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Writing Excuses 6.5: Query Letters

Writing Excuses 6.5: Query Letters


Key points: a good query letter has a really strong description. Target a specific editor. Describe the genre and give your title. The plot synopsis shouldn't tell us every detail, just the most interesting things. It should reveal the hook, the genre, and the audience. The hook is what will keep us turning pages. Avoid telling us that we will keep turning pages, show us something that makes us want to turn pages. No marketing speech. Remember, no one trusts the salesman. The core is a good description that makes you want to read the book. Keep it simple and short. Make sensible comparisons. "A great query letter, then, is one that is going to pique your interest, and tell you just enough to make you want to read."

[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode Five, Query Letters with Sara Crowe.
[Dan] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Howard] And we are not that smart. Except for Sara. Sara, welcome. Take a moment and tell us about yourself, please.
[Sara] I'm an agent at Harvey Klinger in New York. I work with children's and adult books. I represent the Wells brothers. Full-time...
[Howard] Significantly, you represent Dan Wells who's on this podcast. Robison Wells is on some other... thing.
[Dan] Yeah. And no one cares.
[Sara] Another podcast.
[Dan] No, my brother also... We both have books coming out from Harper. His comes out later this year, and mine next year. So... Excellent. When we... When Rob sold... When Sara and Rob sold the book to Harper, Harvey came back and said, "So are there any other Wells siblings that I should be aware of?" So, excellent.
[Howard] if you are a balding, white, male between the ages of 30 and 40, changing your last name to Wells might be an effective in at the Harvey Weinstein organization.
[Dan] It's entirely possible.
[Sara] Harvey Klinger?
[Howard] Harvey Klinger.
[Dan] Possibly Harvey Weinstein as well.

[Dan] Okay. So we want to talk about query letters today. Query letters are, by far, without contest, the topic that is most requested from Writing Excuses. We will get at least one, if not five of these e-mails a week saying, "Please talk about query letters." We have avoided doing so, because, honestly, Brandon and Howard and I know nothing about them. Now that we have Sara who knows everything about them, we are going to talk about them. So I want to start with something that I think will be kind of fun. So. Several years ago, when I sent my query letter to Sara... I still have that e-mail. So I'm going to read my query letter that I sent to Sara.
[Sara] And I'm going to change my mind.
[Dan] And she's going to change her mind. This was four years ago. She's going to tell us what she liked about it, what was effective, what was ineffective. So we're going to talk about it. Here we go. I'll read it to you.

Sara. My name is Dan Wells, and I have received an offer from Tor to publish my young adult horror novel, I Am Not a Serial Killer. I am looking for an agent to handle the negotiations with my editor, Moshe Fedder.

I Am Not a Serial Killer is the story of a 15-year-old sociopath named John who works in a mortuary and is obsessed with serial killers. He wants to be a good person, and for years, he has suppressed his dark side through a strict system of rules designed to mimic normal behavior. Soon, however, a demon begins stalking his small town and killing people, one by one. John is forced to give in to his darker nature in order to save them. As he struggles to understand the demon and find a way to kill it, his own mind begins to unravel until he fears he may never regain control. Faced with the reality that he is perhaps more monstrous than the monster he is fighting, John must make a final stand against the horrors of both the demon and himself.

The book includes elements of gore and suspense, but the main focus is on psychological terror -- the compromises we make while trying to do good, and the good that we are capable of no matter how dark our situation may be. John's descent into madness is disturbing, but his dogged determination to crawl back out of it gives the book a solid moral grounding and a unique emotional resolution.

The book is approximately 68,000 words long. Moshe wants to turn it into a series, so I've already plotted out two more books and begun writing the sequel.

Thank you for your time and for considering I Am Not a Serial Killer. I would love to send you a few chapters or the whole manuscript. I look forward to hearing from you.

[Howard] Dan, why didn't you write that book?
[Dan] I tried. I had to write this crappy one instead. So...

