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Oh the bane of a writer’s existence, right? The process through which 95% of writers get an agent, yet how impossible it is to do so based on this all important one page.

I recently spent the weekend at the 8th annual Alaska Writers’ Guild Conference in Anchorage. I attended a great talk by Kimiko Nakamura of Dee Mura Literary Agency on querying, and she laid out exactly how to write a good query letter. Now this isn’t the first talk on writing a query letter I’ve attended. It’s probably about the fourth, if anyone is counting. But what stuck out to me this time was just how different each agent is, and what grabs each agent.

When I began querying a couple of years ago for another WIP of mine, I spent a lot of time (and probably too little time) trying to figure out the query. In basic structure, it’s simple: Intro, Pitch, Bio. But putting it all together into one page of words is so hard. A query letter is an art as much as writing a novel is. And, just as a novel speaks to each reader in a different way, attracting some and repulsing others, the same query letter does not speak to all agents in the same manner.

Ms. Nakamura wanted a personalized paragraph about you–something human interest if you didn’t have writing credits to your name. This was probably the thing that impressed me the most about her talk. Other agents only want you to stick to the point, and don’t venture out from the task at hand: eliciting them to read on. But Ms. Nakamura had what I considered to be a valuable point. As much as we are to choose an agent to query based on personality and interests, they want to do the same in picking the authors they work for. If they don’t have a connection with you and merely with your novel, the working relationship is going to suffer. Although publishing is a business, it helps if you like who you work with.

There are other agents I’ve heard speak who might tell the opposite. They might suggest that if you don’t have any publishing credits, don’t waste their time with a human interest bit. But I liked what Ms. Nakamura said, mostly because it reminds me that agents are humans too. I think we authors have a tendency to give them godlike status, when really, it’s the agent that works for you. They don’t get paid except by selling an author’s work, and so authors are their employers. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, for it’s a two-way relationship. But if we can’t remember that both parties are human and both have something to give, then what are we doing it for? And if we can’t humanize ourselves in our query letter, then where can we?

So without further ado, here are the things that stuck out to me about this query letter “how-to” talk.


Points to remember:

You only get one first impression.

You can’t take back your query once you press the “send” button. If you misspelled the agent’s name, sent out a mass email, or spent five minutes writing your query, it’ll show, and it’ll be too late. Proofread.

Do your homework.

Know who you are querying, and don’t mass email a hundred agents at once (or even two at once). Make it personal to that agent, and go to their website to confirm facts or research the agent you want to query. Tell them why you chose them. Make it obvious that you did your homework, that you investigated them, and that you’re taking this business seriously.

Make yourself personal.

And likable. If you don’t have publishing credits to your name, then add a human interest bit. I grew up in North Pole, Alaska. To some people, that’s cool.

Don’t burn your bridges.

Publishing is a small world. The agent you query will remember any lack of professionalism on your behalf and will talk about it to others in his/her world (this includes other agents they work with, other agents they know, the publishers, editors, etc.). In other cases, you might show up on a website where your query letter is (anonymously) ridiculed, or as an example of what not to do when that agent speaks at a conference.

Spend (nearly) as much time on your query letter as you do on your novel.

A query letter is a serious business. Once your query is out, you don’t get a second chance. So if you’re serious about your novel (or cookbook, or non-fiction book, or memoir), then you need to give your query letter serious attention. Don’t short change it, because it only hurts you. The agent is looking for a reason to say “no.” (And, conversely, a reason to say “yes.”) Try to give them a reason to say “yes.”

Sell your novel.

This is a business. Although your agent should like you and vice versa, you’re both in it for the business. If you aren’t, then why do you want an agent in the first place?