Query Letter Suicide

Agent Jill Corcoran (of the Herman Agency) shared the following lists of things you should NOT write in your query letter. Take a look and make sure you aren’t committing query letter suicide!

Things NOT to write in you Query Letter:

1. I’m a new writer.

2. This is my first book or this is the first book I have written.

3. This is the second/third/forth/tenth book I have written.

4. This is the first book in my 9 book series.

5. I have recently completed the second book in a series of four.

6. The following example doesn’t tell the agent anything about the book: My book XXX, is a series of stories involving a cast of recurring characters. I have written approximately 20 stories in XXX series. Each story is more exciting than the last, and take the XXX to farther away places and more fantastic situations. The story, “XXX”, which I am sending you, introduces XXX, draws the characters and sets up the premise for the book. While each story may stand alone, they could be combined to form a chapter book following the progression of story lines and new characters.

7. This is not a good way to start a first paragraph: My book is called XXX. My target readership would be geared towards middle school children around ten years of age. I have completed the book, it is 88 pages in length and is the first book in the series XXX. (This intro is choppy and dull).

8. I hope you and everyone around you are doing well. (This is too familiar).

9. In my pursuit for agent representation, I am about as bedeviled as X, the protagonist, in XXX. (An odd way to start).

10. I am looking for an agent to help me publish my book, XXX, a 77,000 word long fictional young adult novel. (Get rid of the word “fictional”. Also, this is too non-specific, it seems like any agent will do. You need to say why you have picked this particular agent to query.) (It is best – and business like – to start a query like this: I am looking for representation for XXX.)

11. I am looking for an agent to help me publish my book, XXX.

12. Do not write in the subject line of an email query: One minute read. CB Query. (It’s rude).

13. I’ve worked on XXX for a decade, which includes feedback from writers groups, a freelance editor, and now an interested publisher. I believe XXX will benefit anyone, but targeted girls, ages 9-12. (Why have you been working on this book for a decade? That’s a big red flag.)

14. I hope you would like to represent my book, X, to publishers. (Too unprofessional, and not a strong sentence.)

15. This is not a full query, though I get this a lot: My children’s book is called: XXX. It is the story of an eight year old girl, X, who gets seperated (use spell check!) from her family on a fishing trip. She is rescued by and spends a couple of weeks in the company of a small family of x-fish. It is a simple fantasy story that includes a valuable lesson (Lessons are  no no!) for small children. The importance of heeding their parents advice even though it interferes with every childs wish to grow-up to fast. (This whole paragraph is blah, and lacks specifics.) If you would like me to e-mail you the full story, I would be more than happy to do so.

16. My completed novel, XXX, is an original and unique coming of age romance that will appeal to young adults, with a distinctive plotline. With so many stories in the YA genre out there now, I have managed to blend genres – contemporary YA and historical romance together into an interesting and one-of-a-kind premise. The writing is energetic, and the supernatural twists and turns make it a page turner. (I don’t think there is anything that is one-of-a-kind out there. There’s always something similar to it.)

17. XXX should fit in well with your other titles, though it is very unique in its own right, since there are no other YA novels out there like it. (Agents don’t have lists – like publishers. We don’t want things to fit in with our titles. We have clients not titles.)

18. Don’t write back and ask for a critique or a quick opinion. Most agents put this in their rejections if they feel like sharing. Often we don’t share so that we do not get more and more questions. If an agent is interested in your work they will offer critiques.

Jill Corcoran shared the above information at the 2010 Southern California SCBWI Writers Day. 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

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

Agent Day: Insight from Brenda Bowen

The final speaker at the SCBWI OC Agent Day was the lovely Ms. Brenda Bowen. In addition to her great talk about agent/editor negotiation she also shared the following tid-bits about herself, her agenting style, and what she’s looking for:

About Bit About Greenburger Associates:

  • We are a full service agency with a large back-list that includes The Little Prince, Simone De Beauvoir, Kafka, and Dan Brown. We like to joke that we are the agency that represents Fancy Nancy and Kafka!
  • We have 8 full agents, and a sub-rights dept. Each agent seems to cover a specific area/genre so we have less overlap than other agencies. I am the children’s literature rep!