[Sara] I mean, one sign of how good that... The really great book descriptions in query letters is that they go on to really be very similar to, I think, is what is on the back cover of the... What has been used to describe the book. It's something that I was able to use in pitching to editors. So I think it's a really strong book description. The first sentence is right away really exciting, and has a very big hook, and something that I hadn't before...
[Howard] The first sentence of the query letter or the synopsis?
[Sara] the first sentence of the synopsis.
[Howard] Because the first sentence of the query letter was pretty good. "I sold a book. Do you want some money?"
[Sara] Yeah, having an offer...
[Dan] Well, now talk to us about that. Does that really make a big... Is that a big part of your decision?
[Sara] Certainly, because Tor is a major house. It definitely, I think, would make an agent stop and look more closely at the book description. But it won't make me take on the client because... If it's not the right fit for me. It's not... My only job with this client will not be selling this one book to Tor and negotiating those rights. It would be working with him on other things he writes. So... Which we have done. So I have to like the writing. So I definitely have turn down people who have already had deals just because it just doesn't make sense...
[Dan] Well, that's something that I always point out, is that even with this offer from Tor, I was turned down by three agents before I found Sara. So just having an offer... It certainly will make an agent pay attention, but it won't make the deal. It won't seal it all by itself.
[Sara] Also, I would say as a caution to authors... I mean, you have to know that some agents may offer representation because you have the offer. You have to make sure that they are also in it for your writing and what you are doing next. You have to think it goes both ways.

[Dan] One thing that I've noticed... And it sounds like we do have our mics turned on now, because that's echoing quite a bit. One thing that I have noticed in this letter here, even back before that, is the very first word is your name. I addressed this directly to you. How big of a difference does that make?
[Sara] The difference for me, for e-queries, is I still read the queries that say Dear Agent, but I don't respond to them unless I want the book. So if you want... I get so many e-queries... I have to count one day, but it's definitely 30 or so. So if you don't address me, then I just don't feel like I have to do the response that I do. Because I... So... But other than that, I do read it.
[Dan] Now if a query...
[Sara] If you copy 50 agents, I probably won't read it. Because I would find it really annoying.
[Dan] So if a query comes in, rather than directly to your e-mail, if it just comes into the agency addressed to query or whatever, rather than being addressed to you specifically, what happens to it?
[Sara] Someone else reads it first. Our assistant, who is fabulous. Rachel. She mostly works with Harvey, so she reads all of his queries. But she also reads the queries that are addressed to queries@HarveyKlinger. I don't know. We want to get rid of the web... That address, but we get so many queries to it. Mostly from people who are using really old editions of writers handbooks.
[Dan] Markets?
[Sara] Writers Marketplace. Usually they're not the most informed. It's always better, I think, to really target.
[Dan] It definitely is. When I... I've talked to some editors before... Talking to Tor, they said if you send... If you're sending directly to an editor at Tor, and it has a name on it, then that editor will read it. If it doesn't, and it just says To Tor or To Insert Publishers Name Here, then it gets read by a high school intern who doesn't necessarily know anything, because their job is to go through all of the slush that isn't directed at anyone. So...
[Sara] Yeah. I don't have any... Well, I read all of the queries that come into my e-mail. What I do do, is if I request a manuscript, I have reader interns. One is a college student, one is a recent graduate. They look over some of the ones that I request. I like having another opinion.

[Dan] All right. Let's dissect this query letter a little more. We addressed it directly to you. Then I start by introducing myself. Then I say the genre of my book and the title of the book. Young adult horror novel, I Am Not a Serial Killer. Interestingly, my book is not actually sold as young adult. Tor decided not to do that. But I put young adult horror novel into it because when I was researching agents, I found Sara and for some reason, the information I had received said she handles young adults and she handles horror. So I'm like, "Sweet. I'm going to put that in the query letter." So... I mean, what do you typically handle? How much weight does that have to see that genre there?
[Sara] I think at the time it did a lot because I was looking for specifically young adult horror because it was something that a lot of editors were looking for at the time and it was something I liked. Probably because I was already working with Jonathan Mayberry and I had sold his adult horror novels and there was just something that... I mean, I don't know where... I don't represent a lot of it. Trying to think. So, obviously, I represent a lot of young adult...
[Dan] So, if for example I had written an epic fantasy novel? So if I said my book is the epic fantasy Howard Saves the World, then I gave a really killer synopsis... Do you handle a lot of epic fantasy? Would you say, "Oh, screw, it's a fantasy, I don't care."
[Sara] I don't, but I've certainly requested some. I think in one case... Actually, it was someone you recommended and I... Or another author. The pitch was so good. He ended up getting an offer from somebody that made a lot more sense than me. But... Yes, it matters. If somebody says... If the genre is something that I don't represent, then it's going to be unlikely that I'll...
[Dan] Then there's a much steeper hill to climb.
[Sara] Really pay a lot of attention to the description.
[Howard] So do you pass it off to somebody else in the agency if you like it but you know it doesn't fit you?
[Sara] Yes. For some reason... I work with this guy David Dunstan who does a lot of nonfiction books about music, and does them really well. Strangely, in the last week, I've gotten two nonfiction books about music theory. Both Dave and I just are very confused as to why they didn't write to Dave. So those are ones that I give... I just hand them right over. So, yes, we definitely share things. My other colleague does a lot of nonfiction type of things that I don't do, sort of pop culture, so anything like that I share. We all like young adult, so I don't tend to... If I request something, we don't really share those queries that much.

