A Pretty Much Foolproof, Never-Fail, Silver-Bullet Query Opening

John M. Cusick

Hello there.

A few days ago I posted about my move to Folio Literary, and what I’ll be seeking.

As I rev up the ol’ query inbox (which is already rumbling with submissions), I figured I’d take a moment to talk a bit about the query letter.

How— I mean, for serious, how on earth— does anyone write a query letter?

It seems so difficult. Not only are you trying to put your best foot forward and stand out from the dozens— no, HUNDREDS UPON HUNDREDS— of other queriers, you’ve got to summarize your manuscript (impossible), make it sound exciting (huh?), comp it to other titles (um), talk a bit about yourself (embarrassing), and keep it all under half-a-page (yeah okay no).

As if writing the book wasn’t hard enough in the first place.

A lot has been written on strategies for great query letters. There are templates…

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How to turn a Complex Story into a Simple Synopsis

Drew Chial

1. Profile A lot things go into telling a simple story

My least favorite type of writing has always been summarizing. Whether I was pitching a screenplay or a synopsis for a book, I got too concerned about what producers and publishers were looking for. I hated whatever I put on paper. It felt like I was cutting out the tastiest parts to make it palatable, misrepresenting the material by packaging it for mass appeal.

When my screenwriting professor videotaped the pitch for my first script, I ranted for twenty minutes. This was no elevator pitch. The lift for the tallest building in the world doesn’t take that long to get to the top. I had to lower my time to two minutes or less.

Since then I’ve learned the memorization techniques I needed to keep myself on task and how to select the parts of my story that were worth focusing…

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Guest Blog on Agent Exclusives

Author Photo - Michelle HauckBy Guest Blogger Michelle Hauck

My contests have put me in a sort of spotlight, being a high profile writer on twitter. I’ve done my share of querying and have heard just about everything. I’ve learned even more for watching and listening, and I tend to get asked for advice when writers just don’t know. One of those topics is agent exclusives.

While I don’t feel there are right or wrong ways to approach this subject, I do feel a little advice might help people make an informed decision. What follows is my opinion only. The answer to this decision will certainly vary depending on who you ask, but here are my thoughts. The best thing you can do is research the topic and go with your gut.

An exclusive is when an agent asks to be the only person to have your material. In other words, they would like first shot at it and want to have it all for themselves. While an exclusive may be a very exciting offer, there are a few downsides you should consider.

Existing Requests- First of all, you might already have a number of fulls and partials outstanding as well as unanswered query letters. If this isn’t your first round of querying, chances are an agent already has your work. Does an exclusive mean you have to withdraw those?

I would consider withdrawing partials and fulls already sent to be rude. It’s like a take back. Opps, I got a better offer, can you trash that sample I sent you? In the small world of publishing, it’s burning your bridges. You’re just not going to do that if you want to work in this business. Not without an actual offer on the table.

So no, you should not withdraw outstanding requests. And you’ll have to tell the exclusive agent that. Likely they won’t expect you to act in any other way and consider the exclusive to be on future requests.

New Requests- Just about every writer queries in batches. Say you sent a batch of ten query letters and one of the agents has come back with the request for an exclusive. The next day a fresh agent may request pages, or a query from three weeks ago comes back with a request, then what do you do?

Without naming names, you’ll have to tell the new agent you have an exclusive with another agent and you can’t send at the moment. Would it be all right if you sent when x time period is up? Then you hope they are still interested and don’t pass right away. In other words, they may say no thanks.

It will look something like this:

Dear Agent B:

I’m so happy to recieve your request for pages of TITLE. Unfortunately I just granted another agent an exclusive until the end of April. May I send TITLE to you when my exlusive expires?

Thank you so much,

Name

Or maybe there is a big contest coming up that you really wanted to enter. If you grant an exclusive, you have to kiss contests goodbye until that exclusive is over. You’ll be cheering from the sidelines.

The person losing out is the writer.

Timing- The length of time requested for an exclusive by an agent can vary from two weeks to a month. You might even be asked only for a week if you are lucky. I’m guessing the usual time period will be a month.

Be very careful if no time period is mentioned. You do not want to give an open-ended exclusive with no close date in sight. You do notwant to be waiting and wondering three months from now and unable to send out fresh queries.

It’s generally considered that two weeks is long enough and a month is being too generous. Some people even opt for just a week. I’d say the standard is two weeks.

Again, the person losing out is the writer because your hands are tied for however long you agree.

Power- An exclusive gives the agent all the cards. Normally when a writer receives an offer, they go to every agent with their query letter or pages and let them know. This is a way for a writer to get multiple offers, and hopefully, gives the writer a choice of agents to sign with. That gives you as a writer a stronger position.

If you grant an exclusive, you’ve pretty much cut out the chances of receiving offers from more than one agent. Especially if the time period on the exclusive is longer. No one else will have your query letter, and there will be less likelihood of having other outstanding material. Basically your choices are down to one. You’ve made the exclusive agent the only game in town.

