What’s the “right” way to query?

Writer's block.

Photo by Flickr user Sharon Drummond

After spending way too much time making miniscule changes and avoiding even thinking about querying, I’m ready for round two. By the time you read this, I will have sent at least five queries for my young adult science fiction novel. I’m putting it in writing. Hitting “schedule.” Now I’m obligated to do it.

I spent one of my “adult snow days” this week on Query Tracker, perusing links to various agents’ websites, blogs, and more. I took notes on submission guidelines, agonized over my query and synopsis, and daydreamed about a call from the perfect agent over a large mug of hot cocoa. Then I sat down for that dreaded, hardest part of the process: personalizing my queries.

I’ve come to think of querying literary agents as akin to applying for jobs, only without the help of job descriptions telling me what to say. When I was looking for a library position, I scrutinized job ads to determine which skills to highlight in my cover letter, which keywords to focus on in my resume. Were they looking for someone with experience organizing programs? Or were they more concerned with one-on-one tech help? Did they talk about “patrons” or “users” or “customers”? But since agents don’t post job ads, all of the little details I used to make my library applications stand out were missing.

To make matters worse, everyone seems to have a different idea of what you should or shouldn’t do in a query. Some agents rave about queries that are written in the main character’s voice, while others say they hate having a character talk to them. Some want a professional bio, while others say they don’t want a bio unless you have specific credentials (previous publication in that genre or field of study, personal experience with an unusual situation your book may cover, etc.); and all seem to agree that you don’t need to have any credentials if you’re writing fiction. With all this conflicting advice, how’s a writer to come up with the perfect query?

My conclusion: you don’t. There is no one perfect query. Just as every job requires a different cover letter, every agent requires a different query. The ones who say they want a bio get a bio. The ones who like to have your main character tell his story get a personal letter. I went into this thinking that tailoring a query letter meant somehow dropping the names of other authors that agent likes or represents, but now I feel it’s much more about tailoring the query to the agent’s preferences. Follow the agent’s submission guidelines — that goes without saying — but also listen to what they like and don’t like. If they have a blog, check that out; if they tweet, follow them on Twitter. I’ve found Writer’s Digest’s series on successful queries especially helpful. Another good resource is the interviews on Literary Rambles, some of which go beyond the basics that you’ll find on an agency’s website. And if you’re still trying to decide whom to query, the Agent and Editor Wishlist Tumblr has more detail about what different agents are looking for that goes beyond just the genres they represent.

Now it’s time for me to stop writing about queries and actually write them. What has your experience with tailoring queries been?

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