[Howard] Okay. I'm going to put you on the spot real quick in order to commit commerce with our listeners. Are there books that you're currently representing that are available on audio that you would like to take a moment to plug for our listeners? Because we're sponsored by audible.
[Sara] Oh, really? Okay. What's on audio that... I know Brian Yansky's Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences is recently out on audio. That's really wonderful. It's a book about... It's after an alien... The aliens invade. It's about a group of teens. It's narrated by two teens and also by the alien in charge of colonizing Earth...
[Howard] Oh, wait. You got an alien to actually narrate?
[Sara] Yes, yes.
[Howard] That's one of the best audio books ever.
[Dan] Yes. It's kind of hard to understand unless you've seen ET.
[Howard] Brilliant.
[Sara] Lord...
[Howard] Who's the author again?
[Sara] Brian Yansky. We just sold the sequel to that to Candlewick. I know... We actually just did a really interesting thing with Blackstone Audio that Jonathan... With short stories. Jonathan Mayberry's been writing short stories related to his thrillers, and Blackstone's going to do five... A collection of short stories on audio which I thought was really fun.
[Howard] Okay. Neat. Well, listeners, you can go to to kick off a 14 day free trial and check out... What was the alien book again?
[Sara] Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences.
[Howard] Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences by Brian Yansky. Thank you for the plug.

[Howard] Back to the dissection of this query letter.
[Dan] Back to this. Let's go on. One thing that you said about this was that the synopsis that I gave was very good. You've talked about synopses before and about things that they must tell you as an agent and that they must do. Can you tell us what some of those things are? What makes a good synopsis?
[Sara] Okay. I think I was saying... Obviously, it's a plot synopsis, but a plot synopsis that doesn't tell us every single detail. It's very much a tailored plot synopsis that tells us the most interesting things that happen. It also should reveal the hook of the book, the genre, the audience.
[Howard] All right, help our listeners out real quick. You use a technical term there, hook. What does hook mean?
[Sara] I think that this is a really good example of hook, this... Dan's query. "A 15-year-old sociopath named John who works in a mortuary and is obsessed with serial killers." Now, that's not the first... That's interesting and starts us off, but when we get to the second sentence "he wants to be a good person, and for years he has suppressed his dark side through a system of rules to mimic normal behavior." So right away we have the hook there, that there is a... That John is just fighting...
[Dan] He's fighting against himself.
[Sara] He's fighting against himself. Yeah. Exactly.
[Howard] So we have a character in conflict. But the actual term hook means something that grabs you as an agent, you as a synopsis reader?
[Sara] I think a hook is the reason that you will keep reading a book. It's what keeps the pages turning. I think that...
[Howard] Somehow, you need to communicate that.
[Sara] You need to communicate that. It definitely... You need to... Maybe it's different... It's hard. I know it's hard to do. But I mean, there's... I think that that gets down to even what Rob was talking about in his workshop too. Like getting down to this way of showing what's different in your book, why your book is different than what's out there, and what's so great about it. What's going to make me pick it up, other than... Instead of something else. I mean, that's what we all want to get down to.
[Howard] Correct me if I'm wrong. I love trying to distill these things down to a science, because that sucks all the life out of it, and just kills it for everyone. When you're talking about distilling the hook, you said what is it that keeps the pages turning for me. You want me to tell you something that will make you want to turn the pages. You don't want us to tell you that you will want to keep turning the pages because...
[Sara] Yeah.
[Howard] Okay. That's something that as I read this... As I listened to Dan read this query letter, he never said, in essence, this book is awesome because you have never seen a serial killer wrestling against his inner nature like this before.
[Sara] Yeah. He didn't say... A thrill ride.
[Howard] No marketing speech.
[Sara] Unputdownable. The things that...
[Dan] Which is on the cover now, by the way.
[Sara] But somebody else said it.
[Howard] What did you say? Unputdownable?
[Sara] Yes, but somebody else said it.

