Yesterday I attended an amazing conference hosted by Writer’s Digest featuring Chuck Sambuchino as the speaker. If you’re not familiar with Chuck’s work, YOU SHOULD BE. I’ve been using Writer’s Digest, and Chuck’s blog specifically for YEARS. You’ll find all kinds of good stuff over there about writing queries, querying agents, and even which agents are brand new and building their lists. I’ll wait while you explore.
While a lot of the conference discussed things I already knew, I did take some notes to bring back for you guys. Not only was Chuck Sambuchino awesome, I participated in “Writer’s Got Talent,” where a panel of agents read the first page of manuscripts and critiqued them. But we’ll get to that later.
Let’s talk about queries first. Everyone who’s ever queried knows how much writing a query SUCKS. As in, sucks the life out of your soul. It’s hard work choosing the right words. Agonizing, even. So while I won’t reiterate everything Chuck said (he has books for that kind of thing), I will hit on a few important points that I wrote down regarding query writing.
- Intro – Get in and get out quickly.
- Use the first sentence to give the technical details of your work. Genre, word count, title. Giving the genre first tells the agent how to feel about the query. (Don’t use a hook. Usually a hook is confusing and not explained until later anyway. Using an intro is the safest, most harmless method.)
- The second sentence is the reason you are contacting the agent. (Saw them at a conference, you read that they like super-secret spy thrillers on their blog, etc.) Side note—don’t say you’re contacting them because they rep BIGGEST BEST SELLING BOOK. Chuck suggests that you look farther down in their list and choose a book that wasn’t a best seller, but that the agent likely loves anyway. This will make you stand out because everyone else is using the best seller.
- Pitch –
- 3-10 sentences (Think back cover of a book.)
- DO NOT reveal the ending.
- Use specifics. Do not use language that has more than one meaning. (Don’t be vague or use cliché “suspense” tropes.)
- Read the back of debuts at the bookstore and see what language draws you in. Apply this to your query.
- Use evocative language that will “paint a picture” and help the agent know the tone of your work.
- Beware of subplots, extra characters, and proper names. Try to limit the number of names you use in the query, especially if they’re hard to understand (unusual, foreign, made up for sci-fi). Mention ONLY the main characters.
- Don’t say “My novel is…(funny, heartfelt, terrifying).” Show it within the query by using the right words to evoke a response.
- Some random things I wrote down –
- What does the character desire?
- What things go wrong?
- Layers of conflict.
- What happens if the character fails?
- Bio –
- Mention any serious and well-known writing groups. (SCBWI, for example.)
- Notable and relevant awards you’ve received. (Nothing from high school, please.)
- Any job where you’ve been paid to write, even if it was a long time ago. You don’t have to say it happened twenty years ago, just that you were a columnist at such and such a place.
- Don’t say it’s your first novel.
- Only pitch ONE THING at a time.
- Don’t mention how long it took you to write. Four weeks sounds bad. So does 10 years.
- Don’t use rhetorical questions. They sound silly and so do you.
The agent panel was immensely interesting and informative. Chuck read the first pages aloud and had the agents raise their hands when they would’ve stopped reading if this first page were a submission. Holy massacre! Sometimes we made it a few sentences, sometimes a few paragraphs. Very few authors had their first page read all the way to the end. This showed me that even though many of us think we’re ready to query, we’re nowhere near that final perfect submission. It also proved that agents read subjectively. Where one agent would raise their hand, another wouldn’t. Where one agent would love a particular turn of phrase, another found it cliché. (Want to know how my first page did? Ask in a comment and I’ll fess up!)
The biggest DON’TS the agents mentioned regarding the opening scene of a novel –
- Don’t use a phone call.
- Don’t have the main character waking up in the morning.
- Don’t use a description of the weather.
- Don’t use a dream.
- Don’t use a prologue. Some agents say ABSOLUTELY NOT to prologues. Better to be safe than sorry.
So what do you do? Put your character in the MIDDLE of an event or situation. Start with ACTION.
Later, Chuck told us not to fall victim to the TWO BIGGEST mistakes that get authors rejected. (And yes, I wrote them down for you.)
- The book starts too slow and is boring. (Start in the middle of something.)
- Too much info dump.
- Telling not showing.
- Back story.
- Explaining the character motivation.
You want to give just enough that the reader isn’t confused because what you DON’T say is more interesting that what you DO. The unknown will keep the reader (or agent!) turning pages.
While I learned many more things from Chuck (he’s a FANTASTIC speaker), one last point really stuck out to me.
AS AN AUTHOR, SO MUCH IS OUTSIDE OF YOUR CONTROL.
This is true about So. Many. Things. Whether an agent will like your query or first pages. Whether they’ll pass or decide to give you a call. Whether you’ll actually sell your book even if you get an agent. Edits. The cover. The first run. Even if you self-publish, you don’t know if readers will like your story.
The most important thing you can do is WRITE THE BEST THING YOU CAN. (And be patient.)
All the best,