Mount Mary University in Wisconsin hosted its first Publishing Institute on Saturday. I attended one session “A Simple Guide to a Winning Query,” with some angst. I’ve attended similar sessions in the past. Would this one offer me anything new? Well, as sometimes happens when you revisit a topic you’re familiar with, there were reminders and new angles that proved helpful to me. I hope the same for you. Our presenters were Elizabeth Evans from the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, Inc. and Jess Regel from Foundry Literary & Media. The information that follows comes from my notes – I will do my best to present their information as clearly as they did.
A Simple Guide to a Winning Query
Stick to the basics – give the title, genre and word count. If you are uncertain about your genre, you need to figure it out and work it in. So, in my case, the novel I am shopping is definitely in that nebulous “literary” fiction style, that my book club friends love – character driven. But literary fiction doesn’t work well as a genre to pitch – bookstores and libraries need something more specific. Therefore, I say that my novel will be classified as “historical fiction” – and it will – but in the way that BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin or GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson or SARAH’s KEY by Tatiana de Rosnay are classified as historical fiction – and that clears it up. An agent would understand exactly what I mean – the history in my historical fiction is not another character. It is important, don’t get me wrong, but the characters and relationships are more important. If you are a debut novelist or memoirist, it sounded like the “sweet spot” word count is around 85,000 words – and the range to stay within is 65-110,000 words. You hurt your already not great odds by straying outside of that range.
Other things which might appear in the first paragraph, when they are appropriate: Why are you approaching this agent? How did you find her or him? If you admire one of their authors (only if you really do!), let them know.
One great AVOID THIS TIP: Avoid the Eeyore syndrome — don’t put yourself or your book down. And, yes, to my amazement, people do this in queries.
Places to find agents? Publishersmarketplace.com agentquery.com Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents BUT in all cases: follow the agency’s guidelines EXACTLY. Do NOT rely on the “find the agents” websites or books for the latest information. ALWAYS double-check the agency’s information and follow the latest guidelines posted there.
This is where you will briefly describe your book. Jess Regel encouraged us to remember this is ..”not a synopsis, just a teaser.” And, she recommended using a movie voice when practicing, “In a world where…” Elizabeth Evans said here it can sometimes work to do a book comparison, her example, “It’s THE LOBSTER CHRONICLES meets WILD.” What else belongs in this paragraph? (NOTE: when using titles for comparisons or comps, try to have them be from the last 8-10 years.)
*Introduce the main character(s)
*Give an indication of the key conflict
*Present important themes — how is the book bigger than its plot? Why is it significant? How will it be universally appealing?
This where you toot your own horn, within reason. Lately, working on the anthology, Done Darkness, I’ve seen so many authors go crazy here. No, every degree, job, citation or award you’ve received does NOT belong here. This is not your c.v. or resume. Here are things that could – appropriately – get worked into this paragraph according to Evans and Regel:
*A little about you and your qualifications (Yes, if you have an MFA or MA with a writing emphasis, that would be appropriate. If you’re pitching a medical memoir and you’re a nurse, that would be appropriate. A Vietnam veteran pitching a war novel with a plumbing license? Maybe not necessary.
*What inspired you to undertake this project? You might mention where the germ of the idea first came from — again, only if it’s interesting and fits.
*Recent meaningful writing credits (So, in my case, when I’m pitching a novel or anything else, no one cares or needs to know the magazine articles I did twenty years ago.)
*Your background/platform (note – critical for non-fiction)
Things to know/remember — Don’t make the mistake many writers do of not working on building a social media presence until they are trying to land a book project. As Elizabeth Evans said, “You need to have “arrived” before you get your book.” Both agents emphasized that they google authors they are considering working with.
Hope you find these helpful. More soon from their presentation on Common Query Pitfalls to avoid and Final Query Checks in Writing the Winning Query, Part Two.