Querying Truths (Brace Yourself)

Burlap Sacks and Bad Days

In a great article describing the different types of editors in traditional publishing, Andi Marquette wrote:

Most often, an [acquiring editor, or AE] can tell within a paragraph or two what kind of writer the author is. The decision to reject the manuscript most often comes within that first page. That’s why you, the author, need to know a little something about craft, hook, and style. The AE is the dragon at the gate. Prove you’re worthy to pass.

Boy, if that isn't intimidating, then I don't know what is.

And for the majority of writers out there, an editor isn't even the first "gatekeeper" you have to fight your way past. The first bouncer you normally encounter along the path to traditional publication is the literary agent.

Agents do their best to anticipate what individual editors are looking for in terms of style and genre, as well as assessing the overall marketability of your work. You can equate publishing a book to trying to sell a home (in a severely oversaturated market). In real estate, you enter into an agreement to have your agent showcase your home to potential buyers. He or she will need to invest their time and money in marketing your home so they will only take on clients for which they feel they can find buyers. And if it will increase your home's appeal, your agent may recommend that you update the floors, paint the walls, or de-clutter a few things a bit before you actually list the place.

Where this analogy breaks down is in the numbers. In general, real estate agents don't receive hundreds of unsolicited requests for representation every single week - but this can easily be the norm for literary agents.  

So, given the kind of numbers we're dealing with, how can you make sure your query catches the eye of an agent from the crowded depths of their overburdened inbox? Listen, I'm asking myself that very same question - and I can't pretend to be writing from any position of authority on the matter - but I've been researching the hell out of this puppy and I've found some great references along the way that I wanted to share.  

As any online reference will tell you; the single most important thing is to FOLLOW THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. Each agent will have a preference of what they want to receive from you and how. And, in general, every submission will contain a QUERY LETTER, or a letter introducing you and the general idea of your work. Beyond that, some agents will want only a synopsis while others will want the first fifty pages of your manuscript, or the first five pages, or any amount in between.  

But the query letter is the common denominator, and if it doesn't set you apart then it won't matter how many pages of your manuscript accompanied that submission because the agent will have hit the ole delete button long before he or she even got to them.

Each agent may have a different ideal in terms of the perfect query letter: some want brief bios, some want comp titles (titles you claim your writing style is similar to), and some think comp titles are akin to the plague.   So research the particular agent that you're submitting to. Google for interviews with them. See if they have twitter accounts. Get an idea who you're pitching to. You'll find many agents have clearly stated what they're looking for. BELIEVE THEM.

Sam Morgan, from JABberwocky, has a fantastic blog on Tumbler called the Right Hand of Darkness. To me, this was the single best reference I've found online for querying. There are some great posts on what to do and what not to do but these three caught my eye in particular:

How to Suck at Querying - My key take away from this post?  "The truth of the matter is that I will find any reason to delete your email."  (Ouch! I can tell you; I suddenly have a renewed interest in proofreading my queries both forwards and backwards!)

How to Rock at Querying - This post was a game changer for me. I thought I had a solid query letter by the time I'd read it... good blurb, brief bio, comp titles that were appropriate and informative, but then I read this:  "Tell me about your book. Seriously... What about it made it stick so much in your mind that you had to spend hours pounding out tens of thousands of words ignoring all the wonders that life has to offer?  Tell me in a couple of sentences."  (Mind = Blown.  Yeah... time to update my query letter.)

The Scorched Continent - What caught my eye on this post was the example he gave of finding one of those rare diamonds in the rough, and on a day when all he wanted to do was annihilate any query that lay in his path so he could just empty his goddamn inbox in as little time as humanly possible.  As he describes:

"I found myself blazing through queries when I came across the opening lines 'It was a nice burlap sack. Not the best he'd had the pleasure of inhabiting, not by a long shot, but it wasn't bad either.' and immediately I was furious.

I was in no mood to find something this charming. I certainly did not have the time to sit there for fifteen minutes, completely absorbed in some of the most delicious prose I've ever read... you'd better believe, I looked very closely to find any reason to reject this book.

I couldn't find one."

That third post was a reality check on a few levels for me. Even if we somehow manage to do everything exactly right, we could still have our queries land in someone's inbox on a day when they want nothing more than to simply decimate every single email in their path so they can just get on with the rest of their not-so-glorious day. But I take hope in the fact that even on that kind of day, a gem can still shine (albeit, against ridiculous odds).

And DAMN... those are some interest-grabbing opening lines!    

I haven't sent out another query since I read that post. I have some work to do first. At least I now know what I'm up against. I have "burlap" to aspire to.

Steal the Sky by Megan E O'Keefe



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