrected. She invites people to revise their queries based on her comments, and resubmit them to the site.

Submitting a query to Query Shark is not an official query submission to Janet, so she doesn’t care about the genre. She knows enough about the industry to know what constitutes a good query for memoir, picture book, MG, YA, etc. A submission to Query Shark is a request for help writing a query.

That doesn’t mean Janet won’t sign someone based on a Query Shark submission. Dan Krokos impressed Janet enough with his Query Shark offering that she requested the manuscript, and eventually signed him. You can read about his story here, and listen to Janet talking about Query Shark and Dan Krokos in this BBC World Service interview.

I may not be the best query writer in the world, but it’s thanks to the Query Shark archives that I understand the purpose of a query letter, what a query letter needs to say, and how to be a better writer generally.

Have you benefited from Query Shark? What’s your go-to site for query or general writing help?

For Writers Over 30

Right off the bat, let me just say that I applaud every writer that has managed to get an agent and sell their work to a publisher while they are still in their twenties (even their teens in some cases). Seriously, congratulations on figuring out what you want to do while you’re young, and successfully pursuing that goal. I’m sure you worked hard and I honestly wish you every success.

For those of us over the age of thirty–and ten or so years beyond that–who are still trying to hunt that elusive agent who loves our work (which sometimes feels like the high school hunt for that one true love), however, it can sometimes be a little discouraging. We see young authors being snapped up by young agents, and we can get to thinking that perhaps we missed the boat. If we were ten, twenty, thirty years younger, perhaps this would be easier.

This is why I am so grateful that “The Intern” posted this article on her (I presume from the picture) blog last week: Publishers Weekly: The Deals You Don’t See. Many of us don’t care about huge advances–we just want to see our work in print. And while you may not often hear about 30, 40, or 50 somethings getting debut book deals, it still happens. So let’s not be discouraged and continue to work on making our novels the best we can. After all, great novels are really what get agents and publishers interested, not the author’s age.

What Happens to My Query When I Hit Send…?

Are you a writer? Have you ever wondered how agents process query letters? I don’t doubt there are as many methods for attacking the slush pile (or query inbox) as there are literary agents (and there are HUNDREDS of those). Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be interesting to know how one or two agents go about it? Well, here’s one perspective from Jennifer Laughran, an agent with Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She likens the process to ER triage! Yes, some queries are DOA, but others need more nuanced attention. It’s a fascinating insight. Indeed, it’s interesting what you can find out from reading literary agent blogs. For example, in this post, Lauren Ruth, Literary Agent with BookEnds, reveals that she logs every query in an Excel spreadsheet so she can track her response, and know if she’s queried by the same author, or receives the exact same query more than once. Anyway, I thought you might find that interesting.

Querying and Dating

Today I received a rejection from the wonderful agent who requested my full manuscript. <sigh>. She’s still a wonderful agent–I’m not that petty. Really, it would have been a lot of fun working with her, but she determined that my novel wasn’t a good fit for her. And that’s fair enough. The last thing a writer needs is an agent who doesn’t love your novel trying to sell it to a publisher. That just won’t work.

I have read that the process of querying is much like dating because sometimes the sting of rejection can be as harsh. I would have to say that would depend on your experience of dating. At least with an agent you can still part ways on good terms; that doesn’t always happen in romantic situations. For me, the agent-rejection hasn’t been too bad. Though it is kind of weird when I look at the long list of agents I have yet to query and think to myself, “Oh well–there are plenty of fish in the sea…”

Thoughts and Tips on Querying: Agent Hunting and Final Thoughts

After months of brooding over my query letter, writing and re-writing it, submitting it to public scrutiny on WriteOnCom and QueryTracker (more about this tool in a moment), and getting it to a point where I think it’s as good as it’s going to be, I finally used it last night. I submitted my first four agent queries. I can tell you, I hesitated over the “send” button for that first one. Did I spell her name correctly? Did I follow the submissions guidelines properly? I did put the correct agent’s name, didn’t I? Why am I doing this? I’m only going to get form rejections anyway… I’m told second-guessing and self-doubt come with the territory, and whoever said that was right. But that’s okay. If this makes us write better queries and causes us to query correctly, no harm done. Now, if it stops you ever doing anything, that’s a problem. At some point you have to press “send.”

