I sometimes get the impression that beginning writers think of agents and editors the same way I used to imagine the SAT folk, as twisted little goblins giggling in glee at the thought of tripping us up on our answers. I can promise that agents and editors are not huddled up waiting to pounce in the first mistake you make in your submissions. In fact, what keeps us reading submissions is the hope that we have every single time we dive in that we’ll find our next bestselling or award-winning author among the offerings. We read hoping to love.
That said, I’m sure you’ve heard time and time again about how many submissions publishing professionals receive. (Since we’re nearing the season, let me ask—do you remember the ending of The Miracle on 24th Street where the postal workers bring in all the mail from the dead letter office addressed to Santa? Well, it’s like that.) So, it can be difficult to stand out in the right way. You want to make sure that what we notice is your work and not your typos or that you’ve misaddressed your query to one of our competitors. You work months and months, maybe even years, on your manuscript, you don’t want to get overlooked because you were so impatient to rush it out the door that you spent too little time on your query.
Here are some general “rules” for querying that will hopefully help your submission rise to the top. (Remembering that we’re not gremlins but simply very busy people.)
#1) Do your research. Here are some great places to go when compiling a list of appropriate agents to query:
The Association of Authors’ Representatives – Not all good agents are members and not all member agents will be right for you, but representatives who belong to AAR must subscribe to a canon of ethics (viewable here) and can be censured if they’re found in violation of the canon.
SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) Author Beware site — This site lists known publishing scams as well as what to watch out for to avoid those as yet unidentified.
Preditors and Editors — lists agents (alphabetically by first name) and gives you a bit of information, like whether they’re known to have made legitimate sales. Preditors & Editors has pages here for publishers, contests, conventions and various other things as well.
If you’re a member of a writers organization like SFWA, MWA (Mystery Writers of America), HWA (Horror Writers of America) or RWA (Romance Writers of America), chances are they have a list of publishers and agents they’ve vetted within their fields. You might also look in the acknowledgements of authors to whom you would compare yourself.
#2) Continue your research by checking out the publisher or agency’s submission guidelines. Some are very specific about what they want or how they want material submitted. They may also have specific times of the year when they’re open or closed to submissions. This information will very likely be on their websites.
#3) While you’re doing all of this research, hone your submission material. Your query letter should be one page, just like any cover letter, and about four paragraphs long:
Opening: For example, I’ve written an epic fantasy novel of approximately 100,000 words entitled XXX.
Summary of the work: Think back cover copy. This would be a teaser that hits the high points of the plot and the main characters. Remember that this should intrigue us, so you don’t want to boil it down to the point that it sounds generic. Let us know how it’s original—not by telling us that its original, but by bringing those unique elements to the fore.
Bio: Tell us a bit about yourself. Do you have previous publications and/or award nominations? Did you major in or work in a field relevant to your work in any way? If not, is there something intriguing in your background that might pique our interest?
Close: I look forward to hearing from you. Many thanks in advance for your time. (Or something to this effect.)
Note: If you’ve enjoyed the work of any of their authors or benefitted from any interviews or articles they’ve done, you might want to mention this as well—not because they’ll be swayed by flattery, but because they’ll know you’ve really done your research. If you’ve met an agent or editor and he or she has invited you to submit, this is definitely something you’d want to mention right up front. Also in that case, you’d write “Requested Material” on the envelope if it’s a hardcopy submission or in the subject line if it’s e-mail.
#4) Once you’ve got your query letter written, have someone else read it. Accept criticism with an open mind. Revise, polish and proof.
#5) Rule #4 applies for your synopsis as well. It’s very difficult to boil your story down into a synopsis. You might include too much information or not enough. You’re definitely going to want another set of eyes on it. Lather, rinse and repeat…er, I mean, revise, polish and proof. (This should become a mantra.)
#6) Remember those guidelines? Stick to them. Don’t decide that you’re special and they don’t apply to you. Really. I mean it.
#7) Persevere. Don’t give up, don’t get discouraged and don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Get this submission out, then get your mind off it by starting work on something else. It’s a rare author who sells right out of the gate. If an agent or editor says that they’d be interested to see the next thing you write, make sure that’s an option. Learn from the personal rejections you receive; it’s meaningful when we make time to offer them.
#8) Have a support group. A good writers group or critique partner is priceless. They’ll not only help you hone your work, they’ll commiserate with you in tough times and cheer you in victory. Writing is so solitary that you can easily lose perspective. It’s good to have others around you as both touchstones and sounding-boards.
#9) Enjoy the journey.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.