Sunday, June 04, 2006

Some More Query Stuff

I know this is about book openings and that you had a previous discussion on query letters, but I'd like to combine the two discussions and get your opinion on the query letter opening. I have read everything from the query letter being just an informational piece that leads to reading the synopsis, to it should open with something other than, "Thank you for taking your valuable time to read ...," to something that should quickly grab the attention of the agent so that he/she wants to read more that the author has written. What does your team like to see?

Maybe we are fuddy-duddies, but we like our query letters patterned after the business letter—no hype, no gimmicks, just plain facts. We like the important information (at least what we consider important) right up front. Things like the title of the work, its category (fiction or nonfiction, literary fiction, if literary, genre type, if genre, mainstream, if mainstream), word count, etc. If you don’t know what you’ve written, don’t query. If you, as your novel or book’s creator, don’t know what to call it, we certainly don’t either and would not know where to venture a guess. You wouldn’t believe the number of writers who query us on such things as a science fiction romance political thriller, with a little mystery thrown in for good measure. There has to be a more specific focus in your novel; otherwise, you have written something that is mainstream.

The vital information we need can be placed in that first paragraph and your hook can begin with a new paragraph that is still at the top of the letter. In other words, don’t mess around and stick the vitals stats of your novel somewhere in the depths of your query where we have to search for it.

The general theory being put forth by board gurus is that if you begin with a hook, the agent or editor is forced to read about your work to find the information they need. This might work, but I think those who assume this are taking a great risk. Faced with hundreds of queries in her inbox (if she even takes queries via email), many agents will only read a sentence or two before hitting the delete key or giving a standard or form rejection in frustration. Some agents have stopped taking email queries because they feel writers take advantage of them in this medium. We are still hanging in there, but the struggle sometimes isn’t worth the effort.

Although very busy, we continue to review queries because mining them is like gold mining—you never know when you’ll strike the mother lode. However, please understand that queries are a small part of our busy day, and if the choice is between reading your query or working with an editor on an important project, the project always takes precedence.

Most writers put their contact information and novel writing experience in the last one or two paragraphs and this is the correct position for this information.

Here are some points to ponder whether you send your queries via email or regular post:

  • Don’t forget the salutation (Dear Mr. Brown or Dear Ms. Martin). Many, many new writers think it’s cool to begin their letter with a hook. When viewed by us, it seems callous and rude, and no one likes rude people. Most importantly, it seems unprofessional.
  • Your e-mail’s cc: line filled with every agent in the book telegraphs that you probably have not researched agents, that you are desperate, and that you will settle for just about anyone. Next time, please leave our name off your list if you are querying forty other agents at the same time. Our finger automatically hits the delete key when we see this—it’s an automatic reflex and can’t be helped.
  • There are no agents named “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Agent” working here, so don’t send mail to them.
  • We will not spend more than a paragraph or two on your query, so don’t waste time writing those six-pagers. Five and one half of those pages will not be read.
    Also, we will not read a hook (short synopsis or jacket blurb) that’s over a paragraph long, so don’t crack your cranium there either. You should be able to express your novel in one paragraph if you really know what you’ve written.
  • Always check on what we are seeking (see for a list of current needs). Market books are outdated when written because markets are fluid, so always, no matter which agent you query, try to find the most updated source for information about or from that agent.
  • Novel writing experience is all we need. Don’t give us any other work-related information (fiction only).
  • Many loved your book—so what? A sample of a thousand enthusiastic local readers makes a small dent in the reading needs of a worldwide audience. Editors pooh-pooh this information immediately, and so do we.
  • Don’t query us about your failed self-publishing venture. If you want us to help you take your failure to a bigger market because you are tired of all the work and hope someone else will relieve you of this burden, don’t bother. If you couldn’t sell it, it’s doubtful anyone else can. We only represent original, never published manuscripts (don’t send books). If your self-publishing venture is super successful, then large publishers will contact you and then you can contact us.
  • Never bind any materials sent to us. Leave it loose, dude!
  • Don’t send anything that you want returned to you. According to new (they came out in 2001) postal regulations, anything over a pound must be handed to a postal official. We feel we have much more important things to do than stand at the post office because you want your chapters returned. If the expense of printing them up is too great, send an attachment—if we ask for it first, of course. This is why we prefer e-mail queries.
  • If you must send query by regular post and it will fit in a standard envelope, put it in one. It’s a waste of postage and materials to use large, clasped envelopes just because you don’t like creases in your letters. We don’t care. We only see the writing anyway.
  • Please don’t email us with your nasty comments when you receive our standard rejection. Our reason for rejection usually falls into two areas: (a) Your writing is not at a level that meets the requirements of editors we work with, or (b) You are not writing in an area we in which we have a current need.


Christine said...

Dear Mr. Brown,

Your list of current needs states that you do not accept novels under 60,000 words. Does that include YA/middle-grade fiction? Are you accepting queries for juvenile titles (other than picture books)?

Thanks for your time.

SpecRom Joyce said...

I liked your query letter standards. It took the heat off, and it allowed me to avoid being cheesy with a hook. If only everyone else were that specific!

Larkspur said...

Cheesy is a great word for hooks. Every time I try to write one, I feel like I am writing some hype-y weird and cheesy advertising glop. It just doesn't seem right somehow. I have often wondered why people promote this, when a gimmick doesn't do anything but get an agent or editor to LOOK at a book. I always thought it was the writing that sold the work anyway, so a gimmick doesn't get much done except waste time if the writing isn't as cool as the gimmick.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

For Christine: At present the only children's material we review is YA. We removed all our children's guidlines the last time we updated to discourage writers from sending information to us in this area. The word count limits for YA vary somewhatfrom publisher to publisher; however, if you don't venture below 50,000 words, and limit the high end to 85,000 words you'll be okay. Keep in mind that some smaller publishers operate within their own standards. So, if you're planning to go to them, either search for their quidelines online or ask for them via regular mail. Remember also to include an SASE for return of this information.
Hope this helps.


Christine said...

I appreciate the helpful info and quick response. I'm firmly in middle-grade territory on word count, so the hunt continues. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Brown:
Your query advice and sample query letter is great I will query you, but I have a suggestion/idea which publisher to submit to.
I know this query letter doesn't mean you'll look at my manuscript but can I mention the publisher?
I like your site very much.

Anonymous said...

You say your upper limit is 110,000. How strict are you about this? Would 112,000 be pushing to too far?

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

For anonymous: It depends on what you've written. A 112,000-word young adult novel would be a bit much, but, on the other hand, a 112K plus fantasy, suspense, and even some romance novels will fit many publisher's size requirements for these genre. Much also depends on how well the novel is written and how talented the writer. It's much easier to cut novels or books than to add to them.

Bernita said...

I write lean.
Always thought it was much easier to flesh out than to flense.