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View Full Version : Minimalist Query Letters: Good or Bad?



Laure de Sade
02-24-2012, 08:20 AM
I haven't been querying agents for very long, but so far, the queries I've sent have been pretty minimalistic, written in a similar format to job cover letters, i.e., 'I am seeking representation for [novel name] [genre] [word count]' followed by 1-2 sentences about the novel, a paragraph about my education and publication credits, and a closing paragraph.

I find pitches pretty gimmicky, and would prefer to let the facts speak for themselves. I've had a few rejections, but also a full manuscript request. I'm not sure whether I am on the right track or whether I need to take more of a risk and try to 'sell' my novel.

CharacterInWhite
02-24-2012, 09:27 AM
Pitches aren't gimmicky--keep in mind that one of your earliest and most important readers are the agents themselves, and their day job requires them to browse a bookstore (so to speak) and choose the ones that catch their eye.

So catch their eye.

That said, brevity never seems to be a disadvantage in queries. Some agents can get hundreds of submissions a day, and they need to know within 5 seconds whether your submission is worth their time or not.

Drachen Jager
02-24-2012, 10:05 AM
You can be too brief though. You need a solid hook.

Same advice everyone gets, take it to Query Letter Hell (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=174) password vista. You have 21 more posts to go before you can put your own query up there, but you can look at what other people have done and the reaction there. The hellions are pretty good at telling the difference between good and bad.

Corinne Duyvis
02-24-2012, 12:27 PM
Brevity is good, 1-2 sentences seems very short. It can work, but most query pitches are about two paragraphs. That gives the agent a much better view of the story. Pitches aren't gimmicky, they're effective, and agents request them for a reason.

Dittoing the above advice: Check out Query Letter Hell (which has a lot of examples of effective query letters in one of the stickies) and put your own query on there once you have 50 posts.

Laure de Sade
02-24-2012, 01:06 PM
I guess I was just going by what I'd like to read if I was an agent. Even the better queries I've seen seem overly long and somewhat unnecessary, especially when accompanied by a good synopsis. Personally, I think I would prefer to have the facts alone, and a few sample pages, rather than wading through paragraphs of selling. I suppose that the agents that want something simpler would probably ask for a cover letter as opposed to a query though, so I probably should have a pitch on hand...

Sigh. I hate sales.

blacbird
02-24-2012, 01:21 PM
My minimalist query:

Dear XXX:

Kick me.

An SASE is enclosed.

Thank you for your consideration.


That has worked as well as any of my other queries.

caw

Katrina S. Forest
02-24-2012, 02:18 PM
There was a query workshop I went to a couple years ago where the presenter told us that if we print out the query, we should see a decent amount of white space. If the text barely fit on one page, we were probably overdoing it. (And think of which query looks nicer in an inbox -- the one with the white space or the one that barely fits?)

Can you overdo this? Sure. If I saw a printed query where the text never even got halfway down the page, my first thought would be, "Hmm? Did you actually fit anything about the book in there?" But as a very general rule, I see a lot more queries in QLH that are too long rather than the opposite problem.

TudorRose
02-24-2012, 03:35 PM
I see you're in Oz -- where are you pitching?

Here in the UK an approach to an agent tends to be as you describe -- the cover letter may only give 1-2 lines to describe the novel because it is typically accompanied by a 1-2 page synopsis and first three chapters, in hard copy by snail mail. An e-query to a US agent would usually not include a synopsis, so the description is more likely to be 1-2 paragraphs highlighting the main conflict of the novel. Not sure which format they follow in Oz.

I think the main thing is to follow the submission guidelines on each individual agent's web site. Eg some may specifically mention telling them something about yourself or why you're choosing them to pitch to. Others may mention in their blogs that they like you to compare your book to other works... or that they hate it. That they want you to jump straight into a pitch... or not. That they want a full outline of the plot including any twists... or that they prefer a tease similar to jacket/cover copy so that they can read with the fresh eyes any other reader would have. Our best bet is to do the research on each individual and give them what they're asking for.

Cyia
02-24-2012, 03:45 PM
I haven't been querying agents for very long, but so far, the queries I've sent have been pretty minimalistic, written in a similar format to job cover letters, i.e.,

[quote] 'I am seeking representation for [novel name] [genre] [word count]' followed by 1-2 sentences about the novel, a paragraph about my education and publication credits, and a closing paragraph.

What you're describing isn't a query. You're trying to sell yourself rather than your book, and it's the book the agent wants to know about.

