It’s a brand new year, aspiring authors! Perhaps 2017 will be the year you land an agent or a book deal, or both. Now that the holiday doldrums are over, the querying trenches await. Full of hope, and filled with more than a little anxiety, we polish up our query letters and make sure our manuscript is revised, edited, and ready to go out into the treacherous waters of an agent’s query inbox, which bears the unfortunate appellation of slush pile.
To help start off the new year with some useful information direct from the source, I asked literary interns Lindsay Warren and Tia Mele of Talcott Notch Literary Services to provide the QT blog readers with some insight into how queries are evaluated, and to answer some questions I think all querying authors have asked themselves at one time or another.
QUESTION 1. Conventional wisdom is that "The hook, the book and the cook" is the best, tried and true, template for a query letter. Do you agree or disagree and why?
(For those unfamiliar with the phrase, it basically refers to a query format where you “hook” the agent or editor’s interest with an enticing line or two, then describe the book’s main character and conflict (i.e., the stakes) and then wrap up with your author bio, in a brisk, professional, cover letter)
Lindsay: “As an overall format for what goes where, this is a good starting point. I definitely agree with the book and cook as significant portions, but I'm not personally in need of a hook (by which I mean a pithy one-liner about what's going to happen in the story). If you look at jacket flap copy as an example, a well-done hook can be great, but I like to focus on the paragraphs delving into the characters, their inciting incident and stakes, and how tension is going to build throughout the story. Hooks can be great bonus points, but not every book is going to translate easily into one.”
Tia: “I think this is the perfect template for authors to follow when writing their queries! The book and the cook are the most important - tell me what your book is about and who the author is. As for the hook, if you can write a good one that makes sense, then definitely include it. But if a hook is something you struggle with, leave it out. Let your book description speak for itself! Following this hook, book, cook template also helps weed out the extra information authors sometimes include with their queries. More on that in question two!”
QUESTION 2. What are the most common mistakes people make in their queries an opening pages?
Lindsay: “For queries, there are a lot of basics that authors miss (addressing the query to a specific agent, including genre and word count, including sample pages when the agency website requests them). Unless an agency specifies otherwise, I highly recommend pasting pages into the body of the query e-mail--many of us aren't fans of unsolicited attachments.
As far as content rather than formatting, it's really important to keep the query focused on the most important and/or unique aspects of the story. Who is the main character (or who are the main characters)? What makes this person a unique-enough protagonist? What obstacles are they going to face and what tools do they have to try to push through? A large part of the trick is finding ways to show the agent these things rather than spell them out. One thing that can happen is that the querying author never quite gets to the "point" of the story: sometimes they focus on describing things about the story world that aren't needed, or just offering too many details in general, or they editorialize and/or include reader or editor feedback on their work, or they put more words into the "cook" portion than the "book."
In short, the query should be a miniature story that's coherent in its own right. An author is never going to hit all the nuances of what makes their book great, but it's good to point to what an agent would find should they request more.”
Tia: “The biggest mistake I find in queries is either giving too much or not enough information. I want to have a relatively good idea of what the book is about after I have read the query. But I don't really need to know that the author's great uncle's cat has the same name as the main character. Relevant information is important - what is this book about? But authors can get a little carried away with their queries and add in a ton of extra information, drop names that have no meaning, or try to flatter the agent with "personal" references, and that's not necessary. Make us want to read your book because of your book, not because you know people and you copied and pasted a couple of sentences from the agent's bio!
For opening pages, typos and grammatical errors are deal breakers! It's hard to catch every little thing, but it's important that authors read and reread to make sure there are no blatant mistakes. The first thing that catches my eye when I'm reading first pages is a typo or a word used incorrectly or in the wrong form and I have trouble continuing after that point!
Also watch out for pacing. If ten pages in the main character is still sipping her coffee and petting her cat Whiskers, I'm going to be bored and I probably won't request any additional pages. If in the first ten pages, the main character has already been in twelve fights, lost an arm, and rescued Whiskers from a tree, I probably won't want any more pages either. Too much too quickly is as much of a turn off as not enough going on. There has to be a balance and that balance is what makes me want to continue reading to find out what comes next!”
QUESTION 3. What makes the difference between a request for additional pages and a pass?
Lindsay: “Sample-page wise, there are a ton of things to consider, mostly revolving around the choices an author has made, and some things depend on the genre. Does the story open with an actual scene, as opposed to description or internal monologue that doesn't advance the plot? Is the setting reasonable for what the query says the story is going to do? Are the characters believable? Is the dialogue authentic? Is there intrigue or tension that makes me want to keep reading? Is the writing good? Good writing can definitely be subjective, but I'm always looking for a clear voice that offers the right amount of details and balance between internal and external considerations.
All of these craft elements go into what I'll call "confident writing." The author needs to convince me they know who their characters are and what their story is, both on the page and in the things that happen "behind the scenes" of the words--in all the little character interactions and meaningful pauses, etc. Publishing people can help an author make their story even better, but they can't tell an author what the story *is*. Show you know what's happening in what you write (or don't write), and the hope is that the people who are meant to be your readers will pick up what you're putting down.
Aside from the very long craft answer above, the short version would be curiosity to follow the characters and see how their plot unfolds, as well as trust in the author to pull it off. Have I seen enough promise in the first pages to make me excited for 100-400 more?”
Tia: “A good, strong voice and a well written story will get an immediate request from me. Passes can be because of the reasons I included for question two, or if the writing just isn't up to par. For example, if there is more "telling than showing" in the opening pages or the beginning is just an info-dump that doesn't move the plot forward, I will probably pass.
The plot outlined in the query is a big determinant as well. If the plot seems interesting and I want to read more after the first ten pages, I'll request more. If the plot does not seem interesting or I worry about the execution, then I will usually pass.”
Okay kids, next month there will be more questions, including the one we’ve all asked ourselves: “Hey, does the agent even see my query?”