So, as I now wait for feedback, and get ready to query more agents, I thought this would be a good time to share some thoughts on selecting agents to query, and give some final tips.

Most writers write to be read, and the best way to get your work read is to publish. It follows, then, that most writers are anxious to find a good publisher and, therefore, anxious to get an agent that will find him or her that publisher. In light of this, it’s easy for writers to want to query every agent and say yes to the first that shows interest. There are hundreds of literary agents in the US alone, so the chances of finding someone to take on your novel are actually pretty good. However, not every agent is worthy of your manuscript. As with any business, there are bad agents who really don’t know much about the industry, don’t have your best interests at heart, and really just want to separate you with your money as effortlessly as possible. They feed on your desperation to be published. So don’t be desperate. You should never be that desperate.

“But what if none of the good agents are interested in my work?” You have two options (as far as I see it): 1) go back and re-work your query, and maybe even your novel–the rejections may be indicating a fundamental problem with your work; 2) self-publish. Option 2 should not be entered into lightly, but it is certainly an option. But research thoroughly first. Read articles by agents, publishers, and experienced writers before going there. It’s a lot of work. In fact, I would recommend option 1 first. Most agents will let you re-query the same novel (after a reasonable amount of time has passed) if the new version represents a substantial improvement over the old one. I’m not talking about making spelling or grammatical changes. This usually means you have re-structured the novel, edited the mess out of it, and generally re-worked it. When you re-submit, you don’t want the agent to be re-reading what you sent him/her before. It must feel like a new novel to them. Alternatively, drop that novel and go with the novel you’re working on. Finish it, polish it, and query that one. Maybe the market’s not right just yet for novel 1. Let it rest. Maybe in a few years it will have it’s time in the limelight.

Remember: you’re not desperate. Develop a strategy for querying agents. Research, research, research! Go online and look up agents that represent your genre, or pick up a book like The Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents.  Visit each listed agent’s website. Go to their blogs. Look them up on Facebook. Do they represent your particular sub-genre? Are they even open to querying at the moment? What are their submission requirements (query letter only, or query letter plus sample, or query letter plus synopsis, or something else)? Are they independent or do they work for a large agency? How long have they been in business? Have they a large and/or impressive client roster? Do they represent authors who write books like yours? Are they interested in developing your career, or are they only interested in signing you on a per-book basis? Does the agent you’re considering seem like the kind of person you would get along well with (based on blog posts, FB messages, online interviews, etc.)? All of these are important questions to consider when choosing agents.

A quick note about newbie agents. Few “newbie” agents are really new. Most, especially those working for large and/or reputable agencies, have served an internship, and have apprenticed under an experienced agent before launching out on their own. The disadvantage with new agents is that they are still building relationships with publishers, and may not have as many contacts as the more seasoned agents. However, the main advantage is that they are building their client lists so they are more open to queries from new authors–and they generally have more time to read queries and submissions, so you may get a quicker response. If you’re considering a newbie agent, make sure he/she is with a reputable agency, or has a good background in publishing. If his website says that he just left an engineering job two weeks ago and is now working for himself and is open to submissions, you may want to pass.

You now have your list of agents. From your research, determine who are your “dream” agents–those agents who would be perfect for you and your project. Flag them as your A-List. Then select your B-List. Next, your C-List. Now you need to decide who to query first. Remember, in its current state, your novel has one shot with each agent. If you get a rejection, that’s it. You can’t re-query that same agent with that same novel without a major overhaul, as I noted above. So, you may not want to query any of your A-List first. You may want to send some queries out to B-List or C-List agents to see if you get any feedback. If they reject, that may be a sign that your query letter isn’t enticing enough. So tweak it, and go for round two, maybe hitting a couple of your A-List agents. This is just one approach to working your way through your agent list. The important thing is that you think it through–don’t just pick randomly.

