There is a lot of conflicting information going around for writing queries to literary agents. Some say that they should be lengthy professional letters; some say that they should be a brief “get in and get out” kind of email—almost a memo, if you will.
The answer is that a query should be exactly in between those two descriptions. Why the disconnect between the two, you might be asking. Well, that’s easy. Before the internet, it was important to write a pristine, professional letter. Agents received several letters a week, but not an overabundance. They could take their time and truly consider each and every letter. But we don’t live in that day and age any more. Now, agents are bombarded by emails in the hundreds every week, if not every day. They constantly struggle to keep ahead of the pile and an eye out for promising material—while also having to muck through the writers who have jumped the gun and sent a first draft that is, well, a royal mess.
So, what should be in a query?
- An opening sentence that is also a hook. (Example: “Sexuality is about more than just sex in my young adult novel, TITLE.”)
- A brief synopsis of your story. (Ideally, two paragraphs with three to four sentences apiece. It should address the situation, the complications, and the cost of the conclusion.)
- A demonstration of where your book fits in the market, the genre, age group, and word count.
- Your credentials and a polite thank you.
To help you on your query journey, here are ten Dos and Don’ts for querying!
- Do: Be concise. If your query is longer than 3/4ths of a page single spaced, your query is too long. Remember that the agent in question is most likely reading twenty to fifty of these today, so make your query attention-getting, but not over the top.
- Don’t: Jump the gun. Querying before you are ready is one of the biggest mistakes. You will know that your manuscript is ready to find an agent when it has been revised thoroughly at least a few times, and it has been scoured for typos. Ask yourself, is your manuscript “shelf ready?” Meaning, could you slap a cover on it and put it on a shelf? If the answer is yes, you’re ready to query. If your answer is no, and you’d like some help, check out our developmental and line editing services.
- Do: Be professional. Professional means smart, to the point, and clearly written. Absolutely no typos or grammatical errors. Under this heading, it’s also important to add that your query should never feel like a “blanket query.” It should address the agent by name and feel as though you wrote it specifically for him or her. Also, follow the explicit instructions for writing a query letter as provided on the agent’s website. Every agent likes different pieces of information, so make sure you tailor each query to the agent’s preferences.
- Don’t: Add extraneous information. This tends to happen in the “credentials” section of the query, meaning you want the agent to know everything that’s made you a fine writer. Well, the agent will want to know that information once she or he has read and loved your manuscript, but until that time, only include information that is pertinent to your story. (Example: Say you’ve written a book about a teenage spy. It would then be pertinent to add, “I am the daughter of a CIA agent.” Or if your book is about a rare medical condition, it would be very important to say, “I am a licensed, practicing physician.”)
- Do: Include your story’s unique voice in the brief summary. If your story is funny, the summary can be funny. If it’s a sad story, let it tug on some heartstrings. If it’s a thriller, by all means make it sound like a Hollywood movie trailer.
- Don’t: Name drop another one of the agent’s client unless you have specifically asked that person and they have given you permission to do so. Another one to add here? Don’t say that your manuscript is exactly like a book that the agent already represents. They’re likely NOT to read your pages because, well, they’ve already got a writer like you!
- Do: Demonstrate your knowledge of the market value of your manuscript. This doesn’t mean that you should say, “My book is just like The Hunger Games.” But it does mean that you could say, “My book is for fans of The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game.” However, I would encourage you to aim slightly lower than bestsellers. Know the books in the field you are writing, and that will be one of the best ways to prove to an agent that you have done your homework.
- Don’t: Query twenty-five people at a time. Querying is a waiting business, which means that a lot of people try to rush it. You will do much, much better if you make an A list of five agents, and a B list of five agents. Some agents even prefer having “an exclusive” look on the manuscript (this will be on their website). You may offer an exclusive to one agent at a time, and if the agent agrees, make sure you set up an expiration on the exclusive so that you can return to querying in a timely manner.
- Do: Be selective. You do not want just any agent. I repeat: YOU DO NOT WANT JUST ANY AGENT! The agent you want is someone who is currently selling things in the market. Check Publisher’s Weekly rights reports. Check the agent’s clients’ websites. Every agent has different specialties. Some are editorial. Some are not. Some work with clients on a variety of genres. Some do not. The more you know before you query, the more likely that you will not get stuck with the wrong agent for your writing.
- Don’t: Lose hope. Querying is tough. Finding the right agent is tough. But if your manuscript is ready and the winds are in your favor (meaning you’ve done all your homework on the market and who would be the best fit for you), you will find the right person to help you launch your career. In the meantime, Yellow Bird Editors are here to help you! An affordable query critique is one click away.
Cori McCarthy is the author of four young adult novels and the middle grade category winner of the 2014 Katherine Patterson Award for her novel in verse. Cori’s books include the space thriller The Color of Rain (Running Press Teens, 2013), the near-futuristic thriller Breaking Sky (Sourcebooks, 2015), the contemporary mixed format novel You Were Here(Sourcebooks, 2016), and the forthcoming Now A Major Motion Picture (Sourcebooks, 2018). Breaking Sky is in development at Sony Pictures to become a feature length film. Cori holds three degrees in writing: a BA in Creative Writing from Ohio University (emphasis in poetry and memoir writing), as well as a graduate certificate in screenwriting from UCLA, and an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Cori lives in the Midwest and is the cofounder of the charitable initiative Rainbow Boxes. She has been writing fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and poetry for 15+ years, and editing all genres for 5+ years. For more information on Cori, please check out her website www.CoriMcCarthy.com.
AREAS OF SPECIALTY: Speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy fiction (including high fantasy), poetry, novels in verse, contemporary fiction, humorous fiction, middle grade & young adult novels, screenplays, thrillers, unique memoirs, graphic novels, adaptations of fairy tales.
AVAILABLE FOR: Manuscript critiques, query letter editing, content editing, developmental editing, writing coaching.