Thursday, October 14, 2010

My Query Letter Manifesto, Part 1

How is it possible that I'm coming up on my one year blog-o-versary, and I haven't yet tackled the most obvious topic for any writing blog, the query process? Well, that oversight ends right here, right now, my peeps.

While I do have an agent, I am by no means an expert on querying. Still, I believe I have a thing or two to add on the art of querying and so I've pulled together the sum total of my wisdom for the sake of posterity. Here you have it, "My Query Letter Manifesto." (I'm afraid this turned out to be rather a long post, so I've broken the Manifesto into two parts. I hope you'll come back tomorrow for the conclusion.)

Most of what follows is based on my own experience, but I’ve also relied on the guidance of those knowledgeable, humane agents out there who blog about querying despite what must be their total exhaustion when it comes to this subject matter.

So. Are you ready to go? Got your greasepaint on and your knife between your teeth? Let's now pull the ripcord and descend into that war zone known as Query Hell.  Hooyah!

I begin with this set of assumptions about you and your novel:

1) You have written a manuscript of appropriate length for your genre, neither too short nor too long, and additionally, you know what your genre is. More importantly, you know what the word genre means because you have a robust command of the English language and a tolerable ability to punctuate and follow the rules of accepted grammatical usage.

2) Three or more people not related to you by blood or marriage have read your manuscript and offered constructive feedback to you. Preferably one of these people had a personal animus toward you and enjoyed making you suffer. Perhaps this reader was an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend who you callously dumped years ago. As a result, he/she pointed out every single damn thing that was wrong with your book, and hard as it was to do, you addressed each problem, and the novel is, even you must grudgingly admit, far better for it.

3) You have at least a vague sense of who your readership might be and a fairly comprehensive knowledge of who’s writing what in your chosen genre. Let me be clear that you do NOT need to be plugged into the New York publishing scene, be a regular reader of Publishers Marketplace, or have any other special insider information on what novels will be coming out in the next two years. Also, you have wisely ignored anyone or anything mentioning the word “trend,” but have paid attention to the words “market saturation,” lest your book end up being one extra teaspoon of moisture in the ocean.

Having met these three requirements, you feel you are ready to query.

You are not.

It's OK. No one is ever ready to query. Sometimes you need to query to realize that you are not ready to query. Not to worry. It’s all part of the grand adventure. Now proceed as follows:

Step 1: Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. Just calm down. I cannot emphasize this enough. You are about to send out a query letter. That's all. You are not trying, through your expert use of prose, to win a pardon for a condemned man or outline the means by which to rebuild post-WWII Europe. What I’m saying here is that lives are most definitely NOT at stake, and everything is going to be all right.

Step 2: Put the first draft of your novel aside and commence researching agents. On a personal note, I will tell you that this seemingly harmless initial step was so daunting to me that it caused me instantaneous gastrointestinal distress. That’s right. I was so overwhelmed at the outset of querying that merely pulling up agency websites made me think I’d somehow contracted a mutant virus that produced the worst aspects of apoplexy and giardia. That’s when I had to grip the sides of my desk and revisit Step 1. I forced myself to calm down. Alcohol may have been involved.

Step 2.1: Oh, dear. Already I'm off on a tangent, but this is important. During the course of your research, here’s what’s going to happen. You're going to identify a person you will come to regard as your “dream agent.” Probably because you read his/her blog or follow this person on Twitter and he/she seems nice and friendly and so understanding. Quite likely this person will be Nathan Bransford. You will imagine yourself with Nathan walking on the beach, hand-in-hand, or feeding each other strawberries while listening to Sting’s Fields of Gold. You will doodle “Mrs. Nathan Bransford” over and over in the margins of your notebooks and sigh pleasurably at the idea of taking Nathan home for the holidays to meet your parents, who will love him because, I mean, who wouldn’t? You may become so convinced of your rightness for each other that you prematurely blurt out an extremely inappropriate query at this person.

I’m going to tell you this straight up: Nathan is going to say no to you. Or whoever your “dream agent” is. He or she is going to form-reject you, in fact, and leave you in spluttering disbelief at this rank betrayal. I’m telling you this not to be cruel but to prepare you. It happens to just about everyone.

Step 3: Having gotten over your shock at being rejected by your dream agent, you should begin compiling a list of agents approximately 80-100 names long. You may not ever query this many agents, but having such a long list will encourage you to see just how many fish there are in the literary agent sea. To compile this list, you will need to read blogs and visit websites and read agent interviews. So many blogs, websites, and interviews that your gums will bleed and you will begin muttering in your sleep, “no more than ten pages pasted into the body of your email” or “NO ATTACHMENTS!!!”

