Here’s advice from my intern, Cindy Francois. Cindy screens queries and does first reads on manuscripts for me. She makes my job infinitely more do-able!
As an intern, there are a few things I’ve learned that prior to my internship would not have occurred to me. While they may be obvious, they continue to be some of the more popular reasons why I find myself rejecting queries and potentially great book ideas.
To clarify, we interns are encouraged to be ruthless in our execution of instructions. For example, since Linda doesn’t read mysteries, if you pitch her something you call literary fiction but it’s mostly a mystery, I’ve been instructed to give it a pass. This is the best way for me to learn how to evaluate a manuscript, looking for what she wants. Any uncertainties are double-checked with her, but generally I’m supposed to be unforgiving. Linda is looking for accessible literary fiction but if I find myself reaching for a dictionary 3 times within the first paragraph of your sample (yes, I’m well read), I have no choice but to reject your manuscript. Sounds simple, but I was miserable the first few weeks of my internship. I am a writer rejecting fellow writers, and it can feel horrible!
In terms of your query, it should be as precise as possible. This is your first opportunity to showcase your voice, so…
- Do follow directions to the letter: You dedicated a large chunk of time to writing your novel. Give it the best chance to be heard. Since Linda requests the first 20 pages in the body of the email for fiction queries, do not send an attachment.
- Do be impeccable with your words: Nothing is more frustrating than a brilliant idea poorly executed. Really! I get giddy when I read an unusual premise and die a little when the first paragraph, and sometimes the first page, fails to measure up.
- Do not query multiple works in the same email, even if connected.
- Do not query multiple agents in the same email (or worse yet repurpose the email but fail to update the salutation, e.g. email addressed to Linda but begins with “Dear June”).
- Consider the books being published in your market. Read a few of them. How does your book compare, both in terms of structure and language? Find an avid reader with an eye for story arcs and ask them to take a look.
- Also, keep an eye on how you format your query. Be sure to include a bio and short summary before your sample pages. This will be visual confirmation that the information we require is included. I’ve reviewed too many queries where I had no information on the sender. That is not okay; you don’t really get another opportunity to pitch the same story.
If you’re anything like me, you view your manuscript as your baby (for lack of a better word). You’ve worried over it, been baffled by it and maybe even cried a time or two. Honor the courage it took to write it by doing what you can to give it a great introduction.
I was putting together a submission letter the other day. The submission letter is basically like a query letter that an agent will use when submitting a manuscript to editors. The manuscript that I was submitting is a young adult urban fantasy not only told from two points of view, but also with two separate story lines that become entangled into a third. It’s a great manuscript with all kinds of unique, interesting fantasy elements dealing with alternate realities and some not so human beings. But it’s also very much a contemporary young adult manuscript with some romantic elements in it. I was wracking my brains trying to write a paragraph that gives a little information about the story. Sometimes I just filch the short synopsis about the manuscript that the author wrote in their initial query to me. After all, you guys work so hard on these and my client had caught my attention with it, so it was well written and pretty enrolling. But my client’s initial query letter to me had taken two paragraphs to describe the story and I didn’t really want to do that. I like to keep it short and sweet.
The purpose of my submission letter, and the purpose of your query letters, isn’t really to give a full synopsis of the whole story. My aim was to include enough about the story to remind the editors to whom I’d already pitched, about the manuscript. It’s a little different when querying, because when writing a query letter to agents you don’t usually have that initial phone or face-to-face interaction. But there were a few editors that I hadn’t spoken to and to whom I was just sending the submission cold. So the other purpose of my submission letter, and which is in line with when you query agents, was to pique the interest of the editors so they’ll really want to delve into the manuscript and maybe even put it on the top of their “to be read” pile!
What I ended up doing was crafting a letter that only touched upon some of the interesting parts of the manuscript. I introduced it as a compelling, fast paced and romantic young adult urban fantasy, which it is. I leaned more heavily on one character’s story than the other’s. That doesn’t do a disservice to the second character, because the point of my letter is to get the editor to read the manuscript, not retell or recap the whole story. I did mention the second character, but only in relation to the first. The editors who read this manuscript will get that it’s told from two different points of view when they read it. They’ll see that it’s two story lines that mesh. Telling them that in my submission letter just doesn’t matter. I finished up the paragraph with, It’s a story about alternate realities and staying true to the people we love. That’s what the crux of the story is to me. It’s one of the (many) things that excites me about this story.
Now of course there is so much more to say about this manuscript! I mean, there are really many more elements of the story that are totally cool, unique, well done, and thought provoking. But when I’m sending a submission letter, or when you’re querying an agent, it’s important to remember what the purpose of your letter is: to get the person to whom you’re writing to read the manuscript.
Here are some things you can do to give your query its best chance at doing it’s job!
1. Start by writing an impeccably good query letter. Um, really? That’s not such helpful advice. Yes, really. Here’s how to do it: Address it to the correct person (without anything smarmy, like “Dear respected agent”); include a snazzy intro paragraph that includes genre and word count; write a clean, quick synopsis with no spoilers and which leaves some unanswered questions; make sure your bio is short, sweet, and inclusive; sign off professionally and make sure all your contact information follows your name. Yeah, well what constitues “snazzy”?
2. In your intro paragraph, have that first sentence start with a fantastic hook. What’s a hook? It’s a one to two sentence teaser or elevator pitch. Like a Tweet, you know? Minus hash tags, of course. Something that will catch an agent’s eye (but not in a weird or scary way). How do I know if I’m being weird or scary? I’m not answering that.
3. Write a great manuscript. Aw, come on! You always say that! Yes, yes I do. Because honestly, even if you write the most kick ass query letter in the world, if your manuscript isn’t great (not just good… great) it’s always going to be a pass. No matter who you query. What matters is the manuscript. So don’t send your work out until it’s complete. That means it’s been through a number of drafts. Complete doesn’t mean you finished writing the story yesterday so you’re ready to send it out into the world today. Fine. Be that way.