Query letters part 2 – who/what/why?

windswept snowy wasteland

In Part 1 I looked at the query letter business. You probably feel it is the work of the devil while you’re writing it, worrying about it and working out what you need to send (see above picture for the snowy wind-swept wasteland you can feel you’re living in). But it’s the only system in use at the moment so you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it. In trying to formulate my query letters I have done lots of research, so I’m setting it out here as a starting point. And it is only a starting point. You will need to really get to grips with the whole concept  of querying in order to do it right. That WILL take time and A LOT of effort.

And remember, there is a different query process for fiction and non-fiction. If you are querying for fiction then the work must be completed, edited, polished and really ready. For non-fiction you usually need to write a detailed proposal.
If that seems too much then you are not ready. Seriously. After months of writing and then editing your work the last thing you want to hear is that there is another hurdle to jump. I know – because it took me a long time to realise there is no way around it. If you don’t put the time in you will not get the results. Even if you do put the time in, you might not get results – but let’s not dwell on that. As ever, it’s the person who stays in the race the longest that wins. Hold on to that thought.

What agents say they want in a query letter

Okay, prepare yourself for the shocking truth. Not all agents are looking for the same thing. Shock! Horror! Swoon! Before you send out a letter to an agent you MUST check on what it is they are asking you for. Some want only the query letter. Some want a query letter plus five pages (double-spaced, Arial font size 12, 1 inch margins). Some want the query letter plus the first three chapters….You must research and find out what the agent wants because if you send the wrong thing, your lovingly-crafted query will be consigned to the trash without even being read. And that would be a great pity.
If you use QueryTracker to research agents and keep track of your queries (I use it and it has made the whole process bearable – possible, even) then they usually have a link to the agency website. On those websites you will undoubtably find a ‘Submissions’ or ‘Contact’ page which will give you all the details of how to send a query to them. Some agents also blog, and this gives you a whole other avenue of research – one that you would do will to explore.
Some real-life example of what two agents want taken from their blogs:

Nathan Bransford

Mr Bransford is an agent with Curtis Brown and has been agenting and blogging for a long time. His blog is chock-full of information for writers.  and is an example of why you need to do your research.
First of all, he has a FAQ page where lots of common questions about agents and queries are answered.
He has also given a simple formula for creating query letters (you need to read the whole post to understand it properly) that gives you:
“Dear [Agent name],

I chose to submit to you because of your wonderful taste in [genre], and because you [personalized tidbit about agent].

[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist’s quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal].

[title] is a [word count] work of [genre]. I am the author of [author’s credits (optional)], and this is my first novel.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Best wishes,
[your name]”

This is what he says about formatting your query letter:
“This is all you need to know:

The amount of time you spend formatting, coloring, bolding, italicizing, and adding pictures to your query is inversely proportional to how professional it looks when you’re finished.”

However, formatting your manuscript (your actual book) is another thing entirely and there is a standard for that. This is also set out by Mr Bransford in this post.
And this is what Curtis Brown says on their ‘Submissions’ page:
“Curtis Brown represents adult and children’s authors of all genres, including illustrators. If you would like to submit a manuscript or proposal, please send us a query letter, a synopsis of the work, a sample chapter and a brief resume. Illustrators should send 1-2 samples of published work, along with 6-8 color copies (no original art).Please enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope for our response and return postage if you wish to have your materials returned to you. We typically respond to queries within 6 to 8 weeks.”

From this we know that we need a good quality query letter, synopsis, sample chapter and a brief resume in order to query Mr Bransford.  [Note: At some stage he also had a little post about what to send him which appears to have gone.]

Janet Reid

Ms Reid is an agent with Fine Print Literary Management and She has a great deal of information on her blog and, again, you should spend time reading it if you are serious about wanting to have an agent and be published. At the top of her blog is a link to ‘How to send me a query‘ which does exactly what it says on the link. Here’s the first part of that post:

Here’s what I want:

A query letter addressed to me (not me as part of a bcc list, nor Dear Agent)
The first 3-5 pages of your manuscript if it’s a novel or a memoir (in the body of the email, not as an attachment)

The premise for your non-fiction book that isn’t a memoir: why the topic is important, why you’re the one to write the book, and your platform. Include the introduction in the body of the email (again, no attachments)

Email these, or send by snail mail with an SASE.

That’s it.”

The post actually contains more information than that, but it’s clear that Ms Reid has different requirements than Mr Bransford in terms of what to send. Ms Reid also has much more information about queries and the whole process on her blog, including ‘What’s NOT a query letter‘.

I picked these two agents out of the many I follow because they have different requirements. Most of the agents that blog are very clear about what they want and post information to make things easier for writers. Contrary to what it seems – agents actually do want to see queries! If you follow instructions when they are given then you can guarantee that at least they will read your query, even if they then decide they don’t want to take it further. This puts you ahead of the game because agents frequently lament that writers do not send what is required of them. If you are going to query on agent, do it right.

Okay, I’m sending out queries – now what?

I’d love to be able to say that if you are seriously querying agents because you have a polished manuscript, a compelling query letter and a correctly-formatted partial/full manuscript all ready then you can relax and sit back. Because you can’t. And, if you are serious about writing, you shouldn’t want to. After all the toil getting your ms ready and your queries going out the next thing is – start writing the next book. Yes, the best advice is to get on with the next project. Many agents suggest this and I’ve found it to be true. It keeps you creating, keeps you focussed on the fact that writing is what you want to do, and it gives you more to offer an agent when they do make that call. In my case I switched directions to a non-fiction book and an agent is now interested.

Final thoughts

Rejection is hard. I have a set of polite form rejections and I would be lying to say they didn’t sting. At first, it was tough but you do get more used to it. The thing to hold on to is that a rejection does not mean your work is useless, only that it was not suitable for that agent on the day they read your query. Keep querying, keep refining your query letter and submission package and persevere.

Chin up – the last one standing wins!

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