Be aware that this research process may take you several hours a day for 6, maybe 8, weeks or more. I know. It seems crazy and you may find yourself thinking that you’re putting more work into this querying thing that you put into writing your novel. Yes. That’s how you know you’re doing it correctly. The fact is, there’s a lot of information out there, and you have no one to blame but yourself if you don’t make the most of it.

Step 4: Simultaneous with your agent research, you are also reading Janet Reid's Query Shark blog and visiting Query Letter Hell over at Absolute Write. You should read dozens upon dozens of query letters and evaluate the responses they receive. Take note of the common errors. Do not make these same errors as you begin to draft your query letter. What is the single worst mistake you can make in your query letter? Grandiosity. Everything else is forgiveable but not this. Clear evidence that you have an out-sized ego will make agents vomit in their mouths a little.

Step 5: Having drafted your query letter, ask for feedback on it, either from fellow writers or at various writers forums. Listen to the input you receive, but know when to tune out the bad advice. Because you will get some bad advice. Also, you will hear from people who say you absolutely must do this and for God's sake NEVER do that. Query letters, some people believe, have a rigid structure not unlike iambic pentameter, and if you make one wrong move with them, some capricious agent who otherwise might have requested your full will reject you because you left out the definite article in the fourth sentence of your second paragraph.

It is true that some agents like for queriers to launch immediately into the meat of the pitch. I myself could never do this. I always began with a one sentence summary of my book’s stats: “I’m seeking representation for my YA SF novel, Title, and word count.” Some people advise against this because they believe it allows an agent to decide in a matter of seconds if he/she wants to be bothered with your paranormal urban memoir at 90K words. They tell you that you should be -- perhaps not purposefully vague -- but tantalizing in your lack of information so you'll pique the agent's interest. This way he'll ask for a partial or full just to get a better feel for your project. OK, I suppose there's some truth to this, but here’s my feeling: you’re never going to “trick” an agent into liking your book so why not just get the basic information out there first. If it’s not their thing, so be it.

Also? Those agents who have outlandishly complicated or snotty requirements for what they want in a query letter? Don’t query them. Begin to understand, even at this very early stage in your publishing career, that you have the power to say, "No, thanks.You’re not my cup of tea." There are too many really great, passionate literary agents out there. Don’t bother with the trolls.

And further on the subject of bad advice: this will not be the last time you will need to trust your gut over advice from purported experts. Your gut and you – you should be tight at this point. You and your gut should be finishing each other’s sentences by now and maybe even wearing those little heart-shaped necklaces where you’ve got one half and your gut has the other. Your gut will be the only thing that will tell you, “hey, you know, I think this agent's got a point” or “Nah, that’s a bunch of bunk. Don’t listen to that.” Your gut is your wing man. Buy it a drink and tell it how pretty it is. Often.

Step 6: Having compiled your list of reputable agents who you are absolutely sure represent the kind of novel you wish to pitch to them, divide your list of agents into groupings of 10-12 agents. Decide which will be in your first wave of queries. Do NOT put all your “favorite” agents in the first wave you send out. If this is your first time ever sending out a query letter, assume that you might need to re-jigger your query or, if you get a request for pages, the manuscript itself. Thus, by not shooting your wad of favs in your first wave of queries, you will still have some in reserve when you go out with your next round, now using your new and improved query and first chapter.

Also, do feel empowered to interpret an agent’s submission guidelines as broadly as possible. By this I mean, unless they specifically state, “I do not handle X (sci-fi, fantasy, memoir, etc),” assume that when they say YA or commercial fiction or what have you that they mean, yeah, you and your stuff. Send it on. Most importantly, get over your fear of “offending” or "bothering" agents with your unwanted query. They are perfectly capable of saying no. They do it all the time. Heck, I half suspect my middle child will someday become a literary agent. As soon as she learned to speak she said “No! Don’t like it!” to pretty much everything.

Step 7: Having ascertained the correct email addresses for the agents you're about to query and having double-checked that you’ve spelled the agents’ names correctly, boldly hit that SEND button. If you’ve got one, feel free to fire your semi-automatic rifle into the air like an Iraqi militia chief. Then pat yourself on the back. You've now gotten farther in your quest for publication than 95 percent of everyone out there who wants to be a published author. No matter the outcome, courage is what makes you awesome.

Refer back to Step 1 as events warrant.
To be continued tomorrow….