Thursday, October 16, 2008

How To Get Your Novel Published: Or Part II: The Query Letter

There is a great Steve Martin saying my family loves to quote:

"How to get a million dollars without paying taxes: first, get a million dollars..."

The preface of this series of posts on How To Get Your Novel Published starts with this same philosophy: How do you get your awesome, fantastic, publishable novel published? Write an awesome, fantastic, publishable novel.

I'm not going to go into this aspect, but I am going to assume you have done that, or are in the process of doing it. The question is, how do you get that fabulous novel into the hands of a publisher?

There is the route of do-it-yourself publishing. There are plenty of places who would be glad to take your money and publish for you with little question. I wrote a post some time ago about weighing the options in self-publishing. If you're interested in it, it's here. For now, I'm going to focus on the more traditional publishing method: obtaining an agent.

Barring personal contact with an agent, through a writer's conference or a referral, the way to get an agent to read your manuscript is by sending them a query letter. A query letter is a short introduction of yourself and your book meant to get an agent's attention and get them wanting to read more.

If you Google "How to write a query letter" you'll find hundreds of websites on the issue. What I decided, after going through A LOT of them, is that the best way to know what an agent is looking for is to go directly to the source. In the end, I don't really care what magazine articles and writing websites say; I care about what an agent says he or she wants.

Many agents will list on their websites what they want in their queries, and if they have a blog, that's even better, but here are the most helpful ones I've found. From the mouths of agents:

Nathan Bransford gives a simple template here and dissects a good example here and here.

Agent Kristin Nelson explains the basic components and dissects one that caught her attention

Agent Rachelle Gardner reinforces that all agents pretty much want the same thing.

Agent Noah Lukeman wrote a book downloadable for free called How To Write A Great Query Letter

The Rosenberg Group says the same thing in their own way.

The Knight Agency has a page entitled Writing a Solid Query Letter, with extra links to other sites.

Andrea Brown Literary Agency lays out some do's and don'ts when writing a query.

Folio Literary Management posts what they expect on their submissions page.

There's no question that writing that great query letter isn't easy, but it isn't mysterious either. Every agent asks for basically the same thing:
  • Title of book
  • Genre of book
  • word count
  • very short synopsis or pitch
  • your bio
That's it. The difficult part is making those 300-400 words stand out among all the others. To help hone that skill, check out the following agent suggestions:

Jessica Faust of BookEnds Lit ran a pitch contest that evaluated dozens of pitches - that part of the query that sells the agent.

Daniel Lazar gave an interview and pointed out a few lines from queries that made them stand out, and how voice was conveyed through them.

Some agents, writers and articles advocate personalizing your query in the first paragraph. How do you know the agent? How did you find them? What books that they've repped have you read or liked, or which ones is yours similar to? Some agents will say they don't even look at that... they skip over to the part about the book.

Personally, I'm not sure it makes a huge difference. I've gotten requests from generic openings, and rejections from what I thought were powerful openings. Still, I do it as often as possible. It takes a lot of time to find that connection with an agent, especially after you've run through your top five or six. But I do it for me. Because each time I take the time to find out what it is that makes an agent perfect for me, I believe it myself. More than just a name on a page, more than a list of books and publishers and authors, the agents become "a great fit."

This is important because each rejection feels like the best agent drifting away, the next one not as good. Not as perfect. Until I make myself do the research to find out that they read the same books I do, they are native Texan like my main character, that they donate their services for a benefit for diabetes. Suddenly, they are the best.

Maybe if I believe it, they will too.


  1. Awesome. Great list and lots of information I plan on utilizing in the future.

    And yes - positive thoughts - believing - it may just happen.

  2. Heidi, these are great posts. Make sure to put them on your sidebar! They are fantastic!


  3. you guys are too nice! I thought it would be easy to compile a list, but it became overwhelming. The problem is that there is a ton of information and it all says the same thing. And none of that makes writing that tiny pitch any easier.

    The truth is there is no magical way of getting a perfect query. It's hard work, and a touch of talent, and knowing your book and what makes it exciting.

    Still, hopefully someone will find these links helpful. They are the ones I kept going back to when I was writing mine.

  4. I think they are helpful. I'm new to this whole thing - and I know for a fact I'm bookmarking these posts so I can have them at my fingertips. And you're extremely kind, you saving me and lots of other people the Google-time you put in.

  5. Wow Heidi! You've put a lot of work into these posts. They have great resource material for all us writers.