Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Query Letter Phrasing to Reconsider

I originally thought to title this “Query Letter Phrasing to Avoid,” but then I remembered how different agents can be and thought it would be better to use the word "reconsider." These are phrases that I often see or see variations of that I don’t think help your cause, and I’ll explain why.

Reconsider: “appeals to young adult and adult readers alike” or “appeals to readers from 8 to 98”

Because few agents, editors, or readers are looking for books that are targeting such a wide audience. Sure, there have been plenty of books over the years that can thank their success primarily to the fact that they did have such broad audience appeal, Harry Potter being the most recent, but no one wrote, bought, or sold that book with the intent of appealing to everyone in the world. That book was bought as a YA book and for the YA audience. It was shelved in YA in bookstores. Most important, it was written to appeal to YA readers and edited for YA readers. Having mass appeal doesn’t necessarily help you, but might confuse the matter. You don’t want to write a book that some bookstores shelve in YA while others shelve in mystery and even others put in fantasy. It confuses readers and makes it hard to find. So know your focus.

Reconsider: “my book covers themes of . . .”

Unless you can convince me otherwise, very few people buy books based on themes; people typically buy books based on the appeal of plot or character. Examples of this I see, to better explain what I mean, are things like, “a way to help women learn more about why they stay in unhealthy relationships,” or “a book that centers around the themes of love, loss, and greed.” If you’re writing nonfiction self-help, sure. But fiction? This is not going to sell books. If part of your goal in writing fiction is to explore issues that are either political or religious, I think that’s great, but don’t use it as a selling point.

“readers have called the book . . .”

I know how quotes work and how getting quotes works. It’s very easy for you to parse down “this book was boring and lacking in any true story, but nonetheless it was an entertaining read” to “an entertaining read.” The best way to tell me about the story is to tell me by using your own words, not those of others.

“other agents have called the book . . .”

Quoting other rejection letters is not the way to convince agents that you have a hot commodity everyone is going to want to grab up.

“I once won an award in eighth grade for my writing and have been working on it ever since.”

Unless you’re in ninth grade this doesn’t show me the kind of professional growth that I’m looking for in an author. A query letter should focus first and foremost on the book and secondarily on your current writing achievements. Focus on those things that a professional would want to see.

“I have written a number of poems and articles and while I haven’t yet written a novel I have some terrific ideas that I’d love to discuss with you and see if you’re interested in representing. Please call me immediately. I know you won’t be disappointed.”

Besides the obvious, this is too vague. A query or any correspondence with an agent should be as clear and concise as possible. Give us all the information you have to entice us to read your book. And, yes, you must have written the book, of course.

“I’m sure you’re tired of reading pathetic emails from authors begging for your attention so I’ll try my best to be quick about it.”

Do I really need to explain? Don’t demean yourself or your work. I should be overjoyed to continue receiving submissions from authors and should be lucky to have the opportunity to read your work. Treat yourself and your work with pride. It will get you further.



Kimber Li said...

“appeals to young adult and adult readers alike”

I've never written than in a query, I don't think. I understand the need to categorize for marketing, but out here in the Real World readers criss-cross the lines every day. So why the heck not look for books with appeal to both teens and adults from the start?

Mark Terry said...

Whew! I think I dodged all those bullets.

Anonymous said...

re: kimber an. "Why not look for books with appeal to both teens and adults from the start?"

Um, not to sound snotty or anything, but editors do not look for books that "appeal to both teens and adults" because it's hard to do a good job finding a book that can do either, much less both. And edtiors are specialized, a kidlit editor isn't concerned with crossover potential, they're concerned with a solid YA, and adult book editors routinely pass over books that they deem too "young" in voice or character.

That was one of the big facinations wih Harry Potter -- most anyone could get caught up in it. But it was bought, edited, and marketed as YA. The other adult part of readers happened on its own -- it was not a foresight of the publisher or editor.

On the opposite side, The Secret Life of Bees is adult, literary fiction that can appeal to teens, but again, no one acquired it for that reason, or even thought it would.

Anonymous said...

I've been guilty of the last part of the post -- apologizing for sending a query to an agent.

I can see how that would be considered demeaning to your own work, but sometimes you get sick of no one responding to you at all, even on requested partials or fulls that you do feel like a pariah, unfortunately.

(to be ultra honest, I feel that way now that I have an agent. Agents often make promises they don't keep -- to read a ms they've had for four months, to send out a ms that's ready to go -- and chalk it up to "they're busy.")

It is the industry that makes you feel the need to apologize for being a writer more than your own sense of self, I think.

Jessica Nelson said...

Wow, what a list!
I hope I haven't done that stuff. We all make bloopers so I'm glad you posted this. Unfortunately, writers new to the biz have no clue that they're writing the same bloopers thousands of others are.

Julie Weathers said...

This was an informative post, as usual. I haven't made these mistakes, but I can see how it could happen.

Oddly enough, I think this is the third time I've seen an agent caution writers not to apologize for the query. It must be a common mistake.

Julie Weathers said...

Kimber An,

A good agent is going to focus tightly on who is best suited for your work. You have to know who your target audience is so your agent will know what you intended.

If your book publishes and find mass appeal, that is just frosting on the cake. It isn't something you plan.

Natalie Whipple said...

Great advice. Thanks for sharing.

Vintage Lollipops said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vintage Lollipops said...

Retracting presumption, albeit following manically what one believes an agent or publisher could only hope to see located in the nadir of slush, at the end of the day, I’m still the girl curled beneath a mound of blankets whispering, “I see mailboxes…”

Thanks for great insight!

Abi said...

wonderful post. very insightful and helpful. Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

What a perfect post. Well laid out, and ripe with a lot of the stuff that most of us need to hear. Thanks.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Very helpful post, especially the first two points. I've wondered whether to address themes before myself.

Anonymous said...

I'd feel like apologizing myself. After all the work just trying to write the damn thing, and knowing as well as I do just how poorly it captures the spirit of my magnificent opus, I can see how one might feel ashamed to put such a crippled, truncated, practically still-born caricature of my story before a literary professional.

Kate Douglas said...

Out of curiosity, I went back to my files and looked up the query letter I sent to Jessica in April 2001. I didn't do any of the stuff she's listed on the front, and I didn't thank her for her time. Wow...and to think I managed that without having read her blog. The truth? It was pure, blind luck, and the reason I looked up the letter is because so much on today's post sounded horribly familiar!