Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Query Letters--Shannon Style (Part Four: The Rest--and a giveaway!)

YAY--the last post on query letters, are you as excited as I am??????? 

(Um...I doubt it. These posts have been HARD to write!)

In case you missed it, I've covered Query Letter Format, Writing the Hook, and Writing the Body of the Query letter. And today, we'll be covering, "the rest."

Now, you might be wondering: um...what's left? Surprisingly--a LOT.

First: You need to know who to send your query to. And no--YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO BLANKET THE ENTIRE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY WITH YOUR QUERY, NO MATTER HOW FABULOUSLY WRITTEN IT MAY BE!!!!!!

ahem.

I KNOW researching agents is boring and complicated and time consuming. But you HAVE to do it.

Why? Respect for agent's time, for one thing. Saves yourself a lot of unnecessary heartache and rejection for another. But mainly: the agent-client relationship is an important and complicated part of your career. You need to find someone who not only loves your project, but someone you can really work with, and in order to do that you need to know as much about the agent as possible. Plus, a lot of agencies only want you to query one agent at their office (I know my agency is particularly big on that) so how else are you supposed to decide who you should send your query to?

You have to do your research. And two of the best resources I've found are:

and

It's also well worth the time to do a good, old-fashioned Google search. Check the agent's website. Their blog, if they have one. Their Facebook or Twitter feed. Any online interviews they've given. I know it can feel stalkerish, but they wouldn't put it out there if they didn't want you to connect with them. And it's amazing how much you can learn.

I'm also a HUGE proponent of Writer's Conferences. I know they're expensive, so they might not be an option for you. But if you can, they are definitely an investment worth making. And if you can't afford a conference--not to sound like shameless self promotion here--but the WriteOnCon website is quickly becoming an incredible resource:

Replays of all of our live panels/chats can be found HERE
And an archive of the entire 2010 Conference can be found HERE

And we add more to it every month.

Another bonus to doing all this research? It gives you something you can put in your query to personalize it for the agent. Something to let them know you queried them because you're really interested in working with them and think you would be a good fit for each other. Not because you started at "A" and are working your way through "Z" or because they're a mega superstar and the only agent you've heard of.  Remember, this is your career. Put the time in and do it right.

Which brings me to my next point: getting help with your query.

I would have been lost without the Query Workshop I took--LOST I tell you!

I'm sure there are lots of them out there, but the one I swear by is run by the lovely and talented C.J. Redwine. Trust me on this when I say it was--hands down--the best $55 I've ever spent. I believe in it so much, it has a blurb from me on the site. It's a 2 week course and seriously, it's amazing. Go THERE. Check it out. And if you can, take the class. You will not regret it.

(Incidentally, CJ also offers a Synopsis Workshop, and a Plotting Workshop. Both are awesome and well worth the money.)

For those who can't afford an online workshop, there are some wonderful online query resources, like KT Literary's "Ask Daphne" About my Query FeatureQuery Shark, and Elana Johnson's From The Query To The Call ebook (now free!). But one of my absolute favorites is the Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment, run by my friend Matthew Rush.

Not only does he post and analyze a ton of Successful Queries (and yes Matt, I do realize I owe you mine. Someday!) He also humbly shares his own Querying Mistakes so everyone can learn from them, and has a regular Query Critique Feature, where real queries get posted and analyzed to make them better. If you're not following his blog, you need to be.

Which brings me to the giveaway part of this post. I mentioned last week how important it is to have your query letters critiqued--by friends, critique partners, beta readers, whatever. The more eyes on it, the better. And since I'm all about paying it forward (and my own, lightning fast, ridiculously easy querying process leaves me A LOT to pay forward) I wanted to end this series on queries with a giveaway. 

So in that vein, I've decided to give away 2 personal, query letter critiques to 2 commenters on today's post!!!!! 

BUT--as I've said a million times throughout this series--I'm hardly an expert at this. So fortunately for us, my good friend Matt from the QQQE decided to back me up. Which means the lucky winners will get not one, but TWO sets of eyes on their query. Mine and Matt's. Double feedback. Double advice. Sweet deal, right? Yeah...I thought so too.

