Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Query letter tips redux

After wading through hundreds of query letters/submissions/cover letters (and that's just in the past few weeks) I have realised that my attempts at providing helpful hints to writers have either:

(a) been ignored
(b) not been read at all
(c) been misinterpreted as suggestions only, when in fact they are dicta.

So, writers, I'm trying again, to save myself and agents everywhere from the task of having to penetrate several paragraphs of a letter that don't, unfortunately, tell us much about the manuscript it's attached to nor give us reasons why we should read it. And we want to want to read it - we really do. We are reading submissions because we are trying to find  great writers and great stories. We just find that when you send us unclear letters, we are more likely to reject you than request your full manuscript, simply because we're seeing hundreds - thousands - of these letters each year and it all gets a bit overwhelming. Make it easy for us. Make it easy on yourself, because the process of writing the letter should also help you work out if you can describe your story clearly - and if you can't, that tells you something about the story.

Your query/cover letter should clearly state, in the opening paragraph, without too much ancillary text:

1. The title of your work.
2. The genre - or, if you can't define the genre, just say that, but then clearly describe the storyline so that the agent or publisher can attempt to guess a genre.
3. The word count.
4. Ideally, the reasons why an agent or publisher would want to read it - but we don't expect you to have a 'perfect pitch', we just expect you to be able to state clearly what's good/different/appealing about your manuscript, and to do it in under 1000 words.

In the following paragraphs, give a short description of the story - not the whole synopsis - and provide any other information that is relevant (e.g. if you are a journalist writing about a subject you've covered for years; if you have had short stories published; if you're a member of a writers' centre or association).

Your query/cover letter should not state, especially in the first paragraph:

i) That being a published author is your dream - this is assumed.
ii) That it's taken you X number of years to write this manuscript and you hope it's ready now. The amount of years it takes to write is not a badge of honour, it's just a fact.
iii) What you think having an agent will do for you and how it fits into your dream of winning an Oscar and the Booker Prize (you'd be surprised how often there are variations on this theme).
iv) That you are the world's greatest undiscovered/unpublished writer and I'll be sorry if I don't take you on (this one also turns up a surprising number of times).

If you are still in doubt about your letter, try this helpful game.


Cass said...

I was a bit nervous when I saw this because you may have rejected my MS recently (the Australian agent list really isn't that long so if you take YA, you probably have)! But I'm glad I didn't at least make those rookie mistakes.

I'm all about the bright side. ;)

Unknown said...

Duly noted.

*bookmarks page*

Your "little game" also put a lot into perspective... reality bites.



T. Gold said...

A good query letter is directly related to how well an author knows their work. By that I mean that a writer spends sufficient time working on their novel from the inside out, not work from the idea that they can create a masterpiece from a one page plot summary and hope that they can create a novel from this and for the novel to be a best seller. The majority of renowned novelists don't work from a plot summary.

In saying that, there are also agents out there who expect to receive queries that read like movie plot summaries. I think if a writer spends two or three years writing a novel, then an agent surely has the time to read a one page summary and not demand a one paragraph attention grabbing introduction.

Also, the submission process is quite disappointing when writers can see that celebrities, even minor ones, obtain writing deals: My favourite and recent example is one pertaining to a typical Barbie doll like celeb fitness instructor apparently in a deal to write 'ninja' novels, when in reality her martial art expertise has nothing to do with that, but because she has been on television, then that's all that's needed. I understand the marketing dynamics, but it runs contrary to everything that agents tell writers to do.

If I was famous and I sent out a query, it doesn't need to be perfect. Indeed, it can be as shoddy as...but if a writer sends something that is coherent, the fact that they're unknown works against them.

The problem in Australia is that there is not much of a literary market for short stories or novellas. There are no magazines or online publications other than the usual (Meanjin, Southerly) handful that publish work infrequently. The Australian market is a miserable market and relies on overseas best sellers to plump it up. One of my postgrad classmates said as much. They work for a large publisher in an assistant capacity and the recent Nielsen ratings indicated that without sellers like Hunger Games and the like, the market would dwindle because Australian titles sell little - not because they're crap, but because there is little by way of an extended market (magazines: online and print, film, TV, etc).

Sorry Agent, but I'd advise writers to submit their work overseas.