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Launching Query Boot Camp

Posted in: Perfecting your Craft on October 5, 2015 22 Comments 💬

Query Boot Camp

One of the number-one frustrations we hear from writers is that their query letters go unanswered or elicit only form rejections. For authors determined to land an agent, this can feel especially disheartening--but Reedsy wants to help.

We’re launching a new initiative here on the blog: Query Boot Camp. Every month, two brave authors (who shall remain anonymous), will volunteer their unsuccessful query letters and opening pages for review by Reedsy advisor and editor Rebecca Heyman.

Rebecca’s clients have landed partnerships at D4EO Literary Agency, New Leaf Literary & Media, the Jennifer Lyons Agency, Miller & Browne, Donadio & Olson, Literary Arts Representatives and more, and now Reedsy is bringing you the tips and wisdom that helped them succeed...for free.

Why Query Boot Camp?

First, if you’re an author who has queried unsuccessfully, we want you to have an opportunity to get fresh eyes on your agency submission. But more importantly, we believe that authors can learn a lot from each other. Every manuscript and letter is unique, but certain practical guidelines can help you avoid the pitfalls that lead to unanswered queries.

Query Boot Camp is a community learning initiative. We’re here to help you shine brighter and get better results. We ask that comments be kept positive and that you help us foster a feeling of support for the authors awesome enough to let Rebecca evaluate their query materials. With that, and with special thanks to our first submitters, let’s get started!

Author 1: Contemporary YA

Author 1 is one of the rarest creatures in the writing wild: The pages are among the strongest I’ve seen, but the letter is a downright disaster. Let me elaborate on the good news first. Chapter 1 opens on our MC reluctantly dragged into the spotlight when his brother has a seizure in the middle of the school cafeteria. As he’s helping manage the situation, Cute New Girl arrives. The author beautifully articulates the emotional and physical complexity of the scene, and the writing oozes authenticity, voice, and movement.

Now, to the query.

The first sentence of a query letter is called the “hook”, and should do just that: hook an agent’s interest. But the first sentence in Author 1’s letter talks about the agent’s web site guidelines instead of serving the story. The remainder of the paragraph elaborates on awards the author has received for this work’s first chapter; that information belongs in the bio paragraph. The synopsis contains several typos, and leads with a troubling statistic about word count (the book is too short). The bio rightly focuses on the author’s publication credits, but feels self-congratulatory. Finally, there is no need to include your photograph in your signature.

How could we fix Author 1’s letter to ensure an agent will read on far enough to peruse the fantastic opening pages? Start with the hook. Ask a dynamic question (e.g., “What happens when...?”) or set up the agent’s expectations by using a thoughtful comp. A comp (“comparable title”) is a book, movie or TV show that shares a similarity with your book. Stylistically, Author 1 should feel comfortable comp-ing YA stalwart Jandy Nelson (yes, the pages are that good); it would also be useful to find a comp about a sibling pair where one sibling suffers from an illness or disorder.

But even if Author 1’s query opened with a strong hook and a couple great comps, we would still hit a road block at word count. Clocking in under 40,000 words, this book is simply too short. I’d recommend soliciting critical feedback to determine where and how to expand this beautifully written novella into a more industry standard-length manuscript.

Author 2: Adult Speculative Fiction (SciFi)

Like Author 1, Author 2 misses a huge opportunity by opening the letter with a “Hello, my name is...” introduction instead of a hook. While we get a good comp title, DIVERGENT, the author misspells Veronica Roth’s last name. The rest of the first paragraph is devoted to Author 2’s (not good) marketing plan.

The next paragraph is the synopsis, but it’s set off with an unnecessary header. While reading, I was instantly struck by similarities to THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU—a comp title that says more about this plot than the entire first paragraph of the query. Author 2 should definitely consider reframing the first paragraph around a hook like “THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU meets DIVERGENT in [TITLE OF WORK], which follows [MC name] as he joins the ranks of a clandestine organization whose divine influence is secretly being harnessed for sinister ends.” Already, that single sentence tells me I’ll be following the MC through some kind of interesting initiation process, and of course the movie reference gives me a strong through-line of suspense and action.

