Is the fact that I’ve been avoiding writing this particular post in the #marywrites series indicative of the subject? YES.
50% of this meme is me wanting to shout about LOTR because I saw someone with the most badass Witch-king tattoo the other day, but I was too busy gaping in awe at it to realize I was supposed to actually use words and be like HI I HAVE A TATTOO OF ROHAN WANNA BE FRIENDS. The other 50% is because, when someone asked Tolkien to summarize The Silmarillion and the entire The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he gave them a 10k word summary, and I really, really wish that was still a viable way to pitch your book to someone.
Anyway! Query time! We’re going to pull it all the way back to the basics because about 100% of the time no one has any idea what a query letter is. And, yes, I mean 100% of the time. Zero people have ever gone “oh yes okay good idea” when I say my next step after finishing a novel is a query letter.
As a quick disclaimer, and I think I said this somewhere else at some point, but I have no idea when that was, or if I dreamed that up entirely, but I will be discussing traditional publishing in this post. I’m all for self-publishing; if that’s how you think your story’s gotta get out there, go for it, bro. I support you. I do not have the finances or marketing skills to do that, nor do I want to, and so, if you’re self-publishing, this post is probably going to be a moot point for you.
Okay, so you’ve finished the first draft of your book. You’ve gone through it several times to revise & edit it (see last week’s post for more rambling about that!), and you’ve got it to a place where you can’t reasonably do anymore on your own. Your critique partner’s had at it, and you’ve revised after their edits, and you are ready for more of the world to see it. If you’re following the traditional publishing model, your next step is a literary agent. Yes, you can find a vanity press (honestly, bad idea for all, it’s going to cost you money hand over fist), or you can skip this entirely and just try to be your own agent, but that is either a) going to severely limit your options to a few independent publishers, or b) get you into a world of trouble trying to figure out percentages and rights and a lot of things that I don’t understand because I don’t know publishing legal terms, and seriously, this is why we have literary agents.
Can I insert more Tolkien memes? Can that just be acceptable for this post? Great.
Solid writing tip: don’t write your friends as main characters. It will end badly for everyone. And if you make them into secondary characters, make them into trees.
a professional agent who acts on behalf of an author in dealing with publishers and others involved in promoting the author’s work
They’re the middle person. You get a literary agent, and the agent represents you as they seek out a publisher for your book. But how do you get a literary agent? A query letter! I feel like it’s the word query that trips people up. It’s literally just a letter asking for an agent to represent you.
There are honestly a lot of different guidelines on how to write a query letter, and while the standard is one-page across the board, the actual shape of it has changed quite a bit over the years. When I first started querying ages ago, it was, like, three paragraphs max. First: stats on book (word count, age range, genre); second: summary of book; third: if you’ve been published previously. Now, they’re a bit longer, and there’s a little wiggle room for how you can shape it. I consistently saw that the first paragraph should stay the same until about a year ago, and it’s changed a bit.
Now, I’m not going to just copy and paste my current query letter for you, but I will talk about the shape of it!
I really, really love the idea of putting the summary of the novel first. You hook readers with a good first line, so why not hook an agent the same way? It’s always seemed tedious to me to put the title, the word count, the genre, etc. in the opening lines because it just feels very clinical. And so, I’ve started dropping my summary in first. Four paragraphs is the absolute max you want here, and they shouldn’t be huge paragraphs, either. Four is honestly kind of pushing it, and even though I’ve got four right now, I’m probably going to drop it down to three.
Currently, I’ve got the introduction to my two MCs in the first paragraph, what most of the book is about in the second and third, and a little hook of mystery in the fourth. You want to get the very basic gist across of your book. Name your main characters only. Do not name any secondary characters, even if they feel like they’re pivotal to the plot. They’re not. I name Henley & Theodore in my summary because those are the two POVs that we get, and they hold up the entire trilogy. The villains are referred to as Henley’s sister and Theodore’s father because they’re going to be gone by the end, and you don’t need to know their names to understand the story. You also want bare bones in here. Sure, Theo encounters a greater demon attack and has to defend the witches, but does that make it into the summary? Not even close. All I’ve got is who they are, what they are (witch & demon), and what their main conflict is. For Henley, it’s that her sister has returned and is looking to ruin everything for the sake of power. For Theo, it’s that his father is trying to drag him back to hell, and he wants desperately to stay with his new witch friends. But that’s it. Short, sweet, to the point, and interesting.
Note: Christopher Tolkien is not a literary agent. Don’t skip the agent part just because you have an uncle in publishing who will do whatever it takes to get your book out there without being vetted by anyone in a professional capacity. You are not Christopher Paolini, and if you are, we’re all side-eyeing you decades later.
Honestly, the summary paragraphs are going to be the hardest part of everything. Writing a draft is hard, yeah, but try summarizing your story in three paragraphs. It’s a fucking nightmare.
