Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Writing a Great Query Letter--oh, the agony!

I seriously cannot believe how fast the week goes by. I had grand expectations of writing two or three times a week on my blog, but you've all seen how that goes!

Today I want to chat about writing that perfect query. Oh, the torture! For the last few weeks I have been writing and re-writing a query letter. I've submitted it to my critique group a few times and they've come back with advice for improvement. The thing is, I thought it was perfect and wonderful before I sent it to them. What a let down to realize it wasn't. How do you know when it's ready? Honestly, I'm not sure myself. What I am learning is that simple is better. Less is more, if you get my meaning. 

I want to quote a few things I've learned after ample study from How to Write a Great Query Letter, by Noah Lukeman.

1. Stick to the three paragraph rule. For some, that's hard to do, but it will place you as a professional when an agent first glances at your query.

2. Try with all your might not to be self deprecating. Never make excuses or be critical of yourself or your book. A professional doesn't do that. And keep mindless comments to yourself. Don't say, "I also like to write romance and paranormal," if the story you're querying is a fantasy. They don't care about that other stuff. You are querying one book and one book only. (at a time)

3. I loved this-- "As an agent, it is better to encounter a writer who has no credits, and who is aware of this fact and keeps his bio short, than a writer who has no credits but wastes several sentences or more trying to make up for it with an inflated, irrelevant bio. Not only is he wasting words (which a writer should never do) but it signals he might also be out of touch, might consider all of the irrelevant information to be genuine assets."

This was a hard one for me. I wanted to mention all the little community contests I've won, but this agent, Noah, claims that those things can make you appear the novice you are. I'm sure there are those who would debate this point. It would be interesting to hear from other agents to see what they think. I'm guessing that if you can write a fantastic query, they aren't going to care if you won first place in the Peach Days Writing contest. Sigh.

"Don’t be overly personal. This demands its own rule, since many writers tend to get (unnecessarily) personal in their author biographies. They might throw in information about their children, their uncles, their grandmother’s history; they might talk about their favorite hobbies, how they spend their time, why they decided to retire and write a book. Many beginning writers feel the need to justify why they are writing in the first place, and thus an agent will encounter bios explaining why they feel the need to write, what got them started writing. Being too personal might not turn off an agent—but lack of economy definitely will" So be careful!

There is a ton of information at this link I've provided. It has really helped me. I want to include my query letter here, which to be honest, terrifies me. But I would love your feedback. I've tried to follow all the rules, yet make it interesting. Let me know what you think.


Dear (Actual name of agent you're querying),

     A sudden flash of electricity exploded around thirteen year old Zach Marriott and a forceful wind gusted past his face. He was falling! Out of nowhere, a meadow appeared—wide, green and rising fast. He scrunched his eyes, and anticipated the pain of his body splattering. This was it. He was going to die.

     In this 83,000 word YA fantasy, Zach is magically transported into his favorite online computer game, Warlord, and is forced to face his worst enemies: his pudgy body, his bratty sister who accidentally comes along for the ride, and the brutally savage Warlord. Their only way home is to complete the nearly impossible quest of finding the Eye of Tanúb. With the help of new friends they face grotesque monsters, evil bandits and ultimately, the Warlord.

     I wrote The Eye of Tanúb trying to imagine what it would be like to be pulled into a modern computer game like World of Warcraft or Halo. My book combines the online gaming culture of our youth today with the traditional conventions of a young adult fantasy novel. I know of no other book with this same premise. I graduated from the Longridge Writer's Course in December 2010, am a member of the League of Utah Writers, and write weekly on my blog, A Writer's Reality.

     Thank you so much for taking the time to consider my query. I look forward to hearing from you.

     Melissa J. Cunningham
     (Here I put my address and contact info)


Jeri said...

I'm not a writer or an agent... but it sounds good to me.

I am also a comma-a-holic, so I'm just as likely to be wrong as right, but aren't there supposed to be commas after the words "friends" and "bandits"? (last sentence, 2nd paragraph?)

Good luck! I am proud of you!

D. U. Okonkwo said...

Writing a good query is one of the hardest things to do, but once you've achieved it and start getting requests, it's the best feeling in the world.

Important to note, however, that just because your query is great for many agents, it may not be for ALL agents. It depends on subject matter, the agent's workload etc.

However spending considerable time perfecting it is time well spent.,

N. R. Williams said...

My editor had me remove most of the ing words. You have multiple in your first paragraph and some follow each other. Try to rewrite and turn them into ed words or remove altogether. Trust me, your query will be stronger. It's a good premise, though there have been several films about this. I think it might be hot right now though so go for it.
N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium

Melissa J. Cunningham said...

Thanks Jeri, and yes, you are right! It's so hard to see your own mistakes sometimes. Especially when you've been working on something for a long time. It's wonderful to have friends point them out, however painful! LOL

And thanks to you too, NR. I'll look at those ing words. I use too many, I know, gosh dang it!

