Making Your Query Stand Out from the Pack

Chances are, if you’re ready to start looking for a literary agent, you’ve been researching query letters like nobody’s business. How to write them, how to format them, where to send them, what to put in the subject header—sometimes it seems like every agent and aspiring writer on earth has an opinion! All that pressure can start to feel a little overwhelming, right? Well, take a deep breath—the truth is, although agents do indeed receive hundreds (in some cases, thousands!) of queries a week, it’s still possible to make yours stand out. Today, I’ll pass on what caught my eye in a query when I worked in publishing—and what made me want to see more of a writer’s work.

1. Personality

By personality, I mean you. What is it about your work that’s funny, or unique, or interesting? What makes you tick? What unique perspective do you have to offer? People use the word “voice” to describe the same difficult-to-pin-down feeling that there’s a real person behind the words on the page. There’s a fine line between hilarious and ham-fisted, and if you’re unsure, it’s best to err on the side of caution in your query. But a little personality can move a query from “intriguing” to “heck yes!”

2. Specificity

My Historical Novel deals with universal themes of love, loss, and longing” doesn’t actually tell me a thing about your book. “Equal parts Buffy Summers and Holden Caulfield, Main Character is an undead heroine with one foot in the grave and the other in the mall”? Now that’s specific. It’s very likely your book does deal with universal themes of love, loss, and longing. But so does everyone else’s. Whether you’re writing a book about global warming or a book about a zombie apocalypse, you’re telling a story that’s uniquely yours—and that’s what should go into your query.

3. Killer Prose

Remember, you’re not just trying to show an agent that you’ve had the best idea in the history of the written word. This is the first encounter he’s going to have with your writing, so make it count. Polish every sentence until it shines, and don’t forget to proofread. When you’re done, proofread again. (And if it makes you feel any better, I requested more than one manuscript from a query with typos in it. Most agents also understand that writers are human beings.)

4. Research

A tiny bit of work goes a long way when it comes to personalizing your query. Look up Dream Agent’s clients. Read (well, at least the jacket copy) one of their books. Mention it in your query. That’s it. You’d be amazed at how few people do this, and how much it can set you apart. You don’t need to be obsequious, but “I’m drawn to your agency because I’m a huge fan of Famous Client’s witty and poignant book My Life as a CEO” says that you’re not querying that agent at random, that you’ve done your research, and that you care about where your book ends up.

5. Clarity

Believe me, I know the temptation to cram every last plot twist and character and detail of your research and red herring and tantalizing mystery into your pitch. Problem is, too much information will make those paragraphs totally incomprehensible. The point of a query isn’t to tell an agent everything that happens in your book—it’s to get her to want to see more. Resist the urge to cram in the kitchen sink, and keep your pitch concise and snappy.

6. Deep Breaths

There are a million blog posts out there on how to write a query, and every one of them will tell you something different. Your query must be in Courier, except when it must be in Times New Roman. You absolutely should format your query like a business letter, except that of course an email doesn’t follow the rules of business correspondence. It’s enough to make your head spin! But here’s a secret I’m happy to share after years of working in publishing: nine out of ten agents will be perfectly happy with a concise, well-written, readable query, in any legible twelve-point font on a white background (no emoticons! no pink stationery! and NO Papyrus!), in which their name is spelled correctly (and so is the title of your book). Anyone who’s really going to reject your query because you’ve neglected to, say, put your address at the top of the page is probably a little bit of a jerk anyway. So hang in there, take a deep breath, and get to work!

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