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!