By Louise Ure
Since I became a published writer, there are two questions asked of me more often than any others.
• Readers, friends and family always ask, “Where do you get your ideas?”
• Beginning writers, however, ask, “How did you get an agent?”
In some ways, I think the agent search is more difficult than actually writing the book. Remember, eighty percent of Americans say they’re going to write a book one day. If even ten percent of them finally sit down to try it and only one percent actually finish it, that still means that 300,000 people are trying to get their first book published. And there are lots more who are trying to stay published. That’s an awful lot of people vying for an agent’s attention.
There are other options than going the traditional get-an-agent-get-a-publisher route. Some small publishers do not require an agent. Some writers choose to use a print-on-demand process and self-publish.
I decided to go the traditional route because I wanted to be published, not just in print, and because I wanted the marketing, editorial and distribution arms of a major publisher behind me.
To do that, you need an agent. And to get an agent you need a query letter.
The query letter is a deceptively simple document, and harder to write than you ever expected. There are several variations on specific formatting. Here’s mine.
A query letter should have four parts to it:
• The facts
You should include the title of your work, the genre, the approximate word count and the fact that it is completed. (In mystery fiction the book must be completed before you submit your query, you know that, right?)
This paragraph should also include the reason you’re writing to this particular agent. Did you see a blog post they wrote that intrigued you? Have you read every book by one of their clients and thought the agent might also be interested in a similar tone or theme in your work? Did you meet them at a conference? (I will admit that sometimes it’s hard to come up with a believable reason for selecting each agent. I was once tempted to write, “Your middle initial is C and my middle initial is C!”)
• The hook
The hook is a one-sentence tagline for your book. It’s meant to hook the reader’s (agent’s) interest and keep them reading. It can either go at the beginning of your query letter, or as part of the mini-synopsis.
The hook for The Da Vinci Code might have looked something like this:
“A murder in the silent after-hour halls of the Louvre museum reveals a sinister plot to uncover a secret that has been protected by a clandestine society since the days of Christ.” (From www.agentquery.com)
The hook for my most recent book, The Fault Tree, might be:
“When blind auto mechanic Cadence Moran becomes the only witness to a brutal murder, she sets herself up as the killer’s next target, and she won’t even be able to see the danger approach.”
• The mini-synopsis
This is an entire summary of your book, in no more than two paragraphs — maybe 150 words – told in the most compelling way possible. You need to lay out the story, and introduce the major characters, the situation, the setting and the era, the motives of the characters and what obstacles they face. And you need to do it in a way that reflects your voice and writing style.
“Steve Hartz, a postal worker in Miami, has a peculiar talent. He’s very good at sketching, but he isn’t an artist. In fact, all of the sketches are done in his sleep. More disturbing, all of the sketches are coming true. First, there was the portrait of Maria Seever – two days before he met her. And then, more sinister, came the sketches of the crimes, all two days before they occurred. The places in the sketches are all familiar haunts of his, and Hartz begins to wonder if he’s involved in the crimes somehow. Fearful of turning to the police, Hartz determines to solve the mystery himself – with the help of Maria, the psychic from his first sketch, who knows far more than she’s telling.” (From Writers Digest.)
Easy? No, but possible. Keep rewriting the hook and mini-synopsis. Ask your family and friends to read it. Cut out all the flowery language and get down to the guts of what makes this story special.
• Writer’s bio
If you’ve got writing credentials, this is the place to brag. If you don’t, that’s okay, too.
Keep in mind, this is not a resume. Include only that information that gives the agent a reason to believe that you know what you’re writing about and you’re the only person who could have written this book. If you were in the military and your book is a spy thriller, that’s relevant. If you grew up in Boise and that’s where your book is set, that’s relevant. But if you published two computer-training manuals and this book is a private eye novel, that experience should not be included.
One final example. Here’s the actual query letter I sent out for my first novel. You’ll see that it doesn’t strictly follow all the rules I’ve laid out above, but it worked for me. And yep, that’s how I got an agent.
Dear (Specific Agent Name),
I have completed my first novel, FORCING AMARYLLIS (approximately 80,000 words), and am now seeking a literary agent. Your representation of (Specific Author Name) and (Specific Author Name) who also set their works in the desert Southwest made me think that you might be receptive to my work.
For this story, I’ve chosen to write about the world of trial consultants and jury selection specialists, a group not widely known outside of legal corridors and the O.J. Simpson trial. My research suggests there is no series and no protagonist in current crime fiction that focuses on this area. It is a garden ripe with stories to be told.
In FORCING AMARYLLIS, Calla Gentry is a Trial Consultant in Tucson, Arizona. She has been asked to help defend Raymond Cates against a murder charge, but soon realizes that he could be the man who violently raped her sister, Amaryllis (Amy), seven years ago and left her for dead. Calla reluctantly accepts the help of private investigator Anthony Strike, who is also part of the Cates defense team, to discover the truth about her sister’s attack. Through it all, Calla is torn between professionally executing her job – juror selection, strategy planning, witness preparation, mock trials – for the accused man who has put his faith in her, and a growing awareness that he might be her sister’s attacker and must be stopped. When the legal system fails her, she confronts the real villain and he lashes out against her in a battle that ends in a remote desert canyon in the moonlight.
Like my protagonist, I spent years in advertising, marketing and market research. In my case, my experience covers more than two decades and includes work on three continents. I found it fascinating to translate those same communication and research skills to the courtroom through this story. And while I now live in San Francisco, I am a third generation Tucsonan, and have tried to bring the legends, the mystery and the magic of the desert Southwest I love to life in this work.
FORCING AMARYLLIS is finished and available upon request. I’ve enclosed a synopsis, a sample chapter and a self-addressed stamped envelope, as you suggested on your published contact information. Please let me know if you’d like to see the rest. Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to your reply.
Do’s and Don’ts Checklist:
• Do make your query letter short, professional and businesslike. That means one page or at most one and a half pages with a 12 point font. No typos. No grammatical errors. No colored paper or glitter.
• Do address your letter to a specific agent, not just “Dear Agent”
• Do include all the information on how to reach you, including phone and email
• Do include a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) with all snail mail submissions
• Do write your hook and mini-synopsis in the present tense. It gives it more immediacy.
• Do thank the agent for their time and consideration of your project.
• Don’t sing the praises of your book like a huckster. (“My friends all say it’s hilarious!”)
• Don’t compare it to a famous bestselling novel. Let the agent come to that decision on his own.
• Don’t send anything other than what the agent’s website suggests. If they say “query letter only,” send that. If they say “query letter and first chapter” send that.
• Don’t include any attachments with email submissions. Include the file in the body of the email, but only if the agent’s guidelines tell you to send something more than the query.
In my next blog post (Tuesday, November 25), I’ll cover the other half of the query question: Who do you send it to?
In the meantime, do any of you have any query letter tips or horror stories? Do tell.