Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Writing a standout query remains one of the greatest challenges for a writer hoping to snag an agent’s or editor’s attention. I often describe those of us who receive a barrage of queries every day as being somnambulant. We see so many queries that sound the same and offer up ideas we’ve seen many times that we’re kind of sleepwalking as we meander through the query thicket. The writer’s first task in creating a query is to wake us up–gently, or we might not be in the best frame of mind.
- to proclaim yourself the next Nicholas Sparks or Malcolm Gladwell. We read those types of proclamations a lot.
- to use hyperbole in describing your manuscript. That does not impress but suggests your work will be littered with overwriting. For example, if a query describes the manuscript as “The most profound, moving, and picturesque study of the human condition since the Bible,” well…it’s unlikely to be an accurate description.
- to oversell yourself. How you present yourself might get our attention at first, but we do investigate beyond the query and the proposal. So, for example, if you describe yourself as a speaker with a significant platform but, on asking more questions, the agent finds out that means you speak regionally (as opposed to all over the country) and about once a month, every other detail you’ve presented about who you are is viewed with greater skepticism.
Let me add that writers aren’t necessarily trying to deceive in any of these approaches. They’re just framing how they want the agent or editor to see them. Writers also can’t see themselves in the context of the writers’ pool, which is how those of us in publishing view them.
If you’ve worked hard to become a regional speaker, you feel good about the advances you’ve made. You see how far you’ve come; we’re looking at where you need to be before you can attach the word “significant” to yourself.
If those aren’t the best ways to wake up an industry professional, what is?
- Foremost is that your manuscript is a thing of beauty. Even in nonfiction, if you wield your words well, editors and agents will snap awake.
- Then there’s the platform-thing, which still works its magic.
- But every once in awhile I’ll come across a query that takes a different tack from the norm, and that unusual approach, in and of itself, nudges my eyes open.
A few weeks, ago I received a query that began this way:
“I don’t know how I came to pick up The Waiting by Cathy LaGrow but, once I did, I kept reading straight through to the end. I was riveted by the touching simplicity of the story and the narrative voice. Having just completed my own manuscript, also inspired by true events experienced by my family, I am writing to you in the hopes that you will find my work equally riveting and want to represent me…”
This smart query works on several levels:
1. The writer has done her research. She knows about a book I represented. She read it. She liked it.
2. She mentions her book is written in the same vein. And it is. She wasn’t grasping for a weak connection but shows me where the membrane between the two stories is thin.
3. And the writing of the paragraph is strong as is the rest of the query. She shows off her writing skill in a quiet and elegant way as she describes the manuscript and herself.
Among the elements that struck me about the query was that the writer either accidentally discovered a book I represented or purposely read it. Either way, she realized complimenting a book I participated in getting published would be a winsome approach. She was smart and realized that mentioning The Waiting was setting a radio alarm pre-dialed to my favorite music.
I was fully awake by the time I finished the above paragraph and attentively read on. Unfortunately, her manuscript wasn’t one I thought I could place for a variety of reasons, none of which had to do with the concept or the writing but instead were about it not being a fit for me.
If it had been a good fit, I would have immediately asked to see the proposal and would have eagerly awaited receiving it.
How’s that for a smart query?
When you put together a query or a description of your manuscript, what’s the greatest challenge for you?
What makes a standout manuscript query? Click to tweet.
Lit. agent @JanetKGrant showcases how to make a query stand out. Click to tweet.