Carole Anne Carr said...

Good luck with your queries and thanks for the good advice.

Chantele Sedgwick said...

I think it sounds great! It made me want to read it! :)

Kimberly said...

Sounds fabulous - definitely got my attention hooked anyway.

A book you might want to track down though is Only You Can Save Mankind, by Terry Pratchett. Not the same concept, but similar, and you might find it a fun read because of that.

Good luck!

Anstice Potts (Tizzy) said...

I don't have much an idea about how to write a good query (I haven't got past the writing stage yet), but I love the premise of your book. It's the kind of thing I'd really like to read! Good luck with it.

mshatch said...

I would lose the first paragraph, not because there's anything wrong with it but because it sounds like the beginning of the story. I'd start with the second paragraph but make these changes (and remember, this is just a suggestion, take what you like and toss the rest):

"When 13 year old Zach Mariott is magically transported into his favorite online computer game, Warlord, he is forced to face his worst enemies: his pudgy body, his bratty sister who accidentally comes along for the ride, and the brutally savage Warlord. Their only way home is to complete the nearly impossible quest of finding the Eye of Tanúb. With the help of new friends they face grotesque monsters, evil bandits and ultimately, the Warlord."

I'd add the stuff about word count and genre, audience in the next paragraph. The only other thing I'd like to see is something about what Zach learns from the experience or how it helps him in real life. other than that, it sounds pretty interesting :)

hope this is helpful and fyi, YALITCHAT has a great query board which also does MG if you're interested. Good luck with your query!

Melissa J. Cunningham said...

Those are great suggestions and I looked up that site you gave. I'll have to look into that! I've never visited before. Thank you!

Debbie McCune *Notebook to Novel* said...

Interesting post! I only ever wrote one query-style email, when I was sending sample chapters to my agent. Looking back at it now it seems awful - really long! The three paragraph rule is probably a good one, if tough. Four max. I personally don't like the extract-style first paragraph. Reads better in the second.


Dominic de Mattos said...

Hi Melissa

This sounds like a fun book - good luck with it :)

I absolutely agree with mshatch. The first paragraph doesn't (for me) sell the story, and if agents are busy (!) they want you to cut to the chase.

If you were to remove the first paragraph, perhaps you could expand the journey that Zach takes. How does he feel about arriving in his favourite game? How do those feelings change? Why should we care? (Yes I know escaping from the game is pretty important, but do the stakes get any higher than that?) What would happen if they didn't make it? Would they be deleted forever? Is dad about to close down the game not knowing they are trapped inside? I don't know what you might have but these sorts of things would add to the tension. I am not getting the feeling of the heart of the book in the query. I am assuming that it does not read like a description of someone playing the game, so what could you put into it that shows me that Zach and his sister turn the 2D game into a 3D experience - 4D if you introduce a deadline!

One other small niggle - 2nd para 1st and 3rd sentences both tell me that Zach is going to face the Warlord - in a game called Warlord, that's not a surprise! I think you have started on a really great truth here - that he might have to face mosters, bandits and the big W, but his real enemies are his body and his sister ... hmmm maybe, but perhaps what you are saying is his enemies are his poor self image, his lack of self belief and his attitude to others - am I right?! Hope these thoughts help


Amber Argyle said...

I hate writing query letters. Hate it hate it hate it.

The Las Vegas Writer said...

Send it over to The Public Query Slushpile at www.openquery.blogspot.com Hundreds of writers will help for free!

Noble M Standing said...

I like the query, although the three times you used warlord really stood out to me. Good luck!

Sari Webb said...

Thanks for the helpful link.

I'd second others here on the first para, and the repetition of the word 'warlord'. I'd also take out the line 'I know of no other book with this same premise'. If you're submitting to an agent who reps your genre they'll know if there's anything else out there like it.

Shirley Wells said...

I agree with others about the first para. Other than that very minor quibble, I think it's great. Good luck with it!

I hate query letters. Oh, and I hate writing a synopsis. I sometimes think I could write another novel in the time it takes to do the synopsis and query letter. :)

kmullican said...

The query process can cause massive amounts of hair loss...from pulling your own hair out!

However, I think every writer should read the blogs of the agents they are trying to solicit. Each agent has likes and dislikes and they don't all agree.

Great post!

Fi said...

Thank you for this highly useful post. I've only recently found you and have chosen you for the 'One Lovely Blog Award' - http://fionajphillips.blogspot.com/2011/02/ive-won-award.html

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Varena T. said...

Hi Melissa! This is the first time I've been free to get to see what you do! Finally. Do you keep the various revisions of your work? I do and encourage my son to do it too. I love to see the evolution of things. I learn a lot from how others arrive where they do. THANX SO MUCH FOR SHARING! I'll respond more later.

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