Hello, writers. Long ago I got a job as an ESL teacher. A few weeks later my new principal told me the personnel director had called him and said, "I should warn you she interviews terribly."
Once in a while you luck onto a personnel director who can see through terrible interview skills. Mostly, of course, you don't. And the same goes for query letters. They have to be good.
I don't query particularly well either. Hopefully people who do will comment. But I'm going to tell you what I know (garnered from agents' and editors' blogs, experience, and unsubstantiated rumor) and where you can find out more.
Query, Synopsis and Pitch, Oh My
A query is a letter (or an email) to an agent or editor offering to sell one (1) particular story. It has two jobs: to prove that you are able to write a coherent sentence, and to get the reader interested in your story.
A pitch is much like a query except that it isn't written in letter form. Pitches should be brief. They are sometimes delivered orally-- so-called elevator pitches. You can go to pitch-sessions at writing conferences (usually you have to pay extra) and speed-date an agent or editor with your pitch. Problem is, if she likes it, quite likely she'll tell you it sounds nice, send her a query when she gets back to the office.
Sometimes pitches are written, as with the pitches that entrants in the Amazon contest are asked to post. Brevity is important. Make the reader want to read more.
When you're writing your query or pitch, don't think about everything that's in your story that you want to get onto the page. Instead, think about what it is about the story (eg character and conflict) that's likely to make someone want to read it.
A synopsis is much longer than a pitch or query. You generally do not include a synopsis with a query. Sometimes when an agent asks for a partial, they'll ask for a synopsis as well-- and they may specify length. See Donald Maass's Writing the Breakthrough Novel Workbook for a description of how to write one, or this article. And check out Miss Snark's Crapometer for Synopses to see nearly 100 synopses dissected.
So whom do you query-- editors or agents? Up to you, but the important thing is not to query both at the same time. It's hard to get an agent to try to sell a manuscript that's already been rejected by scads of publishers.
Many of us have found that it's much easier to get a publisher than an agent. Cuz why? Two reasons. One, an agent may only take on two or three new clients a year, while a big publisher buys a coupla hundred manuscripts. Two, publishers are often thinking in terms of filling slots on their lists, while agents are often thinking of bestsellers. An agent only gets 15% of what you get, so she has to think big.
Natheless, agents are more often reading queries, and are more likely to consider simultaneous queries. So check out agentquery to find an agent who matches your specs. (And from there, google to see if your intended agent has a blog.)
There are, all rumors to the contrary, still quite a few publishers who read queries from unagented writers. In the last two years I've queried Scholastic, Henry Holt, and Penguin--they were all accepting queries. (Then I got an agent.) Just check the publisher's website-- or, for better info, check to see if any of the editors has a blog.
(If a publisher says they aren't taking "unsolicited submissions" that usually doesn't mean you can't query them: a query isn't a submission. If they don't allow queries at all, they'll usually say "agented writers only" or words to that effect.)
When you look at agents' websites (or listings on agentquery) you'll see that a lot of them have very specific directions for querying. You'll also notice a lot of these directions contradict those of other agents. I think this is intentional. They want to know that you queried them on purpose.
Most agents seem to be taking e-queries these days. A lot of short-story markets are too. Almost no book publishers are. The main difference between an e-query and a letter query is that you should not put your snail-mail address (or the publisher's snail-mail address) at the top of an e-query.
Brevity Is the Soul of Query
This seems to be something all of the blogging agents and editors agree on. . A page is tops, less is better. You should talk about your story, but not in excruciating detail. You shouldn't talk about yourself at all, unless you have sold* previously, have an MFA in creative writing, and/or have won an award. Er, except for this one agent I queried who wants a one-paragraph bio.
You also shouldn't praise your manuscript or quote other people praising it. Waste of space, looks unprofessional, and it won't get you anywhere. Especially, in the kiddylit world, you shouldn't say that the 3rd grade class at PS 73 loved it. Editors and agents hate this.
(*Btw, you probably also should not mention self-published books. Some of the blogging agents and editors say this is neutral-value, but others say it actually counts against a writer. Safer to leave it out.)
Partials And Fulls
In response to your query, you might get a request for a partial (anywhere from five to 30 pages) or a full. The partial request is a holdover from snailmail days. It might be followed by a request for the full manuscript... more often, alas, it is not. The thing that really bugs me? They'll request a partial, then request a full, then send you a form rejection. God's own truth.
Whatever they request, and however they may waffle on the subject, chances are they won't read past the first page. (She said encouragingly.) Unless that first page kicks
donkey elephant. So make sure it does. Read the Anonymati blog for a real editor's reax to real first pages.
Don't Try to Stand Out from the Crowd
..except in your writing, ability to tell a story, and professionalism. This probably doesn't need saying to most people, but editors and agents have seen it all: unusual fonts, scented paper, rosewood manuscript boxes, gifts (the most common one seems to be a teabag, but cookies, toys, cash and edible lingerie are not unknown). Then there are novelty queries, dropping in in person, and an apparently common one: sliding the manuscript to an agent under a bathroom stall at a conference. The word on the blogs is they don't like any of this stuff. And they can get kind of paranoid.
Similarly, don't try to shock the reader of your letter (eg by using explicit sexual language). But you knew that.
Write On! will be a regular Thursday feature (8 pm ET) until it isn't. Be sure to check out other great lit'ry diaries like:
sarahnity's books by kossacks on Tuesdays
plf515's What Are You Reading? on Wednesday mornings.
cfk's bookflurries on Wednesday nights.
Your happy writing links for the week:
What's next for the kindle.
Submit the first two pages of your novel to win free admission to NYC's Backspace Writer's Conference. Deadline March 1st.
Editorial Anonymous explains that how hard your manuscript will be to edit is a consideration in taking you on.
IMHO, this is no way to deal with your overused words, 'cause it interrupts the flow. But YMMV.
Tho' the burial was slated-- Kirkus Reviews, like Don Gato, has become reanimated.
Not writing-related, but we love him so: Terry Pratchett on what he calls assisted dying. Sad and funny, and whoever transcribed it for him didn't know the diff between "proceed" and "precede". You can bet tp knows.