Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Anatomy of my query process

I'm a researcher. I love doing research. I have to shut off my internet connection while I'm writing because if I don't I might lose myself in researching some tidbit that has come up. It's a sickness really. One of the ways I come up with story ideas is to surf wikipedia. I just go from article to article. I can start with NASA and end up with DARPA. Or puppies.

Anyway, so when I decided (prematurely) that I was ready to search for an agent, I put a lot of research into it. First I read up on how to query an agent. The following sites were indispensable:

Miss Snark
Pub Rants
Nathan Bransford
Janet Reid

Now, there are more. There's Agent X, my awesome agency's blog at Firebrand Literary, and many others. But the sites above (especially Miss Snark) helped me learn what NOT to put into a query letter.

The most important rule I learned is that when in doubt FOLLOW THE AGENCY GUIDELINES. Did I say that loud enough? It seems silly to say but one of the biggest gripes I hear from agents is that people shoot themselves in the foot by NOT following guidelines. If an agent requests a query letter and the first five pages, then don't send a query letter and the fourth chapter. Or just a query letter. Or just five pages. If an agent says that they only accept queries via homing pigeons named Steve, then that's how you need to send it.

Some of the requests might seem meaningless to you. They might seem arbitrary. They might seem downright silly. But it's their right to ask for queries to be submitted in any form they want, just as it's your right not to submit to them. It's just like applying for any job. If you don't like their policies, don't apply there.

All you're really doing if you ignore their guidelines is pretty much guaranteeing that your query will be deleted/ignored/rejected out of hand. I mean, you wouldn't show up for a job interview in plaid shorts, flip flops, and that one tee shirt with the hole in the armpit would you? Unless you're applying for a job as me.

The next thing you want to do is gather your list of agents. You'll want to query widely. When I compiled my list, I created a two-tiered list (I did say I liked research, right?). The first tier consisted of my ten dream agents. They were the agents I really wanted to work with. The agents who I thought would most mesh with my annoying personality. Then I created a second list with about 30 agents that I also thought would represent me well.

How did I come up with the lists? A combination of research, intuition and guess work. I liked Kristen Nelson not just because of how well she represented her clients on her blog, but also because she has kickin' taste in music.

The websites that helped me find agents were:

There are other sites like BackSpace and Publisher's Marketplace, but Agent Query especially helped me find the agents I was looking for. I had specific criteria in mind. I wanted a younger agent because my book was a little edgier (and I have the sense of humor of an 8th grader). I wanted my agent to have a good web presence. I wanted my agent to rep the kinds of books I wanted to read. I wanted my agent to have a proven track record.

Once I'd made my lists I wrote my basic query letter. Now, most sites will tell you to avoid gimmicks, and I agree, but this is where I broke the rules. Since my book is about a boy who receives a letter informing him he has one day to live, I decided to open my query the same way. I did have some fear that I'd send out all these query letters and that within days FBI would be arresting me for sending out death threats, but it was a risk I'm glad I took.

The next couple of paragraphs described my book. This is the most important part. These couple of paragraphs are all you have to hook the agent. If you can't do it in three paragraphs, they're going to bet you can't do it in a whole book. Maybe they're wrong, but with most agents getting a couple hundred query letters a day, they have to draw the line somewhere. There's just not enough time for them to read every person's book.

In order to make my query stand out, I used the same voice from the book. That gave the agent a taste of my writing style as well as the plot. I used those three paragraphs to let the agents know what the main crux of the story was, but also what some of the smaller subplots were going to be.

After I described my book, I gave them a real quick bit about me. I have no real writing experience, but once again I kept the irreverent voice and made a quick joke. This was in keeping up the tone of the book. These kinds of jokes were going to be in the book. This was the kind of writer they'd be getting. I also told them what genre the book was and how long. Two bits of important info too many people leave out. Granted, one could have surmised from my description that The Deathday Letter is YA fiction, but better safe than sorry.

Finally, I personalized every email. If they had a blog, I mentioned reading it. If they had a cool webpage, I mentioned that. This is your chance in just a sentence or two to let them know that you didn't just pick their name with a finger jab. Have you read a book they rep? Mention it. Did you meet them at a conference? Remind them. Have you spent the last six weeks outside their window with a telephoto lens and a box of Cheez-its? Yeah, maybe leave that out.
Once you've written your query, let others read it. I honestly think I spent more time on those 260 words than I did on my novel. Tweak it. Set it in a box and forget it for a week. Then, when you're ready, send it out.

Then wait. I got my first reply in hours. My next in a day. The rest staggered over the next couple of weeks. But it can take many weeks to get a reply. Then, if they want to read the partial or full, many more weeks (months) after that. Patience is one thing you absolutely have to learn.

And that's it.

Next week I'll tell you all why I chose Chris Richman at Firebrand Literary, a relatively unknown agent with one sale under his belt, to rep me. Which incidentally turned out to be the best decision I could have made.

Right. My query letter. So here it is. It's not perfect by any means, but it got the job done. It got my foot in the door of nine out of my ten dream agents, which is all it needed to do. By the way...don't forget to personalize every query to the agent you're sending it to. Spell their names correctly and use the appropriate salutation. Details matter.

It is our duty to inform you that your death is scheduled to occur on the early morning of October 17th, 2008.

Your cooperation in this matter is greatly appreciated. Have a pleasant day.

All thirteen year-old Oliver Travers wanted to do when he woke up Thursday morning was squeeze in a little underwear gymnastics before school, until his mom called him downstairs to tell him he had received a Deathday Letter, which sort of ruined the mood.

Content to spend his last day of life at school (where the girls are), Oliver's best friends Shane Grimsley and Veronica (Ronnie) Dittrich convince him to burn his books and ditch school to track down the source of his letter and find out why he's been chosen to die.

In a world where only taxes, Deathday Letters, and teenage boy's hormones are certainties, Oliver, Shane and Ronnie embark upon a bus ride that takes them from the post office, to a house filled with college-aged anti-Deathday Letter activists (and Dave Matthews fans), and nearly to prison. And as the end draws near Oliver learns that living is way tougher than dying…and that kissing is wetter than he'd expected.

THE DEATHDAY LETTER, a quirky YA novel, is complete at 60,000 words. This is my first novel, but my short fiction has previously appeared on the wall of Mrs. Miller's third grade class (with two gold stars), and my non-fiction has previously appeared in XY Magazine.

I appreciate you taking the time to read my query and I look forward to hearing from you.


  1. Thanks for writing this up and posting it. It should be very helpful for many (both agents AND writers!). And congrats both on landing an agent and on the upcoming book....

  2. Any time. I've meant to post this for some time. So many people talk about how scary querying is and I don't think it needs to be.

  3. That was a great query! No wonder you landed an agent. Loved the gold star bit! Thanks for sharing.

    I admit I was confused about "underwear gymnastics" but thought it was an interesting term. (and yea, I finally got it.)

  4. I loved your query letter--thank you for sharing it! I can see how it works because I want to read your novel now. :)

  5. Stephanie and Susiej, thank you! I think the problem with a lot of the queries I've read isn't that the writing is bad, it's just that writers aren't letting the books speak for themselves. It's like I read the books (of friends) and read the queries and it's like they come from two different people.

    I can't wait for it to come out. I'm suffering from "I want it right now-itis" and it seems like next summer might never come.

  6. I love this post and the query letter is great! Thanks for sharing it and thanks to Greg for pointing me here. And congratulations on being an almost soon to be published author :)

  7. Really enjoyed this post! Thank you for sharing the entire letter. I loved the gold stars bit too.


Keep it clean, keep it classy, and jokes are always appreciated.