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A few weeks ago, I was asked on Twitter about the thing that scares me most about querying, and I responded Being confident you’ve mostly stopped making rookie errors, but having no idea how to get from “nothing wrong” to “good enough”

And I’m afraid that as a yet-unagented author, there’s not a lot I can tell my fellow wannabes about how to succeed. But I’ve spent a lot of time reading blogs, talking to people a few steps further on than me, and interacting on Twitter. And as I say, I like to think I’ve stopped making rookie errors. And for those of you just starting out on the querying journey, I’d like to share what I’ve picked up. But first, two disclaimers:

  1. I am not a publisher, an agent, or a traditionally published author. What I am is someone who’s done their research, and I’m pretty confident that everything below is generally accepted. That said, I’d love to hear from people more expert than me with corrections, clarifications or additions.
  2. This isn’t intended to be an article on “how to write a good query” or “how to get an agent.” That’s complicated, subtle, and subjective. But I recently heard from an agent that she ignores nearly 80% of the queries she receives as they have fundamental problems. If you follow the tips below, I can’t claim you’ll have agents falling at your feet, but you should at least avoid them throwing your query out without a second glance because of something easy to fix

ORDER OF PRIORITY

If you’re sitting there with a question about your submission, prioritise in the following way:

1)Any instructions on the agency’s website/the agent’s Twitter/blog/MSWL page – it’s rare that an agent goes completely off-piste, but when they do, respect that over everything else, even if it’s totally contrary to all the advice you’ve read elsewhere

2) Basic industry standards – ie. the suggestions below and similar guidelines on other websites and blogs

3) If an issue arises and it’s not covered in specific or general guidelines, then remember the three Ps – politeness, professionalism, precision (ie. giving the agent the information they need in a clear way). And at that point, if you still can’t decide whether or not to include something, chances are it doesn’t matter either way.

THE BASICS

  • Make sure you do some research and only contact agents who rep books in your genre and age category. Don’t agonise over this though. It’s not about trying to find the handful of agents looking for something exactly like your novel, just not sending your erotic thriller to someone who only wants children’s picture books!
  • Send one email to each agent, not a mass email to all the ones you’re interested in
  • Only submit to one agent at each agency at at time. In some cases, it’s fine to contact another after the first’s rejected you. Others strongly discourage this.
  • Try to keep the email under 300 words
  • Use a standard font and size – Times New Roman or Arial are the safest bets
  • You need to provide a polite, professional letter that tells the agent about your book and generally (see below) a bit about you and about why you’re submitting to that agent. Some agents will also want a synopsis and/or a writing sample, ranging in length from a few pages to several chapters. Provide exactly what’s asked for. Don’t send anything weird and random like a cover design or a photograph of you. Don’t provide a longer extract than you’ve been asked for. If requirements are unclear, stick with just the letter.
  • Avoid attachments unless the agency specifically requires them or you might not make it through the security filters
  • Triple-check the letter (and any synopsis or writing sample) for typos or grammatical mistakes. If you can’t properly proofcheck something 300 words long, it’s not going to fill an agent with confidence about how well the manuscript’s been edited.
  • Address the email personally to the agent (ie. Dear Bob or Dear Ms Smith – not Dear Agent or Dear Sir). Make sure the name is spelled correctly. Some agents seem to prefer first names, some surnames, but unless it’s specified, either seems fine.
  • You should only be querying finished, polished manuscripts and querying one manuscript in each query (ie. I’ve written a YA fantasy and an adult speculative thriller – even if an agent repped both genres and age groups, I’d only mention one)
  • Generally, agents don’t seem to want to rep self-published works, unless they’e been wildly, 50 Shades of Grey-style successful. I’m hugely in favour of self-publishing for the right reasons (say you’ve written a vampire trilogy at a point when the market’s saturated – just for example…) but don’t do it as an attempted first step to a traditional publishing deal

