DAY 30 OF “31 DAYS OF NANOWRIMO PREP” IS HERE YOU GUYS!!! Can you believe that we’ve actually made it this far? I mean, tomorrow is the last day. That’s so freaking crazy. If you haven’t been following along with this amazingly awesome series, what have you been doing with your life? It’s okay, though. There’s still time to repay your debts and catch up by reading the rest of the posts in this series here or by watching the corresponding YouTube videos here! Do it while you still can, because come November 1st you won’t have time to do anything but write! Because that’s totally how that works!
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into the nitty gritty of today’s topic, which is querying a literary agent. I’m honestly not sure if there’s anything more nerve-wracking in the writing process than querying an agent. I mean, you’re basically trying to sell this book you’ve put your blood, sweat, and tears into to an agent with only a query letter, the first 10-30 pages of your manuscript, and a prayer. Now, I’m not trying to spook you by saying this. I’m just saying, I understand how scary it is. I only did it once and I was panicking the whole time I was waiting for a response (the response was a rejection, in case you were curious). You know what’ll make the experience a little less scary, though? Going into it with as much knowledge about what to expect as possible. Which is why I’m here today!
So let’s start with the basics, as usual. What does it mean to query an agent? To query an agent means to contact them by way of a query letter in order to convince them to represent your novel. A query letter is a one-page (no more) letter that pitches both you and your novel to the agent. Although an agent may also ask for a synopsis and/or the first 10-30 pages of your manuscript, the query letter is the most important element of the querying process. It’s basically like the first page of your novel. It has to catch and hold the agent’s attention so that they decide to at least give your novel a chance by reading the attached pages of your manuscript. And, if you’re lucky, they’ll be interested and ask you to send them your full manuscript.
Since the query letter is the most important part of querying an agent, it only makes sense to go over how to write one, right? Lucky for you, I’ve come up with a query letter template, developed after a year of reading article after article on the internet about how to write a query letter. Keep in mind that this template can be altered to fit the individual needs of your project.
Step One: Start by personalizing the letter to the agent you’re querying.
This means, at the very least, addressing the letter to the agent you’re querying. No “Dear Agent”s here. If you’re looking to stand out from the crowd, however, you should also try to mention something in the first few lines of the letter that implies you’ve done your research and know what they’re looking to represent. So you could say something like, “On your wishlist you stated that you were looking for a New Adult zombie contemporary novel, and at that moment I knew my novel was right for you!” Just show them that you’re not sending this same exact query letter out to every single agent you could find with a Google search.
Step Two: Dive right into a short summary.
This is like a version of the back cover copy, but you don’t have to be as vague about the things that happen in the novel. In fact, if there’s anything you think would really catch an agent’s attention, even if it gives away a plot twist, I recommend adding it to the summary. An agent isn’t a reader, after all. They need to know what makes your novel unique and what specific things they’ll be able to market to publishers in order to sell your book. You still need to try to catch the agent’s attention with this, though, so make sure you’re selling the plot, not just stating it. Agents especially love it when you write a query letter in your own voice. The last thing they want to do is read an essay about why they should represent your novel.
Step Three: Tell the agent the title of your novel, the word count of your manuscript, and compare your novel to similar titles.
The purpose of comparing your novel to others is to prove that there’s an audience out there that’ll be interested in reading your book. Don’t just compare your novel to big names like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, though. This can come across as narcissistic, like you think you’ve written the next Harry Potter (and while you may have done just that, they don’t want you to think you’ve done just that… I know, but just trust me on this one). Also, they like to know you’re well read in the genre you’re writing, not just the kind of person who only reads what’s super popular. So if you really think that Harry Potter is the closest comparison to your novel, then make sure to pair it with something a little more obscure (but not so obscure that the agent won’t know what you’re talking about). Just make sure you don’t spend too much time on this bit, because you don’t want to bore the agent by telling them about every little thing your book has in common with another one. Keep it simple, stating things like “Fans of Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle series will love the quirky characters, action-packed climaxes, and magical elements rooted in real-life lore that The Caspian Chronicles possesses.” And yes, that is from the query letter I sent to that one agent.
This is also where you can tell the agent if your book is the first in a series. However, make sure you note that it’s the first book in an “intended” series, meaning that your book could be a stand-alone if the rest of the series didn’t get picked up by a publisher. Otherwise, an agent probably won’t be interested in representing you, since publishers only buy books one at a time, not by the series. This way, they don’t loose out on an excessive amount of money if the first book doesn’t sell very well.
Step Four: Introduce yourself.
Talk about your qualifications, such as your education, any awards that you’ve won, and any previously published works. For example, mine would go something like, “I am currently a student at [college], where I will be graduating in the spring of 2018 with my BA in Fiction Writing.” I haven’t won any awards for my writing and I haven’t previously published anything, so I would simply refrain from mentioning those things. If none of these topics apply to you, you can feel free to skip this step altogether. It’s better to omit the fact that you have no previous experience than to make a big deal out of it.
Step Five: Close out the letter.
The best way to word the closing, I’ve found, is like so: “The first ten pages of my manuscript are included in the body of this email, per your submission guidelines. Thank you very much for your time and consideration.” If the agent also asked for a summary, mention that in the closing as well (“The first ten pages of my manuscript and a one-page summary are included…”). Also, make sure you end the letter with your name and contact information, so that they have different ways to get a hold of you if they want to represent your novel.
Read the agency’s submission guidelines closely and make sure you follow them, or else your query will be completely ignored. This includes where to send your query, what to title the email, how many pages of your manuscript they want you to include, any specifications about what to mention in your query letter, if they do or don’t want you to include a summary, if you should or shouldn’t send a follow-up email after a certain amount of time, etc. Do not assume that all agencies have the same submission guidelines. Most differ from each other in subtle ways, and they’ll know if you’re sending out the same query to multiple agencies (which they don’t tend to like).
Like I mentioned before, querying agents is nerve-wracking. It can take up to six months for them to reply to you, if they do at all. Some agencies have a “No reply means you’ve been rejected” policy, where they don’t even bother letting you know that they don’t want to represent you. This can be frustrating, because it can leave you wondering if they even received your email in the first place. In fact, the one and only time I queried an agent, my email ended up in her spam folder. Luckily, she had told me that if I hadn’t heard back from her within two weeks that I should follow up to make sure she’d received it, but with some agencies that isn’t an option. In that case, you’ll unfortunately have to just move on to the next agency.
And that’s all she wrote! Tomorrow, for Day 31, we’ll be closing out the month by talking about how you can win NaNoWriMo this year, so make sure you tune in for our very last video in this series!