Last week we talked about finding someone to submit to. Next step: actual submission.
And you probably aren’t going to submit anything.
That may seem like a tease, but it’s true. You don’t actually submit your carefully-crafted treatment and sample chapters quite yet. The first thing you’re going to do is some research.
If you read last week’s blog, you’ve already compiled a list of agents (and maybe even editors) who you’re sure will want to see your book. Now you need to hit their web pages and find out what they want. If they don’t have a web page, email, write, or call to find out what they want. Then follow the rule below:
Always send the agent or editor exactly what s/he asks for.
If the agent wants the full treatment and sample chapters, send ‘em. If the agent wants a one-page synopsis and the first 500 words of the book, send ‘em. If the agent wants a treatment and a photo of the manuscript in a bikini, send ‘em. Never, ever send more. Never, ever send less.
The vast majority of agents, however, will say “Query first!” This means they want you to send a query letter and only a query letter.
Query letters are shorter than treatments. You describe your book and introduce yourself, the agent can decide whether the project is worth pursuing. Query letters save everyone time. The agent can read a dozen queries in the time it takes to go over a single synopsis, and queries are a handy way to weed out inappropriate material. See, overeager authors hit up the wrong agents all the time, and agents who don’t handle science fiction and clearly say so on their web sites still end up fielding manuscripts with hyperspace in them. Query letters let agents weed that stuff out faster.
A query letter follows standard business letter format. Then after the “Dear Ms. Smith” greeting, you plunge right in with a one- or two- paragraph description of the book. This is back-cover blurb stuff, and you want to hook the agent’s interest right away. No, you don’t start with introducing yourself. That’s dull and boring, and the agent wants to see if you can grab an audience. Introductions don’t grab anyone.
In the next paragraph, you explain why you’re sending the query to this particular agent. See, you always want to tailor the query letter to the agent so the agent knows you’re not just mass-blasting queries (even though you probably are–it keeps up a polite fiction). You can say you found the agent’s web page and figured the agent might be interested. Or if you know the agent represents a particular author whose fiction is similar to yours, you can say, “I like what you’ve done for Dan Brown’s career and thought you might be interested in my work as well” or “I really enjoy your client J.K. Rowling’s books and I write in a similar vein.”
If you met the agent at a conference or convention, now’s the time to bring that up. (“It was a pleasure meeting you at DragonCon last month. We talked about my book after the Cocker Spaniels in Space panel, and you gave me your card.”)
In the final paragraph, you give info about yourself: “By way of introduction, my short stories have appeared in . . . ” If you have no writing credits or anything about yourself that relates directly to your book, skip this part. The agent doesn’t care that you live in a treehouse or that your dog is named Wuzzlebear.
Then you say, “I do have a synopsis and full manuscript for the book if you’d like to see it. Thank you for your time. Sincerely…”
And you’re done.
EMAIL OR HARD COPY?
A great many agents now take queries by email. Take care that you follow the agent’s guidelines. Some will want the query letter pasted into the body of an email, and others will want it as a separate file. If the agent wants your treatment and/or samples, send it the way the agent wants. As with queries, some want the material pasted into an email and others want a file.
If the agent wants a paper query, send it and a self-addressed stamped envelope for the agent’s reply. The same goes if you send a treatment and/or sample chapters. You can add “The manuscript is recyclable, and I have enclosed a business-sized envelope for your convenience” to avoid paying extra postage for the manuscript’s return.
Here’s a sample query letter:
Dear Ms. Smythe,
Romeo has given up on love, and despairs that he’ll ever find anyone who’ll love him back. Then, at the urging of some dispreputable friends, he crashes a party and meets Juliet. Unfortunately, their families are hated enemies.
I love the plays Christopher Marlowe has written, especially Dr. Faustus, and my work follows a similar vein. When I learned you represent him, I thought you might be interested in seeing my material as well.
By way of introduction, two of my plays have appeared at The Theatre, and two touring companies are performing them as well. I do have a complete manuscript for Romeo and Juliet, and I’m working on a comedy.
If you’re interested in seeing Romeo and Juliet, please let me know. I have enclosed a self-addressed, stamped envelope for your convenience. Thank you for your time.
Next week: What to avoid in a query
–Steven Harper Piziks
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