Several people I know are ready to submit their squeaky-clean, polished mss to an agent. In about 99.99% of cases, agents initially require just a one-page query letter that describes the project and relevant info about the author. If the agent likes the premise, they might ask to see a partial (the first three chapters or 50 pages) or the full manuscript. Sounds easy, doesn't it?
Well, if you browse around the many forums, blogs and loops, it's clear just how many other writers are agent hunting. How do you make sure you don't shoot yourself in the foot?
Write a sharp, well-targeted query, of course.
* A polite, clean, spellchecked, grammar-checked and straightforward letter says more than scented stationery or flowery fonts.
* Indicate which genre the book falls in and the word count.
* Never say you've written only the first three chapters and you're just "testing the waters." Write the book, the whole book, revise it properly and then query agents.
* Mention any of the book's contest wins or finals. If you're lucky enough to have a long list of these, choose a couple of the more recent and/or more prestigious competitions.
* Don't talk about how much your greengrocer/grandmother/daughter/pet bird liked the book.
* Be modest--never say you've written the best novel in publishing history or that it's a surefire bestseller.
* At the other end of the scale, don't tell the agent your book has been rejected by dozens of agents and you're querying them because they're your last hope.
* Pitch one book at a time. If you've created a series, talk about book 1 and mention it's part of a series but hold off on describing books 2 to 17 or whatever.
* Don't be a smart alec or be too familiar, even if you read the agent's entertaining blog every day and feel as though you're BFF.
* Follow the agent's guidelines (eg. send a SSAE; don't submit to multiple agents at the same agency at the same time, etc).
* Most importantly, write a compelling paragraph (or two) about the project. Try to infuse the same tone/voice used in the manuscript. It's the plot and the writing that captures the agent, not necessarily your qualifications. Unless of course you're writing non-fiction; a credible platform could bolster your chances.
When formulating my own queries or elevator pitches, I analysed several published back-cover blurbs to get an idea of what constitutes a hook, something to grab attention. Have you ever looked at a blurb and thought, "That sounds brilliant! I have to read this"? I felt that reaction when I read Amazon's editoral description of Jennifer Lynn Barnes's upcoming YA series, The Squad: Perfect Cover:
Bayport High’s Varsity cheer squad is made up of the hottest of the hot. But this A-list is dangerous in more ways than one. The Squad is actually a cover for the most highly trained group of underage government operatives the United States has ever assembled. They have the perfect cover, because, beyond herkeys and highlights, no one expects anything from a cheerleader."
Those four sentences tell me the essentials: who, what, where and why. (If you're like me and find this sort of plot irresistible, you can pre-order Jennifer Lynn Barnes's book here.)
For more resources on query letters, check out:
Call My Agent, a blog by an anonymous Australian agent.
Agent Query's article on formatting the letter.
Agent Nathan Bransford's blog post on the anatomy of a query letter.