A Bit About Brenda Bowen:

  • I graduated from college with an English and Art History degree.
  • I started out as a secretary at Basic Books. I became a reader, and worked my way up. I have worked in everything from Middlegrade, to Young Adult (both commercial and literary), Picture Books, Trashy Teen Romance, the whole gamut!
  • Harper Collins created their own Bowen Imprint in 2007, but it was shut down in 2009.
  • When I got canned I decided to become an agent, and I really felt I could compliment the Greenburger agency.
  • I am also a published author and I write under the pen name of Margaret McNamara.
  • Some of my clients include: Rosemary Wells (her first agent retired), Hillary Knight (Eloise books illustrator), Vladimir Redemski, Karen Berger, and Bryan Karas.

What Brenda Bowen Likes and Wants to See in Her Submissions:

  • I am very Catholic in my tastes, but I can like anything from the trashy to the literary.
  • I am not a fan of paranormal books, and in general I am not hugely into young adult novels.
  • I really like to focus on Picture Books through Middle Grade (including chap books and the educational market).
  • What I like is hard to define.
  • I also fear the “conference polish” as Mary Kole mentioned earlier. So I always ask for the first three chapters in a submission.
  • I want to work with people I love to be around! I want to be happy to see their name in my in-box.
  • I would like to do more fiction, I already have a lot of picture books on my plate. I represent both picture book authors alone, as well as author/illustrators.
  • I like boy oriented books that are funny.
  • I want a story that I have never read before.

What Gets Brenda’s Attention in a Query Letter:

  • A catchy title can be reason alone for me to request a manuscript. For example: The Masterwork of a Painting Elephant. This shows me that the author is confident enough to name his/her book this. It shows me the book is not a trend, and the title has a lyrical sound to it.
  • Please query me as Ms. Bowen and not Mrs. Bowen.
  • I like non-classical queries that are whimsical and share a confident story.
  • Have a query that shows your voice.

Other Bits of Advice:

  • If you don’t have an agent, but you do have a relationship with an editor or and offer from an editor, ask the editor to give you an agent recommendation.
  • I don’t have a favorite house that I like to submit to. Different houses offer different things and it is an agents job to know these things. One house may be great for contracts, another may have fantastic production (which is important for picture books), another may have great marketing. There are a lot of reasons to pick a house, it is not always about the editor.
  • If you have a blog, don’t just talk about yourself. Make your blog interesting. Make content that will be interesting to multiple types of readers – teens, writers, librarians, etc.
  • School visits are great for you and your book!
  • Advances always come in three installments. One on signing, second on delivering an accepted book, and third upon publication. Publishers will do their best to push back payment as late as possible, and an agent is always pushing for payment to be sooner.

Brenda Bowen has held a variety of positions during her twenty five-plus years in children’s publishing. She has been editorial director of Henry Holt & Co., Disney/Hyperion, Schoolastic Press, and Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. Books Brenda has edited have been #1 New York Times bestsellers, and have won the National Book Award, The Newbery Medal, the Coretta Scott King Award, The Caldecott Honor, The Printz Honor, and the Eisner Award. She is now a literary agent with Stanford J. Greenburger and  Associates, and continues to work closely with clients on the editorial direction of their projects.

Tips for Pitching and Querying Agents

Andrea Brown agent Mary Kole shared the following hand-out with the participants of the OC SCBWI Agent Day:

Tips for Pitching and Querying Agents

Whether you pitch an agent in person or with a written query, your goal is the same: to get us to request your manuscript. But first, relax and take a deep breath. Agents and editors are just normal people who love stories, so you have something in common with us right from the start. You are the world’s foremost expert on your own work. Tell us about it and have fun!

When you pitch in person or query, make sure to answer these question about your manuscript:

WHAT is the genre of your story and which audience is it written for?

  • Twilight is a paranormal romance for the YA market.

WHO is your character?

  • Edward Cullen is your typical teen vampire. Good looks, fast car, no pulse.

WHAT is the strange thing going on in his or her life that throws everything off-kilter and launches the story?

  • Then he meets Bella Swan

WHAT (or who) do they want most in the world?