To enter is simple: make sure you follow my blog AND Matt's blog and leave a comment on this post by 11:59 pm PST on Friday, January 28th. Winners will be announced on Saturday, January 29th. Oh, and you might want to make sure you leave me some way to contact you if you win, so I can let you know how to send in your query. Okay?

Okay.

And...go!

Oh, and make sure you stay tuned next week, when I start a new Shannon Style series on my blog. This time I'll be tackling REVISION. It's...going to be interesting. :)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Query Letters--Shannon Style (Part Three: The Meat)

Okay, we've talked about Query format (and what I think should and shouldn't be there). We've talked about writing the hook. So now we're down to the body of the query--or the meat, as I like to call it. The part where you have to condense those 300+ pages of awesome manuscript down to one or two killer paragraphs that leave the agent thinking YES--I ABSOLUTELY MUST READ MORE!

I'll tell you right now, it's not easy. But I have a few pointers that helped me, so I will pass them on to you guys.

Once again though, I MUST point out before we start that, amazingly enough, I'm still not an agent. (nothing has changed career-wise for me these last couple weeks). Nor am I a query ninja or shark or any of those other names donned by the real pros at this. And remember, there's a reason why I'm covering this stuff under the "Shannon Style" label--this is all just my own personal approach. If it differs from something an agent says on their blog or website as far as how they prefer to be queried--please, I'm begging you, don't listen to me. 


(Heh--can you tell I'm nervous about people blaming me for rejections? Yes, I'm THAT paranoid)

I should also point out that for most of us, writing a query letter is a very time consuming process. (There's a few lucky ducks out there who crank them out in a flash, but let's face it, no one likes those people). Yes, it's only a page--and not even a full page at that. But it's a ridiculously important page in which your entire career kind of rests. So yeah, don't expect to bang out this bad boy in a day and ship it off in a mass email to every agent in the biz (and while we're at it, PLEASE no mass emailing!)

Think of how much time and heart you poured into polishing your manuscript, and make sure you make all the same steps with your query. Really push yourself when you write it to get it right. Then revise. Send it to critique partners. Revise and send it to beta readers. Revise again. I'm also a big proponent of online query workshops or professional query critiques (which I will talk more about next week).

Basically: put in the time, sweat, and tears to get it right. I KNOW queries are boring to write. I KNOW they can be so frustrating you want to pound your head into the wall. Believe me, I KNOW. But this is your career--and your dream. Don't cut corners and risk ruining either of them.

Okay, so I'm going to start by breaking this down to lists of "Dos" and "Don'ts" to hopefully make it nice and easy. When writing the body/meat of your query:

DO: 
-Focus on your main character and the main plot of your story
-Keep the sentences short, clear, and specific
-Use enough details to make it very clear what makes this YOUR book, not one of the millions of others out there
-Incorporate the voice of the novel 
-Limit yourself to two paragraphs (three can be okay, but they better be AWESOME)
-End with a "call to action" that leaves them wanting to know what happens next 


DON'T:
-Cloud the waters with too many characters and subplots
-Use gimmicks
-Be vague or generic
-Talk about the lessons or themes in the book. If you explain the plot right, the agent will be able to figure that out on their own.
-Fill this section with rhetorical questions
-Give away the ending


And let's quickly talk about what I mean for all of those.

First, your query letter needs to focus on your main character and your main plot. That's really all you have time for in such a small space. If it's a dual POV or there's another very important character (or even two) you should bring them into the query. But be careful. Dropping too many character names in such a short space can quickly lead to confusion. Remember, you don't have to tell them EVERYTHING about your book. Just enough to peak their interest.

That being said, you need to be specific. I can't tell you how many times I see sentences like: She must find the strength to do what needs to be done. That's a whole lot of words to waste on something that doesn't really tell us anything and can pretty much be applied to any book. HOW does she find the strength? And HOW is she going to do what needs to be done? And while we're at it, WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE? I think I've said this in every one of these posts, but I'm saying it again: the point of a query is to set the agent up to know what to expect from YOUR book, and make them want to read it. You need to be specific to do that.

