Quick disclaimer: please keep in mind that I don’t know everything. The point of an internship, alongside assisting and supporting the agent or editor you work for, is to learn. I’m still doing that—so below are observations and suggestions, not mandates. Also, while I work for an editor, the things I’ll talk about are designed to apply to all writers, regardless of whether you’re querying agents or editors—or both simultaneously, which we prefer you don’t do.
So a few days ago, February 1, marked the six-month point in my editorial internship with senior editor Kate Brauning at Entangled Publishing. (Since my internship is open-ended, I’m continuing to work with Kate past the typical timeline.) I’ve read many a thing for this internship, and by now I have something of a grasp on what works and what doesn’t. To that end, here are a few basic suggestions on perfecting your query letter. Look out for a post with tips on polishing up your manuscript (especially first pages) next week!
Be as clear and concise as possible.
I write reader reports on manuscripts, which Entangled’s submission guidelines ask for along with your query, not the queries themselves. But I almost always read the query first, and that tends to color how I feel about the first few pages. If your query has a sharp voice, a strong sense of character, and good stakes, I’m much more likely to be excited about your manuscript. Conversely, if you lack those or other essentials, I won’t be the most eager Mark when I dive into the book.
A frequent problem is simple: lack of clarity or focus. This pops up all the time across categories and genres—science fiction and fantasy might be the usual culprits because you’re constricted to ~250 words for an explanation of your world and everything else a query needs, but they’re by no means the only cases. I find sticking to this basic formula, which has been tossed around countless times online, helps in that respect:
—Who is your main character?
—What do they want?
—What is keeping them from getting what they want?
—What happens if they don’t get what they want?
Know your genre.
You don’t want your genre to be too long because it makes you look like you don’t know what you’re doing. “Near-future fantasy adventure with romance” is not a thing—if it’s not a section in a bookstore, it’s probably not really a genre. Also, “speculative fiction” is not a catch-all for a hard-to-categorize work—speculative fiction is an umbrella term. If you wouldn’t write “novel” as your book’s genre, you shouldn’t write “speculative” either.
This point inevitably raises the question of “What if my book is hard to categorize?” I actually like this question, since I’m personally a fan of fiction that’s a little removed from genre conventions—Adam Silvera’s MORE HAPPY THAN NOT with its light science fiction, or Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF with its choice of narrator (Death, by the way—it’s done fantastically). That said, I probably don’t have the answer you want to hear: I recommend talking to critique partners or beta readers about it. If they’re worth their salt, they’ll be able to help you pin down a genre; if they can’t, it’s a sign that marketing for your book might get tricky.
Be careful with your bio.
Often writers add unnecessary details—if your manuscript’s about psychic girls in love, I don’t need to know that you enjoy baking with ingredients you grew in your garden. But if one of those psychic girls is obsessed with scuba diving and that plays a huge role in the plot and you happen to work as a certified scuba instructor, by all means, tell us! It shows there’ll be an extra layer of authenticity in your manuscript, which will only work in your favor.
Other things to include:
—Publication credits (short stories, contributions to anthologies, etc.)
—An unusually strong platform (you run workshops with bestselling authors, you have a massive following online, you blog for Barnes & Noble…also, this is exclusively for fiction, since Entangled only publishes fiction—for nonfic, include your platform always)
—Memberships or conferences (SCBWI for kidlit, RWA or others for romance, Backspace for everyone, and many more others than I can list here—this shows you’re serious about writing as a career, which is always a plus!)
—Relevant miscellaneous: when I was querying and agents specifically asked for a bio in their submission guidelines, I mentioned studying English at Rutgers University and my internship with Entangled.
If you don’t have any of these things, do not stress. Seriously. Just skip that part in your query. If your book is great and you’re professional, someone’s going to snatch you up regardless of whether you have an MFA from Hogwarts or a GED.
Make every word, phrase, and sentence count.
Industry standard is that a query letter is 250 words or less, though no one’s going to throw tomatoes at you if yours is 260. (That said, do try to keep it concise.) That means every word needs to matter, and you need to be cognizant of your choices.
Try to avoid rambling when talking about your main character. I don’t need to know that she has blue eyes and brown hair unless those facts play a significant part in the plot. What I do need to know for YA queries is her age and name; those are non-negotiable. (For adult fiction you don’t necessarily need to include your main character’s age, but name is a must. The exception to this is if they somehow don’t know it because of memory loss or something.) (You’d be surprised how people leave these out!)
I also don’t need to be introduced to the MC’s mom, dad, brother, cousin, ex-girlfriend, best friend, other friend, other friend, third other friend, barista at the Starbucks she frequents, and so on. Don’t make me shake hands with everyone she runs into on a daily basis. Name three characters at most—usually the MC, the love interest, and the antagonist, though this will obviously be different if there’s no romance.
Also, be mindful of descriptions when introducing a new character. “Blue-eyed blonde Angie, the other member of Heather’s fledgling rock band” is unnecessary—the real, relevant part of this is that Angie is also in Heather’s band. But if your query mentions that Heather’s last four girlfriends were all blue-eyed and blonde, include it—now we know there’s a potential for romance! You just want to make sure that every word moves the query forward.
Thanks for reading, all! If you have any questions about queries, querying, or first pages, let me know in the comments and I’ll answer in my next post. I hope to make this something of an ongoing series on the blog, and knowing what you want to know would help so, so much.