  • For the first time, Edwards wants a human being more than anything. And he wants her alive.

WHO (or what) is in the way of them getting what they want (their obstacle)?

  • Edward’s bloodlust could drive him to either kill her or turn her into a monster like himself.

WHAT is at stake (no vampire pun intended) if the character doesn’t get what they want?

  • If Edward doesn’t get Bella or, worse, if he turns her, he’ll be forever alone. Literally.

Answer these question about your own manuscript. Read the backs of published books and the jacket flap copy. This is roughly the length and tone you’re going for with a verbal pitch or the meat of your written query letter. Remember, you’re giving the agent a taste of your story…and you want them to ask for more. The most well-crafted queries, in my opinion, are ones that make me care about the story and characters. They make me feel something. They make mem want to know what happens next.

An agent will often ask you a question about your project. Be listening (instead of obsessing about how the conversation is going) and be ready with an answer. Remember, you’re the expert and you’re talking with us, not at us.

Agents want to hear from writers. We want good projects. We simply can’t do our jobs without them. So present the juiciest, most compelling points of your story, mention the important details outlined above, and, finally, have fun and be yourself.

Best of luck with your writing and I look forward to hearing about your work!

Mary Kole is an agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. You can learn more about her and her agency at: The Andrea Brown Website. Mary also keeps up an award-winning blog about children’s literature, writing, and publishing called: www.kidlit.com. Mary is also a big fan of the iPad, but you’ll have to ask her about that.

Eight Myths About Literary Agents

Is it true that big agencies doesn’t care about small writers? Or that everything you read about an agent online is true? Writers House agent, Rebecca Sherman spoke at the 2010 SCBWI OC Agent Day and debunked all the myths you may have heard. So here is what she had to say to set the record straight!

Myth #1: An Individual Author Gets Lost in a Big Agency

Not True! Even though an agency may be big, like Writers House, every agent has autonomy over his or her list. Therefore the choice to choose a client is entirely up to the agent. And even though agents have obligations to their agency – meetings, priorities, etc. agents do work independently as well to oversee their own clients. The reputation of both the agent and the company relies on how he/she represents a client so it is very important to cultivate each career individually.

Myth #2: Everything You Read Online (and on Publisher’s Marketplace) is One Hundred Percent True.

Let’s clarify here. What you read on Publisher’s Marketplace – is – true. However, it may not be the whole picture. We often withhold information because it is  not the right time to make it public. For example we may not want to mention a new sale because a book won’t come out for two years, or we need to protect the material of our clients so it isn’t bumbling around out there in the internet. Don’t over analyze the info you read online, because you seldom have the whole picture.

Myth #3: Agents Will Sign an Author Based on a Book Proposal or Pitch.

You should always, always, always, finish your book before you query an agent! You want to also research an agent before submitting to make sure he/she is right for your work. However, you will never land an agent if you don’t stop researching and SUBMIT!

You can also read Rebecca Sherman’s Do’s and Don’t of Querying and agent here: Rebecca’s Do’s and Don’ts

Myth #4: If I Don’t Hear Back from an Agent Right Away it Means They Hate My Book.

I know that waiting is hard, but in this industry, patience is a virtue! Please don’t take it personally if you have to wait. Agents are busy people, they have more important things to do that just read through the slush (spread the word!). They need to work with their clients first!

A Client = Actual, where as,  A Query = A Hypothetical.

All material will be read and responded to (if you submit to me). I have three very capable assistants who do look through the work first. The Assistant Agent is your gate keeper, and it is their job to know my taste. I have a current list of 25 – 30 clients and they are my priority. I get thousands of submissions every year. And occasionally my work load will reflect if I am willing to take on a new client or not. We will get to you! Patience!

Myth #5: You Should Take the First Offer of Representation That You Get From an Agent

This relates to my previous comment about being patient. If you’ve submitted your work to multiple agents and you get an offer, please keep me abreast to this information. Email me and let me know that you have another offer. I would like a fair chance to review your work, and I will review it if you let me know there is interest elsewhere. Don’t make a decision about representation based on who reads your work first. Find the person who is right for you. Please contact me and let me know of the other offer and allow me a fair amount of time to review it. As an agent myself, I am very open to waiting for clients that I’ve offered representation to so that they can hear back from other agents. This is professional and important. Also, if you decide to accept representation from another agent please let me know that as well so I don’t waste my time on your submission.

