Every writer knows a strong query letter is essential to getting published. Below are quotes from four authors who found publication through an initial blind query, with pointers on how they did it and what they recommend.
1. Offer Benefits To The Agent Or Editor
Mark Lee, active playwright and author of The Lost Tribe (Picador, USA), waited three months after finishing his manuscript to try to publish it. "I think writers should put as much effort into their query letter and their contacts as they do preparing the manuscript itself," says Lee, who sent his query letter to fourteen agents. Within his succinct letter, Lee wanted the agent to get three impressions: this writer is not going to waste my time; this writer can make me money; this writer will be a joy to work with. And it worked.
2. Keep Your Audience In Mind
Donna Woolfolk Cross, author of Pope Joan (Ballantine Books) was certain she wanted Jean V. Naggar to represent her first novel, so she worked hard to make her query stand out to Ms. Naggar. "I knew who some of her other authors were," Cross says. "So I knew she handled my kind of writing, these books did well, and these were authors I liked. I knew what appealed to her, and I kept that in the front of my mind. I also knew she ran a well-regarded, mid-size literary agency. That was enough for me." So Cross went for it and captured her audience (Naggar) by being direct, emphasizing her research (Pope Joan relies heavily on historical fact), and then highlighting some of the more exciting events of the plot.
3. Find Every Angle To Sell Yourself
Knowing what to say in a query is one thing but making it concise is another. "I think it’s really important to work [the writing] to the bone, to really condense it to the essence," says Glenn Kleier, who secured representation for his first book, The Last Day (Warner Vision). Kleier’s professional side urged him to look at query writing more from a marketing than a literary perspective. "I had to step into [the agent’s] shoes and give her what I thought was important to her," Kleier says. So, he emphasized in his query that the book was both marketable and timely. He was able to support his stance because he referred to current events relevant to his manuscript, a number of which happened to pop up in the media at the right time (e.g., an Adweek article on the millennium appeared the week before he sent the query). Such events were incorporated into the letter and gave the query direction.
4. Don’t Select Just Any Agent Or Editor
Faye McDonald Smith (Flight Of The Blackbird, Warner Books) advises authors looking for agents to do some research. Find out if the agent’s clients are happy with the way they are being represented. Next, ask what kind of background the agent has. "I think authors may get excited when any agent expresses interest," Smith says. "But you have to check out that agent, and not just sign up with anybody simply because they identify themselves as an agent. That person may not be working for your best interests and may not be the right person for you. I think it is a matter of trying to have a good connection with the agent, of sensing the agent’s enthusiasm, and not just settling for any agent who responds to you."
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