“How do I keep up with the agents I’ve chosen, and which I’ve queried?” Some use Excel (or similar) spreadsheets. This was going to be my approach until I came upon QueryTracker, a neat website that helps you with every step of the process. It maintains a database of agents from which you can select as many as you want. QueryTracker stores your selections, and then allows you to note when you query each one, how you queried them, what response you got, when, etc. It’s free, though there is a “premium” user level you can purchase which gives some enhanced reporting. There’s even a forum where you can submit your query letter for peer review/critique. I seriously recommend you check it out. The only drawback I’ve noticed is that it’s database is not exhaustive. I have come across a couple of agents that are not in QueryTracker. There may be good reason for this (e.g., either they are new, or they’re not very reputable), but be aware that it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of agent researching–at least not yet.

When you’ve queried, be prepared to wait. How long agents take to get back to you depends upon their workload, the quantity of queries they need to get through, and a host of other factors. Remember, reading queries is not the main job of the agent. The agent’s main priority will always be to his/her current clients. When you get an agent, I’m sure you’ll appreciate this. For now, we have to reconcile with the fact that most agents spend a small fraction of their day reading queries. Many agent websites will tell you how soon you can expect a response. As with all your dealings with agents, follow and note their guidelines and instructions.

I think I have just about exhausted this topic, and I’m not sure I have much else to say. If you are in the process of querying, I wish you every success. I’m in that position now, and I will no doubt keep my blog readers posted on how that goes.

 

Pitch vs. Query

If you’ve been reading my “Thoughts and Tips on Querying,” you will notice that I often refer to the part of the query where you describe your novel as “the pitch.” I want to make it clear that this is not the same as the pitch you would make to a friend, agent, or potential book-buying person who asks you what your book is about. I am using that term in the context of a query letter just to differentiate it from the other elements in the letter, because in the context of the query letter, it serves the same purpose: to get you to want to read the book. Both types of pitch have their place, and the aspiring (and even seasoned) novelist will need to use one or the other at some point. Janet Reid posted a blog on this topic today where she cites examples of the “query” as opposed to the “pitch.” Hers is, of course, the official terminology; my use of the term “pitch” was in the context of the query letter, and was of my own making. Check out Janet’s article for clarification and education. :)

Literary Agent Research

Among other things, I am in the midst of researching agents. This is a subject I’ll go into a bit on the last “Thoughts and Tips on Querying” post, but I want to tell you that it’s a lot of work. And I’m only at the point of making a hit-list. Once I have my hit-list and I’m ready to query, I then need to research each one and determine a) if the agent really is one I think would be great to work with, and b) if he/she is an agent that I think would be interested not only in the novel I’m pitching, but in the novels I have in various stages of progress, and the ideas and plans I have for future projects. That requires reading blogs, websites, looking up recommendations, hunting down interviews, finding out which authors they currently represent, etc.

I say this to get the point across that often finding an agent is thought of as being solely dependent on whether the agent likes the author, when in fact, it goes both ways. Agents understand this, I think, but I’m finding that as I look at agent websites, and read agent bios, I’m evaluating them as much as they will one day be evaluating me. When I pull up an agent’s website, if he’s only interested in contracting on a per-book basis (i.e., he will rep your book, but not necessarily the next), I move on. I want to have an agent working on my behalf for the duration of my writing career. I want to be dealing with someone with whom I can build up a rapport, joke with, celebrate with, commiserate with, and trust with my work. Some writers may not care, but this is important to me.