Myth #6: Agents Just Want to Sell Your Book, they are Salesmen and Accountants.

Though selling your book is part of the job, it is not all that the job entails. I also want to help an author develop his/her craft. I am an editorial agent with nine years of experience. I am also my client’s advocate and I want to help them to see the big picture of their whole career. The key between the agent/writer relationship is synergy. I want to help the author strategize, and put the author into the spotlight. I also help clients to manage their schedules if they have multiple books and contracts with different publishers (particularly if they are an author/illustrator). I keep a very open relationship with my clients and make sure they are aware of the whole process, and I also want to be kept in the loop on how things are going between an author and editor. I like to see the new drafts and see how the project is developing.

Yes, it is also my job to sell books, but I am not an accountant. My job is to find the best deal for my client that reflects the worth of the book. It is my job to network, know the editors and what they want, understand the trends, the market, etc. Editors who know me trust my judgment. My reputation with them is important. My taste and how I help an author develop his/her project shows. Editors are excited when I contact them because they respect my opinion and I have the backing of a reputable company (writers house).

Myth #7: Now That You Have an Agent You Will Never Be Rejected Again!

Unfortunately this is not true. Having an agent opens doors you might not have had access to before. But it doesn’t mean that there wont be rejection. You still have to be patient and persist. I love your book. I won’t give up on it. No news does not mean you’ve been rejected. No news just means no news.

Myth #8: Agents Have No Life!

Agents are passionate about what they do, but yes, we are people too! We have lives outside of our work. Again, this is another reason to be patient. I personally also maintain two book clubs outside of my work. These clubs are often with other agents, editor, and librarians. One is a YA/MG book club and the other is an adult book club. I think it is important to read.

I also pitch books to editors. I take this very seriously. (Rebecca shared a pitch letter that she wrote for the book Scones and Sensibility. The pitch letter was clever and creative and reflected the tone of the book, and Rebecca’s dedication to selling your book in a strong and confident way.)

A Little About Writers House and Rebecca Sherman:

  • Writers House is a full service agency which includes a four person foreign rights department, a contracts manager and associate, a three to four person accounting team, and 14 senior agents that cover various aspects of literature from children’s books to adult literature and non-fiction and memoir.
  • Rebecca began at Writers House as an assistant. She worked as an assistant for five years, and learned the business. She began to develop her own small list, and later became a senior agent.
  • Rebecca has been a senior agent for four years.
  • Rebecca’s client list includes: Grace Lin, Bryan Audrey Pickney, and Matt Phalin.

What Rebecca Sherman Likes and is Looking For:

  • Mostly author/illustrators, and less picture book authors.
  • For young adult and middle grade books she likes humor and books that will pull on the heart-strings.
  • She does represent picture book non-fiction.

If You’d Like to Submit to Rebecca Sherman You Should Send:

  • For Picture Book Author/Illustrators: If sending by snail mail include: One full-color picture book dummy image, the full sketched-out picture book dummy, and a typed copy of the manuscript. If sending material online, send the same information in the form of a link to dummy or website. Paste manuscript into text of email. No attachments!
  • For Picture Book Authors: Send a query letter and the manuscript.
  • For Novelists: Send a query letter, a synopsis, and the first ten pages of your novel.
  • For Illustrators: Send a link to your website and a query letter.
  • Don’t pre-query!

And A Few Questions From the Audience:

What are you looking for in a synopsis?

The pitch and the synopsis are two different things. A pitch is meant to lure you in, but a synopsis needs to tell us what happens in the end. Your synopsis can be longer than a page, in my opinion. I only read a synopsis if I have reservations when I am reading the first few pages. I read it to see what the major plot points are that are coming.

How many writers actually earn a living in this business?