[Dan] That's an important thing. As... You're not... In a query, you're a salesman, and nobody trusts a salesman. So if I had spent my whole time talking about how this was brilliant writing, and excellent vocabulary, and all these glowing things... You won't be able to put this down... Of course I'm going to say that, I wrote it. So she's not going to believe me.
[Sara] You saved sort of the... You saved kind of your feelings about the book for the second paragraph too.
[Dan] Let's talk about that second paragraph, because that's weird. I don't remember writing that.
[Sara] That's a little risky. It's a little risky, that second paragraph. It won't always work.
[Howard] What was risky about it?
[Sara] Well, because he sort of doing the [garbled] salesman a little bit, telling me what he thinks the book is and does. That's a little risky. But I don't... But he does it in a way that I... It really did make me interested.
[Howard] You got so lucky. You hit Sara on a good day.
[Sara] Saying a unique emotional resolution, for instance, is a little risky, because... But he already got me.
[Dan] Yeah. She reads how many books a day...
[Howard] But he didn't want to spoil the end. He wanted to tell you that you are going to enjoy the end and I don't want to tell you about it... Which is... He said it better than I just did.

[Dan] Now, one of the things that stood out to me here while I was reading this query to you is that it is surprisingly moral, I think, in a way. This is not how I described the book to people anymore. "The good that we're capable of doing no matter how dark our situation may be." Things like that. A solid moral grounding because of his determination to crawl back out of this madness... That's not how I talk about this book anymore, and yet obviously that was effective for you. What... Is that something that resonated with you?
[Sara] Well, I think it really sold me with the book description. As I said yesterday, that's what I always I'm looking at... I just want to know... I want to read the book description and want to read it...
[Howard] Our live audience benefits from having heard your thing yesterday. The folks online haven't. Just to recap...
[Sara] Oh, I'm sorry. I'm thinking about the wrong...
[Howard] No, no, no. That's fine. It's easy to forget that there's people listening in Internet land. To summarize very, very briefly...
[Sara] So basically, I was saying all of the other things you do in a query letter, talking about yourself, that you've been writing since you were four, that your grandchildren love your stories, that your mother loves your story... None of this is important. Especially for a debut fiction writer. I think it's hard for people to believe that you really can just write the description. Just tell me what the book is about. Get me to want to read it. Find a way to get an agent that way. I mean, almost everybody that I've taken on in my career has been a debut writer who wrote me out of the blue. So, it's not...
[Dan] Take note, debut writers that are listening.
[Sara] I think people worry, and they do so much before they talk about the book. That can just make me not really...

[Dan] So, one of the key things then is just keep it simple. Keep it short. This query letter would have been just as effective without that second paragraph there.
[Sara] It would have. But I have to say, I mean, it was interesting to think about the psycho... That sentence about psychological terror. I think I ended up using some form of that when I talked to editors... So...
[Howard] So it's not a hard and fast rule.
[Sara] So I think that... There are always exceptions to the rules. There's not a hard, fast rule. But if think what you want to stay away from is really going into detail about what you feel about the book, what you think it will... What market you think it has, beyond the fact that you think it's a YA or you think it's an adult or you think it's an epic fantasy. Don't get so bogged down in writing a paragraph about exactly who you think will want to read it and why and... That's for the editors.
[Howard] Don't say, "This is the next Harry Potter" or "This is the next Eragon."
[Sara] That's what I said in the talk, too, was about making comparisons to unrepeatable successes.
[Dan] Yeah. So. This is the next Harry Potter/Twilight/Eragon whatever your comparison is. Of course it's not.
[Sara] [something love] is the other giant that I get.
[Howard] Of course, it's not. This is going to have more staying power, like Lord of the Rings.
[Sara] I'm not interested in that kind of success.
[Dan] So what... A great query letter, then, is one that is going to pique your interest, and tell you just enough to make you want to read. Then, from that point on, the book speaks for itself.
[Sara] Yeah. Of course, comparisons. There's not really a comparison here, I don't think. Comparisons can be great. I do like. I do like when somebody gives me a little bit of a sense of what to expect in the book by saying... [Garbled]
[Dan] So compare to something else without neglecting to also mention what makes yours unique.
[Sara] Make sure it makes sense. If you're going to use Harry Potter, which I just recommend you don't because everybody does, but if you do use it, there should be a really good reason. But... It should make sense to me why you're saying that. It shouldn't be just because you think that your book is like a completely unrepeatable...
[Dan] This is a book about a magical school like Harry Potter, except that he's also a psychopathic murderer. There you go.
[Sara] Your reason... Which is a lot of people's reason for mentioning Harry Potter or Twilight is that you've decided it's going to be that kind of success. That's a silly thing to say in a query letter.

[Dan] All right. Well, I think we have a fairly obvious writing prompt for today to close off with. Write a query letter based on whatever your current project is. Describe it very succinctly, give a good synopsis, try to hook an agent's attention, and see what you can come up with.
[Sara] And practice it a lot.
[Howard] In a mirror.
[Dan] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses. Now go write.
Tags: audience, comparisons, genre, hook, query letter, synopsis, title
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