Writing a query letter always feel like a chore. How can I distil the essence of my book into one short page? In fact sometimes it feels like writing a query is harder than writing the book. But Writers House agent, Dan Lazar, points out that if you can write a good book, then you can write a good query letter! The following notes from his talk at the 2009 SCBWI Summer Conference have been the most informative talk on the subject that I personally have attended. I actually left excited to write my queries!
Dan Lazar’s tips on how to write a winning query letter and keep yourself out of the rejection pile:
“One voice of dissent is often louder than the voice of approval.” This is the quote Lazar used to start his talk, in order to illustrate how difficult the acquisitions process can be. He followed by asking (by show of hands) how many people in the audience liked the book The DaVinci Code. Then he asked people who thought the book was awful to raise their hands. Slightly more people said they liked it than didn’t. Lazar pointed out that sometimes the people in power at a publishing house are like those who raised their hands to say they didn’t like The DaVinci Code – these people would have passed on a multi-million dollar book. A book that a majority of people really liked. It’s not always that easy to sell a book, even one that is an international best seller.
Okay first things first, before you even address your query letter…
You want to research the agents and editors you are interested in sending your manuscript to. Learn their full names, what they are looking for, and their submission policies. Great places to do research on editors and agents include:
- The Children’s Writers Market Publication and the Jeff Harmon Guide – these are a good place to start, however often times the information is outdated by the time it is printed/published so be sure to look for additional information elsewhere.
- Publishersmarketplace.com – Listings are free and are edited directly by editors and agents. This is probably one of the most up to date places to find information.
- Agentquery.com – This is updated by the site and not the editors/agents.
- Verlakay.com – Look for the forums page. Dan Lazar found his client Ingrid Law (who wrote Saavy) because of a posting he’d left on this site.
Okay lets write that query! What to do:
If you can write a good novel, then you can write a good query letter. It’s that simple.
Open with why you are contacting this agent/editor:
- Open with praise and compliments. Explain why you are contacting this agent, they always like to be flattered. You don’t need to use logos, or fancy paper, glitter, graphics, etc.
- Saying that you have read an agent’s clients work really does help you to stand out from the rest of the slush.
- Don’t start with: To Whom It May Concern – This is almost an automatic rejection. Always research who you are sending your work to! Make sure you match!
- Don’t be vague in your opening. “I hear you are a good agent.” Be specific. Mention you saw them at a conference. Mention the book they have represented. Read those books. Compliment and feed the agents vanity.
Start talking about your book and your main character:
- Present your main character first. Don’t give a general idea of the story.
- Show the voice of your character in your summary. Lazar read an example of an over-the-top voice, where the author used specifics in describing the character instead of generalities. Lazar understood right away that this character was sassy, raunchy, and jaded. (This was for an adult book). The voice of the character is what caught his attention.
- Never use the terms quirky or interesting. These are vague and don’t mean anything. Be specific. The example used was: “Everyone in the class had thought (character’s name) was weird. Now (character’s name) had turned dark.” This is a more engaging and specific way of saying the character is quirky.
- Instead of saying “best friend” try – “(character’s name) is her one true confident and co-conspirator.”
- You can make anyone love your character by showing who they love and who loves them. This is how an audience will create a connection with your character.
- Be efficient, yet full of detail.
- Mention your character’s age.
- Don’t start with the “What if…” entrance to your story. Lots and lots and lots of query letters start with “What if you were stranded on an island…” etc. This is a good tool for yourself to figure out what your story is, and what it is about. But it gets repetitive and annoying in query letters. It shows a lack of originality.
- Beware of using the phrase “My novel is a story in the genre of….” If you do not specifically know exactly what genre it is. You will end up using slashes and saying your novel is a fantasy/mystery/YA/Horror. If you don’t know, that’s okay. The agent will help you to define what it is later. Just leave this out.
- Do not use a vague synopsis. Be specific! Be evocative!
- Your query is a pitch, and a pitch is not a synopsis – it is a taste meant to draw you in.
Beware of making claims you cannot live up to:
- Be careful in saying this book is gonna make me laugh, or cry…etc. Make the agent laugh in the letter. Don’t tell them you can be funny. Be funny in your letter.
- Don’t mention that the book will make a good movie, or be a blockbuster. This shows your naiveté. Don’t be presumptuous.