That’s a tricky question. I won’t go telling you to quit your day job. A lot my clients are hybrid authors – they do both picture books and middle grade books. This allows them to shine in multiple markets and sell more, particularly when they can get into the school markets. Young Adult books that is much harder to do. Most of my debut authors still have their nine to five jobs. In terms of advances, it’s hard to say. Novels don’t usually go for less that $10,000, but it has happened. A picture book can be around $15,000 and up for an advance. But you have to split that if you are not the author and the illustrator. And picture books in general can be wonky when we talk about prices. YA books can often take a higher advance.

Rebecca Sherman is an agent for Writers House. For over 30 years, Writers House has played a critical role in developing novelists and non-fiction authors. They have one of the industry’s finest lists of juvenile and young adult authors. Rebecca continues to build her own list of middle grade and young adult novelists, she’s looking for books with something to say, books that make her laugh, and characters that truly remind her of how confounding and wonderful (ridiculous! frightening! glorious!) adolescence can be. She is also looking for picture books by author/illustrators that can hold up to readings night after night.

Querying Do’s and Don’ts from Agent Rebecca Sherman

The following is Writers House Agent Rebecca Sherman’s list of Do’s and Don’ts for querying a literary agent. She shared this list at the 2010 SCBWI OC Agent Day:


  • Begin with the kind of description that would appear on the back of your book or jacket flap.
  • Tell me some brief biographical information.
  • Tell me why YOU wrote this book.
  • Tell me abut interest from or submissions to other agents and/or publishers.
  • Tell me why you are submitting to me.
  • Give your query letter voice.
  • Strike a balance between professional and personal.
  • Always begin with a proper salutation and end with a proper closure.
  • Research agencies and agents.
  • Draw a connection with the agent that you are querying.
  • Base on the guidelines of the agent you are submitting to, include samples – full manuscripts for picture books, sample illustrations, up to ten pages for longer work.
  • Use Times New Roman 12 pt. font or a similarly standard and easy to read font/font size.
  • For snail mailers, include a self-addressed stamped envelope that will properly accommodate the material you sent.
  • Note that you are an SCBWI member and if you attended a conference that the agent spoke at.
  • Note if an editor, writer, or someone else that the agent knows referred you.
  • Know the market you are writing for.
  • Be patient.


  • Make the story or your characters unclear.
  • Devote too much space to biographical details.
  • Pad your query with irrelevant publications.
  • Simply take information about an agent from research and paste it into the query or lead with the fact that you found the agent’s name of agentquery.com, or publishersmarketplace.com, etc.
  • Compare yourself to an agent’s client without showing how you are also unique.
  • Compare yourself to a bestseller or award winner without showing originality.
  • Provide a list of issues that your novel will cover instead of an overview of your story.
  • Tell me that your work is sure to be a success because you tested it on your child, kindergarten class, or other small sample group (especially those with whom you have a personal relationship).
  • Include endorsements from anyone other than prominent authors in your genre/for your age  group or nationally recognized in the media.
  • Put a limit on the time an agent can read the material or assume a sense of urgency.
  • Submit to multiple agents at the same agency.
  • Call and agent unless the agent herself has told you specifically to call.
  • Email if the agent does not accept email queries.
  • Email or writer to ask how to submit to that agent.
  • Be discouraged if your query is rejected. Don’t forget that it is one person’s subjective opinion.

Rebecca Sherman is an agent for Writers House. For over 30 years, Writers House has played a critical role in developing novelists and non-fiction authors. They have one of the industry’s finest lists of juvenile and young adult authors. Rebecca continues to build her own list of middle grade and young adult novelists, she’s looking for books with something to say, books that make her laugh, and characters that truly remind her of how confounding and wonderful (ridiculous! frightening! glorious!) adolescence can be. She is also looking for picture books by author/illustrators that can hold up to readings night after night.

Dan Lazar: Crafting a Winning Query Letter

Writing a query letter always feel like a chore. How can I distil the essence of my book into one short page? In fact sometimes it feels like writing a query is harder than writing the book. But Writers House agent, Dan Lazar, points out that if you can write a good book, then you can write a good query letter! The following notes from his talk at the 2009 SCBWI Summer Conference have been the most informative talk on the subject that I personally have attended. I actually left excited to write my queries!