There are other preferences I have when selecting potential agents–things that attract me to some agents, and put me off others–but I won’t go into them here. My point is that finding the right agent is, to me, as much finding an agent I like as it is finding an agent that likes me and my novel. And that takes a lot of work. But hopefully it’ll be worth it in the end. Check back in a few months… :)

Literary Agents Who Represent Christian Authors

This is as much for my benefit as anyone else. Michael Hyatt posted a blog article–I don’t know when–listing literary agents who represent Christians. Not all the agents on the list are themselves Christians, but they all represent Christian literature. Some, like Rachelle Gardner, represent both Christian and non-Christian. Anyway, here’s the link to the article. I hope it is useful to you. And thanks to Michael for gathering this information!

http://michaelhyatt.com/literary-agents-who-represent-christian-authors.html

 

Thoughts and Tips on Querying: Title, Word Count, Genre, etc.

Some writers like to start their queries with the title/word count/genre paragraph (what I call the “housekeeping” paragraph). I believe I mentioned before, when discussing the opening address, that I prefer to leave this to last. If your word count is a little long, or the title not particularly inspired, these might give the agent a negative impression of your query before he/she has even got to the main pitch. However, if the pitch is great and the agent is loving your novel, he/she is less likely to get hung up over the word count and/or title. But let’s talk about these…

You probably have at least a working title for your novel. If not, you should probably come up with one. What if it’s not very impressive? Do the best you can. A great title will certainly put a smile on the agent’s face, but the title alone will not make or break the query. I have yet to read or hear a single agent say they have rejected a query solely on the basis of the title. Titles change. Even if you love your title, the agent may want to change it. And if you and your agent love the title, the editor/publisher might want to change it. I say, try to come up with a good title, but don’t be too invested in it. Better to let your title be changed and have a novel published, than be stubborn over the title and potentially lose your agent or publisher’s good will. If you want to fight for your title, make sure you have compelling and convincing reasons not to change it. The title should always be in ALL CAPS in your query.

Word count has more potential to scare an agent than the title. An agent can change a title; only the writer can change the word count. What constitutes too many or too few words depends largely on genre, though I think it’s fair to say that any first-time novel more than 100,000 words long is going to be frowned upon. Remember, any publisher looking at a novel has to justify the cost of all that paper and ink. This is, perhaps, one reason why Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is significantly shorter than Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. When the former came out, no-one knew how successful it would be. By the time the latter came out, the series was already multimillion selling, so it was really no risk to the publisher to green-light a 500,000 word YA novel. As a general rule of thumb, Middle Grade should be between 50-70K, YA 60-80K , adult 70-90K. This is just my general impression. Fantasy genres might get a little more flexibility on the word count (perhaps up to 110K) because of the world-building that’s often a part of such novels.

What about genre? Hopefully you already have a good idea of the genre of your novel. At least you should have an idea whether it’s written for kids, teens, or adults, and if it’s a mystery, a crime, a fantasy, or a sci-fi novel. There are hundreds of possible categories and sub-categories to choose from. If you’re not sure, find books that are like yours and look them up on Amazon, or check out the author’s website or blog, or look up the publisher’s website. See how they categorize that book and use that as a guide. DO NOT say that your book is a “fiction novel.” That’s a redundancy, and an amateur mistake that signals to an agent that you haven’t done your research, you don’t know what you’re talking about, and will almost guarantee you a form rejection. Be warned!

If this is not your first novel, you should also include the titles and publishers of your existing books. Otherwise, you don’t need to say your a first-time novelist. The agent might assume that, and ultimately won’t care. If the writing is strong and the story’s good, things like age and experience won’t matter one bit. In fact, just don’t mention either. Even if you’re only twelve. Surprise your agent when you tell him/her you need to have a parent sign your contract (it happens more often than you might think)!

