Friday, October 24, 2008

Query Letters, an Agent's Perspective

I have spent the last two days crafting the perfect query letter. It’s painful and tedious and is driving Kim crazy because every single incarnation of my pitch paragraph is getting IM’ed to her for feedback. I think by now she probably feels she has read the proposal.

Agents often tell authors that a query letter is just as important as the manuscript and that time should be spent carefully crafting and perfecting the query, but I think few realize how much time is spent on the agent’s side doing the same thing. In this case the letter is for a new book by one of my published clients. She is looking to break out into a new direction, and while this proposal will also be going to her current editor, I’m hoping to shop it around to new editors as well. The problem? I need to get across the tone of the book along with the story and of course the hook without making it sound cheesy. And that’s hard. Is it a cheesy book? Not at all; in fact it’s an incredibly rich urban fantasy/romance with a hook that is so amazing that it’s hard to describe. It’s that new and original.

Once an author and I have a proposal ready to go out on submission the first thing I do is ask the author to send me a blurb for her book, just a short paragraph that can be rough. My purpose is to get the author’s voice and ideas in front of me so that I can reshape and hone the blurb to fit my letter. Now, like anything else, some authors are better at this than others. With many of my clients I’m able to take their blurb almost verbatim and use it as my pitch to editors. With others, I simply read it through and throw it out. It’s not going to work for my purposes or isn’t quite up to the standards I think it needs to be at to grab an editor’s attention.

Now that I have the blurb in hand from the author, whether I’m using it or not, I feel I’m ready to sit down and start writing my letter. Sometimes the blurb helps ground me and get me into “condition” for query writing. When sitting down to craft my query I usually start by writing a powerful opening that will grab the editor’s attention and show them what they would be missing by not jumping on this immediately. In this case I’m highlighting the author’s background as a published author and the successes she’s had.

Then I introduce the editor to the book and that’s where my blurb comes in. Nine times out of ten I try to keep my blurb to one paragraph and keep it as short and concise as possible. In this instance I started with two paragraphs, the first outlining the world, the second focusing on the plot. Kim immediately told me that it needed to be tightened and that I should lose the first paragraph. I did and she was right. So I spent hours working on that second paragraph. Writing, rewriting, changing words and reworking entire sentences. I was almost done when I realized that the first three sentences were great, the last two fell a little flat. I needed a break. I put the letter away for the day and went home. The next day I got into work and spent the morning catching up on usual business—I reviewed contracts, answered email, argued with editors, and finished contract negotiations. Then, sometime after lunch, once I had a fairly clean plate (ha ha, get the pun) and a clear head I went back to work on the letter. This time I focused on the last two sentences. Working and reworking and of course reading the paragraph over and over, which, of course, meant that the more I changed in those sentences the more I changed in the paragraph overall.

Finally, after many hours and two days of work I felt that I had a solid pitch, one that would wow editors.

Once my pitch is perfected I add a paragraph about the author, something to expand on what I may have written earlier, and sign off with a personal note to the editor reminding her that this is something I am over-the-moon excited about.

I actually love writing queries. It’s an opportunity for me to use my creative and my marketing skills, two things I happen to think I’m very good at, and while it’s not easy, it’s certainly a challenge I relish.

I’d love to share my letter with you, but I’m afraid the book is still out on submission and I don’t want to jinx anything. I have a good feeling about this though. It’s a really exciting book.



Jake Nantz said...

[begin sarcasm]"Two days? On a query letter?? Bah, just write the damned thing and send it out to everyone. They'll love it. They have to! It's the greatest and most unique-est thing ever written, right?

Unpublished Amateur Writer"
[end sarcasm]

Anonymous said...

Judging by your level of enthusiasm, I'd say you're probably gonna sell that no problem. Good luck to not only you but your client.

As for me, I wish I could do a decent query. I always love when I can submit pgs of my ms along with a query. I do try to make my queries as strong as they could possibly be, but I've always had a hard time condensing a 90k book into 200 words...should seem like the easiest thing to do. Sigh...the query I have for my current project still needs a lot of tweaking and I'm afraid my CP's, like your Kim, has probably got the thing memorized already. LOL.

My books, I think, are pretty good. I wonder if the half the places that reject me isn't because the idea isn't interesting, but because my queries stink. Hmm...guess I'll never know, but it does make one stop and wonder. :)

D. Robert Pease said...

Can we see it AFTER you sell the book?

Spy Scribbler said...

