You’re doing it wrong: 7 Things I wish I knew before I started querying literary agents

You’re doing it wrong: 7 Things I wish I knew before I started querying literary agents

Photo by erica steeves on Unsplash.

Querying is an art—it’s also a royal pain in the…

BUT, like Katie Couric once said, “You can love your job, and still not like all of it.” Or something like that. I can’t find the quote exactly, but she did say something like that once.

Querying, like synposisizing, is a part of the job. If you want to sell your book, you’ve got to write a decent query. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be the best query written of all time. It just has to be sparkly enough to catch the agent’s eye.

After four years of writing and revising my novel, I finally was at peace enough with the story to start querying. I queried for four months to 18 agents. Now, wait! Don’t leave!

Yes, we hear that we should query a hundred agents. But, I don’t work that way. Like I said, I queried 18 agents and I did not receive a single response (besides those automated rejection ones—which I was very happy with! Come on, agents! The no-reply thing? That’s rude. EVERYONE is busy.)

I knew something was wrong. I wanted a story good enough that I’d at least get some requests in 18 casts (as in fishing). But, before I could blame my story, I took a long hard look at my query letter.

And I think I made some mistakes.

So! With RevPit #10Queries just around the corner (October 18, 2019), I wanted to share these gems of reality with you, so you can put your best letter out there!

[Just a note: A lot of my examples—okay, all of them—come from literary agent Laura Zats. A) Because she’s awesome, and B) because she did an amazing little thing called #500queries.]

1. Querying is a marketing tool, not a summary

A query letter is not a background check. You don’t have to tell the agent everything. In fact, that’s not even the point. (That’s the purpose of the synopsis.) The point of the query letter is to intrigue the agent. Grip them! Make them thirsty for more! In my first letter, I was very concerned with making sure the summary of my story was extremely accurate and detailed. (You’ll find tip #5 asks you to spend your energy elsewhere.) Save the outline for your synopsis. In your query, you are a salesman and they are the consumer. If a movie trailer explained the whole movie, we’d never go and watch it. Give them just enough to compel them to request more. And do not end with a question. “Does she ever make it home?” Don’t you dare.

2. Don’t query your top agents first

My original logic was to query the agents I most wanted first—because if I queried the agents at the bottom of my list first, I didn’t want to miss out on offers from my favorites. But, it doesn’t really work that way. If you get an offer, you have about two weeks to give them a decision, and that’s when you can email your faves, explaining you’ve got an offer. In any case, my point here is that, you will find things you want to change in your query. Therefore, those first query letters that you send out are not your best ones. You’ll want to change a line, or realize that something is redundant, or you may want to add a comp title. Save your favorite agents for round two or three of your query waves.

3. Comp titles are everything

Agents LOVE comp titles. And for good reason. They explain your book in one sentence. Think about it. Put any two book or movie titles together and you’ve got an instant image of a new story. Make sure your comp titles are spot on. Also, be sure that they are current (within the past few years) and don’t you dare put Harry Potter as a comp. Agents hate that. It’s too big. There’s actually a lot more to comp titles than I think most of us writers understand. I didn’t really “get” them until I listened to this ruby of a podcast:

“Comps, Comps, Comps” by Print Run Podcast with literary agents Laura Zats and Erik Hane

If you head over to my Treasure Box page, I’ve got a Comp Titles Worksheet in there for you! Also:


4. No one cares about the plot

Okay, this one seems a little extreme. Plot is important. It’s super important actually and your story must have a good one! But, that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to spell out the plot in your query letter. (Again, synopisis!) Your query letter should hint at the plot—you want the agent to understand what your story is about. Don’t leave the agent confused! But, like I said in the first tip, your query isn’t a summary, it’s a hook. You just have to tell them the premise of your story—the concept and then stress one very important thing… [see tip #5].

5. The main character is key

Character is what will sell your book! As a humans, we connect to other humans. We root for them! We sympathize with them! We live vicariously through them! Show them who your main character is. Don’t tell them she has brown hair and blue eyes and is determined. Show them! “Last year, in 7th grade, Cindy wasn’t worried about who she was going to sit with at lunch. She was more concerned about sewing 500 premie hats for the hospital’s nursery to break her own record of just 436 hats in 6th grade.” Do we need to know if Cindy is brunette? I don’t think so. Not here.

6. Your book is just like everyone else’s

That statement is not true! What I’m saying here is, well, there are probably a lot of elements in your novel that are like everyone else’s (Got a witch? Magic system? Someone gets murdered?). Be sure to include in your query what specifically makes yours unique (Your witch can only perform magic from her toe. Your magic system is only available when the power goes out. Someone got murdered… gross, I’m not a murder fan). Of course, it’s important to explain your story’s elements well enough, so that the agent has the gist of your plot and what’s going on in there. But, don’t forget to sprinkle your letter with the top things that make your novel different.

7. Figure out your subgenres and then pick one

Subgenres are actually pretty hard. (Check out this list of subgenres from Writer’s Digest.) I think there’s a lot of confusion out there, as well, as to what certain genres mean (i.e., magical realism, anyone? I’ve seen like a billion different definitions for that.) Granted, your novel will probably fall into several subgenres. However, I think you’ll lose the agent pretty quick if your first paragraph lists seven subgenres. So, it’s important to know this:

A) How do you most want to market your book? Let’s say you’ve got a fantasy that’s romantic, historical, and adventurous. You’ll need to decide which subgenre is most important to your story. What twist do you prefer your book to have?

B) Take a close look at the agent’s manuscript wishlist. If they love historical fantasies. Then you’ll probably want to make sure you list your novel as a historical fantasy (as opposed to a “romantic fantasy” or “adventurous fantasy” from “A” above.).

I hope these tips help you write your best query! A big thank you to Laura Zats for sharing the love and trying to make us more successful writers! For those of you entering the RevPit #10queries contest, best of luck to you! I hope you get some great news!

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