I’ve known Kelly Simmons since 2007, I think. Which means, Kelly and I have known each other like 77 dog years, which I think is even more in Internet years. When I moved back to Philadelphia a year and a half ago, one of my bonuses was that a group of my Tall Poppy Writer pals are also Philly based, Kelly included. And she showed up to my new home, before the furniture did! And Kelly brought pizza.
Today Kelly’s here on my well-furnished online home to share some gems about query writing.
She knows wha she’s talking about, so read, bookmark, share with your writer pals.
Then maybe they’ll bring you pizza!
PS Check out Kelly’s books and links below!
by Kelly Simmons
Some people call me the Query Queen, but I draw the line at a tiara.
Through my seminars at writer’s conferences, and mentoring via the Liars Club Writers Coffeehouses, I’ve helped thousands of writers through the query process. I’ve seen firsthand the crazy mistakes made by perfectly sane people. Here’s how to avoid becoming one of them.
Why is the shortest document a novelist writes also one of the hardest?
Because there’s so much at stake. Yet, most authors spend about 20 minutes crafting their query letter. Crazy, right? Allow yourself a few days of thinking, writing, editing.
A query letter is not a letter.
A query is a piece of direct marketing advertising, designed for the recipient to take notice and take action. Fortunately, I’m an advertising executive by trade, so I know how to do this. (And it’s waaaayyy easier than writing a new novel cuz everyone rejected your first one due to a crummy query.) Let me break it down for you — into a few Sections, and a few Rules.
- The email subject line.
- The all-important opening.
- The book description. (Everyone makes the same mistake here, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
- The why me.
- The why you.
- The call to action.
- The P.S. (Trust me, you need one. Don’t make me arm wrestle you, just keep listening.)
Keep it short
Don’t sound like an asshole
Don’t become an automatic no
That’s it! Let me elaborate.
- Subject line: This has to be something related to your all important opening or your P.S. It should not contain words like ‘free’ or ‘virus’ or ‘penis’ because you will go straight to spam. I advise writing this last, yet most people write it first. Silly people.
- Opening: Agents get hundreds of queries a day. They don’t read most of them past the first paragraph. SO THE FIRST PARAGRAPH IS CRITICAL. For the opening, just choose which of the other sections is the most important. Simple, right? Where do you shine or appear to be unique? IS IT . . . your brilliant original book synopsis? Or is it the ‘why me’ – an interesting reason you wrote the book, a connection to the material or the person you’re querying. Often the most important section is the ‘why you’ paragraph, an interesting way you met or learned about the agent, an introduction from a friend (which is GOLD. So Gold it will become your subject line, too.)
- Book Description: Did I mention they get hundreds of queries per day? Don’t make the mistake everyone makes, which is to drone on for an entire freaking page. “And then he and then she and then.” Write only one paragraph. Emphasize main plot over subplot. Show character desire, roadblocks, growth. Mention genre. Give 1-2 comparable titles, no more, or I will have to hunt you down and give you a cardboard paper cut.
- Why Me: Do you have a job related to your book? Have you done fascinating research? Are you an expert in your topic? Do you have a knowledge platform – a podcast, a column? Are you a community leader with a built in base? Did your best friend go to college with the agent? Have your short stories been published in two prestigious literary journals? Do you have a blurb already from a famous author on your manuscript? (If you do, that’s the opening my friend.)
- Why You: If you do your research, you’ll know enough about every agent to say something admiring of their work or their clients. Agents are human and like to be flattered. This is a lovely way to wind things down — by sucking up.
- Call to action: Don’t just say “look forward to hearing from you.” That’s so mushy and general. Be concrete and detailed (like your prose). Say “I’d like to send you a few chapters. I’ll follow up in two weeks to see if I can persuade you.”
- The P.S. Think it’s silly? Think it’s for kids? Well, consider this — THE P.S. IS THE SECOND MOST READ part of any letter, after the opening! So pull out a fun fact, think of something you want them to remember, and PUT IT IN a P.S.
- Keep it short. If you think it’s short enough, it’s not.
- Don’t sound like an a–hole. Don’t compare yourself to Hemingway even if it’s true. Don’t list a million publication credits. Don’t blather on and on about your MFA and all the famous teachers who liked your work. Toot your horn with humility!
- Don’t be an automatic no. Don’t query a romance agent with a sci-fi thriller – read their guidelines! Don’t write to someone named Amy and say Dear Becca. Don’t misspell words. Don’t lie. Agents know each other and agents gossip!
Also, remember to stay positive. Agents need writers and manuscripts. Without you, they are nothing. So don’t make it easy for them to turn you down by dashing off a long, meandering, braggy letter!
P.S. Did I mention I have snagged four different agents by sending letters with no personal connection? And that one of those letters had a 90% success rate of asking for the full manuscript? Impressive, isn’t it? Which is why I saved it for the PS.
Good luck and happy querying!
Kelly Simmons is a former journalist and advertising creative director and the author of the novels Standing Still, The Bird House, One More Day, and her latest, The Fifth of July. She’s a member of WFWA, Tall Poppy Writers and The Liars Club, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping fledgling novelists.
Because you know you want more info about Kelly: