Catch an Agent and Reel Them In
It’s a difficult task to ascertain exactly what literary agents are looking for at any given time, in terms of precise story premise and content, but I can impart, at least in a general way, what they expect to see in a query and what piques their interest. I recently watched a webinar about the agent hunt where well-known author, Jane Cleland, described a query letter in three simple words: The hook, the book, and the cook. This resonated with me. The hook draws the agent in, so tell them a story they will care about. The book is a short summary that gives the agent a feel for how you execute the telling of your story. The cook gives the author an opportunity to enlighten the agent about who they are and convince them why they will be successful. It sounds straight-forward, right? Hold the phone. The author must fill in details under each of those categories. For further details concerning formatting your query, click the above query link.
Wordy has discussed the hook in the article, The Dreaded Query Letter. It is an opening statement that is both succinct and telling. It is an attempt to grab the agent’s attention so they will want to read more. You need to kill it. The sentence must be worded in a way that showcases your story in a nutshell with theme, plot, and value. This is not as easy as it sounds.
According to literary agent Adam Chromy, who participated in the same webinar, to impress an agent, you must make them care about your story and main characters. Easy-peasy! Not necessarily. This takes practice, patience, a willingness to revise, and an eagle-eye for detail. Your job as the author is to show relatable values so an agent or potential reader will feel a kinship or at least have an understanding about the life of your protagonist, then disrupt that bond leaving the agent or reader to reconsider their own perspectives.
Take what readers know and twist it in an unexpected way. For example, pull an agent in with family values, comparable experiences like love, age, marriage, or career, anything they can sympathize with, then boom, throw in horror, chaos, hopelessness, or all three. Make them eager to dive right into the rest of your story to find out what happens. Catch and maintain an agent's and a reader's attention consistently throughout your story as well.
Appeal to an agent with your credentials whether academic, career, or life experience. You may possess a degree in English, Creative Writing, or Journalism, but you may also be a detective who now writes murder mysteries or thrillers. A pre-school teacher who writes children’s books. Use whatever you have that’s relevant. Maybe you’re a successful blogger with a substantial following. That’s important to mention. Point them to your website or pages with pertinent hyperlinks. If you manage an author group or write a newsletter, include that info.
Some agents will spell out general parameters on their websites like introduce yourself, include how you met the agent or found them, include a short summary of your book, consider what they say they are looking for, and as stated above clue them in about your qualifications. Agents and publishers are different, so adhere to their submission guidelines. What I can say for certain is that I know what they want your query to contain.
Your query, and in some cases your synopsis, along with your first pages or chapters must include strong writing. Each must be polished and gleam like a precious jewel. Your story must have a unique premise, yet be relatable. Even fantasy can and should be relatable in some aspect, such as stated above, with family, love, etc. Your story must be enriched with interesting characters, twists, and a clear plot.
Your mission is to leave an agent slack-jawed!
Tailor each query greeting to each specific agent within the agency you choose. Addressing your query in a general manner will do you no favors. Dear Agent, is a no-no. Follow the agent’s submission guidelines. Submit with their specific wants in mind. If they accept romance only, don’t send a query about your true-crime novel. To do so is an exercise in futility and wastes both your time and the agent’s time. Likewise avoid agents not open to unsolicited queries, this too is a fool’s errand. Think of yourself as a talent scout who is searching for the perfect agent that checks all of your boxes.
What I Believe Agents DO NOT Want. NO-NOs To Avoid!
Agents look for a sense of professionalism and pride in your work. Errors show agents you are not serious about your work. Poor punctuation, typos, grammar and spelling mistakes, overlong, boring sentences, misspelling the agents name, portraying your novel with a vague or confusing genre, lying about your credentials, or not being able to articulate your book’s premise with a concise hook, are all turn-offs that will alienate both agents and readers.
Don’t use incendiary language in your query. Your character may speak that way, but you need to maintain that air of professionalism discussed above.
Don’t query multiple agents from the same agency. If one agent rejects your query and manuscript, that’s a NO from the agency.
Resist the urge to employ gimmicks or tricks. These come off as signs of weak and/or lazy writing which may be interpreted as the writer’s lack of professionalism and expertise. Allow your words and story to speak for themselves. Resorting to trickery is a sign that your work cannot stand on its own.
Refrain from blowing your own horn. Touting yourself as the next JK Rowling or comparing your book to the hottest novel out there is arrogance at its worst and a turn-off. Instead, back-up your worth by citing awards, honorable mentions, or other noted work in magazines etc.
Reject the idea of drafting you query with your protagonist’s POV. The content of your query should reflect your voice and style.
In The Cook section, skip any bitterness you may feel about past rejection from the publishing industry. Instead, write from a place of kindness.
Leave out rhetorical questions in your query’s opening and closing. This approach is overdone.
If an agent rejects your book, don’t take it personally. Let it go and move on. At best a negative response to an agent’s rejection may result in irritation, at worst it may be construed as harassment. Agents talk to one another, so you don’t want to leave a bad taste in their mouths. Your project may not be a good fit for the agent you queried but it doesn’t necessarily mean your work is without merit.