Oh! While we’re talking about summarizing, there are often additional items that are required when querying. Agents may ask for a max of 50 pages of your book and/or a synopsis of a specific length (usually 1-2 pages). Before I started querying, I made sure that I had the first (they have to be the first, you can’t just pick a chunk in the middle at random) 50 pages ready to go. Sometimes, they’ll ask for the first 5 chapters, but I’ve seen this so infrequently that I think polishing up your first 50 is a good idea. A synopsis needs to stay within the page guidelines. Agents will just chuck your query in the trash if you don’t follow rules, and for good reason! If someone wants a one page summary, and you give them two pages, you deserve to be chucked in the trash. Pay attention.
But guys, summaries are the worst. Oh gods, they’re so much worse than the query letter. They suck so hard, and I just need you to know that going in. Nothing makes them easier. Just grin and bear it.
This is a pretty easy paragraph! Things to include:
- Title in CAPS
- Word count (you can round)
- Age range
- Any relevant hashtags
This is mine: “THE WITCHES OF DERBY STREET is an #ownvoices adult urban fantasy queer twist on your favorite wacky 80s movie, complete at 101,000 words.”
The whole title needs to be in caps, I’ve included #ownvoices because there are bi & Portuguese characters, the age range is adult, genre is urban fantasy, and word count is 101k. I’m pretty sure you’ve got to spell out the whole word count, too, even though a lot of us just drop a k at the end and call it a day. I put in the “queer twist on your favorite wacky 80s movie” to quickly drop in some rep & tone of the book. The next sentence in my query letter also states that it’s got LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC characters, and these are all good things to note in this paragraph.
This is in the same paragraph as your info one. Your info part really should just be one sentence, and then you can add any fluffy stuff you want around the comp titles. For example, mine notes the queer & BIPOC characters in the same sentence as listing two comp titles. Kind of like a “perfect for fans of TITLE, this book features these types of characters” sentence.
Quick reminders: your comp titles should be relevant in both ways. Meaning, not only should they be published within the last few years, they should also be along the same lines as your book. I need to have an adult urban fantasy novel, ideally that deals in witches, as a comp title for my book. I do list The Babysitter’s Coven by Kate Williams, but I’m not listing more than one YA title, and I make sure to note that it’s for “older fans of.” Why? Because this shows that you understand the market! You know what’s working right now, and you’re keeping up with newly published books in the field you want to enter in.
Look, not only am I probably reading no contemporaries in July after spending an entire month reading them for Pride, I’m also hopefully going to read FOTR.
A quick reminder that you don’t have to be published before you query an agent for your book. The unfortunate truth is that it is going to help you out a bit to have previous publications, but it is in no way a requirement for querying. Truthfully, if you have no publications, and you’re not feeling like shouting about your writing degree (while I do have a BFA in Creative Writing & English, I’ve almost never listed that in my query), you can skip this paragraph altogether and just thank the agent for their time.
If you do have publications, you can really phrase this however you want. I like the “My work has recently appeared in” for short stories. I also usually list my blog here because I occasionally post short stories, and I’m pretty proud of my discussion posts, so that’s something to consider.
Attachments & Thank You
Most commonly, the agent will ask you to copy & paste something below the query letter in the bottom of the email, but very rarely, they’ll ask for an attachment. I’d honestly say 9/10 times, they don’t want attachments, and again, if you attach something after they’ve asked you to copy & paste it, you deserve to be chucked into the trash for not following guidelines, and that is what will happen to your query letter. A standard “Please see the first 50 pages of my manuscript copy and pasted below, per request” will do fine here.
And don’t forget to thank the agent! Just a quick “I appreciate your time and consideration” is wonderful and polite.
One last thing! Please, for the love of Thorin Oakenshield, do not put “dear agent” at the top of your letter. This is impersonal, and if I received it as an agent, I would not read whatever came next. You are asking them to enter into a relationship with you based on something you love. Use this as an introduction. “Dear Ms. NAME” is perfect, and it will go a long way. And, at the end, I’m a big fan of just “thank you, NAME”, but sincerely, with respect, etc. will work fine, too. Put your name and contact info. Just because they’re receiving this via email doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put your email. It’ll be helpful to have it there! Also, pretty much 100% of agents are never going to call you, but it can’t hurt to put your phone number there. It just looks professional.
oh my god why am I laughing this isn’t funny
Anyway, I hope this was helpful! As with your draft of your novel, make sure to have someone edit this, read it out loud to check for mistakes, and make sure it’s as polished as possible before sending it out. Querying is a wretched process because it can be months and months before you hear back, and it’s probably going to be a “no” for quite some time, but at least you’re taking steps forward to getting yourself published. And, if you’re feeling lost at sea, you can always come chat with me! Querying is a lonely business, and I often shout with my CP about it because we just feel like we’re slowly drowning, and it’s nice to remember there are others out there.