- A logline is a tricky thing – it is a film term for “this meets that” (i.e. Twilight meets Jurassic Park.) If one is not excited about that comparison then it can really hurt the submission. Sometimes it is best to focus on character and story and forget about comparisons till later. If you are a good writer you will probably be able to fit in the logline when you are talking about your character.
When it comes to your biography:
- Don’t apologize for not having any credits in your bio. In the example he read the author just told him sassy things about herself – again communicating her voice.
- Skip your bio all together if it is going to turn into an apology for not having credits or experience. Instead introduce yourself in relationship to the story, what connections do you have that make you the only person who can write this book.
- Film and TV credits or writing experience are good things to mention in your bio. Lazar had a client who he helped turn a TV pilot idea into a book.
- Beware of vague or stretching connections when you write your bio. If it really doesn’t relate to your book and writing, don’t mention it.
- Don’t toot your own horn in your bio or mention who already likes your book – people like your kids or your friends. If an author likes your book – that’s different – get a recommendation from them.
Also include with your query:
- Send the first five pages, and they should be good!! If your story only gets good a page 50, then it is not ready to send out.
- Read submission guidelines. Most agents want you to send pages with your query.
- Include a SASE if you are sending a snail mail submission.
Okay, lets talk about query etiquette…
What about exclusivity and multiple submissions?
- In Lazar’s opinion the exclusivity issue is an old-fashioned way of submitting work. If an agent asks for it, then you should honor it. But someone asking for up to 6 months is a little out of touch. You have every right to send an exclusive submission and tell the agent that you have given them a 6 week exclusivity submission. This is more than reasonable in Lazar’s opinion. However, if they are a really high-profile person, then you should follow their rules. If they are your dream agent, then respect the rules. If you give exclusivity, then you must honor it! Follow up with an email. Usually its good to give an extra week and then email. Politely let the agent know that you will be sending your work out to other agents, but you are still happy to hear from them.
- Lazar assumes his submissions are simultaneous submissions unless it says it’s exclusive on it.
So I have multiple projects. Should I mention them?
- If you would like to mention another project you are working on, or that this is a series, you can. But only spend one sentence on this project.
Try and keep these tidbits in mind too:
- You do not need to mention the word count in your query as a good agent will know how many words the book should be based on the genre.
- You do not need to list all the different ways in which you can send a file: CD, Email, Etc. The agent will ask for the way they want the work delivered to them. Focus on your character, and use your sentences more wisely.
- Do not email in HTML – it will get caught in the spam filter.
- Do not send a pre-query email. “Do you accept submissions?” Look on the website! All the info you need is there.
- Always put your contact info at the bottom of the email. Sometimes email addresses get lost or cannot be read, so be sure your info is in your letter.
- When a full manuscript is requested be sure you email it as a single attachment.
- If you don’t know who your market is don’t worry about it. The agent will help you figure this out.
- If you plan to use your initials in your book – for example J.K. Rowling, or M.T. Anderson – don’t use the initials in your query. This is something that will get ironed out later. Right now sign your name. Otherwise if the agent calls you or emails you it seems impersonal and awkward for them to ask for J.K.
- Be neat and professional!
- Lazar can tell in the first three paragraphs if the writing is interesting. So make it good!
About Writers House: Writers House has represented such books as: Captain Underpants, Sweet Valley Series, Baby Sitters Club Series, Twilight, Eragon, etc. The Agency represents both children’s and adult literature.
Dan Lazar has been with Writers House for over six years, and is always on the lookout for distinct fiction and great, lively non-fiction. He represents adult and children’s books (middle grade and YA). Lazar is not a picture book agent. Though if you have a career with him and later you decide you want to do picture books then he will represent you, but that is not his strong suit. Agents at writers house that do represent picture books are: Steve Malk, Lindsay Davis, Rebecca Sherman. Dan Lazar represents: Ingrid Law, Evan Kuhlman, Chris Lincoln, Rachel Renee Russell. In his publisher’s marketplace bio Lazar says “If you think your pages can make me hold my breath or miss my subway stop or even laugh out loud, please read my submission guidelines — I’d love to hear from you.” You may email him a query at: firstname.lastname@example.org (Note from Ingrid: It seemed to me that Lazar was particularly interested in middle grade books and books for boys).