'20 Tips on Query Letters,' as Told by Agent Janet Reid

Agent Janet Reid of FinePrint Literary Management gave an intensive workshop on queries at the South Carolina Writers Workshop. Here are 20 tips to writing an effective query, according to the Query Shark herself.
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contributor Ricki Schultz.


Agent Janet Reid of New Leaf Literary (formerly of FinePrint Literary Management) gave an intensive workshop on queries at the South Carolina Writers Workshop. Here are 20 tips to writing an effective query, according to the Query Shark herself.

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FOR STARTERS

Be professional. It’s a business letter—not a personal letter.

  1. Regarding salutation and tone, err on the side of caution because formality is never out of place.
  2. “Dear Agent” or “To Whom It May Concern,” however, is too impersonal.
  3. Pet peeve: If you’re querying an agent’s direct email (i.e. “janet@” and you address the query “Dear Agent,” you don’t come across as being too smart.

Be comfortable with computers. Publishing is moving toward the electronic age, so move with it.

  1. Have an email address with your name in it (e.g., SuziWriter@gmail.com). This shows her you are professional. How is she to take you seriously if your email is cutiepiehoneyface@aol.com?
  2. Have your own email account—not one you share with a spouse.
  3. Have a Gmail or Earthlink account. She says AOL is bad for queries because its spam filters sometimes eat emails without your knowledge, and you could be missing a reply.
  4. Also, add the agents to your “safe senders” lists to ensure you receive their replies.

Use a referral. Agents always move referrals to the top of the stack if someone they know vouches for the writer.

  1. Do not, however, quote your rejection letters, friends, critique partners, paid editors, or conference critiques. These comments are not the same as referrals.

(Looking to attend a writers conference? Start here.)

THE NITTY GRITTY

  1. Don’t start with a rhetorical question. You’re talking to really sardonic people in New York City, and they’re not going to answer the question how you expect.
  2. Get right to the main character—by name.
  3. Tell who he/she is, and do it in as few words as possible.
  4. Tell what happens to him or her—the initial point of conflict in the book.
  5. Show two choices the main character faces as well as the consequences of those choices. The stakes must be high.

SUREFIRE QUERY KILLERS

  1. “Fiction novel.” A novel is fiction, so when someone writes “fiction novel,” not only is it redundant, it makes the writer sound ignorant.
  2. “Surefire bestseller.” Let the agent be the one to decide that. Declaring your work to be the next best thing shows you know little about the industry—and that you’re probably too arrogant for the agent to want to work with you.
  3. “Film potential.” Janet says, “First of all, you don’t know shit.” (See arrogance comment above) Also, she’s not a film agent. She just wants to know what the book is about.

KEEP IT OUT

  1. Inspiration. You only have 250 words, so don’t waste them. Stick to showing her what the book is about because how you came up with the idea does not interest agents in the query. “It’s the equivalent of making sausages,” she says. “I do not want to see you do it.”
  2. Personal information. It doesn’t matter to agents where you live or how many cats you have.
  3. Sometimes work information is relevant to you being the only person able to write a particular book; however, sometimes the worst people to write certain types of books are those who actually do those occupations (e.g., cops hate cop shows, doctors criticize medical dramas). They know the reality of the job too deeply, and it doesn’t make for good fiction.

TAKEAWAY

  1. A query letter is the foundation upon which your publishing career rests, so remember: You can query too soon; you cannot query too late.

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