Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Query Letters--Shannon Style (Part One)

Every time I put out my monthly call for questions (which I'll be doing tomorrow, btw) I get several querying questions. Specifically query letter questions. Which is funny to me because I am HARDLY an expert. I did only query for two weeks, remember?

So I've been promising to answer those questions in a separate post--mainly because I needed some time to figure out what the heck to say. But I figured that since a lot of you have probably set Querying goals for the New Year, I'd stop stalling and finally tackle this difficult, confusing topic.

There's no way I can cover it all in one reasonable-length post though, so I'll do one post a week, for however many it takes to properly handle the topic. Or until I bore you to death and you start begging me: please Shannon--NO MORE QUERYING POSTS. I can take a hint after all. Sometimes. (ahem).

BUT--I want to preface this advice by stating things that should be glaringly obvious and yet I feel the need to say anyway, just to be safe.

First: believe it or not, I am not an agent (and thank goodness for that by the way. I don't know HOW they read all those queries *shudder* and pitch projects all day *double shudder*  and deal with crazy clients who email them at 2am with endless ramblings *shudders* *coughs* Be glad you're not my agent).

Also, all agents are different and may prefer different things from what I suggest here. And if you decide to query those agents I highly suggest you do as they say, not as I say, since they probably have a better concept of what they want than I do, being that I am, in fact, not them.

And, as I tried to establish with my first paragraph of this post, um...I really have NO idea what I'm doing. So yanno...take the advice I'm about to give, then salt to taste. Okay? Okay.

So, today I thought I'd start with the basics. Specifically the format of the Query Letter--and no, I don't mean basic business letter format. I mean what things should go where in the query letter and how much time/space you should dedicate to each. And to give you a general idea, I made a handy dandy visual aid--which will become much easier to read if you clicky.

(I'll also be discussing it point by point down below)

(And BTW: if you want me to email you a copy of this--despite the fact that it's really not *that* helpful--let me know in the comments)

Okay, first thing you'll notice is that this letter is designed to be copied and pasted into emails, not printed as is and mailed off. If you are doing old fashioned snail mail queries, you will definitely want to put this in proper letter format before you send.

And now, lets discuss the rest item by item.

The Greeting: It should be personalized to the agent (sorry, I do not recommend mass emailing your queries, and I'm pretty sure the rest of the publishing world agrees). And please, do yourself a favor and triple check that you have the right gender and spelling of their name. I guarantee, Laura would not have been impressed if I'd queried her: Dear Mr. Rennerd (especially since I'd actually met her--but that's beside the point) (also, now I kinda want to send my next email to her addressed that way. SERIOUSLY: Be glad you're not my agent.) :D

Side note on the greeting: make sure you're querying an agent who might actually be interested in your project. Don't query at random. Do your research. I'll probably talk more about that in another post but for now I'll just say: seriously, put the time in to find out what the agents want before you query them.

The Hook: Okay, here's where my own personal taste comes in over some of the query advice you'll see. Some say you should start with something along the lines of: I'm contacting you about TITLE, a Genre/Category complete at XXXX amount of words. To which I say: OMG what a boring way to make a first impression!!!! Start with your hook and get them interested in the story--THEN hit them with all the boring stats. 

There are, however, many who disagree with me, so it's your call. And I know there are certain agents who request the stats be in the first sentence, so if you query one of those people, definitely adjust your query accordingly.  

As far as the hook itself, not gonna lie--it will probably be one of the hardest sentences you ever write. But oh mans will you be glad you did it because then you'll have the wow factor you need to grab their attention and not let go. I'll talk more about my approach to writing hooks in another post. For now, just know that my recommendation is to start your letter with your hook, and to shape your hook as a short, stand-alone sentence, so it really screams PAY ATTENTION TO ME I'M INTERESTING.

About your Book: Now that you've hooked them on your concept, it's time to tell them about your book in a few short, powerful paragraphs. Personally I recommend using two paragraphs because I think it's enough space to cover the basics of your plot without being too rushed, but not so long that your query becomes a wall of text and makes the agent's eyes glaze over when they see it. (though oddly enough, I had three in my query--but my query was intentionally untraditional and if I am ever allowed to share it with you, you'll see what I mean).

As far as how to write these paragraphs, again, I'll talk much more in depth about that in another post. For now I'll simply say that the biggest mistakes I see (imho, at least) when I critique queries (and I've critiqued a LOT of queries) are a tendency to be way too vague and coy with the plot details and to not showcase your authorial voice enough. Remember: you don't want to sound like any other book. You want to sound like YOUR book. And the agent should have a clear idea of what to expect from both your writing and the book's plot by the end of reading these paragraphs. 

Sure, they won't know EVERYTHING--and I personally don't recommend telling the ending. But they should have a good grasp on who the main character is, what they want, what's keeping them from getting it, and how they're going to try to deal with the problem. It's NOT easy to do--none of this is. But if you push yourself and do it well you'll make a very good impression.

