The Empty Chair: A Eulogy for Leonard Nimoy and Spock
March 5, 2015
I belong to a writer’s forum called Scribophile, and there’s quite a bit of angst-ing over there on the writing of a query letter to an agent. I’ve been reading and critiquing a few, and I’ve had a few members query me. It seems unnecessarily fraught with drama, and I’m not sure why, so here is just one agent’s take on the writing of a query letter.
In this day of email, as opposed to old-fashioned snail mail, there’s a certain level now of “familiarity breeds contempt” that seems to pervade both business and personal communications. Hundreds of years ago, when I went to high school, there were “business” classes one could take, especially if one was on the “business track.” I was not – I was on the definitely going to university, honors and college courses all the way (before there were AP courses or IB programs) – but my mother, wisely, said that since I was obviously going to be a writer, I should learn how to type. I didn’t want to take a typing class – I could peck quickly enough on my father’s portable Smith-Corona – but take a typing class I did.
I have to confess that I sucked at it. I was so awkward at it that both my teacher and one of my friends took pity on me and helped me as much as they could. Maybe I was able to type 35 words per minute when I left that class. However, one thing that class did teach me was how to write a business letter.
So let’s get back to the query letter. The query letter is a business letter. You are offering a business proposition to a perfect stranger. This is what you are saying to them: I have a product that I have created which is going to make us both money, enough money that I’ll be willing to give you 15% of what I earn domestically and 20% for everything else.
That, folks, is the bottom line for the query letter. It’s not “about” anything else. It is a straightforward business transaction between two people who might be inclined to do business together if they can make a profit out of it. There’s no mystical algorithms to it, no voodoo, no woo-woo stuff in creating the basic, bare-bones query letter.
You start out the way any old-fashioned business letter would start out. Dear Agent’s Name: (always use a colon in a business letter, even in an email). So let’s talk about how writers mess up, right here, in the salutation. (That’s what it’s called, for all of you whose mothers didn’t make you take a business class.) There are four forms of polite address in the English language and they are all of them based on the marital status of the adult one is addressing. For me, it is just Mr. (no period if you are Commonwealth); for women, you have three choices: Miss (unmarried), Mrs. (married, even if divorced), and Ms. (none of your damned business). In a day and age when gender is no longer binary, when you have no idea of the sex and/or gender of the person to whom you are writing, the safe and courteous way to address the agent is:
Dear Leslie E Owen:. I have received query letters that have begun with Mr, Miss, Mrs, and/or Ms; I have received query letters that have begun with the following: Dear Leslie, Hi Leslie, Hey, Leslie, and Dear Agent. The concept is so simple I’m going to repeat it: Dear John Smith:; Dear Jane Kimmelman: Dear Champagne Wunderkind:.
Now that we have the salutation out of the way, let’s get to the body of the query letter itself. Introduce your work to me first. If it’s a novel, I’d like to have a very brief, one paragraph synopsis of the plot, which will include the name of the viewpoint character/protagonist, and which will give me some idea of what will happen in the novel. I don’t mind if you use two paragraphs; I do mind if you go over three. I don’t need to know everything, but I do need to know the important elements of the story, including character, plot, setting, and point-of-view. Also, I need to know how many words it is, and which genre it is. This is because if you are telling me this is a novel and you have written 45,000 words, I will have to tell you no, you have not written a novel. If you tell me you have written 320,000 words (as my novel A Million Sherds was), I am wondering if you are channeling Stephen King, and what kind of an editing job this might be. As for genre, most agents only represent certain genres, because most agents have specific likes and dislikes and specific areas of expertise. I don’t read modern romances; I don’t like them. They sell like hotcakes, but these days, a romance writer probably doesn’t need an agent. The books sell themselves. If, on the other hand, you are writing in the same level of romance as Maeve Binchy or Rosamunde Pilcher – then you are writing a woman’s novel and yes, please send me that story. I love to read a good fat novel about the loves and lives of some really good characters.
In other words, if an agent lists that his/her interested genres are speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy, mystery/crime/psychological thriller, and children’s middle grade and YA fiction, please don’t query about historical romance, cookbooks, or picture books in rhyming couplets.
After you have finished with the synopsis of your novel, introduce yourself. I think this is the hardest part for many writers. Who are you? What’s your educational background? What else have you published? Do you have a blog, or write for Yahoo Parents, or have a page that you write on Pinterest? Do you vlog? Do you have a website? Did you sell a story to a magazine that paid you only in online copies or did you get $200 for that piece you gave to the Chicken Soup franchise? In other words, do you obsessively write? Because if writing is only a hobby to you, something “fun” that you “enjoy,” then you don’t need an agent. Writing is a business to an agent, just as sneakers are a business to Nike. Dilettantes need not apply. If you have not sold something yet, but you think you have a book large enough for an agent to be interested in, just say so: “I’ve been writing since I was in high school, but this is my first serious novel.” As an agent, I understand that. As an agent, I got my break by digging through Henry Morrison’s slush pile and finding a manuscript from an unknown writer I knew Henry could sell. Henry thought I could sell it, and I did.
Lastly, tell me about your market. Who is your intended audience? Why will they park down $26.95 for your book in hardcover, when they could get a similar one from Kindle for 99 cents? Show me that you have really thought about this. When I sent my agent the query letter for my novel, I included the latest figures on the number of people who are left widowed, male and female; the latest statistics on the number of gay marriages and the age of those getting married, and drew the connection that mourning, for someone in an a-typical relationship, was usually only covered by three lines in someone else’s book. There was an audience there – a whole industry has grown up over gay marriage vows, and cakes, and wedding venues, and rings – but what happens when your spouse dies? And you need more than three lines in someone else’s book about mourning? Know your audience before you write to an agent, because that tells the agent just how very serious you are about this particular book.
Your query letter should be calm, informational, and polite. It should include your name, mailing address, email address, telephone number, and website or blog, if you have one. You should tell the agent if you are sending out multiple queries to other agents. You should not expect to hear from the agent for at least four weeks, when you may receive a polite “no thanks” or you may receive a “send me an excerpt.” There are online sites where your query letter will be critiqued or otherwise measured, or you can join a forum such as Scribophile to help you. Remember, you are looking for a partner in your publishing endeavor – and so is the agent.