It's also very important to inject your voice into the query. Sadly, that's not something I--or anyone else--can really help you with. It's your voice. Only you know how to create it. But the difference between a query with voice and a query without voice is night and day so push yourself to work it in there. If you were good enough to write a novel, you're good enough to put voice in your query--trust me.

Try to keep it to two paragraphs (three can work, but two is usually better). Why two? Space, for one thing. But also, it works really well to set up the paragraphs like so (and remember, these come after that awesome hook we talked about writing last week):

Paragraph #1: Establish the main character(s) and their basic situation in the book, so we understand who they are and what their life is like.

Paragraph #2: Introduce the villain or love interest or conflict. Then explain how the main character is affected by this new development and end with their call to action. And by call to action I mean something along the lines of:

As their attraction grows into love, Bella is forced to decide: live a safe life with a safe boyfriend like her many high school admirers--or be with Edward, and hope his love for her is strong enough to deter his thirst for her blood. 


Okay, I KNOW that's not very good--sorry, I'm pressed for time. Hopefully you can at least see what I mean by call to action, how it sets up the climax of the novel, raising questions in the agent's mind about what happens next, without resorting to using cheesy rhetorical questions like: Will true love conquer all?

Obviously there's a million and one ways to vary that (like I've said before, in my own query, I didn't follow that format. But my book is kind of untraditional, so it needed an untraditional structure to the query). But for most books, two paragraphs set up as such works really well.

And just to touch on a few of my other "don'ts": Don't use gimmicks like writing the query as though the character were the one writing it, etc, because they almost always read cheesy. Don't waste precious space with things like: Bella will explore the meaning of true love, and what really defines someone as "human". I mean, how boring does that make the book sound? Not to mention, themes and lessons are supposed to be subtly woven through the entire novel, not beating you over the head with: HERE'S THE THEME I'M EXPLORING. So why do that in a query?

And personally, I say don't give away the ending. In a synopsis, yes--you must. But in a query, I think it kind of ruins the anticipation a little bit. There are some people who disagree with me though, so I would recommend researching the agent to see how they feel, before you send off your query. And I'll talk all about researching agents next week.

Pretty sure that covers the basics, but I'll leave you with one final tip: Writing is reading--and queries are no different. Read successful queries before (and while) you try to write yours. Lots and lots of agents have them on their blogs. Do a little googling and see what you can find (and I'll have a list of some awesome links and resources next week). Reading the cover copy on books helps too. The more you familiarize yourself with the language of short, powerful summaries, the better you'll be able to write one for your book.

*Phew* Okay, I think that's it for today. Did I miss anything? Anyone have any questions? Hit me with them in the comments. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What it's like to be my CP

I was feeling nostalgic over the weekend (okay, fine, I was also totally procrastinating on a chapter that's driving me CRAZY) so I went back through some of the hundreds and of emails/texts/DMs/chats my CPs and I have exchanged since we started swapping pages and OMG--you do NOT want to be my CP!!!!!!!

I *might* be the biggest pain on the planet. Need proof? Here's a sample of some of the obsessive/confusing/whiny/crazy emails they get from me:

Sent to Sara:
So...I'm having a blonde night, and just realized I sent you the wrong pages AGAIN. So, disregard the first file I sent, and the one I sent tonight, and the email I just sent (yes, I realize that's three wrong batches of pages). THESE are the right pages. (does this even make sense? I think my brain is tired.) Anyway, I will stop spamming your inbox now. Sorry for all the confusion.

Sent to Sarah:
Okay, I know I just sent you a very long email wherein (amongst other ramblings) I said I wouldn't be touching the query right away. So what do I go and do? Yep. I worked on it. I made different yet similar changes from what you suggested. Bad decisions? Good decisions? Thoughts? Am I making it worse? (I'm AWESOME at making things worse). (Oh, and I put some comments in, about the things I'm not sure of and I'm attaching the first one, in case you want to compare the differences.).

