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.