THE KEY PIECES OF FACTUAL INFORMATION

  • Include the word count, rounded to the nearest thousand. And make sure it’s appropriate. Opinions vary on exact cut-off points, but for a standard adult novel you want to be roughly in the 75 000 to 100 000 range (though 80 to 90k is probably safest).There are different, but equally strict rules for books for younger audiences and certain genres. If you’re not in the right range, you need to get cutting or filling before you think about querying.
  • Include the age category. There’s a very limited, set list to choose from. Don’t claim the book is suitable for everyone from 9 months to 90. Don’t insist it has cross-over appeal, even if you genuinely think it might. If you really think it has elements of more than one category, at best you need to decide on the closest fit, at worst you might need to edit up or down.
  • Include the genre. Pick one that everyone’s heard of, rather than making up your own. You can mix a handful together and add an adjective or two: “A romantic thriller” “a dark fantasy” “a romance with speculative elements” but don’t get carried away and call it something like “a dark romantic historical fantasy horror thriller” even if that is a fair description. If it’s borderline (and believe me, I know that pain thanks to the Dictator’s Wife – a dark near-future romantic political dystopian thriller) pick the closest fit and/or the one most likely to attract the specific agent you’re querying.
  • Include your contact details. Obviously.

THE MEAT OF THE QUERY – DESCRIBING YOUR BOOK

  • The main point of the letter is to explain what your book is about. This is by far the hardest bit to get right, and doing it well is outside of the scope of this blog post. But basically, you want something akin to the info you get on the back of books – not a plot summary, not the ending, just a bit of info about the main character and the issues they are facing, to help the agent understand the plot and make them intrigued enough to want to read more.
  • Don’t write the letter/the description of the book from the point of view of a character.
  • Don’t mention the entire cast – focus on the main character and perhaps the antagonist and/or love interest. If there’s more than one main character, this can get tricky, but try to stay focussed – if you were writing one for the first Game of Thrones book, perhaps you’d only talk about the situation Ned Stark finds himself in.
  • Don’t comment on the quality of the book, either to claim it’s the best thing ever or to be self-deprecating. Let the story and your writing speak for itself.
  • Similarly, don’t disparage your genre, whether it’s to make a humorous point or to attempt to claim your book is so much better in comparison.
  • And on the same note, don’t attack agents/publishers/the industry.
  • Avoid rhetorical questions, however tempting, along with their close relation “imagine if X”
  • Avoid lots of technical, confusing terms (particularly made-up words and places in fantasy and sci-fi)
  • Be specific. Avoid phrases like “they face lots of obstacles” or “if they succeed, they’ll achieve everything they’ve ever dreamed of.” Explain what those obstacles of dreams are.

THE OPTIONAL  (?) EXTRAS – this section is a little more subjective and up for debate…

  • Personalisation – some agents seem to see this as practically compulsory, some seem to slightly dislike it, others appear to have no strong feelings. If you can, it’s probably good practice on balance to add a line or two about why you’re contacting this specific agent – an author they rep, a line in their MSWL, something they said on Twitter. If you’ve really not got anything to say, you don’t need to force it, but then again, you maybe need to ask yourself whether you really should be querying them. Don’t get carried away though – a line or two is enough and you don’t want to sound like a stalker.
  • Bios – Again, agent opinion on authors including information about themselves seems to range from mandatory to unenthusiastic. As always, follow guidelines and preferences, but if an agent doesn’t seem to have a view, I’d err on the side of including something, but keeping it shortand relevant (meaningful writing credits, things that make you qualified to write this specific story, things the specific agent might be interested in, interesting/humourous/memorable facts).
  • Comp titles (ie. listing books that are similar to yours) – an absolute minefield, in my experience. If you pick the right ones, it can be immensely illuminating, especially if your book is a bit unique or a blur of genres. But it’s probably better not to include any than include ones that provide no additional clarity or give agents the wrong idea. If you are going to include them, the key rules I’ve heard are: stick to books published within the last five years and don’t use mega-blockbusters (Harry Potter, Twilight, the Da Vinci Code etc) on the one hand or very niche titles on the other.

THE WRITING SAMPLE

Saying much about this is going way beyond the scope of this post, but there are a couple of headlines I’ve seen that relate to the query:

  • Don’t send a prologue
  • Try to avoid an opening chapter that has no obvious connection to the characters and plot described in the letter
  • Avoid starting with characters waking up, taking a class or looking in a mirror (in a cheap attempt to get a description in) or with descriptions of the weather.

So, what do and don’t you agree with? What have I missed? And which of these mistakes have you made in the past?

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