There’s no bio paragraph here, probably because this is Author 2’s first book. But don’t let that prevent you from including some key information about yourself. You don’t have to pretend to have publishing credits, and you don’t have to feel bad if you don’t. Keep it short and sweet, and you’ll be fine. Finally, while thanking an agent for her time is always wise, do not ask for referrals or favors of any kind in case of a “pass”. An agent doesn’t make money reading through the slush, and doesn’t owe you anything—especially more time.

Author 2’s opening pages reveal that the book actually starts in the wrong place.  The best opening for this novel is actually in the middle of page 5, when one of our characters forgets to go to work—and goes a little crazy. The writing here is well-paced and compelling, and draws us easily into a world that feels familiar, but slightly eerie and strange. Since I have questions about the structure of the book this early, and because the manuscript is a little on the long side for a debut, I would recommend soliciting editorial feedback for structure, continuity, pacing and other story elements.

Boot Camp Recap

A query letter is a business document. It starts with a hook, details the facts about your manuscript (title, genre, word count), then elaborates on the plot as succinctly and specifically as possible. It demonstrates your working knowledge of both your book’s genre/comps and the agent’s specific tastes. The query is courteous, humble, useful, confident and essential.

Knowing when you’re ready to query and writing a great letter can be difficult. At Reedsy, we have some of the industry’s best editors just waiting to help you polish your manuscript and query letter; in fact, “query letter review” is now a searchable service on our marketplace. You can also submit your query and first 10 pages to querybootcamp@reedsy.com if you’d like to be considered for a future installment of Query Boot Camp.

Remember, the #1 way to secure agency representation is to write a great book!


Follow Reedsy and Rebecca on Twitter: @ReedsyHQ and @RFaithEditorial

Want to learn more about Query Letters and how to apply to Reedsy's Query Bootcamp? Click here!

Query Boot Camp Vol. 2, focused on Thrillers, is out! Have a read here.

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Nat

This is a great idea! When you say the query letter should elaborate on the plot, should this be a complete plot summary, or a teaser?

Rebecca Faith

A little bit of both, Nat. You don't have to give away the ending, but in about 10 sentences, you should sketch out the primary conflicts and relationships that propel your book forward.

Patsy

Hi
I presume if a book can be too short, it can also be too long.
My novel is 126,000 words. It was longer. I was advised to split it in two. The second book is 82,000. There are three more, which are about 80,000. The quintet spans 100 years in the lives of a particular family covering the Georgian through the Victorian era.
I have been told agents/publishers might look favourably on something having a follow up book. There are also two shorter spin offs,

Rebecca Faith

Hi, Patsy, First of all, I absolutely love the Georgian/Victorian eras, so make sure you let me know when I can buy your book! Yes, a book can definitely be too long. In fact, that's the more common problem I see (as opposed to too short). There is some forgiveness for longer novels in certain genres, but my rule of thumb is that a debut novel in ANY genre should get as close to 80k words as possible. Again, there are exceptions, but generally those exceptions are made for authors with a proven track record -- i.e., those who have… Read more »

Michael Doane

Do agents like when there are multiple books/series? The chances of sales certainly increases don't they? Are most agents sales-driven?

Rebecca Faith

Most agents are CONTENT driven. Serialization is quite trendy for genre fiction and much less important for lit fic. The important thing is that the first book stands alone. If there's more story to tell, so be it -- but often, authors who plan for serialization end up with a slow first book that does too much world-building and not enough comprehensive characterization/plot development.

Patsy

hi again
ha! the book I divided in two was only 90 k words till I got an editor who said I should have more dialogue and description as she thought it ran along like an express train.
I must say, when I took her advice, the whole story came to life.
I might consider dividing it up again and making the two into three.
lots to think about!
Thanks

Rebecca Faith

Sounds like it! Better to have more options than fewer, right? Best of luck with it, Patsy.

Dennis

Query Boot Camp. Great idea. What one of us couldn't use help crafting the killer query? Especially the hook. I find that the most elusive part. I'm two-thirds finished my 3rd novel. Not yet ready to get into the query process, but when I am (think Nov. 10th), I'll be back to you folks.

Rebecca Faith

Thanks for the kind words, Dennis! Best of luck finishing book #3 (3!! Amazing!).