Sent to Sara:
Yes, I will probably panic about every remotely exciting thing that happens to me these next few months. Get ready for it. Shannon Querying is going to be a roller coaster ride of stress and panic!

Sent to Sarah:
If you get a desperate email from me later you'll know why. Or if I get so frustrated with my stubborn, too-smart-for-her-own-good, refuses to react like a normal person MC I may track you down so you can convince me it's not a good idea to kill her off 1/3 of the way through the book. 

Sent to Sara:
I'm not sure I have the reactions and emotions right--and it feels kinda talky talk talk to me (yes, talky talk talk. Sometimes I don't think that I deserve to be called a writer) :) 

Sent to Sarah:
Since you already have like 2 emails from me demanding your attention, I thought, why not one more? Yay-here we go!

Sent to Sara:
I'm so tired. I'm not sure if I've ever been this tired in my life. So who knows what a mess this is. Sorry if it is. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Sent to Sarah:
Oops--I hit send before I adjusted the email for you (I wrote it for the other Sara, and then I was PLANNING to copy, paste and edit for you...and then accidentally clicked send too early) So...um...sorry that some of it is repetitive and sorry that some of it is talking about you being on vacation when you're not on vacation. just...um...pick and choose what applies and call the rest a #shannonfail

Sent to Sara:
Okay, I'm nervous.
But I'm sending it.
I am.
AHHHHHHHHH!
Okay, clicking send
For real this time.



Sent to Sarah:
Okay, I'm so excited now, I can't really sit still (which is bad because I'm at work) so I'm going to go hide in the bathroom and giggle for a few minutes--for realz). *runs away with flailing muppet arms*

Sent to Sara:
I can't tell you how much I hate this chapter I'm sending. I can't tell if it's because it sucks or because I've read it so many times I can't feel anything other than dread when I read it. You'll have to tell me if it's the suckfest it feels like it is.

Sent to Sarah:
I'm finally replying! #yay #beexcited #ormaybeafraid #probablyafraid

Sent to Sara:
So I decided to make an alternate file, full of highlighting and notes and all KINDS of fun stuff (it's also 2am right now, so you can imagine how my brain is--I actually considered sending this to Laura. Fortunately I'm still thinking clearly enough to nip that idea in the bud and send it to you instead. Lucky you!!!!). Basically: helllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllp. :)

Sent to Sarah:
Reporter: So, Shannon, you just finished your manuscript re-write/first round of edits. What are you going to do now?
Me: I'M GOING TO....Obsessively check my email waiting for response from the one CP I sent it to whilst biting my nails and NOT working on the synopsis I should be writing.
Reporter:............................
So that's MY day. How's yours?


Um yeah...I don't know why they put up with me. Perhaps I need to send them presents. Lots and lots of presents...

What about you guys--any of you drive your CPs as crazy as I do? *crosses fingers that she's not the only needy one*

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Query Letters--Shannon Style (Part Two: Hooks)

Last week we talked about the basic structure and organization of a query letter--or at least how I personally like to structure and organize them. (incidentally, if you missed last week's post, you can find it HERE)

And I'd promised I would talk more in depth about writing some of those parts in further posts, so I'm going to TRY to tackle one of them today (emphasis on try--this one's tough). Today we're talking about the hook. (dun dun dunnnnnnnn)

(and remember, just like last time, I'm NOT an agent, or an expert, and I am also quite silly and blonde so, yanno, take all of this with a grain of salt)

Okay, so...to me a hook is one (or two, if you really need it) KILLER sentences that grab the agent's attention right from the start.

Whether you follow my suggestion and have the hook be the first sentence of the query, or whether you start with the stats sentence and follow with the hook, YOU NEED TO HAVE A HOOK. It will probably be one of the hardest sentences you ever write, but push yourself to do it because it makes such a difference to the quality of your query.

