Let’s Talk Queries – and a Mini-Contest

Querying can feel like diving without an oxygen tank - hopefully my tips will help you breathe easier.
Querying can feel like diving without an oxygen tank – exciting and scary all at once. I hope my tips will help you breathe easier and enjoy the trip.

When I started querying my (now trunked) first novel, I didn’t even know what a query letter was. My first query letters were basically lame cover letters that said “here’s my novel, hope you like it.” Needless to say, I got a lot of form rejections and non-responses. It took me an astonishingly long time to think of asking Google to help me.

So, I thought I would use today’s post to offer some querying tips and advice I learned in the past four years of querying. And, in the spirit of paying it forward, I’m going to offer a query critique to one lucky reader. (More details on that at the end of this post.)

But first, here are my Top Twelve Query Tips:

1. Ask the Internet: There are a ton of sites out there dedicated to helping make queries better. Before I wrote my query for SHADOWCATCHERS, I went to QQQE, Query Shark, and Evil Editor and read practically every post to see what worked and what didn’t.

2. Know Your Audience: By which I mean the expected reader for your book. Make sure you get your age group/book style (Picture Book, Chapter Book, Middle Grade, or Young Adult) and your genre (Contemporary, Fantasy, Romance, Sci-Fi, Paranormal, etc) right. Then make sure your word count is appropriate. Not sure what an appropriate word count is? See Tip #1 above. (Okay, or check out this Literary Rambles post, or this Writer’s Digest post.)

3. Ask for Help: Once you’ve perfected the synopsis portion of your query, get a friend or critique partner (you do have a CP, right? If not, skip the query writing, find a CP and have them go over your manuscript with you before you start querying) to read through your synopsis. I like to pick someone who doesn’t know the story already, so they can tell me where I’ve left out important information. If my synopsis doesn’t make sense to them, it won’t make sense to the agent I’m sending it to. It’s also good to test-send your e-queries to a few friends with different email servers to make sure your formatting doesn’t appear wonky.

4. No Credentials are Better than Inflated Credentials: I think this part of the query letter strikes fear into every unpublished writer’s heart. I mean, how are you supposed to impress an agent if you don’t have anything to brag about? Relax. Not having credentials makes you a debut author – and agents sign those quite often. I didn’t have any credentials, and I still got requests from agents – not to mention, signed by one. But what you don’t want to do is lie/pad your resume. Agents will find out. So only use credentials that count. Agents don’t care if you won your Grade 6 Writing Contest, or are in charge of your PTA newsletter – but if you won a major contest, by all means, include it.

Some agents suggest writing something memorable about yourself in this section, if you don’t have writing credentials (not just that you have kids, or a dog, etc. but something really memorable, like having 15 kids, or raising teams of sled dogs – or say, owning a life-sized stuffed polar bear), but other agents would prefer you just leave this section blank. Which brings us to:

5. Read Each Agent’s Instructions (and Follow Them): It seems like every agent out there wants something different than the last – just a query, query + 5 pages, query + 5 chapters, writing sample embedded in the email, writing sample attached as a word doc, etc. Whatever they ask for – do it. Being different will make you stand out, but not in a good way. And, whatever you do, don’t just BCC (and definitely don’t CC) your whole slew of agents with the same e-query!

6. Personalize Your Query. Or Don’t: It’s always better to personalize your query, if you can. Find an interview or blog post where the agent said something that applies to your writing (I read on x’s blog interview that you are looking for MG Fantasies featuring were-gerbils), or comment on one of their clients (I really enjoy y author’s books), or stalk the hashtag #MSWL (manuscript wish list) – just make sure it’s a recent post, not one from three years ago. But if you can’t find something meaningful to say, it’s okay to say nothing. In fact, I think it’s preferable to have no personalization, than to say something lame like “According to your website, you represent MG, and I write MG.” Yes, I sent out un-personalized queries, and yes, I got requests for them. However, if the reason you can’t find a way to personalize it is because the agent doesn’t seem to like the kind of books you write, then maybe that agent isn’t the best one to represent your book.

