Query Letter (&Synopsis) Advice
If you thought writing and editing your novel was the hardest thing you’ve ever done -bad news- writing a query letter which clearly introduces your main character, conflict and stakes isn’t easy. Doing so concisely is harder still. Crafting a query which invites industry professionals to connect with your character and care about their conflict -which overall entices them- may seem impossible -at first. Great query crafting is an art (different to novel writing unfortunately) and requires honing a specific skill set. Luckily, there are many great resources listing the ingredients you need (there’s some good tips in this one by @PolishandPitch) and more importantly -modelling what skillful inclusion of them can look like. My tip -don’t use distancing statements like, ‘it is revealed that,’ -keep your pitch in your MC’s pov with ‘She discovers that…’
My favourite query letter instructions, in which humour illustrates nailing pitch components, is Patrick Bohan’s Mad Libs Formula Blog Post. It features a fictional pitch involving Bob the Builder and his Deathray.
For a detailed outline of query letter & pitch structure, literary agent preferences and specifics like “how do I personalise?” see my post on Query Letter Specifics.
For examples of everything you could possibly do wrong in a query letter (and occasional excellent queries) -read QueryShark’s Blog. She’s a literary agent, and the right hand archives list query letters and her critiques of them over years. Bad news -yes you have to browse by date. She recommends reading them all, but if for example, like me you write fantasy and most of the queries aren’t fantasy and have different weaknesses to yours -I’d start reading just her comments after the first 10-20 letters or skimming for queries of your genre.
Part of your successful query will be choosing appropriate comparison titles which show literary agents there is an existing market for you book and that you know what it is. This article explains comparison titles and has advice on finding them. I recommend googling ‘top 20 (insert genre & age) books of 2020/ any of the 4 previous years, or telling your local librarian a bit about your novel and seeing what comparison titles they can suggest. Sites like whichbook.net (courtesy of @storiesbysusan) let you enter criteria for things like character and plot -which may be a big help in finding comp titles.
When you think your letter is ready, here’s a handy graphic to help you check.
If your querying involves pitching your novels to Indie Publishers and literary agents on Twitter’s Pitch Parties, here’s a pitch party list (with their website links), and a post on Crafting Tweet Pitches.
Synopsis Writing There is varying advice on how to write a synopsis. I’ve heard “write one sentence per chapter,” but every chapter won’t always be a story beat. Some chapters just allow the reader to take a break from intense story beats and develop characters subtly -so they don’t need to be mentioned in the synopsis. I recommend writing only the main beats eg. a line for character/ world introduction, a line for the inciting event etc. A great resource for that is this article by Susan Dennard. For more synopsis advice and tips on how your synopsis differs from your query letter, see this article by the How to Write a Query Letter site.
Query Motivation -#Pitmad If you need a deadline/ pressure to make you knuckle down -participate in #Pitmad. With 4 pitch parties a year open to all genres (in March, June, September and December) that gives you 4 regular deadlines to have your pitch (and final MS polish if you struggle with that) polished to perfection.
Query Letter (&Synopsis) Feedback
Knowing When Your Query Is Finished Writing a query is HARD. Reading guides, tips and especially successful queries is helpful. But how do you know that you HAVE successfully applied most of the advice you have read into YOUR query? One way to assess this unhindered by author bias of knowing your novel and past query drafts too well (it’s amazing how our subconscious fills gaps in what your query actually says), is getting feedback.
Free Query & Synopsis Feedback. You can tweet in the #WritingCommunity offering to trade (also for synopsis) feedback (like I did here), then by setting up a DM group to trade emails and documents. The best time to do this is before or soon after #Pitmad, when many writers of all genres will be preparing to query. Some Discord Servers may have a channel for seeking query letter and synopsis feedback. For an invite link to mine, you’re welcome to DM me on Twitter.
Workshops I haven’t had the opportunity to attend a pitch crafting workshop, but I have seen the difference it makes to other writers query letters (it’s no coincidence that two such writers just got agent likes in #Pitmad). If you get the chance to attend one -I’d take it!
