Yesterday I talked a bit about what an agent does, so now we’re going to get into the process of finding an agent for your work!
Sometimes I hear people say that they’re worried that they’re not ready to sign with an agent because they don’t think they can deliver new manuscripts quickly enough, or that their web presence isn’t ready, or some other aspect of their professional persona isn’t quite ready.
But really, you know you’re ready for an agent when:
- your query and manuscript is as polished as it can be.
- if you’re querying picture books, you’ve got two to three polished picture books ready to go.
- you have a sense of the type of career you’d like (e.g. “I want to be a picture book author” or “I would like to focus on middle grade but I also like YA” or “I’m primarily interested in writing about science,” etc.)
- you’ve researched agents to find the best fit for you.
So, with all that said, it’s time for the first step.
Writing Your Query Letter
A query letter is something like a cover letter when you’re applying for jobs. You’re trying to convince the agent to take a closer look at your manuscript and request additional pages. (So to complete the analogy, it’s like how you want an employer to take a closer look at your resume and set up an interview.)
To do that, you need to do three things in your query letter:
- tell us about the book
- tell us about yourself
- show us that we can have a professional working relationship
My go-to query formula is:
- A one to two sentence hook
- A one to two paragraph plot synopsis
- A short (no more than one paragraph) bio
- A professional closing
So this might look like:
Dear (Agent’s name):
THIS THING might be happening to PROTAGONIST – but only if they can DO THIS before THIS TICKING CLOCK.
PROTAGONIST’s life looked like THIS, until THIS THING SETS THE NOVEL IN MOTION. Motivated by THIS INTERNAL/EMOTIONAL THING, now they need to DO THIS THING, in the hopes of defeating THEIR ANTAGONIST before THE TICKING CLOCK. Working against them are also THESE ONE OR TWO MINOR SUBPLOTS, who want to make sure THIS DOESN’T HAPPEN.
TITLE OF THE NOVEL is a GENRE of WORD COUNT.
AUTHOR has been published IN THESE PLACES and is a member of THESE PROFESSIONAL WRITING ORGANIZATIONS.
I look forward to hearing from you, and can be reached at EMAIL and PHONE NUMBER.
Note how much you have to pack into your query letter:
- major physical conflict
- major emotional conflict
- complicating/futhering subplots
But to be able to do this succinctly tells an agent a lot about the publication-readiness of your book. If you can’t tell us these things in more than two paragraphs, it tells an agent that there’s way too much going on in the manuscript.
That said, with a picture book, shorter tends to be even better when it comes to a hook and synopsis. You really want to hit the agent with the concept (not the theme or moral you’re trying to impart).
For Chicken Wants a Nap, I wrote:
It’s a good day to be a chicken. The sun is up. The grass is warm. Chicken is going to nap.
…or is she?
In the style of Remy Charlip’s Fortunately, Chicken will find herself so close to the perfect nap-time location, only to have the rest of the barnyard get in her way. Will Chicken get that nap she desperately desires?
But even there, we have protagonist (Chicken), antagonist (rest of the barnyard) and what the protagonist wants (a nap).
If you’re an illustrator shopping your portfolio, your query would be a little more succinct. Tell me a bit about who you’ve worked with in the past (publications, commissions) and what you’d like to do in the future. Of course, make sure there’s a link to your online portfolio!
Use your query letter as a professional piece of correspondence.
Make sure you’ve had your query critiqued by your writing group. Sometimes agents can see plot holes in a manuscript just from a query letter – so make sure you’re not leaving holes that may or may not be there.
Track who you’ve sent queries to. I can see when I get repeat queries for the same project.
Tweet, email or otherwise ask an agent if you can submit to them or if they’re still looking for a particular book. Without a query, it’s almost impossible to answer that question.
Open your query with a hypothetical question, e.g. “How would you feel if your best friend died and your dog ran away?” Answer: bad. But that doesn’t really hook the reader.
Send a one page synopsis in the guise of a query letter.
Personalize if you don’t have anything that actually makes sense for that particular agent. (E.g. including a sentence like, “I have read many of your clients books and think you will like mine.” All that shows is that you’re sending the same “personalized” line to every agent – where it becomes a throwaway line.)
If you have no previous writing credits, just give a little line about where you work if it’s relevant (e.g. if you wrote a book about trucks and drive trucks for a living) but don’t include things like, “I’ve never been published.” Or “This is the sixth novel I’ve written but have never been published.” While we know that people write multiple novels before one might be ready for publishing, it’s better not to point that out in the query. Let us assume your debut is brilliant!
Compare your book to the latest or a perennial bestseller – it doesn’t mean anything to an agent when their inbox is full of people comparing their book to the same three or four books.
Query two or more agents at the same agency at the same time. We’re not going to fight over queries, and we are going to feel like there wasn’t a lot of research done to see who would be the better fit.
Posts in this series:
Working with An Agent: What does an agent do?
Working with An Agent: Step 1 - Writing your query letter
Working with An Agent: Step 2 - Researching agents and submitting
Working with An Agent: Step 3 - Getting the call
Working with An Agent: Step 4 - Responding to an offer
Working with An Agent: Step 5 - Your author-agency agreement
Working with An Agent: Step 6 - After your sign
Working with An Agent: Step 7 - If you decide it's time to part ways...