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Writing a Query Letter

This year, one of my goals is to begin the long journey of querying literary agents. Last March I went to AWP for the first time and attended every lecture I could about getting an agent and what that process looks like. I also had my query letter read over by an agent's assistant and got feedback on what I could do better. So, I want to share everything I've learned about that process, and how my journey has been going over the past year.

I've spent most of that time working on my manuscript and trying to make it as polished as possible. That's one of the biggest pieces of advice that continued to come from the AWP panels with agents. Don't send in something based on an idea, or a half-finished draft. Your manuscript should be nearly ready to publish. Of course, it isn't going to be perfect. There will be edits and feedback from agents, editors, and publishers, but for the most part, you should feel that your manuscript is as ready as you can make it on your own. Part of that process for me has been working with beta readers and including their feedback into the draft. That's why it's taken me so long (years) to get this manuscript ready to be sent out. However, I finally feel like I've put the finishing touches on the book, and am ready for the next step: writing my query letter and researching agents.

In the query letter, there are generally four components you need to worry about. 

  1. Comparable titles

  2. Plot synopsis

  3. Genre and word count

  4. Short author bio

I've talked about finding comp titles to include in the query letter before, and it continues to be one of the hardest steps. I'm not going to reiterate what I've already talked about with comp titles, you can go check out my other blog on that, but I will say that working at an independent bookstore and reading more really helped me find books that worked for me. I have a habit of reading older books, or not reading in the genre I'm writing in, but at the bookstore, I want to stay up to date on popular books and that's led me to discoveries like Tom Lake by Ann Patchett, which is one of my comp titles. Reading as much as possible is one of the best ways to find comp titles, especially because they have to be new-ish books– which I didn't know until the assistant read over my query draft. You should include two to three comp titles in your query letter, and set it up as "my book is like X, mixed with Y" or "my book has the same character depth as X, and the comedic timing as Y," Etc.

Once the manuscript is polished and the comp titles are found, you need to be able to sum up your book in a short paragraph. I was told my query letter should be 200-300 words, which isn't a lot of space. Many authors joke that it's easier to write a 100,000 word book than a 200 word synopsis. I tend to agree with that, but one of the things I constantly challenge my students to do is practice brevity– thinking about only what is absolutely most important to a story and what the reader needs to know. Going off that practice, I managed to get a synopsis I was happy with, but then I took it one step further and sent the synopsis to my beta readers and see if they thought it worked. What I think my book is about, might not be what my readers are getting from it, so I wanted to be sure I was setting correct expectations. I also did some research and found that it's recommended to write your query synopsis with more detail than you think. You're not writing the book jacket trying to drum up interest from a reader. You can give away the ending in a query synopsis, highlight what's at stake in your book, and focus on what sets it apart from other books. My novel is heavily character-driven, so I talked about their motivations and individual stakes. 

An elevator pitch is essentially what you're going for in this letter, but it also has to prove you know how to write, and transitioning from "this novel is a 100,000 word contemporary fiction novel about..." and then lead into a very detailed and voice-driven synopsis is tricky. You need to include details like word count and genre so the agent knows what to expect, but they also want to see your voice shine. They want to be interested in your book and in you as an author. The short bio at the end might be tempting to include every little unique thing about you, but that isn't what it's about. You have to let your writing do that for you. The bio should be short, and sweet, and highlight any credentials you have to be writing your story. For example, I include that I received my MFA in creative writing, and I talk about coming from a large family since my book is a family drama. If you're writing about a diver being lost, you might include if you're dive certified. The bio is about giving yourself ethos, not just giving fun facts. 

I've worked on my query letter for months, tweaking the synopsis and bio until my head explodes. Changing the comp titles based on my mood or what I've read most recently. It's a process, but much like the manuscript, at some point, you have to let it go and know you've done the best you can. In the coming months, I'm going to begin research on agents I want to send my work to and potentially sign with. If none of them respond or show interest, then it might be back to the drawing board with the query letter. I won't know until I try though. So wish me luck, and know I'm sending you luck right back!

Exploring Seattle during AWP

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