Ten Rules for Query Letters - Maggie Stiefvater
March 9, 2010

Ten Rules for Query Letters

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I completely forgot to post about queries yesterday, after I promised. I realize this makes me a Bad Person and you have my permission to throw Virtual Tomatoes at me now.

Okay, that’s enough.

Here are my thoughts on query letters. Because it’s early and I’ve only had one cup of tea, we’re gonna go with numbers to organize things, because good holy pete, there is nothing like a numbered list to add order to a blog post. So.

1. People overthink queries. Okay, so they are the only thing that an agent or editor might ever see of your work. So they have to embody everything about your personality and your books personality in a single page. So you will get absolutely nowhere if your queries suck, no matter if you’ve written the Great American Novel. Still, people overthink them. And this is why. Because

2. Agents are people too. More importantly, they are not just any people, they are readers. So guess what — the thing that makes you pick up a book is what makes an agent pick up a book. So therefore

3. Really, your query letter should read like the back of a book. Or the inside jacket flap or whatever. The bit that has the tantalizing description of the plot. A really effectively written jacket copy will tell you the tone of novel, the general premise, and probably a bit about the main players, and all in two paragraphs or less. What does this sound like – oh SNAP a query. But this is all good news for the aspiring query writer, because it means that there are lots of places to

4. Read good query letters. Where do you find these things, you ask? (cry, beg, plead) Which blogs? Which websites! which books! Well, now that you know that queries are really just awesome jacket copy, so the place to look is where there is good jacket copy. In case you do not know where to find novels, they are at these places called bookstores. Also, your shelves. Also, libraries. Also, Amazon. While you are there you will

5. Look at how succinctly successful book blurbs get across the main relevant points of the book. Each sentence does double duty, containing in its potent words setting and plot, or plot and character, or character and mood – just like in your novel. Oh, how hard your prose works for you! Even harder in this little blurb. A little game I like to play is called “sum up my novel in one sentence.” The idea is to pack in mood, hook, and characters into one sentence. (SHIVER’s was: “a bittersweet love story about a girl who has always loved the wolves behind her house and a boy who must become a wolf each winter.”) If you can get it down to one sentence, a query is easy. Especially if you

6. Only include the relevant stuff. Relevant, I realize, is so subjective, but let’s pretend we have two seconds in a grocery store line to a) sum up our book and b) sum up our qualifications to write said book. So side characters go bye-bye. Hook is king. Then voice. Then the finer details of the plot. If you’re writing something more character-driven, voice is most important. Then hook. Get in, get out. Nobody gets hurt. And then, once you’re done with the book (please remember to include word count, title, and genre), include

7. Only relevant stuff about you. Believe it or not, most everything about you is irrelevant. Oh psh, I know you’re a speshul snowflake. So am I. But the point is, the reader is not going to care/ know about most everything about you, and so the agent/ editor doesn’t care. If it’s something the reader might know about, then it’s useful. So if you are, for instance, Orlando Bloom writing your first YA, you can mention your acting career. If you are, as I was, a big art blogger, you can mention your blog statistics. If you have won some writing award that more than twenty people care about, you can include that. If you have short stories published in a pro market, go for it. There are lots of things that you don’t include, however, because

8. No one cares if you’re a rocket scientist, unless your book is about rocket science. If you save baby kittens in your spare time, jump burning buildings in a single bound, invented the concept of Mozart, made the first jar of mayo in the world — it doesn’t matter. Neither does the number of kids you have, where you live, what you do for a living, how long it took you to write this book, etc. Relevant. Err on the safe side. Because really

9. The only thing that matters is the book. If they don’t care about your hook and voice, nothing about you will change their mind, even if you are the world’s biggest pinball champion. Just: Sell. the. Book. Also

10. Follow the rules. Target the editors and agents that read your genre (www.agentquery.com will help with this). Keep it to one page. Don’t use funky fonts, colors, animated smileys, pictures of kittens waving at the agent. Remember, it’s about the book. The only reason why rules are in there are to keep from distracting the important part: your hook. Your voice. Everything else is just underwire in the literary bra of your query. Make it invisible and don’t let it poke people. Okay?