Note: I am no longer a literary agent! But I’d be happy to help edit your manuscript or query letters.
Similar to my fascination with shiny objects and sports on high definition television, there are certain things writers do in query letters that catch my eye, leaving me transfixed and occasionally drooling. Some things in a query letter catch my eye in a bad way — I still receive a bazillion query letters that begin with rhetorical questions, and I react like a wounded character in a bad war movie. (“I…. I can’t… make it… You go on without me.”) But there are many ways to activate the reptillian section of the brain and make me think, “query letter good me happy.”
Here are as many as I can think of, in the order in which my scattered and very busy brain comes up with them (i.e. not necessarily by order of importance, except for the first one, which definitely is the most important). Also please note that a good query letter does not have to have all or even any of these elements, but these are the ones that help signal to me that a good query letter experience is happening.
1. A Personalized Letter – Here’s the thing. Yes, I love being flattered by query letter writers who mention that they read the blog, and yes, it makes me blush and sputter, “Gee golly, little ole me?” but it’s also no coincidence that the people who actually take the time to Google me and read the blog also write the best query letters. If you’re Googling me and reading my blog and other agent blogs it shows that you’re taking the time to be a well-educated and well-prepared writer, which reflects well on your dedication to the craft and business of writing. So it’s not even so much that I’m more likely to request your manuscript because I’m flattered — a personalized letter is just a tipoff that the query letter is probably going to be good and that I should stop staring at the shiny objects and pay attention to the query letter.
2. Credentials – Credentials aren’t mandatory if you have a great story. But if you are a LA Times bestseller or an Edgar Award Winner, I’m probably going to pay attention to your query letter (and probably also spit out my coffee in excitement). Publications in literary journals and the few magazines that still publish short stories = also good.
3. Humor – We love the funny.
4. Length – If you haven’t already, please take a look at my post Anatomy of a Good Query Letter, because I think that is the perfect length for a query letter. Long enough to convey the information it needs to convey, not so long that it’s overkill. There is definitely such a thing as too short, and I’d say 85% of query letters are too long, with a full 50% being way too long.
5. A killer plot – great plots leap off the page. And the heart of the plot, as Jessica Faust pointed out in a really great post yesterday, is conflict. Describe a great central conflict and I’ll be interested.
6. You know how in your Outlook inbox the “from” lists who the e-mail is from? That should be your name, properly spelled. It’s not hard to set — work with your e-mail program. Sometimes it’s a bizarre username or e-mail address that has me cringing before I open up the e-mail.
7. Title – A great title always catches my eye, although to be honest bad titles stick out a whole lot more than good ones.
8. I am a sucker for: historical fiction, very well-written literary fiction and memoir, sports, fiction that takes place in other countries, philosophical science fiction, narrative nonfiction, and international affairs. I consider many different genres, but I’m a sucker for these.
9. Journalists – journalists are good writers (since, you know, that’s how they make their living), so I always pay extra close attention to query letters from journalists.
10. Ambition – I’m always impressed by people who have really thrown themselves into writing, like people who start reading series, who start online communities, who start anthologies, and who are intimately involved with writing and really take it to the next level. It’s another sign that they’re really serious about this whole writing thing.
11. Referrals – A friend of one of my clients or a friend is a friend of mine. Unless you’re a Laker fan.
12. MFA Graduates – I mean, you went to school for it, right?
13. Previously published – This one kind of goes without saying. If you’ve been published it’s a good thing. I’d like to take this opportunity, though, to point out that if you have self-published a novel you should not call yourself a “published” writer in a query letter. In industry parlance “published” means published through a publishing company that paid you an advance and (hopefully) royalties.
14. Contact info listed in your query – You’d think this would go without saying but…
15. No attachments – I don’t open them (unless I ask for them).
16. Gimmick-free – I’m not a gimmick guy. Your protagonist probably shouldn’t “write” your query letter, there’s no real need to think out of the box and get all wacky on me. Just write a good solid query letter. Trust me, I’ve seen it all, and if it’s something I haven’t seen before I’ll probably just be scared.
17. Website – Please please please don’t send me off to your website to look at your material in lieu of a query. Just write me a query. However, if you do have a cool website definitely include a link. Especially if it’s a shiny website or one that shows streaming videos of sporting events.
18. Cool characters – It’s very very difficult to make a character come alive in such a short letter, but make that happen. It’s all about the details.
19. Word count – I don’t really notice word count unless it’s over 175,000 words, in which case I’m going to need a little convincing. Much like hiking across a desert without water, I could probably be persuaded to do it but there had better be a darn good reason for it.
20. Mentioning how much you love my clients – This probably goes in the “personalize” paragraph, but this always makes me insanely happy. However this means you really do have to have read books by my clients, no falsies!
21. GOOD WRITING – The best for last. Good writing trumps all.
Ok, so I didn’t quite make it to 101. Still, this should give you plenty to go on as you’re writing those quer…. Oh! Coins!
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