What about a paragraph with your biography, influences, educational background etc.? This is definitely an area where agents differ. Some would say don’t bother–unless the biographical information lends credibility to your novel (e.g., you’ve written a crime novel based in New York, and you’re a retired New York cop). Others like to see that kind of thing. I would say, if you’re going to include biographical info, keep it relevant (MFAs, English degree, etc.). If your writing won a nationally-recognized competition, or a competition run by a respected magazine or organization, then certainly include that. Anything that shows your writing has been praised by recognized industry professionals can only enhance your query. But remember, no amount of extra information can cover for bad writing or a weak story. And that’s what agents and publishers care about most.

In the final installment, we’ll go over a few other things about querying–finding agents, agent research, and any other tips I can think of.

Thoughts and Tips on Querying: The Pitch

I don’t know if that’s what this part of the query letter is officially called, but let’s call it that for now. It’s the part between the “Dear [Agent]” and the word count, genre, etc. info. The section where you actually attempt to sell your masterpiece to the agent.

If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that I recently “attended” WriteOnCon 2011. As part of that event, I posted my query letter for critique by peers and professionals. What a learning experience that was–not only having my own letter analyzed, but seeing others undergo the same treatment! I repeat what I have said before, the things I say here are based on my reading, not based on me being an expert at writing query letters, or having landed an agent as a result of a successful query. What I offer here are tips that I have picked up, and that I try to apply when writing my own query.

First, a list of agent pet peeves. Not all agents hate when writers do these things in their query letters–at least not to the same extent.  But try to avoid the following:

  • Don’t start with quotations from your novel. Many agents ask for a sample (first five pages) pasted into your e-mail query, so this really isn’t necessary. Also, without the context of the novel, the agent hasn’t a clue what’s going on. He/she needs to know plot and story.
  • Don’t ask rhetorical questions (e.g. , “Have you ever wondered what it would be like to fly?” or “What would you say if your best friend told you she was a werewolf?”). Depending on how snarky the agent is feeling that day, the answer to your questions may be “no” or “I don’t care” and a form rejection would be on its way to you.
  • Don’t switch points of view. Try to keep to one POV (Point of View). Even if your novel is written in the third person seeing the story from various perspectives (e.g., your Main Character (MC), the antagonist, your MC’s friends), it keeps the query simple if you tell the plot from your MC’s POV. There’s a good example of how to do this on agent Janet Reid’s QueryShark blog here.
  • Don’t waste word count on backstory, descriptions, and anything that does not communicate the story.

Your pitch should briefly outline the story, but not the whole plot–this is not a synopsis. The query letter pitch is often likened to what you might find on the cover flap or back cover of the novel. It tells you who the main character is, the situation, and the crisis or problem that needs to be overcome. Just as the purpose of the cover blurb is to stop you putting the book back on the shelf, so the purpose of the query letter pitch is to stop the agent from hitting “form rejection” and moving on to the next query.

That, in fact, is the main rule of querying: tell the agent what the book’s about in the most compelling way possible. Yes there are things you should and shouldn’t do–”rules” for querying, if you want. However, the successful query is not necessarily the one that adheres to all the accepted wisdom. The successful query is the one that generates a request for a partial or a full from the agent. That said, you should certainly try to craft the best query letter you can, paying attention to all the “rules.” But at the end of the day, you need to remember that a strange (or “gimmicky”) query that is compelling (or that sells a compelling story idea) can work just as well (see this query, for example, again from QueryShark).

Another reason to take time, effort, and care over writing your query is the fact that your query is often the agent’s first exposure to your writing skills. If the query is full of typos and grammar flubs, and/or is disjointed and inarticulate, he/she will not hold out much hope for the novel being much better. Sure, the agent might have your attached pages to read, but I wouldn’t be surprised if given such a badly-written query, he/she didn’t bother reading on.

I hope this is helpful. My own query letter didn’t fair too badly under critical scrutiny, largely because I tried to pay attention to these rules. I got nailed over the multiple POV point above, so I fixed that and made sure to include that point here. My query still needs work, though. One further way to sharpen your query-writing skills is to spend time reading agent-reviewed queries on sites such as QueryShark and BookEnds. You may even be brave enough to submit your attempt to one of these!

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