Sunday, February 14, 2010

Are Agents Telling the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth?

So I've been researching agents. I've been particularly interested in what they have to say about query letters, seeing as a story doesn't really matter all that much unless you can get one of them to read it. A lot of agents say something along these lines* (and by "something along these lines" I mean "these exact words."):

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.


Anita said...

This is why I think people should query in small spurts, see what works. Start conservative and get a little crazier as you go. Also, researching the agent helps, I think. It's a good thing if you can say, "Hey, there. I grew up ten blocks from you. Please read my query." Or if you know the agent's a sucker for a certain book or show, you can mention it. When in doubt, just start with what your story's about...and make sure it's about something good.

Tracy Edward Wymer said...

I love this post. It's true on many levels, including level one.

quixotic said...

Wonderful post. I think the smal bursts, revamping each letter per the style of the agent, are helpful. In the end I think ther is a lot of luck involved. Who knows what will really stand out to an agent.

Heather Kelly said...

I like Anita's take on it. I think there is some risk to querying crazily, but also risk that you will never be pulled from the slush if you don't stand out. So, this is a non-answer answer. Good luck!

Lily Cate said...

I think it depends on your genre, a little.

If you have a contemporary story, perhaps you have to be a little more zany to wake the agent up and make them read on.

The query has to have the flavor of the manuscript, after all. If you write a smart ass book, write a smart ass query.

Anita said...

For my first book (I am so glad now that thing never got published), I sent out these really awesome queries and I got a bunch of agents asking for partials and fulls. And then I had this one agent (can't remember her name, but she works with Janet Reid so you know she's tough) send me this pissed off email about how my query made my book sound so different (and much better) than my book actually was. Hah! And I was like "You know, she's right." If I'd written the book as well as the query and delivered what I'd promised in the query, I'd have no problem getting published. So for my second book, I kinda wrote the query in my head first...this is what the book's about and this is how great it is...and then I tried to make it so. We'll see if that technique worked. Please send me $5.95 in cash money for the use of my patented technique. It's called Anita's reverse query technique. It also helps with male pattern baldness.

Paul Michael Murphy said...

FWIW, Anita, I think your query matches your book very well.

chris said...

Good post! (Not just because my name is in it - but thanks for those kind words.)

Amy Allgeyer Cook said...

Great post. I love knowing risky queries work out.

Sarah Dooley said...

Great post! I feel about queries like I felt about my sixth-grade math homework on days when I was unprepared and then the teacher called on somebody else anyway -- I still don't know how to write a great query, but I got away with it for the moment.

Laura Pauling said...

I do think there are a lot of contradictions out there. I think as writers, we think our idea stands out, but really it doesn't. If any crazy gimmicks are tried though, and it feels forced, it will most likely get rejected. I think there are only a few people that can get away with that. I'm not one of them. :)

Shaun Hutchinson said...

Awesome post, and pretty much right on. I think that when it comes to query writing, there's no right answer. Every agent is different and you want to find one that matches your personality.

I thought it was risky sending what amounted to a death threat to a dozen agents, but I also did my research to the best of my knowledge and picked agents I thought would appreciate the humor (being that my main character gets a similar letter.)

I think if you know your book and know your audience and know who you're querying, you'll do great.