|Photo by Gabriella Fabbri|
1) KNOW WHAT YOUR BOOK IS - This seems obvious, right? After all you wrote the book, why wouldn't you know what it is? And yes, you know your story, but do you know what it is in the grand scheme of things, i.e. the market? You have to pull yourself back from your novel and really look at what your book is about, what type of book it is, who the audience is, what else is out there like it, how your book is different, and why people would want to read it. It is so important to figure this out before you begin the query process because if you don't know how to present what your book is in your query, you will most likely be targeting the wrong agents or editors. And if you get lucky and query the right person, she may not realize it based on your query because you haven't told her what she needs to know.
2) RESEARCH THE AGENT/EDITOR - Once you know what your book is, you can narrow down potential editors and agents who may want this type of book. Research possible matches for your genre, but don't stop there. Look at books you like and see who the agent or editor was, read blogs by agents or editors, and attend conferences. The more you know about an agent or editor, the better chance you have when writing that query. Why? Because the blanket approach to query-writing doesn't work. Just as authors prefer personalized rejections to form letter rejections, agents and editors want personalized queries. This doesn't mean you need to know the agent personally in order to query him or her. (However, if you DO have some personal connection, it is in your best interest to make that known in the first paragraph!) This simply means you need to know about that agent or editor. The more you know when you begin querying - what she likes to represent, who she represents, what she's written in her blog, her submission guidelines, etc - the better chance you have of not blowing that query.
3) TAILOR YOUR PITCH - Once you know about the agent or editor you are querying, you can tailor your pitch to him. By this I mean, highlight whatever your novel has that he wants - humor, drama, two-legged dogs, etc. Figure out what it is about your novel that will interest him. That's all the query is after all - a reason for an agent to read your first few pages.
4) STRUCTURE YOUR QUERY - Now that you have an idea of what your book is, what that agent wants, and how your novel fits what she wants, you should have a good idea of what to put in the query. You'll need to take that information and structure it into a business letter. And yes, this is a business letter. This is not the place for cutesy-cutesy gimmicks. The basic structure should go something like this:
a) Paragraph One- This should be a very short paragraph saying why you are querying that agent, how you know of him, if you heard her at a conference, if you were referred by a client, etc. EXAMPLE: I met you at the XYZ conference in June. I am a huge fan of the Lolly Gag's series you represent and feel my humorous YA novel SHENANIGANS would be a great fit for you.
b) Paragraph Two - This can sometimes be two paragraphs, but it must be a very tight and concise description of your novel. Here you will need to highlight the most intriguing aspects. It is a quick glimpse, so keep it short, but it must include all the important parts: genre, age-group, word count, and most importantly, the hook; what the premise is and what makes it stand apart from others in the genre.
c) Paragraph Three - This should be a very short paragraph about yourself. DO NOT say you have written a ton of other novels unless they have been published; DO NOT say your kids or students or grandma loved this book; DO NOT say this is the first version of the book (if it is, you should not be querying yet). DO say if you have an expertise that is pertinent to your novel (i.e. you are a former astronaut and the book takes place on a shuttle headed into space). DO mention any awards the novel won if it is a well-known organization giving the award (like Writer's Digest or SCBWI). DO include your education or professional background if it is important to your profession as a writer (MFA; former journalist, etc.)
Hope that helps you take the plunge! If you are still sitting on the edge afraid to get your feet wet though, try this link to my awesome agent, Jill Corcoran's website where she shares a ton of advice and other links to great query-letter info.
16-year-old Roswell Hart finds herself in this very predicament in Laura Ellen's YA thriller, BLIND SPOT (Fall 2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)