Again, the person losing out is the writer. In most cases, an exclusive benefits the agents unless you are certain of an offer to follow.

The good thing is most exclusives are rare nowadays. I queried four different manuscripts and got asked for an exclusive only once. It’s very likely the agent will ask for an exclusive simply because it is their company policy. That was the case in my instance. That agent always asked for an exclusive. It was their procedure.

So what can you do?

First, consider the agent. While you don’t want to go about using the term “dream agent,” (If you don’t know about this, it’s basically because word tends to spread in publishing. People get to know each other. If you mention on twitter that you love Agent A, Agent B may not be too thrilled and may consider you already spoken for.) you do want to consider the source. Is this a powerful agency with a lot of top sales? Is this agent someone you believe you’d mesh well with? Does this agent have high profile sales?

You may have followed this agent on twitter and really like their style. Or you may be excited by how much they want to have your book all to themselves.

If that is true, your gut is going to lean toward allowing the exclusive. You might want to craft an answer something like this:

Dear Agent A:

Thank you so much for requesting to read TITLE. I’m excited to work with you. I do already have x partials and x fulls outstanding just to let you know. I don’t feel comfortable granting an exclusive for a month, but would be happy to send no future query letters or requested material for two weeks. I hope this works for you.

I’ve attached TITLE as a Word document. Thank you again. I look forward to hearing from you.

Name

Most agents are used to negotiating on contracts. It’s what they do. Odds are they are going to be fine with two weeks or only a week for an exclusive. If they are serious about the exclusive, then it will be at the top of their reading list already anyway. This limits the time your hands are tied, but still gives them what they want.

If, however, you just don’t believe an exclusive is in your best interest, then you should speak up. Say your query letter is red hot and you are getting tons of requests. Maybe you’ve been in a contest and got many requests. Or maybe there’s a contest coming up you want to enter. It’s not something you have to accept, though most writers are usually willing to grant some time period.

Then your answer would look something like this:

Dear Agent A:

Thank you so much for requesting to read TITLE. I’m excited to work with you. I don’t feel comfortable granting an exclusive at this time as I don’t think it is in my best interests (Or as I plan to enter X contest), but I would be happy to send the material. I hope this works for you.

I’ve attached TITLE as a Word document. Thank you again. I look forward to hearing from you.

Name

In my case, I granted a two week exclusive instead of the month requested. The agent did not get back to me within the two weeks and I nudged gently. They responded quickly to my nudge saying they were still reading and I could query again. After about a month, the agent passed for subjective reasons. But we parted as friends, and the agent was most gracious and understanding. She completely understood my desire to hold it to two weeks. When the exclusive period was up, I nudged with something like this:

Dear Agent A:

I wondered if you had time to finish reading TITLE? Our two week exclusive is ending and I look forward to your thoughts.

Thanks,

Name

So there is my advice on exclusives. Agents are wonderful and I love them, you’ll want to do whatever they suggest, but consider your position also. Be polite, but do what is best for you. Make sure you have an end date and two weeks is a good standard.

Feel free to share your own opinion in the comments and tell us if it has ever happened to you. How did you react and how did your exclusive turn out? I’m curious if anyone’s exclusive led to an offer.

Also if you have other questions for future posts, please shout out to me on twitter.

Guess What?

I have an agent!

In a twist on the traditional route, my query wasn’t plucked from the slush pile. My agent story began with a quiet little Tweet.

But let me back up a bit. After several drafts and lots of feedback from my critique partners, I started sending out queries for my latest manuscript, a YA SpecFic with Thriller elements. By April, I’d received several partial and full requests. I was feeling pretty good.

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Then it was silent. Self doubt crept in. I needed a distraction. I threw myself into my latest project, trying hard not to check my email every five seconds.

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Then I got a message from one of my CPs asking if I was going to do #RTSlap, a Twitter pitch event that I hadn’t marked on my calendar. I was full of coffee and optimism, so I figured why not? I sent one pitch into the Twitterverse and called it good.

Later that day, my tweet got favorited. An agent wanted my query and first ten pages. I sent the material off, and a few days later, I received an email from her requesting the full.

I was surprised to hear back from her on Memorial Day. As I clicked on the email, I braced myself for the words “I’m sorry, but I’m not the right fit for this project”.

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Instead she’d written I couldn’t put it down. She wanted to set up The Call to talk about representation.

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I let myself spaz out a little before emailing her back.

We set up a time to talk the next day. I’m ridiculously punctual, so when she called on the dot, I’m pretty certain I was smiling despite the fact that my stomach was doing flips. There was a connection, and most importantly, she understood my story and had great suggestions to improve the manuscript.

I emailed every agent who’d requested material, as well as those I hadn’t heard back from. Then I scoured the Internet and contacted several of the agency’s clients. The more I learned, the more impressed I was, and I knew I wanted to be part of the Inklings Literary Agency family.

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Whitley Abell is the perfect fit, and I can’t wait to see what we can do together!