Professional Critiques: I’ve heard mixed reviews about the effectiveness of these, so I would ask for recommendations from other writers before paying for one. QueryShark will critique for free if you agree to the critique being displayed on her blog for others to learn from. Manuscript Academy offers paid critiques and paid consultations with literary agents.
Querying & Literary Agents
Literary Agents Introduction
The first thing I stumbled across about literary agents was warnings against disreputable agents and frauds. If you haven’t read up on this, there’s good general information and tips on what to be wary of on Science Fiction Writers of America.
The Basics Eg. ‘why do you need a literary agent?’ ‘how do I submit?’ etc see AgentQuery.
Where and How to Find Literary Agents? See Eric Smith’s A Beginner’s Guide to Looking Up Literary Agents.
Wondering whether to query a new literary agent? Here’s an advice blog on pro’s and con’s.
Youtube Channels with Great Query and Literary Agent Info & Advice include former Meg Latorre’s Query Tips and Agent Information on her iwriterly channel (which has other great writing advice). And Alexa Donne’s Getting an Agent videos from her author channel (which also has great writing advice).
I’ve listed four databases for finding literary agents below. You can also (if you write an AMAZING pitch, find them in twitter pitch parties. More info in this post).
Literary Agent Databases
Manuscript Wishlist is searchable by genre and gives up-to-date and sometimes more detailed than literary agency profile information on what specific literary agents are seeking. I used it to compile my agents to potentially query long list. You can also search #MSWL on twitter for what literary agents are tweeting they want right now, but they may not have tweeted recently so this can be hit and miss. (Don’t tweet on this hashtag -its only for agents and publishers to tweet on).
Agentquery has a database of literary agents.
QueryTracker is an agent database which allows you to record agents you wish to submit to or not to submit to, and what stage your query has progressed to with any particular agent -submitted query/ partial request/ full request, etc. It’s a great way to avoid accidentally submitting to the same agent twice, and lets you record whom you think it’s inappropriate to submit to, so you don’t waste time reading about them again if you search the database multiple times. Premium ($25 a year) lets you see where your query is in any one agent’s queue and is well worth its price tag.
I like this database because it has extensive lists of individual agents, agencies and genres they accept by country, including the UK, US, Canada, Australia and some European countries. You have to be a member to view lists, but it’s free to join.
If you use databases, blogs or lists to find literary agents -CHECK THE AGENT WEBSITE for up-to-date SUBMISSION GUIDELINES and that they ARE CURRENTLY OPEN to unsolicited submissions, to avoid being rejected or ignored for acting on out of date or incorrect information.
Communicating With Literary Agents
FAQS about Agents Offering Representation, from agent phone calls to contracts are answered thoroughly by Agent Query in this article.
When You Get The Call, here are some questions to ask the literary agent offering representation, by Bookends Literary Agency. And some questions a literary agent may ask you, by former literary agent Mary Kole.
When You Get An Offer here’s an article of things to consider while deciding if you’ve found the right agent for you and your book, by a writer who said “no” to an agent.
Publishing & Marketing Resources
As with agents, you could google publishing agencies. If you do, be wary of vanity presses masquerading as traditional publishers, charging you for printing and doing very little to promote sales of your book (Austin Macauley tops that list). In general, if they find you or anyone offers you a deal that seems too good to be true -it’s probably a lie. Also be wary of hybrid or ebook publishers claiming to be ‘traditional publishers’ -if they may expect you to cover some costs, they aren’t traditional publishers. And if they only sell ebooks -whats the difference in their profits compared to a publisher who also sells hard copy? It’s worth finding out before you consider signing anything.
Publishing and Other Forms of Insanity has a comprehensive list of publishers accepting unsolicited submissions (in multiple countries), a long list of articles about self-publishing and other useful resources such as contests, and where to get reviews.
Author’s Publish is a mailing list, and one of the emails they send regularly is a comprehensive, free ebook guide to publishing. Their emails also contain reviews and lists of publishers and magazines accepting unsolicited submissions.
Profit and Loss –How Publishers Decide What to Publish, by Jane Friedman.
3 Unique Research Methods for Identifying Small Publishers by Jane Friedman.
For a list of Twitter pitch parties to pitch your novel in, see this post.
For advice on crafting query letter or tweet pitches, see this one.