7. Get the Little Details Right: I’m not just talking about spelling the agent’s name right (or knowing that they’re a Mr. not a Ms.). I’m talking about all the little formatting details too. For instance, a snail mail query is formatted like a business letter, with all your (and their) contact info, plus the date, at the top of the page. But in an email query the agent would have to scroll through all of that before they got to any of the good stuff, so your contact info goes under your name/e-signature, including any links to blogs, websites, etc. (If you read the Query Shark at all, you’ll already know this.) Both snail and e-queries should be single-spaced with a full return between paragraphs (like the formatting of this blog), but writing samples should be double-spaced. And while we’re at it, remember this is a business letter, so sign off appropriately. A “Thank you for your time and consideration.” followed by “Sincerely,” is the safest way to go.

8. Act Professional: A query letter is like a resume for your book. You want it to look as professional as possible. That means proofread, proofread, proofread! Typos in a query letter are like having spinach in your teeth at a job interview – they won’t necessarily stop you from getting the job, but they’re darn distracting and may make the agent question your professionalism. While you’re at it, make sure you’re sending those e-queries from a professional-sounding email address. Sexygerbilgrrl67@hotmail.com is fine for you and your friends, but not for querying your children’s book. Open up an email account that has your name in it, and use it for all writerly correspondence.

9. Fill in the Agent’s Email Address Last: This tip comes straight from personal experience. As if querying wasn’t already stressful enough, there’s nothing worse than the dread that comes from realizing you accidentally hit “send” too soon. (Seriously, why are “attach” and “send” so close together?) If you save the agent’s email until the end, there’s no chance of having to send that second “oops!” email. Also, it lets you double-check that you’ve addressed it to the right person.

10. Keep Track: I used a word doc (which I printed out during my concussion days), but you can use Excel, recipe cards, or whatever system works for you. I typically put the agent’s name, agency, their expected response time (or no-response time) – in both weeks and date (ie. 4-6 weeks = follow-up after June 6, 2014). If an agent has no stated response time and DOESN’T say they are a “No Response Means No,” I would follow up after 12 weeks with a quick polite email. If you don’t receive a response, count it as a no and move on.

11. Query in Batches: I queried in batches of 5-10 agents at a time. Be sure to include both “dream agents” and not dream agents in each batch, because you only get one chance, and you don’t want to use up all your “dream agents” on the first go. Also, querying in batches lets you assess what’s working and what’s not. Did your first 10 queries come back with form rejections? Maybe it’s time to re-assess your query letter. Fizzling out with partial requests? Take a look at your ms. And, if any agents are generous enough to give you feedback – take it.

12. Grab Some Chocolate and Settle in For the Long Haul: In my experience agents took about 4-16 weeks to reply to queries, 2-8 months on Partials, and up to a year on Fulls. Writing (or at least, publishing) is not a speedy process, so sit back, eat some chocolate, start writing your next piece, and try to keep yourself from checking your email every five minutes.

And now, the part I’m sure you’re waiting for: CONTEST DETAILS! I’m going to make this simple. Just leave a comment with your name, your ms’s genre, age group, and word count, and I will randomly pick one to receive a query critique from me! I’m going to limit this to children’s books, since that’s what I write, and the critique will be private (ie. I won’t post it up on the blog for everyone to see). Contest will close Wednesday May 27 at 6pm EDT, and I’ll announce the winner later that night on the blog and on Twitter (@K_Callard). Good luck! Contest s now closed!

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10 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Queries – and a Mini-Contest

  1. Thanks so very much for writing this post! I’m preparing to query agents next month and this post couldn’t have happened at a better time for me 🙂 I will definitely investigate Query Shark before I send anything off!
    Jenny Buchet
    Picture Book, 542-words

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