One of my favorite sessions at PNWA, conducted by agent Marilyn Allen, was Query Letters: How to Get and Agent to Beg to Read More. Prior to the conference, participants were invited to submit their query letters for Allen’s review, and she promised to discuss them.( I missed the deadline and didn't send mine in.) Like Sands, Allen also breaks queries into three important elements: The Hook, the Book and the Cook.
Hook: The first sentence should answer, “Why should I read this? And why should I read more?
The description of the book should be brief yet compelling yet be no more than two lines. She says to pitch a main theme. And use active verbs. The set up, conflict and resolution. Also use your voice. Allen says she can tell by the letter if a writer has narrative skills.
The cook is also important. Who are you? Why are you qualified to write this book? What do you do for a living (even if it doesn't relate to the book.) she wants to know you are a credible person with a job and not
Marilyn Allen was generous with answering our Q & As, and she outlined the Ten Deadly Sins of Query Letters based on the queries she read from PNWA participants.
1. Weak hook. The first sentence did not want to make her read the entire letter.
2. No comparisons to other books. Agents and editors want to know where bookstores and libraries will place you book, and also see that you read in your genre or category.
3. No platform. If one has a blog, a Facebook fan page. (I asked several agents if they read blogs or look at Facebook links from submissions and they all said if they have an interest in the writer they do. So make sure your web presence is cleaned up. Delete those pictures of yourself throwing up after binge drinking or dancing topless on the bar.)
4. Too many rambling details. I plead guilty to this. I can talk for days, say 300 pages, about my tale. Note to self; work on this.
5. No bio information. Even if it is not apparent to you how your experience coaching little league or driving a cab could open the gates, put something interesting about yourself in your letter.
6. Way too generic. The hook is weak or not memorable.
7. Technical misteakS. (Guilty!!! I am the typo queen. Note self; make sure Elizabeth AND Cindy read your letters before you send them out. )
8. Overselling oneself or the book.
9. Lack of understanding of the business
10. not enough sense of talent in the letter
11. (She added this one on the fly)Trite words. Use active verbs and specific words.
Allen also had some other tips for good queries.
Understand word counts for the genre. YA books are generally shorter than adult books (50-75,000 words), but some writers describe their YA titles as having 180,000 words.
If you have self published, it’s okay to mention it, but only if you have great stats. If you have sold ten copies to your friends and family, leave it out, but if you have sold 10,000 or more, mention it.
Weak titles. (But if you write fiction, don’t get too attached to your titles; chances are the publisher will change it.)
Allen says she also hates what agents call ‘shoe-shopping’, where the writer mentions a list of other books he or she has available for sale. Focus on one at a time.
The letter should be 150-250 words. While most agents now take only e-mail submissions, Allen says the letter should still look like a letter. Often she prints these up to read them (staring at a computer screen all day tires her eyes.). Ironically, in these days of electronic submissions, Allen says sometimes she will read paper submissions faster because she gets about 400 e-mails a day, but very few through snail mail.
The bottom line, make sure your work is worth selling before you put it out there.I liked her a great deal, but unfortunately she does represent YA.
Happy Writing. (and querying.)