Stats and Personalizing: Assuming you've followed my advice about starting with the hook, then here's where you bury that boring stats sentence you have to have in there (and yes--you do HAVE to have that sentence. It's ugly and boring, I know--but it's a must). 

To follow that beast with something interesting--because mans do you need to recover after that laborious sentence--I like to throw in a couple of sentences to let the agent know why I'm querying them, and not one of the other hundreds of agents out there. 

This is where that whole "doing your homework" thing comes in. Do you love several of their other clients' books? Better yet: do you read their blog or follow them on Twitter? Did you meet them at a writers conference--or at least listen to them speak at one you attended, either online or in person? Mention that here. Try to establish a small personal connection with them. Don't go crazy of course--one or two sentences will more than suffice--but it adds a nice touch to the query, letting them know they're not just getting the standard form query you're sending to everyone. I figure, agents probably dislike form queries as much as we dislike form rejections.

About you and thanks: Again, here's where there might be some debate. PERSONALLY, I fall very strongly into the "less is more" category when it comes to talking about myself in the query. Why? Because for most debut authors--which, lets face it, is the majority of the querying pool--we haven't really done anything worth mentioning. If you've published anything before or won any decent awards, or have some area of expertise that applies, by all means mention it. But otherwise, keep it short and sweet. 

Should you mention teaching experience? Sure--but I wouldn't dwell on it for more than a sentence. Should you mention MFA programs or writing mentors? Again, a brief mention isn't bad, but keep it short. That's my main note: less is more. Why? Because none of this stuff REALLY helps you. I guarantee you, no agent is going to think: eh--I'm not really interested in this concept--but wait a minute, hold the phone, they're a teacher????? Well then I MUST read this!!!! Same with having an MFA, or winning some really small, regional awards, etc. Those are all wonderful things. But they don't really matter.

And in a query, where every single sentence needs to MATTER or it looks too long and cluttered, why waste space on something that really isn't going to help you? Keep it short and instead give yourself a couple more sentences in the section where you tell them about your book. THOSE are the sentences that make them want to read pages. In my query I simply said: 

My first chapter won a Conference Choice award at the 2010 SDSU Writers Conference and I am a member of SCBWI. 

Then you thank them for their time and consideration and sign off.

Contact Info: Under your name you want to give them ways to reach you if they're interested. I gave my cell and home numbers, my email (just in case) and my blog address. I chose to leave off my Twitter and if I'd had a facebook I would have left that off too, simply because I think those come across as less professional, and if the agent wants to find them all they have to do is follow the links on my blog (or google me).

So that's it. The basic elements (and the order of those elements) for a successful query letter. In my humble opinion at least.

And I'm pretty sure I've rambled on quite enough, but there is one more thing I want to mention and again--this is a personal preference.

You might have noticed that I have not included space for anything along the lines of: fans of Amazing Author X or Best-Selling Book Y would enjoy this story because the voice and tone are similar (and okay, I know that's also not very well written, but you see what I mean).

Why did I leave that out?

Two reasons. 1) I think there's too great a risk of seeming overconfident, or setting yourself up for them to think: Uh, no way are you that good. But even if you go conservative with your selections and don't compare yourself to mega superstars, I think the better reason is: 2) I think that goes without saying. If your book is right in the sweet spot for fans of other popular books/writers, the agent will be smart enough to see that on their own. They'll be able to think: hm...this voice reminds me a lot of John Green--but with a little more sass--without you telling them that. So why bother telling them--especially when you risk looking like you have too high of an opinion of yourself. I say better left unsaid. But it's of course, your call.

ALL of this is your call. This is just my own personal taste when it comes to writing query letters (hence why I'm talking about it in the Shannon Style series) and you are welcome to disagree with me. I'm only sharing my approach because...well...you asked. I hope it helps.

So what do you guys think: Agree? Disagree? Did I miss anything? I am OPEN to discussion in the comments. :)


  1. Great post, Shannon. A very insightful posts on the bothersome query letters. This will definitely come in handy when I get ready to start querying.

  2. Great post on the basics. Can't wait to read your advice on the hook & 2 paragraphs about your story. I must have spent 50 hours on them. They are so hard. Thanks for breaking this into a few posts. I think you can really say more helpful things that way. Would love for you to post your query as an example. I've saved some good ones I found in a word document and they've helped when I'm trying to write my query.

    You also might want to mention Elana Johnson's From Query to the Call. I found that really helpful and she gives a query critique for those who purchase the book.

  3. Ready for the best query advice you ever heard (not you S, your readers)?

    Get help. Don't do it alone.

    GET HELP from other writers. DON'T DO IT ALONE, call on those you know and trust to help you polish your ideas.

    The query letter is the first step on your road to publication, and even fantastic, talented, amazing writers like myself find it a very difficult nut to crack.

