I was fortunate enough to talk recently with “Query Queen” Wendy Burt-Thomas, who authored the new book, The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters. To learn more about Wendy or her three books, visit
www.GuideToQueryLetters.com. Below you will find some helpful Q&A with Wendy about sending queries to agents.
GLA: Regarding queries to agents, when reviewing queries that worked and queries that didn’t, what recurring aspects were you coming across in good queries and what recurring aspects were you coming across in bad queries?
WBT: First, a disclosure: I wrote all the bad queries in the book myself because I didn’t have the heart to rip apart real writers. With that said, I can tell you that they were all based on the concepts I’ve seen in bad query letters over my years as an editor and author consultant.
The recurring aspects in the bad queries are often the following:
1. Sending queries for novels that aren’t finished
2. Telling (“I’m a great writer! This is a great book!”) instead showing (letting your writing speak for itself)
3. Mentioning that everyone who has read it (especially your mother) loves it
4. Talking about money, movie deals or TV shows based on your manuscript
5. Comparing yourself to Stephen King, Nora Roberts, etc.
6. Pitching a general query with no hook (“I’d like to send you my romance novel.”)
7. Sending a sci-fi manuscript to an agent that represents romance (i.e., choosing the wrong agent for your genre)
8. Not mentioning why you choose that agent/agency
9. Not offering to take the next step (“I’d be happy to send you the complete manuscript…”)
10. Including too much irrelevant information (“It took me four years to write this book.”)
As one might guess, the best queries were the ones that did the opposite of anything listed above. But to be more specific, many of the recurring aspects of the good queries included:
1. An appropriate word count for the completed novel.
2. A request for representation.
3. A request to send the appropriate materials as per the agency’s guidelines (proposal, first 30 pages or completed manuscript)
4. A referral, mention of previous books the author represented, or some acknowledgement that you chose the agent on purpose
5. An interesting, well-written hook to draw the agent’s interest
6. A “teaser” that left the agent wanted to know how the book ends (“What will happen when her husband learns his baby is part alien?”)
7. An interesting title
8. Published pieces and/or relevant experience (“I lived with the Amish for a year to make sure the book was accurate.”)
9. A good platform (blog, Web site, media contacts, e-newsletter subscribers, etc.)
10. For nonfiction especially, a clear understanding of your book’s purpose, niche and market. (You can save the details for your proposal, but the query should help the agent see where the book is going and who it’s for.
GLA: What do you think is the most common reason that good writers don’t get published?
WBT: Poor marketing skills. I see so many writers that are either too afraid, too uniformed, or frankly, too lazy, to market their work. They think their job is done when the write “the end” but writing is only half of the process. I’ve always told people who took my class that there are tons of great writers in the world who will never get published. I’d rather be a good writer who eats lobster than a great writer who eats hot dogs. I make a living as a writer because I spend as much time marketing as I do writing.
GLA: What are some of the biggest misconceptions that writers have about getting a book deal?
WBT: That they’ll be rich overnight, that they don’t need to promote their book once it’s published, that publishing houses will send them on world book tours, that people will recognize them at the airport. Still, you can make great money as an author if you’re prepared to put in the effort. If it wasn’t possible, there wouldn’t be so many full-time writers.
GLA: What must-read books do you recommend to new writers?
WBT: Christina Katz (author of Writer Mama) has a new book out called Get Known Before the Book Deal – which is fabulous. Also, Stephen King’s On Writing and David Morrell’s Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing. Anything by Anne Lamott or my Dad, Steve Burt.
Want more on this topic?
- Footnotes: 6 articles on building a platform.
- Buy Christina Katz’s book on platform, Get Known Before the Book Deal.
- Platform and the debut of your book.
- Confused about formatting? Check out Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript.
- Read about What Agents Hate: Chapter 1 Pet Peeves.
- Want the most complete database of agents and what genres they’re looking for? Buy the 2011 Guide to Literary Agents today!