Basic tips for hook writing:

-Start with your main character
-Give details/specifics that establish a major aspect of the plot of your book
-Feature something that sets your book apart from everything else
-Don't be vague or coy
-Keep it short and powerful
-Use words that let you showcase your voice


And I know what you're probably thinking right now: wow--that's a LOT of stuff for one (or two) sentences--and you're right. You can't do EVERYTHING with a single hook. But this is where you start--your list of goals--and then you whittle things away to make the sentence more powerful as you go.

I base this partially on personal taste, and partially on something my agent--the lovely Laura Rennert--always recommends. She says that for pitching a project, the ideal is: Who, What, Where, and Why should I care? And since a query is basically a written pitch, and your hook is the very first part of that pitch, you want to cover as much of that in your hook as you can.

Now to me, the most important part of that is the: Why should I care? Which so often seems to be forgotten in the hooks people write.

I can't tell you how often--when I critique queries--I see a hook that goes something like this:

Harry Potter always wanted to find somewhere he belonged.

or

Eleven-year-old Harry Potter hates living with his cruel Aunt and Uncle, the Dursleys.

Are those bad sentences? Not necessarily. But they're TERRIBLE hooks!

They don't tell you ANYTHING about the book, and they completely leave out the why should I care?  The first example could pretty much be applied to every. single. middle-grade or YA book. And the second example, while being a little more specific, focuses on a relatively unimportant part of the story. Neither of them do any justice to the amazingness that is Harry Potter. And neither of them make me want to know more. Neither of them make me care.

So why do I usually see hooks like that in people's queries?  

Hooks like the second example tend to appear because the writer got stuck in "the chronological zone." The: my plot starts with my character at point X so my query needs to start at point X.Which is not the best reason for choosing where to start your query, believe me.

Mind you, your novel should be starting in the most interesting place possible (if it's not, you need to revise). But that still doesn't mean that you should start your query in the exact same place your novel starts--but we'll get to that in a minute. 

I see hooks like the first example above, because really what the writer is doing is setting up for their next sentence. In which case the query might read something like: 

Harry Potter always wanted to find somewhere he belonged. So when a half man, half giant named Hagrid appears one stormy night with an invitation to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry feels like his dreams have finally come true.

Which...isn't HORRIBLE. But it's not GREAT either. Plus its LONG.

And even if you polish up that rather awkward second sentence, I still personally feel like the first sentence is a total throw-away--and why would you want one of the first things an agent reads to be a total throw away? Personally I'd rather find a way to combine those two into one, much more powerful sentence. 

But there's another reason those two sentences aren't a great hook (in my opinion), and it ties into the reason the other example was also a bad hook. You're skipping the: why should I care? You're leaving out the stuff that makes the agent think: Ooooooooooo, that's interesting. I want to know more. 

Think about Harry Potter. What REALLY made it an interesting story? Was it that he lived with his cruel aunt and uncle? Nah--lots of kids do that. Was it that he went to a wizarding school? That's better. But still, there are other books about wizards and magic schools.

To me, what made Harry Potter interesting was who he was--the tiny baby who survived an attack from the most powerful dark wizard ever. So if I had to query Harry Potter (and oh mans do I wish THAT had been the book I'd written--even if I would've been like 12 when she wrote it) I would've written a hook somewhere along the lines of:

(and bear with me here, I didn't have THAT much time to come up with these so I'm sure they could be better. If anything, this will show you that you can't just crank these bad boys out--they take a lot more time than slamming together a quick blog post)

Harry Potter is the boy who lived.

or

Harry Potter had always wondered how he'd gotten the strange, lightning-bolt shaped scar on his forehead. 

Personally I'd go with the first one, because to me, MAN does that peak my curiosity. What do you mean "the boy who lived"? Did he almost die? And how did he live? Why? 

You've got my attention. Not to mention, the term "the boy who lived" is unique to Harry Potter's story, and so dang cool sounding. 

But if you're the kind of person who likes a few more details in your hook, the second one also works, because it also makes you think: Cool--a scar shaped like a lightning bolt? What would cause that? And why doesn't he remember?