    Want to know how to make it way easier? Ask for help. Write the best query you can, then get your friends to help you make it actually workable. Then put it up on writing forums so that you can get 97 useless bits of feedback about it and 3 that make you slap your forehead in amazement.

    I'm serious. I know I sound like I'm kidding (and I usually am), but this is what I did and it worked like a charm for me. I sent out several of the worst queries ever written in the beginning, and was vigorously rejected for them, but then I got help and my query won third place in the WriteOnCon contest.

    You spent months writing an amazing story. At least spend days writing an amazing query.

    End rant. Matt. Out.

  4. I'm confused. What's a query and why do I need one? I thought we were supposed to call and tell agents about our books over the phone?


    Love you and Happy New Year!

  5. Thanks, Shannon. I'll be querying this year so very helpful!!

  6. Excellent advice...I'm adding this to my bookmarks.

    Thank you- super clear and funny too.

  7. Shannon...you've got some great style! Thanks for sharing this!

  8. Thanks for sharing your tips on querying do's and dont's!! Very helpful!!

    Take care

  9. You're a superstar Shannon <3 You have such great advice for your readers and are able to break things down in such understandable ways!

  10. Great advice! Love the detail you went into as well. :)
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

  11. Oh, this is going to be a popular post, #1. I think you are amazing when it comes to query letters, and I know my query does too! I bow before your wisdom! ;-)

  12. AWESOME! Advice!! Really needed this run down! I was confused about the do start with the hook, don't start with the hook thing. It's preference then? GOOD. Cause I like the idea of starting with a nice big shiny hook! Thanks for clearing that up!

  13. This was a great overview. I'm sort of dreading the whole writing query portion of this, but then again I've never met a writer who loved it. I can't wait for your post on how to research agents.

    Karen--Ha ha. And what I think you meant is that we're supposed to show up in person with flowers. That's the industry standard, I believe. ;)

  14. Excellent post! I actually DID put in a market comparison, because I thought it A) showed the agent that guess what? I KNOW THE MARKET and RIGHT WHERE THIS BOOK WILL FIT.

    Sure, they know. I wanted them to know that *I* knew too.

  15. I think you've given some great tips here. I've sent queries that start with a hook and ones that start with "I'm contacting you because" statements. I've received requests from both, so I'm not sure it matters. I do, however, think a hook must be in the letter whether you open with it or not.

  16. Everything you said seems to be inline with all the query advice I've read. Can't wait to read your query on GTLA some time. Thanks!

  17. Great advice! I pretty much follow this same format especially after taking C.J.'s query workshop. I think the hardest part (besides being brief) is keeping that voice going without sounding too flippant, especially if you write YA/MG.

    It can be done but it's definitely not the easiest thing for me. Any time I start a business letter I flip into serious day job mode and I have to fight that.lol

  18. Thank you for this query advice! I'm not at that stage in the writing process, but I know I'll be referring back to this post when I am . . .

  19. In your style of querying, if the opening sentence is the boring one would the hook be placed somewhere else or left out?

  20. SUPERIOR advice. Don't sell yourself short, chickie. Tucking this one away for future use ;)

  21. Wow guys--thanks for the comments! Can't wait to respond to these in email.

    Taryn: (your comment doesn't have an email address attached to it so I'll answer your question here) Personally I think you still need the hook. In fact, I think it's even more important to grab them, cause they've now labored through that first boring sentence. So when I rearranged my query for one of the agents I sent it to (who preferred the letter start with the stats) I made my hook the next sentence. Then I just added a transitional sentence between the section about my book and the few sentences on why I was querying "them" and left the rest pretty much the same. Not sure if that was the best way--but that's what I did. :)

  22. Awesome advice. I'm reworking a ms with the help of an awesome beta reader and then I need to wipe the query letter into shape so this is hugely helpful!

  23. This post is a service to the public, Shannon. I'm interning for a literary agency at the moment. In the TWO DAYS I've been answering queries, I've read more queries than I care to remember that begin with "I'm looking for an agent who can make me money." I'm keeping a list of unforgivable query mistakes. In a few weeks, I'm going to put a post together about what to avoid in queries.

  24. The visual aide is wonderful! It helps those who aren't in the know to format and formulate their paragraphs better. Thanks!

  25. This is still all good query letter advice! Yeaaah, I don't like the comparison part either, so I just don't do it in my queries. Some agents don't like it, though some do.

  26. This is a wonderful post, Shannon. Well done. :)

  27. Shannon, this is a HUGE help. I printed off your dummy letter (no offense, you know what I mean).

    I do get confused about what should or shouldn't be included, but yes, you're right, we need to research what THAT agent wants and likes.

    Many thanks!


Yay-I love comments! Thank you so much! (But please remember to keep your comments spoiler-free. Also, I try to keep this a happy, positive place. Any arguing or intense debate--on any subject will be removed. Let's keep this a safe, fun space.