Dan Lazar’s tips on how to write a winning query letter and keep yourself out of the rejection pile:

“One voice of dissent is often louder than the voice of approval.” This is the quote Lazar used to start his talk, in order to illustrate how difficult the acquisitions process can be. He followed by asking (by show of hands) how many people in the audience liked the book The DaVinci Code. Then he asked people who thought the book was awful to raise their hands. Slightly more people said they liked it than didn’t. Lazar pointed out that sometimes the people in power at a publishing house are like those who raised their hands to say they didn’t like The DaVinci Code – these people would have passed on a multi-million dollar book. A book that a majority of people really liked. It’s not always that easy to sell a book, even one that is an international best seller.

Okay first things first, before you even address your query letter…

You want to research the agents and editors you are interested in sending your manuscript to. Learn their full names, what they are looking for, and their submission policies. Great places to do research on editors and agents include:

  • The Children’s Writers Market Publication and the Jeff Harmon Guide – these are a good place to start, however often times the information is outdated by the time it is printed/published so be sure to look for additional information elsewhere.
  • Publishersmarketplace.com – Listings are free and are edited directly by editors and agents. This is probably one of the most up to date places to find information.
  • Agentquery.com – This is updated by the site and not the editors/agents.
  • Verlakay.com – Look for the forums page. Dan Lazar found his client Ingrid Law (who wrote Saavy) because of a posting he’d left on this site.

Okay lets write that query! What to do:

If you can write a good novel, then you can write a good query letter. It’s that simple.

Open with why you are contacting this agent/editor:

  • Open with praise and compliments. Explain why you are contacting this agent, they always like to be flattered. You don’t need to use logos, or fancy paper, glitter, graphics, etc.
  • Saying that you have read an agent’s clients work really does help you to stand out from the rest of the slush.
  • Don’t start with: To Whom It May Concern – This is almost an automatic rejection. Always research who you are sending your work to! Make sure you match!
  • Don’t be vague in your opening. “I hear you are a good agent.” Be specific. Mention you saw them at a conference. Mention the book they have represented. Read those books. Compliment and feed the agents vanity.

Start talking about your book and your main character:

  • Present your main character first. Don’t give a general idea of the story.
  • Show the voice of your character in your summary. Lazar read an example of an over-the-top voice, where the author used specifics in describing the character instead of generalities. Lazar understood right away that this character was sassy, raunchy, and jaded. (This was for an adult book). The voice of the character is what caught his attention.
  • Never use the terms quirky or interesting. These are vague and don’t mean anything. Be specific. The example used was: “Everyone in the class had thought (character’s name) was weird. Now (character’s name) had turned dark.”  This is a more engaging and specific way of saying the character is quirky.
  • Instead of saying “best friend” try – “(character’s name) is her one true confident and co-conspirator.”
  • You can make anyone love your character by showing who they love and who loves them. This is how an audience will create a connection with your character.
  • Be efficient, yet full of detail.
  • Mention your character’s age.
  • Don’t start with the “What if…” entrance to your story. Lots and lots and lots of query letters start with “What if you were stranded on an island…” etc. This is a good tool for yourself to figure out what your story is, and what it is about. But it gets repetitive and annoying in query letters. It shows a lack of originality.
  • Beware of using the phrase “My novel is a story in the genre of….” If you do not specifically know exactly what genre it is. You will end up using slashes and saying your novel is a fantasy/mystery/YA/Horror. If you don’t know, that’s okay. The agent will help you to define what it is later. Just leave this out.
  • Do not use a vague synopsis. Be specific! Be evocative!
  • Your query is a pitch, and a pitch is not a synopsis – it is a taste meant to draw you in.

Beware of making claims you cannot live up to:

  • Be careful in saying this book is gonna make me laugh, or cry…etc. Make the agent laugh in the letter. Don’t tell them you can be funny. Be funny in your letter.
  • Don’t mention that the book will make a good movie, or be a blockbuster. This shows your naiveté. Don’t be presumptuous.
  • A logline is a tricky thing – it is a film term for “this meets that” (i.e. Twilight meets Jurassic Park.) If one is not excited about that comparison then it can really hurt the submission.  Sometimes it is best to focus on character and story and forget about comparisons till later. If you are a good writer you will probably be able to fit in the logline when you are talking about your character.

