I’m not asking for anything out of the ordinary—just a concise letter that clearly establishes the writer or illustrator as a professional, shows me that he or she has a strong handle on their work, how their work fits into the market, and what their background is.
When I get a query letter, I want to know a few specific things: 1) What kind of book is it? 2) Is it fiction or nonfiction? 3) Is it your first book? 4) Two to five reasonably-lengthed sentences describing the plot. 5) What’s your educational background? And do you have anything in that background that makes you particularly qualified to write it, or gives you a platform?
I'm not really one for gimmicks.
But it seems like this advice is maybe, just a little bit, I don't know...lacking. Sure, if you write a "professional" query letter that's free of grammatical errors and conveys the story succinctly you will avoid having your query letter passed around an agency and laughed at. You won't immediately take yourself out of the game. But I just have a hard time believing query letters that don't jump out of the pile and scream Pick Me! are going to lead to much of anything except a polite rejection letter. And here's why I think that:
Chris Rylander's query letter (Click the link. It's one of the funniest things you'll ever read. You'll need to scroll to the purple words.) As Chris explains on his blog, the query was for a book in a genre that the agent didn't even represent (which is one of the things every agent complains about), but it caught the agent's attention and Chris signed with him.
Shaun Hutchinson started his query "Dear Agent: It is our duty to inform you that your death is scheduled to occur on the early morning of October 17, 2008. Your cooperation in this matter is greatly appreciated. Have a pleasant day."
And there's a writer who reads this blog (and really likes Guinness) who snagged his agent with a query written in...wait for it...first person (gasp!)
When I try to picture what a day in the life of an agent is, I get an image of a person sitting at a computer, clicking on email after email and reading query letter after query letter. I'm sure a professional letter is appreciated, especially when compared to what is surely quite a lot of garbage, but does a merely "professional" letter truly stand out? Will it really grab the attention of a glass-eyed agent?
I think it's doubtful.
And so the question is this: Do you, as a writer seeking representation, take the conservative approach and write something that will be guaranteed not to turn someone off, but will probably also not set an agent's imagination ablaze? Or do you take a risk and do something out of the ordinary, knowing that some agents will roll their eyes and hit delete, but others will sit up in their chairs and say, Hey, now here's something different.**
*There are notable exceptions. Daniel Lazar, for instance, openly admits here that the phrase "museum of fucked up things" caught his attention in a query letter. (I like it too.)
**Obviously, the above question is probably moot if you write the next Hunger Games trilogy. Books with such awesome premises stand out on their own, which is why we who struggle to write queries hate their authors so much.