Basically, you want to get the agent asking questions. The first two examples I gave didn't do that. There's no need to ask why Harry doesn't belong. ALL kids feel that way, for the most part. And there's no need to ask why he hates living with his cruel Aunt and Uncle because you told the reader: they're cruel. You're just stating obvious facts, not grabbing their attention. 

Do you see the point?

If not, here's a few more bad vs better hooks I've invented, just to try to make this clearer (and I'm trying to pick books I'm fairly certain most of you will have read, if not all):

Bad: Isabella Swan hates living in the soggy town of Forks, Washington.
Why: Who cares? A "soggy town" sounds like a horrible place to me too! Especially one named Forks.

Bad: Isabella Swan has never met anyone like Edward Cullen
Why: Too vague. You could swap out the character names and apply this to pretty much any book.

Better: Isabella Swan always joked that she was a "danger magnet," but when she catches the eye of Edward Cullen, she has no idea how true that is.
Why: Okay, the wording needs work, but at least this hints at the plot and makes you wonder wait, why is he dangerous?

Better: Bella Swan knows three things: that Edward Cullen is a Vampire, that there's a part of him that wants to kill her, and that she's hopelessly and irrevocably in love with him.
Why: Um, how could you not be at least *a little* curious about that? (also, I can't take credit for writing that one. I stole it from the cover copy and simply tweaked it a little)

Bad: Katniss Everdeen will do anything to protect her little sister Prim.
Why: Kind of a throw-away. Clearly just a set-up for the next sentence, and would be better off being reworked into something more powerful.


Bad: Katniss Everdeen has always been a fighter.
Why: Again, this is one of those "set-up" sentences. And is just too darn vague.

(incidentally, it's REALLY hard to write bad hooks for THE HUNGER GAMES. That book is just too darn fascinating)


Better: Katniss Everdeen knows there's only one rule in The Hunger Games: kill or be killed.

Why: Who doesn't want to know more about that?

Better: Katniss Everdeen does not plan to survive The Hunger Games.

Why: Immediately makes me wonder, why? What are The Hunger Games? What will happen to her?

Now, I know, none of my examples are perfect--it takes a LONG time and a lot of tweaking to write a good hook and I just didn't have that kind of time today. So yeah, they still need some serious polishing. But I hope you can at least see the basic idea. 

You want your hook to have specifics. Details that arouse questions. Hooks that apply to your story and your story alone. That spotlight your character and hint at your plot in the most interesting way possible

And above all else: make the agent CARE. Make them want to keep reading instead of sending a form rejection and moving on to the next query flooding their inbox. This is your one chance to really impress them, right from the first word. Put the time in and do it right.

I'll talk more next week about how to write the stuff that follows the hook, and in the week after I'll cover some other querying bits and pieces, like researching agents and why it's so important to get help and critiques on your query. But I think that's enough for today.

And remember---you are WELCOME to disagree with me on any of this. Don't forget this series on Queries is part of the "Shannon Style" series. This is all part of my own personal approach to query letter writing, and I'm hardly an expert. So if you have a method you like better, by all means: Ignore me! :)

What about you guys? Any questions? Suggestions? Concerns? Lay them on me in the comments. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Query Letters--Shannon Style (Part One)

Every time I put out my monthly call for questions (which I'll be doing tomorrow, btw) I get several querying questions. Specifically query letter questions. Which is funny to me because I am HARDLY an expert. I did only query for two weeks, remember?

So I've been promising to answer those questions in a separate post--mainly because I needed some time to figure out what the heck to say. But I figured that since a lot of you have probably set Querying goals for the New Year, I'd stop stalling and finally tackle this difficult, confusing topic.

There's no way I can cover it all in one reasonable-length post though, so I'll do one post a week, for however many it takes to properly handle the topic. Or until I bore you to death and you start begging me: please Shannon--NO MORE QUERYING POSTS. I can take a hint after all. Sometimes. (ahem).

BUT--I want to preface this advice by stating things that should be glaringly obvious and yet I feel the need to say anyway, just to be safe.

