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Guest Blogger: Ryan Sullivan on Query Writing


Ryan originally sent this in as a tip and I thought it would make a great guest post instead. He has some fabulous advice on query writing.  I hope you enjoy it! 

When I first started querying, I was doing it based on Publisher’s Marketplace alone. I assumed that since my agent’s name wasn’t clickable on the agency website, it meant he wasn’t accepting submissions. In reality, it’s because he didn’t have a Publisher’s Marketplace page. I didn’t know about QueryTracker or AgentQuery or any of those other ones until much later.

So, I did a lot of querying. After a while, I found Literary Rambles--and my agent. I still didn’t query him though. I figured I didn’t have chance, but I also didn’t want to get rejected by him, because I had gone through the list of all of the other agents I felt passionate about querying, and if he said no, I’d pretty much be done. In the end, I got a kick of confidence and queried him and a brand new agent. Both requested fulls. When he called me, I instantly withdrew it from the other. I’ve come to believe now that finding an agent really isn’t about finding somebody accepts your work, but rather somebody who you can work with and really trust. It may take time to find an agent that it clicks with--but it’s worth it.

My point in all of this is, I went through lots of different queries. I researched it as thoroughly as I could. I read blogs, forums, interviews--anything I could get my hands on--and along the way, I developed an idea of what works. (I might add, although you probably already know it, that every writer and every agent is different. Be sure to adjust it to each agent.)

A few ground rules:

1. Be brief. I think a lot of writers (and I’ve been guilty of this in the past too) see agents talk about brevity and either think they can ignore it, that their query will be so interesting it can go on forever, or that brief means whatever you could jam on one piece of paper. Not so much. A query, I think, should be about 2-3 paragraphs (I’ll get down to what I mean here later, with lengths for each).

2. Be professional. Always address the agent as “Dear Mr/Ms. ___,” and always end it by thanking them. Don’t use language you wouldn’t use in addressing your boss’s boss/the dean of your school, etc.

3. Be clear. Don’t make the agent work to understand you. Say what you need to say as clearly as possible. Be syntactically tight and grammatically correct.

4. Do not use rhetorical questions. They’ll come off as snarky (Has your cat ever died in a smelting accident? Daisy’s did.), obvious (Have you ever felt depressed?), or you-tell-me (Can they find the magic sno-cone before it’s too late? You tell me.)

My formula:

First paragraph:

Really, paragraph one and two are interchangeable, but I prefer to put the synopsis first. Here’s my reasoning: The synopsis is the most important part--if the agent isn’t interested in the premise of your book, it’s an instant no. So, if you put it first, either they read it, don’t like it and don’t have to bother with the rest, or they read it and are more interested as they move into the technicals. It’s a win-win.

Your synopsis should be tense, tight and just enough to get them interested. Don’t bombard them with information. You don’t need to introduce all plot lines, all characters or all settings. Keep this brief. I would say 4-6 sentences is ideal, but I wouldn’t recommend more than 8 (or more than one paragraph) for any reason. Also, conjunctions can be your friend here--they allow you to make things more tense, as well as allow you to prioritize things (I did a post on Conjunctions on my blog, the Writers Arsenal--see that for more specific advice).

Second Paragraph:

You need to do a couple of things here (all in 3-4 sentences):

Technicals--word count, title, genre--you got this.

Place yourself in the market. You don’t need to be an expert in the market, but show that you’ve read what you write. Don’t shoot for trends, but if your book has a market, you should know it.

Tell why you are qualified to tell this story. I’ve read this advice in several places, and I love it. This isn’t about your credentials, but about you. What makes you have a unique view on this story. (You can also put this in the third paragraph if it fits better.)

Personalize the query here if you can. If there’s a specific reason you’re querying this agent, or something about their clients that relates to you, feel free to mention it.

Third Paragraph (optional):

Tell about yourself. Do you have any school/job related experience that might qualify you to be a writer? Every agent wants different information about your background, so say what you need to say--in 1-2 sentences.

My Query (which got me a partial from a publisher, 2 fulls, and eventually lead to my representation):

[First paragraph synopsis redacted]

My YA romantic comedy, Operation: Hey Jude is complete at approximately 60,000 words. Recently, "boy" books like Jake Wizner's SPANKING SHAKESPEARE and John Green's PAPER TOWNS have gained incredible popularity, and I believe that's because the fit in a vein that is under-represented. While books by authors like Maureen Johnson are expertly written and hilarious, boys often won't read books with pink covers and pictures of girls on them. I also believe that since I am more near my teens than some authors, I have more of current understanding of teen life, and that comes through in my novel.

As for my credentials, I am a student at the University of Redlands, majoring in English Literature.
Thank you for your consideration,

And there you have it.


Renae said...

This is great advice for authors in the query process and an awesome query letter. Thanks for sharing!

Beth said...

Great advice, Ryan. You've clearly put a lot of thought and work into it and it's paid off. Congratulations on your representation, and good luck with the editors!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great advice Ryan. Not only on how to write a good query but to keep querying even when you want to give up. Hope you sell your book soon.

Ammie said...

Great post, Ryan! Thanks for the good advice. I am thinking my queries have also been a bit too long. I need to go back and fix. :)