Queries and Synopis: How to Get an Agent Salivating to Read Your Manuscript

Writer turned agent extraordinaire Jill Corcoran, of the Herman Agency, spoke at the 2010 Southern California SCBWI Writer’s Day about how to get an agent to request your manuscript. The following are her tips, personal preferences, and insight to help ensure your inbox is full of requests instead of rejection letters.

What’s a Query Letter?

  • A query letter is a simple letter to get an agent to read your book. That’s it.
  • It’s a pitch.
  • It’s a business letter. So be professional.
  • The purpose of the letter is to entice an agent to request your full manuscript (that’s your objective).
  • Sometimes an amazing query letter will have a book that doesn’t live up to the query.

What To Do Before You Write Your Query Letter:

  • Finish your book!!! Never query before the book is finished. In fact, the book should not only be finished, but should be so good that it is ready to be published! Be critical of your work.
  • Research what agents are good for you (and your book).
  • Know what your book is about. You need to be able to summarize your book in your query letter.

Great Ways to Research Agents:

  • Follow agents on twitter. You’ll really get to know them by what they post.
  • Read an agent’s blog! This is a great way to find out an agent’s individual tastes, personality, and what they are looking for.

How To Query:

  • The First Paragraph: There are two schools of though on how to open your query letter. The first one is to start your query with your story, just jump in and start with the synopsis. The other school of thought (which Corcoran prefers) is to explain why you are contacting the agent. The first paragraph in this situation should include short, precise and true reason(s) you are querying this particular agent. Research helps you to write this part, because it will show how well of a fit you and the agent are.
  • The Second Paragraph: Next is the story synopsis. Write a 2 to 10 sentence synopsis of your story. Here’s how: In (Title of book), X-Main Character needs to (define problem) before (obstacles). Now not all stories will fit into this neat and tidy premise, but you get the idea. Just remember that this is a sales piece and not a play by play of the story. The important information to include would be: title, main character and his/her age, the dilemma, the genre (YA, Picture Book, etc.), and the setting (if applicable).
  • The Third Paragraph: Write about yourself. Agents vary on what they like to see here. Corcoran likes to know whatever you think is important. While other agents don’t care if you train lemurs as a hobby, Corcoran thinks that would be interesting. But in general you should include: previously published work (yes, magazine publications count), writing honors and awards, a writing MFA, a specialty that relates to the book, SCBWI memberships, etc. Don’t include how many cats you have, or that your kids loved this book.

How To Write A Fantastic Synopsis:

  • Read flap copy from published books. This is a sales pitch to you the reader. When writing your query you are doing the same exact thing. Be enticing and keep it simple

Things to Avoid When Writing a Query Letter:

  • Always default to Ms. or Mr. and then the last name of the agent. You don’t need to include the first name. And be careful of using the prefix of Mrs.
  • Don’t be to “sales-y” in your query. It’s a turn-off.
  • Stay business-y and avoid getting to cutesy.
  • Don’t use large blocks of text. White space is good. Break up your paragraphs and keep things short.

Other Tips Before You Query:

  • Most agents do e-queries these days. But check submission guidelines to be sure.
  • You’ve got to know what sells “you”! If you’ve written books and are published then start your query with that. Know what makes you unique and will make you stand out.
  • Be specific!
  • It’s not bragging to talk about yourself and “sell yourself.” You’ll have to do this over and over. Get used to it.
  • Your query should be different for each agent you submit to. Particularly the part where you specify why you are submitting to this particular agent. Your synopsis may be the same, but the intro should be different.
  • Remember your query is a business letter.
  • Find out what other books are in the market that are similar to your book. Make sure that your work isn’t done already by someone else.
  • Sometimes an assistant will read your query before the agent will. Don’t fret, the assistant is trained to have the same taste (and look for) what the agent is interested in.

The Order In Which Jill Corcoran Reads Your Submission/Query:

  • Corcoran doesn’t always read query letters in order. She starts with who you are. Have you been published? What makes you interesting.
  • Then she look to see what genre your book is. Is it YA or MG (which she represents).
  • Now she goes back and reads your first paragraph, followed by the rest of the query.
  • If the query is interesting, she’ll read the first 10 pages (which you should submit with your query).
  • Then she goes back and reads your synopsis to see if the rest of the book seems interesting.

A Few Formatting Tips for Your Submission:

  • Use the Font Times New Roman with a 12 or 14 point size.
  • Don’t send your manuscript in Courier, as it will skew the page count.

About Little About Jill Corcoran and What She Likes:

  • At the Herman Agency, Corcoran represents young adult books, middle grade books, and chapter books. Meanwhile the other agent at the Herman Agency covers picture books and illustrators.
  • Corcoran and her partner are very close so it will feel like you get two agents in one!
  • She don’t like books about bullies. That is an automatic rejection based solely on subject matter.
  • Corcoran likes tight writing and poetry.

Jill Corcoran is an agent with the Herman Agency. She has an English degree from Stanford University and an MBA in Finance and Marketing from The University of Chicago, Jill has marketed everything from sneakers to cereal at Leo Burnett Advertising, LA Gear, Mattel, and at her own consulting company, LAUNCH! New Product Marketing. Jill is also a children’s book author and poet. You can learn more about her on her blog: www.jillcorcoran.blogspot.com