First: believe it or not, I am not an agent (and thank goodness for that by the way. I don't know HOW they read all those queries *shudder* and pitch projects all day *double shudder*  and deal with crazy clients who email them at 2am with endless ramblings *shudders* *coughs* Be glad you're not my agent).

Also, all agents are different and may prefer different things from what I suggest here. And if you decide to query those agents I highly suggest you do as they say, not as I say, since they probably have a better concept of what they want than I do, being that I am, in fact, not them.

And, as I tried to establish with my first paragraph of this post, um...I really have NO idea what I'm doing. So yanno...take the advice I'm about to give, then salt to taste. Okay? Okay.

So, today I thought I'd start with the basics. Specifically the format of the Query Letter--and no, I don't mean basic business letter format. I mean what things should go where in the query letter and how much time/space you should dedicate to each. And to give you a general idea, I made a handy dandy visual aid--which will become much easier to read if you clicky.

(I'll also be discussing it point by point down below)

(And BTW: if you want me to email you a copy of this--despite the fact that it's really not *that* helpful--let me know in the comments)

Okay, first thing you'll notice is that this letter is designed to be copied and pasted into emails, not printed as is and mailed off. If you are doing old fashioned snail mail queries, you will definitely want to put this in proper letter format before you send.

And now, lets discuss the rest item by item.

The Greeting: It should be personalized to the agent (sorry, I do not recommend mass emailing your queries, and I'm pretty sure the rest of the publishing world agrees). And please, do yourself a favor and triple check that you have the right gender and spelling of their name. I guarantee, Laura would not have been impressed if I'd queried her: Dear Mr. Rennerd (especially since I'd actually met her--but that's beside the point) (also, now I kinda want to send my next email to her addressed that way. SERIOUSLY: Be glad you're not my agent.) :D


Side note on the greeting: make sure you're querying an agent who might actually be interested in your project. Don't query at random. Do your research. I'll probably talk more about that in another post but for now I'll just say: seriously, put the time in to find out what the agents want before you query them.


The Hook: Okay, here's where my own personal taste comes in over some of the query advice you'll see. Some say you should start with something along the lines of: I'm contacting you about TITLE, a Genre/Category complete at XXXX amount of words. To which I say: OMG what a boring way to make a first impression!!!! Start with your hook and get them interested in the story--THEN hit them with all the boring stats. 


There are, however, many who disagree with me, so it's your call. And I know there are certain agents who request the stats be in the first sentence, so if you query one of those people, definitely adjust your query accordingly.  


As far as the hook itself, not gonna lie--it will probably be one of the hardest sentences you ever write. But oh mans will you be glad you did it because then you'll have the wow factor you need to grab their attention and not let go. I'll talk more about my approach to writing hooks in another post. For now, just know that my recommendation is to start your letter with your hook, and to shape your hook as a short, stand-alone sentence, so it really screams PAY ATTENTION TO ME I'M INTERESTING.


About your Book: Now that you've hooked them on your concept, it's time to tell them about your book in a few short, powerful paragraphs. Personally I recommend using two paragraphs because I think it's enough space to cover the basics of your plot without being too rushed, but not so long that your query becomes a wall of text and makes the agent's eyes glaze over when they see it. (though oddly enough, I had three in my query--but my query was intentionally untraditional and if I am ever allowed to share it with you, you'll see what I mean).


As far as how to write these paragraphs, again, I'll talk much more in depth about that in another post. For now I'll simply say that the biggest mistakes I see (imho, at least) when I critique queries (and I've critiqued a LOT of queries) are a tendency to be way too vague and coy with the plot details and to not showcase your authorial voice enough. Remember: you don't want to sound like any other book. You want to sound like YOUR book. And the agent should have a clear idea of what to expect from both your writing and the book's plot by the end of reading these paragraphs. 


Sure, they won't know EVERYTHING--and I personally don't recommend telling the ending. But they should have a good grasp on who the main character is, what they want, what's keeping them from getting it, and how they're going to try to deal with the problem. It's NOT easy to do--none of this is. But if you push yourself and do it well you'll make a very good impression.