Len Diamond

I don't understand your advice to pad out a "beautifully written" piece to conform to an arbitrary word count. I don't know how much additional material you're recommending in this case, but unless it's minor it can ruin the whole thing. "Industry standard" is just that: what the industry thinks. Readers' standards might be different. Are agents really going to reject something "beautifully written" because they think people don't want to read anything less than "industry standard"? Would an agent be that short-sighted?
Len Diamond (sticky "o" on my keyboard, original sign-in)

Rebecca Faith

Hi, Len. Industry standard word counts aren't really arbitrary -- though it can feel that way sometimes. At 40k words, I start to question if a piece has actually developed to its fullest potential; we also have to consider what readers of this genre are typically looking for, as well as the cost associated with a print run. 40k isn't actually a novel, either -- it's a novella. But from the query I know that this author wants to write a novel. So he certainly has choices, but the one that's most likely to lead to a successful query is… Read more »

Len Diamond

My novel (or maybe it’s a novella, by those industry standards) is 46,000 words. As is no doubt true of everyone else’s novel, it took a long time and many revisions to finish. But now it tells the story I wanted to tell. If I had to add substantially to it it would be a different story. If an agent wants a different story, there are a million writers and someone else will inevitably write it. But risking changing the story purely for the sake of word count just seems like a bad idea.

Rebecca Faith

First, congratulations on your novel (or novella, as the case may be)! If your story is truly complete at 46k words, that's not a bad thing -- it's just the reality of your story. Should you query that manuscript as a novel? No, probably not. Are there exceptions to the rule? Most definitely; certain genres are much more conducive to shorter lengths, and you can Google "short novels" for a rather enlightening list of commercial/literary titles that clock in "low" according to industry standards (The Great Gatsby, for instance, clocked in under 55k!). I would never encourage someone to compromise… Read more »

Michael Doane

Rebecca, what I'd like to know is this: how much does building a relationship with an agent make a difference? Are an author's chances greater if she's met the agent she's pitching at a conference? Also, do agents consider authors more if they've already built up some sort of audience via a blog or social media? Thanks!

Rebecca Faith

Hi, Michael, Thanks for your questions! Your relationship with your agent will be both personal and professional; this is someone who will be your creative partner and advocate, so for sure working with someone you have good rapport with is key. That said, what do agents and authors bond over most often? The work! That should come first and foremost. Regarding conferences: often face-time at a conference is tricky; agents are asked to meet with a lot of authors, and many authors will rush to submit work for a one-on-one that's not quite ready. So while those meetings CAN be… Read more »

Michael Doane

Thanks for the response, Rebecca. Great information here. Sounds like knowing your market is important to agents.

Let me rephrase my first question another way: Is it best to start a relationship with an agent via a query letter, or to try to build that relationship via encounters at conferences, social media, etc. before sending the query letter? Do personal connections mean a thing, or are decisions made solely on the quality of the work?

The reason I ask is because in most industries quality of course matters, but relationships are usually the pillar of successful partnerships.

Rebecca Faith

I don't think you need to build those relationships BEFORE you send a letter, no. One of the beautiful things about the agent-author process is that moment when you pull a query letter out of the slush and BAM! It's the diamond you've been waiting for. That is very real, and has nothing to do with whether an agent knows you. You most certainly have to cultivate relationships in publishing -- and the author-editor relationship is a critical link. But your agent has to bond with your work as well as you personally. The work has to speak loudest, and… Read more »

Ben Hourigan

Where are the queries themselves? Am I missing something, or have they been excluded to protect the authors' identities? Could we get the original text with the identifying bits redacted?

Rebecca Faith

Hi Ben,

The original queries have NOT been posted. We'd prefer not to, since identifying details such as name/address aren't the only privileged parts of a query; the premise/synopsis itself is intellectual property we want to protect. We're still experimenting with the best balance of transparency and privacy for this segment. Thanks for bearing with us!

Ben Hourigan

Thanks, Rebecca. Perhaps one way around this would be to post a model query letter, so that we know what one should ideally look like. I'm digging this advice, and I'd like to see whether the ideal query letter I'm imagining is the same one in your head.

Rebecca Faith

That's a great idea, Ben -- thanks! I have a model letter that *ahem* is usually reserved for clients, but maybe making that available will help us all meet over a common understanding.

Thanks again for reading, Ben! Glad you're finding the advice useful.

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