by Mally Becker, TWC Outreach & Development
The person sitting next to you at a dinner party leans in and asks: “So, what’s your book about?”
They mean well. Of course they do. But you go blank. Or you answer, “Ummm.” Because how do you boil down your three-to-four-hundred-page story in a paragraph or two?
That’s the challenge authors face as they take on the daunting task of writing a query letter, explained award-winning, multi-published author Ellen Meister last Sunday at the Writers Circle’s workshop, “Conquering the Query Letter” in Montclair.
“Look. The thing you have to keep in mind is that a query letter is a sales tool,” Ellen said. “It needs to entice an agent to request a full or partial manuscript. The description of your book, a paragraph or two of no more than 200 words, forms the guts of your query,” she said.
I don’t think I winced, although I wanted to. I wrote my first query over the summer. It felt so stiff that I shelved my novel for about a month. Why couldn’t I draft a mere 200 words when I’d managed to write a 100,000-word story?
Ellen asked us to begin by defining our “hook” — the main premise of our novel expressed in one or two sentences. Here’s one you’ll recognize: A boy forms a close friendship with an extraterrestrial and risks everything to help him return home. (No extra credit for guessing “E.T.”)
Writers might or might not use the hook in the query letter, Ellen said. But distilling your story to that tight sentence or two will help you draft the description your query letter will contain. It will also come in handy when you present an “elevator pitch” to an agent at a conference or summarize your book to a friend with publishing connections.
Ellen asked us to answer questions like “What makes your book unique?” and the opposite, “What two bestsellers are similar to your book?” to help us identify our hooks, as well as urging us to define the main obstacle our main character faces.
For the purpose of your query letter, write your story’s description in the present tense. That’s standard industry practice.
After giving us a chance to share the hooks we drafted, Ellen shared online resources that provide models of query letters. Among the sites to check are Query Shark and Writer’s Digest’s terrific collection of successful queries.
Finally, she talked about what to do with the query letters we finalize. Here are a few of her tips:
~ Don’t send your query letter to an agent before you’ve made your book as perfect as possible. “You want to strike while the iron is hot and be able to send the manuscript immediately if an agent requests it. Let’s try to give ourselves every possible advantage.”
~ Identify agents who may be a good fit for your book. Check the acknowledgement pages of books like yours. Most authors thank their agents. Use Google, of course, and decide whether you want to pay for resources that identify agents’ interests such as Publisher’s Marketplace.
~ Check agents’ websites to define their submission guidelines. Agencies generally have uniform guidelines for all agents. But individual agents may have their own guidelines. “You don’t want to give an agent an excuse to hit the form rejection button,” Ellen said.
~ If submission guidelines request sample pages from your work, include them in the body of the email and not as an attachment. Attachments can be infected with viruses, and agencies won’t open them.
~ “It’s absolutely appropriate to query multiple agents simultaneously,” she added. But don’t query your entire list of prospective agents at one time. Send it to no more than ten. If you get no encouraging responses, then tweak the query letter, revise it or start over.
~ Run in the opposite direction from any agent who requests a reading fee or any upfront payment to represent your work.
~ Ellen mentioned one agent who calculated she’d received 35,000 queries over the course of a year. Finding an agent can be a long, tough road. Don’t get dejected.
At that point, I began to think of Ellen Meister as the “Query Whisperer.” I drove home thinking about the questions she’d asked us and spent the evening redrafting my hook. I’m still working on it, but it’s getting there.
Thank you, Ellen.