When it comes to your biography:

  • Don’t apologize for not having any credits in your bio. In the example he read the author just told him sassy things about herself – again communicating her voice.
  • Skip your bio all together if it is going to turn into an apology for not having credits or experience. Instead introduce yourself in relationship to the story, what connections do you have that make you the only person who can write this book.
  • Film and TV credits or writing experience are good things to mention in your bio. Lazar had a client who he helped turn a TV pilot idea into a book.
  • Beware of vague or stretching connections when you write your bio. If it really doesn’t relate to your book and writing, don’t mention it.
  • Don’t toot your own horn in your bio or mention who already likes your book – people like your kids or your friends. If an author likes your book – that’s different – get a recommendation from them.

Also include with your query:

  • Send the first five pages, and they should be good!! If your story only gets good a page 50, then it is not ready to send out.
  • Read submission guidelines. Most agents want you to send pages with your query.
  • Include a SASE if you are sending a snail mail submission.

Okay, lets talk about query etiquette…

What about exclusivity and multiple submissions?

  • In Lazar’s opinion the exclusivity issue is an old-fashioned way of submitting work. If an agent asks for it, then you should honor it. But someone asking for up to 6 months is a little out of touch. You have every right to send an exclusive submission and tell the agent that you have given them a 6 week exclusivity submission. This is more than reasonable in Lazar’s opinion. However, if they are a really high-profile person, then you should follow their rules. If they are your dream agent, then respect the rules. If you give exclusivity, then you must honor it! Follow up with an email. Usually its good to give an extra week and then email. Politely let the agent know that you will be sending your work out to other agents, but you are still happy to hear from them.
  • Lazar assumes his submissions are simultaneous submissions unless it says it’s exclusive on it.

So I have multiple projects. Should I mention them?

  • If you would like to mention another project you are working on, or that this is a series, you can. But only spend one sentence on this project.

Try and keep these tidbits in mind too:

  • You do not need to mention the word count in your query as a good agent will know how many words the book should be based on the genre.
  • You do not need to list all the different ways in which you can send a file: CD, Email, Etc. The agent will ask for the way they want the work delivered to them. Focus on your character, and use your sentences more wisely.
  • Do not email in HTML – it will get caught in the spam filter.
  • Do not send a pre-query email. “Do you accept submissions?” Look on the website! All the info you need is there.
  • Always put your contact info at the bottom of the email. Sometimes email addresses get lost or cannot be read, so be sure your info is in your letter.
  • When a full manuscript is requested be sure you email it as a single attachment.
  • If you don’t know who your market is don’t worry about it. The agent will help you figure this out.
  • If you plan to use your initials in your book – for example J.K. Rowling, or M.T. Anderson – don’t use the initials in your query. This is something that will get ironed out later. Right now sign your name. Otherwise if the agent calls you or emails you it seems impersonal and awkward for them to ask for J.K.
  • Be neat and professional!
  • Lazar can tell in the first three paragraphs if the writing is interesting. So make it good!

About Writers House: Writers House has represented such books as: Captain Underpants, Sweet Valley Series, Baby Sitters Club Series, Twilight, Eragon, etc. The Agency represents both children’s and adult literature.

Dan Lazar has been with Writers House for over six years, and is always on the lookout for distinct fiction and great, lively non-fiction. He represents adult and children’s books (middle grade and YA). Lazar is not a picture book agent. Though if you have a career with him and later you decide you want to do picture books then he will represent you, but that is not his strong suit.  Agents at writers house that do represent picture books are: Steve Malk, Lindsay Davis, Rebecca Sherman. Dan Lazar represents: Ingrid Law, Evan Kuhlman, Chris Lincoln, Rachel Renee Russell. In his publisher’s marketplace bio Lazar says “If you think your pages can make me hold my breath or miss my subway stop or even laugh out loud, please read my submission guidelines — I’d love to hear from you.” You may email him a query at: dlazar@writershouse.com (Note from Ingrid: It seemed to me that Lazar was particularly interested in middle grade books and books for boys).