Friday, January 6, 2012

Focus Friday: 5 Steps to a Killer Query

Unlike many of you, submitting work (unsolicited) is relatively new to me.  I've spent the last few years mostly reading, writing and revising, and taking on freelance / work-for-hire assignments.  But now with an arsenal of great, polished manuscripts, I step into the brave new world of queries and slush:

2012 is the Year of the Submission for me.

Yes, I made my own badge.

That said, I started the year on a great note: I wrote a smashing cover letter / agent query.  I'm not just saying so myself - I had another published writer let me know it was "on the money" and one even say "I'm going to have you write mine for me."

Anyway, I was poised to send it, only to re-review the agent's submission policies and discover (drum roll, please)


After several "doinks" on the head, I realized that my letter-writing exercise was not in vain. I've got a smashing query letter that describes one of my best manuscripts, showcases my impressive credentials, and is laced with personality and style.  Though the opening was very personalized (this was an agent I've met), parts of the rest I can, and will, use again.

So, I thought I'd share with you 5 things that render a query letter "killer." Hopefully, you'll find a nugget of advice that helps you in your own query writing.

1) Make sure the agent/editor/publisher wants a query letter in the first place. 

If they do, read what they want in it (and what they don't).  Do everything exactly as they ask.  I've actually bid on freelance jobs where the client said "In your cover letter, type the word CHILDREN at the bottom...just to make sure you actually read all of the assignment requirements."  And I've landed jobs where they told me half of the other editors who bid didn't follow directions and weren't even considered.  So read everything they write.  And read it again - submission guidelines change often!  You'd hate to write a smashing cover letter and then never be able to send it. :)

2) Choose your absolute best/favorite/most polished manuscript, not just the one you presume is the "right fit" for editors or agents you "think" you know.

Now by this I don't mean sending a children's agent your saucy romance novel is OK.

To clarify, perusing their published titles and choosing something with similar elements isn't a bad approach, but if you've picked which manuscript to send mostly based on what you "perceive" they "might like" based on some five-page website or a twitter post about ice cream - you're dumb like me.  Let me explain.

A few weeks back, I sent a good-but-not-my-absolute-favorite manuscript to an agent (my first agent query ever).  When it came back a rejection, I "doinked" myself (again).  Why didn't I just send the manuscript I love the most? That I know is the best? I ASSUMED they'd like a whimsical and quirky one better than an emotional one with a deep story - based on other titles they'd sold and their 3-sentence bio on the website.  Stupid.

You know what came back in the rejection letter? "It didn't have enough of a storyline to keep us glued to the page."  I knew I should have sent the other one.

And I'm extremely lucky they threw me a bone - by some stroke of extreme fortune the rejection also invited me to send more work (in fact "we'd be happy to see more of your work").  And that brings me to my next query tip.

3) Don't query unless you've got more work to show - and mention in your cover letter that you do.

Especially if you're querying an agent, there's a significant chance that they're going to ask to see "something else."  I'm quite new to submitting unsolicited work, and this has happened THREE TIMES already to me.

These frequent requests are probably because the last line of my cover letter is usually an indicaton that I've got more manuscripts ready if requested (and I DO).  Can you imagine how good it feels to get a request for more work and actually have plenty of things ready and polished to send off?

Don't set yourself up for failure like a woman I met last year who lost her chance with a big publisher because she had nothing else (good) to send when it was requested.  Write first, revise first, query last.  And let them know you did it in that order!

4) Yes, do your homework.  No, don't be boring.

Be professional, yes.  Be polite, yes.  Brief, yes.  But show some personality and make each letter personal to the recipient.

I can't imagine what it's like to have to sift through 6,000 queries a year like some agents.  And I've done a lot of research reading query letters that landed contracts (like this one and this one).  In every instance, the writer showed STYLE and personality.  But cut yourself off when you get a little Urkel-esque or risk straddling the line between touting your book/self and coming off as a complete narcissist.

Every good query letter I've ever read also mentions other titles - not in the way that says "My book is the next Harry Potter" but in a way that demonstrates how your character or plot overlap in some areas and showing you're well read in the genre you're submitting and that you understand what the publisher publishes.  You can't do this if you don't read.  So read.  Do your homework first.  Then have fun!

5) Don't go it alone.

Never let your eyes be the only ones to see a query letter before you hit the send button or seal the envelope.  Let a critique buddy take a peek.  If you don't have a critique group, join one (Critique Cafe or join your local SCBWI to get hooked up with other writers or a mentor).  Or ask your local librarian to proof it.  Or hire a freelancer like me if you have to.  Better yet, do all of the above.

The "no" response is pretty permanent these days.  Don't be that guy on Millionaire who flunks out without even using his lifelines.  Phone a friend.  Please.

Read more tips for writing a killer query letter online at:

Margot Finke's Guide to Query Letters for Children's Books

Query Shark


Kelly Hashway said...

Good luck querying, Miranda.

Ruth Schiffmann said...

Best of luck as you embark on The Year of the Submission!

Anonymous said...

Good luck on your year of submissions! Congratulations on you query letters too. Great badge.

Julie Hedlund said...

EXCELLENT advice! This is the year of the submission for me too! :-)

Claudine Gueh said...

Thanks for the advice on querying! I always find this very challenging. Have a great Year of the Submission. :)

Miranda Paul said...

Thank you all! If things continue on the up as they have, 2012 is looking good. I'm most grateful to myself for having the patience to write, write, write and revise, revise, revise before going through this query and submission stuff. I've got an arsenal that's impressive now!

Good luck to all of you as well - it seems like many of us are in the same boat...or slush...this year!

Unknown said...

Great tips. I hope to be living in queryland at the end of the year, so I'm sure this will be something I revisit then.

Good luck with those submissions!

Allyn Stotz said...

Goodluck to you, Miranda! You gave some great advice. I love your badge so stop "doinking" yourself on the head so much! LOL

Anne E. Johnson said...

Isn't it maddening that every agent, every magazine, every book publisher has its own quirky, detailed rules for submission. It can feel so confusing (and such a waste of time) trying to comply with each individual set of instructions.

Sounds like you're getting it all figured out, though. Best of luck to you!

Susanna Leonard Hill said...

Great querying advice! Good luck! I finally had a minute to go through your blog and wow have you published a lot! Can you tell me about iStory? It looks neat!

Katy Manck, MLS said...

While I'm nowhere near ready to venture into queryland at present, your advice and counsel will certainly help folks who are submitting.

Best of luck in 2012! (found you through MotherReader & Lee Wind's Comment Challenge)

**Katy Manck
Recommending YA books beyond the bestsellers at
Follow me on Twitter @BooksYALove

Miranda Paul said...

Ellen, good luck in advance!

Allyn, thanks - drinking stopped!

Anne - yes, it is sort of confusing, but I'm sorting through!

Susanna - I could prob. Use some advice from you! And iStorybooks is a digital app that releases PBs for kids. Just got a new contract to write more for 2012! Yay!

Katy- welcome! And that reminds me to get commenting today!

Melissa said...

Fantastic tips, thank you. All the best on your year of submissions :)

Magdalena Ball said...

Great tips, Miranda. I particularly like the one about not querying until you've got more to show. Good luck with it and thanks for sharing your insights.

Anonymous said...

Great advice. I'm terrified of query letters. Good luck Miranda. By the way, I'd very much like to connect with you on LinkedIn, but it won't let me unless I say I know you. I don't want to connect with someone based on a lie. I'm a student of Nancy Sweetlands through the Institute of Children's Literature. (

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