Good luck to both of you! You've got me excited about the book, and I don't even know what it's about!

Kathleen MacIver said...

I'd love to see it after you sell it, too. Will you share it?

Anita said...

The most interesting thing about this post to me (and there were several interesting things), was the Kim factor. I think we all need a Kim (someone who's honest, clever, experienced) to review our queries.

Anonymous said...

Good luck to you and the author!

Mark Terry said...

Huh. From what I can tell, my agent sends an e-mail note that say: here's a new book by Mark. I think it's great, hope you will, too.

Maybe I'm wrong, though. It happens.

H. L. Dyer said...

It is always so comforting to know that others have also indulged in hourly query revisions on occasion. :)

Good luck on submissions!

Bella Andre said...

Sounds exciting!!! Like you, I spent hours/days on perfecting my blurb for each new pitch/story with many go rounds to the critique partners for feedback.
;-) Bella

Anna Claire said...

Would you consider sharing an older query you've written? Your talking about the process has me really curious! I hope I get an agent one day who takes as much time with her queries.

Kate Douglas said...

Ah, Blogger is back the way it belongs. (I was one of those eaten by the machine yesterday) I'd love to see one of your queries as well, Jessica, since I know that what I send to you and what you send to the editor are two TOTALLY different things! Thanks for a great post--I love knowing you agonize as much as the rest of us!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. It's really insightful. I try to read agent blogs and yet this is the first time I've realized agents go through the query process themselves.

Robena Grant said...

Yes, I'd love to see a sample also. Queries and synopses are so hard to write. I read somewhere that editing in tone is the sign of a good writer. I never thought of applying that to a query though. Should have but haven't, mine either end up sounding dorky or they're too stiff and formal.

Anonymous said...

I love the excitement in your voice/words!
Not that you working so hard on this query isn't great, but the general POW factor that I got from the way you described what you went through makes me truly believe it is all about finding the right agent.

I want my agent to root for my chars throughout and be sad to let my chars go at the end. I want them to have that good feeling about it. I want to know they're doing just what you are doing... Lovin' it!

Thanks for the great post and good luck with submissions.

Anonymous said...

It really doesn't matter how great your query letter is. What matters is how good the book is. No matter how hard you try, it is impossible to convey a 100k book into a one page letter. I believe I have written a great query letter, but it manages to make my book sound like everyone elses. By the way I spent 2 months on it not two days. Every word I placed in it meant something. I've sent it out twice; the 1st one the letter only, the second with the first three chapters. I didn't hold a snowballs chance in hell of hope for the first one. I feel agents are sorely missing out if they are relying on a one page letter to tell them if a book is good. I have to wonder how many best sellers are sitting out there unpublished because of the baffling task of trying to write a one page letter about a book. Even more of a question how much vauluable book writing time is wasted on writing a synopsis and/or query letter? I have very little respect for the query letter and the agent that thinks they can figure out whether a book is good based on one. Jessica, it's nice you think you've written a good one, but a book author's job is too write more than a one page letter. Self-publishng looks better and better all of the time. No hoops, full control, no wasted time. A plan for self-promoting is already working up in my head.

painted delivery said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
painted delivery said...

Sounds like it is time for a query contest! That would be fun for us and horrible(?) for you.

I loved the Kim presence too -- I wish my most trusted reader would get on IM -- that would make my life easier. But she does have a life (sniffle).

Happy Friday!

Karin said...

I am always amazed by people who have the talent to get to the meat of their fiction in a few sentences. I struggle to do this for my fiction, but for causes and groups I'm passionate about, it comes without thinking about it.

painted delivery said...

Query letters only magnify my neurosis. I am, despite my best effort ~not~ to be, a bit insecure about my writing. If you add in the need to perform in a few lines, with the pressure that the performance could make or break the future of my work, then I nearly melt-down.

But I try. And I try to have fun with it. I have some in my blog and I always wonder, when I re-read them, if they are any good.

They probably aren't.

Twill said...

Anon 3:41 -

Querying is a lot like dating.

No, you can't give that cute person an excellent feel for what being married to you would be like, in the first thirty seconds after you meet them.

But if you're trying to do that, then you don't understand how dating works.

A query is to get the coffee date. You have to give them a feel for your writing and the course of the novel, and that's all. If you can't give an impression of your novel in a few sentences, then you probably can't give an impression of *anything* in a few sentences.

Practice by writing a query for someone else's movie or novel. Do this twenty or thirty times, then try for your own.

It's just a skill.