Stats and Personalizing: Assuming you've followed my advice about starting with the hook, then here's where you bury that boring stats sentence you have to have in there (and yes--you do HAVE to have that sentence. It's ugly and boring, I know--but it's a must). 


To follow that beast with something interesting--because mans do you need to recover after that laborious sentence--I like to throw in a couple of sentences to let the agent know why I'm querying them, and not one of the other hundreds of agents out there. 


This is where that whole "doing your homework" thing comes in. Do you love several of their other clients' books? Better yet: do you read their blog or follow them on Twitter? Did you meet them at a writers conference--or at least listen to them speak at one you attended, either online or in person? Mention that here. Try to establish a small personal connection with them. Don't go crazy of course--one or two sentences will more than suffice--but it adds a nice touch to the query, letting them know they're not just getting the standard form query you're sending to everyone. I figure, agents probably dislike form queries as much as we dislike form rejections.


About you and thanks: Again, here's where there might be some debate. PERSONALLY, I fall very strongly into the "less is more" category when it comes to talking about myself in the query. Why? Because for most debut authors--which, lets face it, is the majority of the querying pool--we haven't really done anything worth mentioning. If you've published anything before or won any decent awards, or have some area of expertise that applies, by all means mention it. But otherwise, keep it short and sweet. 


Should you mention teaching experience? Sure--but I wouldn't dwell on it for more than a sentence. Should you mention MFA programs or writing mentors? Again, a brief mention isn't bad, but keep it short. That's my main note: less is more. Why? Because none of this stuff REALLY helps you. I guarantee you, no agent is going to think: eh--I'm not really interested in this concept--but wait a minute, hold the phone, they're a teacher????? Well then I MUST read this!!!! Same with having an MFA, or winning some really small, regional awards, etc. Those are all wonderful things. But they don't really matter.


And in a query, where every single sentence needs to MATTER or it looks too long and cluttered, why waste space on something that really isn't going to help you? Keep it short and instead give yourself a couple more sentences in the section where you tell them about your book. THOSE are the sentences that make them want to read pages. In my query I simply said: 


My first chapter won a Conference Choice award at the 2010 SDSU Writers Conference and I am a member of SCBWI. 


Then you thank them for their time and consideration and sign off.

Contact Info: Under your name you want to give them ways to reach you if they're interested. I gave my cell and home numbers, my email (just in case) and my blog address. I chose to leave off my Twitter and if I'd had a facebook I would have left that off too, simply because I think those come across as less professional, and if the agent wants to find them all they have to do is follow the links on my blog (or google me).

So that's it. The basic elements (and the order of those elements) for a successful query letter. In my humble opinion at least.

And I'm pretty sure I've rambled on quite enough, but there is one more thing I want to mention and again--this is a personal preference.

You might have noticed that I have not included space for anything along the lines of: fans of Amazing Author X or Best-Selling Book Y would enjoy this story because the voice and tone are similar (and okay, I know that's also not very well written, but you see what I mean).

Why did I leave that out?

Two reasons. 1) I think there's too great a risk of seeming overconfident, or setting yourself up for them to think: Uh, no way are you that good. But even if you go conservative with your selections and don't compare yourself to mega superstars, I think the better reason is: 2) I think that goes without saying. If your book is right in the sweet spot for fans of other popular books/writers, the agent will be smart enough to see that on their own. They'll be able to think: hm...this voice reminds me a lot of John Green--but with a little more sass--without you telling them that. So why bother telling them--especially when you risk looking like you have too high of an opinion of yourself. I say better left unsaid. But it's of course, your call.

ALL of this is your call. This is just my own personal taste when it comes to writing query letters (hence why I'm talking about it in the Shannon Style series) and you are welcome to disagree with me. I'm only sharing my approach because...well...you asked. I hope it helps.

So what do you guys think: Agree? Disagree? Did I miss anything? I am OPEN to discussion in the comments. :)