"I am seeking" <--- this isn't needed, as it's implied by the fact that you're querying.

Novel name, genre, and word count generally go at the end of a query, after you've had a chance to hook the agent's interest.

1-2 sentences is too short. You're trying to convey voice, plot, and character in a query.

The paragraph about your education is unnecessary, unless you're writing about Egypt and have a background in Egyptology or worked for the British Museum or something similarly relevant.

Ditto the closing paragraph. You're wasting space on things the agent doesn't care about.

80-90% of your query, as described, has nothing to do with your book. You've got your structure inverted. The query should be almost entirely about your book. Short is fine (my best response came from a query that clocked in at under 90 words, start to finish), but even with a short query, the bulk needs to pertain to the plot, not the author.

Laure de Sade
02-24-2012, 05:12 PM
I see you're in Oz -- where are you pitching?

Well, there aren't many agents in Australia taking unsolicited submissions at the moment, so I've mostly been looking at US agents. Might check out some UK ones though, if they prefer the cover letter approach (though will probably end up broke from all the postage costs!).


The paragraph about your education is unnecessary, unless you're writing about Egypt and have a background in Egyptology or worked for the British Museum or something similarly relevant.

I don't think so. Most guidelines ask for some biographical information about the author, and the fact that I'm studying Creative Writing at a postgrad level seems pretty relevant (as do publication credits).

quicklime
02-24-2012, 05:33 PM
I guess I was just going by what I'd like to read if I was an agent. Even the better queries I've seen seem overly long and somewhat unnecessary, especially when accompanied by a good synopsis. Personally, I think I would prefer to have the facts alone, and a few sample pages, rather than wading through paragraphs of selling. I suppose that the agents that want something simpler would probably ask for a cover letter as opposed to a query though, so I probably should have a pitch on hand...

Sigh. I hate sales.

LAure,

As I understand it, things are different in the UK and they want less. Here, there is a sort of order to things:

Folks read the query letter. If it has enough for them to have a fair idea what the book is about, the voice and style, etc., they move on. Some of them move to stnopsis, somr to sample pages. But the query letter still needs to give them enough reason, and in 1-2 sentences usually about all you can hope to get is the high-concept view. Which is great, except "My book is about a shady detective trying to make good, and the woman who may be his redemption or his ticket straight to hell" is the same as maybe a thousand other books...you're too high to see any detail.

Don't get me wrong, I've seen very few queries in QLH I've considered "too brief," but the query is a first line of triage, and you need to convince them to take you to the next round. That involves more than the concept alone....and more than 1-2 sentences

quicklime
02-24-2012, 05:36 PM
I don't think so. Most guidelines ask for some biographical information about the author, and the fact that I'm studying Creative Writing at a postgrad level seems pretty relevant (as do publication credits).


from an american standpoint, publication does count...your major does not....because an agent wants to see that you CAN write a book, not that you took classes. Not knocking your degree; when I was applying for research money I didn't hang my hat on having a PhD either, because there are plenty of shitty PhDs out there; I hung it on being able to sell the feasibility and importance of my research. This is the same.


and edit, because this comes up all the time: when agents ask for a bio, they MEAN credits, as well as anything that leaves you UNIQUELY AND SINGULARLY qualified....think a childhood rape victim writing about being raped, for example. They don't want to hear about school, boyfriend, etc......they want to hear why they should believe in your book enough to read it.

randi.lee
02-24-2012, 05:38 PM
You can be too brief though. You need a solid hook.



Every brief query I've ever sent has been rejected. I learned quickly that I wasn't putting a "pow" into my queries. I agree with the above, brief is ok, but make sure you're adding that something special in, too.

Cyia
02-24-2012, 08:32 PM
the fact that I'm studying Creative Writing at a postgrad level seems pretty relevant .


It's not.

Seriously, it's not.

Your course of study doesn't tell an agent a single thing about your book, and that's ALL that matters.

Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, take those courses every year. A good number of said courses aren't taught by published writers and spew misinformation (You must self-publish before you publish! Build your name with magazine articles!), others are skewed toward only literary writing and disparage genre.

The bio paragraph can be (and often is) completely skipped for anyone without legitimate writing credits.

(again, this is for the US market.)

Laure de Sade
02-25-2012, 04:44 AM
Thanks for your advice, guys. I'm working on a new query, so should hopefully have it up for critique pretty soon.

Jaligard
02-25-2012, 12:55 PM
I don't think a tiny bit about being in a post-grad creative writing program will hurt you. I don't think it's going to help either, but I think it's nice to say something about yourself.

You still have to nail the rest of the letter.

BethS
02-26-2012, 06:20 AM
I guess I was just going by what I'd like to read if I was an agent. Even the better queries I've seen seem overly long and somewhat unnecessary, especially when accompanied by a good synopsis.

Try for one paragraph, containing four to five sentences. Mention the setting, the main character, the main conflict, and at least one specific colorful detail.

This is what agent Don Maass taught in a query workshop. In that workshop, I wrote a five-sentence pitch that turned out to be very successful. It got requests for pages every single time I used it.

blacbird
02-26-2012, 09:29 AM
Funny how, in the "Ask the Agents" forum, not a single agent seems to have responded in this thread.

caw

Toothpaste
02-26-2012, 08:46 PM
Have you never been in this forum before blacbird? If not, welcome. Yes this is "Ask The Agent", and agents do come here to answer questions. But it is also "Ask ABOUT Agents", a place where people can post questions about finding agents and working with them, and other people who have experience with agents can offer their insights. It's been like this . . . ever since I arrived and that was a couple moons ago.

blacbird
02-27-2012, 09:02 AM
I read most forums regularly, 22,000+ posts ought to indicate I know my way around here, and I bloody well know you know that.

Every writer here can relate anecdotes about query letters and speculate about how long/short or "minimalist" they should be. But the question in the thread title seems to me to address agents as well as other writers. So I'd like to see an agent respond to it. So far, none has, that I can see.

What are the preferences of individual agents in this matter? I'd like to know, and I bet everyone else who has posted in this thread would too.

caw

Mr. Anonymous
02-27-2012, 09:41 AM
Not an agent, but I interned briefly with a lit agency last year.

Personally, I don't put much stock in queries, but agents do, and I can understand why. It's a very fast way to reject, AND (somewhat contrary to the traditional wisdom of writing>>>>>premise) a lot of agents do get very excited about unique stories/premises. Think of it from their perspective. They've got to pitch the book succinctly, and in a way that grabs the editor's interest, a way that makes the editor think, "Ah, okay, so it's like this and this book..."

So from my experience, while concisely written queries are GOOD, I'm just not sure you can effectively differentiate your book from all the others out there in 1-2 sentences. And that's what you need to do. You need to show them your premise is pretty sweet, and hopefully in the process showcase your writing chops (voice is always good). Taking a little extra space to do that is fine (though the most important thing, in my opinion, is to include your first 5-10 pgs in the body of the email.)

Education is mostly irrelevant, unless it relates to your book somehow (post-grad creative writing might be worth mentioning, but it depends. Are you a student at a prestigious MFA program? Go ahead and mention it, can't hurt.) Publishing creds are worth sticking in but again, unless you're published in The New Yorker, largely irrelevant.

Old Hack
02-27-2012, 11:23 AM
Funny how, in the "Ask the Agents" forum, not a single agent seems to have responded in this thread.

caw

You're right, blacbird. None have. You're welcome to go and round up a few and ask them to participate, though. That would be a useful and positive thing for you to do.


I read most forums regularly, 22,000+ posts ought to indicate I know my way around here, and I bloody well know you know that.

With all that experience of AW, blacbird, you also bloody well know you know that you're in danger of breaking our "Respect Your Fellow Writer" rule there.

You know better. I won't have such behaviour. It's rude and uncalled for.


What are the preferences of individual agents in this matter? I'd like to know, and I bet everyone else who has posted in this thread would too.

If you want to know, then go and read agents' blogs, their websites, their submission guidelines. Find out who their clients are and read their blogs and websites too. There's a lot of information available; you just have to get out there and find it.

Stacia Kane
02-27-2012, 05:36 PM
Every writer here can relate anecdotes about query letters and speculate about how long/short or "minimalist" they should be. But the question in the thread title seems to me to address agents as well as other writers. So I'd like to see an agent respond to it. So far, none has, that I can see.

What are the preferences of individual agents in this matter? I'd like to know, and I bet everyone else who has posted in this thread would too.

caw


Well, there's always the Successful Queries thread in QLH (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=92925), where you can read hundreds of queries that attracted individual agents and editors, too.

An individual agent's opinion is going to be just that; an individual agent's opinion. That thread shows what worked for hundreds of agents and editors.

I'm sure there are plenty of agents out there who are very sorry that their job prevents them from visiting here to satisfy your demand that they personally attend to your questions, though. I suspect--I could be wrong, of course, but I suspect--that they discuss what they look for in a query letter in their own individual blogs, and that reading those blogs should be part of a writer's research when determining who to query.

Toothpaste
02-27-2012, 06:23 PM
I read most forums regularly, 22,000+ posts ought to indicate I know my way around here, and I bloody well know you know that.



caw


I do "bloody well know that", which is why I found your original question to be snarky and offensive. You didn't ask, "Anyone know what agents would say to this?", you simply pointed out that isn't it funny that no actual agents have answered this question in a section called "Ask the agent". To me it read like you were dismissing everyone else's thoughts, and also maybe even dissing AW for having such a section without having the agents to go along with it.

As others have said, there are plenty of places around the net to read about agents' perspective, and many of us who answer in this section use that information to inform our responses. There are two agents who on occasion stop by to answer questions here, but it isn't regular. However if you'd like to seek them out and point them to this thread because this question is one that really interests you, feel free.

But don't pretend like you didn't mean to be snarky in your first response.

Old Hack
02-27-2012, 06:37 PM
Toothpaste, I've already dealt with blacbird's comment to you: there's no need for you to take him to task too.

And quicklime, it's nice of you to be concerned about blacbird but your comment would perhaps have been better as a PM.

Now, let's clear away this bickery air and throw some fresh light on the topic we're meant to be discussing, shall we? Minimalist query letters, I think it is.

quicklime
02-27-2012, 06:44 PM
my apologies; as for minimalist letters, so long as the reader isn't left scratching their heads wondering what the book is about, use as few words as you can muster.....which is often about half what people start out with.

TrixieLox
03-03-2012, 10:50 PM
Just to return to the OP, I really would recommend any queriers google the agents they wish to query, something like <agent's name> then interview or blog or query and you'll often find their preferences. Most agents here in the uk want a one or two sentence blurb and that's it. The way deals are announced on PublishersMarketplace is a good indication. But in the US, two paragraphs seem to be the preference. But worth doing some research on agents to see what they prefer if it's not clear from website. And you should try UK agents too! Though some specify they only rep British authors so check sub guidelines. In the end though, a good pitch is a good pitch, whether it's 1 sentence or 6 in my humble opinion. Good luck!

lauralam
03-04-2012, 08:22 PM
I've had good luck with queries around 210 to 250 words. It's mainly about the book. Sometimes I add a sentence about why I'm querying that particular agent if it's relevant. I don't say anything about me because I don't have any prior publication credits.

I also studied creative writing and graduated in the top 1% of my class and won a few awards and prizes, but that still doesn't feel worth mentioning in my query to me. I'd rather the query and pages speak for themselves, which they've been doing quite well--I've got an 80% request rate for full MSs so far.

Brigid Barry
03-04-2012, 10:56 PM
I haven't been querying agents for very long, but so far, the queries I've sent have been pretty minimalistic, written in a similar format to job cover letters, i.e., 'I am seeking representation for [novel name] [genre] [word count]' followed by 1-2 sentences about the novel, a paragraph about my education and publication credits, and a closing paragraph.

I find pitches pretty gimmicky, and would prefer to let the facts speak for themselves. I've had a few rejections, but also a full manuscript request. I'm not sure whether I am on the right track or whether I need to take more of a risk and try to 'sell' my novel.

I am in the US pitching to US agents so that is what I am basing my information on.

I sent several queries out to agents using two sentences. This is called a "log line" and is loathed by agents. I have gotten - and expect to get - nothing but rejections because my query was so awful.

Read Query Shark, read the stickies in Query Letter Hell, and even Miss Snark was incredibly helpful. Just for a lark go to Slush Pile Hell too.

A good query will be around 250 words and answer three questions: Who is your protagonist, what do they want, and what happens if they don't get what they want.

I've seen a paragraph breakdown several times that the first paragraph sets up the situation, paragraph two is what the protagonist does about the situation and the third paragraph is what happens that makes everything worse and/or raises the stakes.

By only doing two lines you aren't telling the agent anything about your novel.

"Two characters meet and interact but are separated by outside influences...will they ever get back together?". That's the story arc for romance (after the external influence is an internal conflict followed by HEA...just so y'all know that I know ;) )

"A character with magical powers has to go get a sacred relic away from flesh eating killer bees". That's the arc for fantasy.

Even though your two lines will be more specific than this, it's going to read like the genre's story arc and not stand out as being something special. But you still need to be succinct and do all of this is 250-300 words.

Learn from my epic query fail. :)