Copyright 2013 Pacific Northwest Writers Association. All Rights Reserved
Tips on Powering Through the Slush Pile
by Judi Lauren
Because of the woes of cold querying, pitch contests such as Pitch Madness and Pitch Wars are becoming increasingly popular. However, cold querying doesn’t have to be that frightening. There are several ways you can up your chances of pushing your query through the slush pile and ultimately winning over an agent or editor.
Stellar opening pages and a manuscript that follow through are very important parts in getting an agent to offer representation, or an editor to buy the rights to your manuscript. But before an agent or editor views your pages, you will introduce your story to them via a query letter.
The Sales Pitch
Keep in mind that your query letter is a sales pitch. Most agents and editors like a bit of introduction in queries—usually a line or two—on why you chose them. Be personal and professional. Even something as simple as writing “I recently discovered on Publisher’s Marketplace that you’re seeking XYZ” is personal.
If you have a referral from another client, mention it. If you met the agent briefly at a writer’s conference, mention it. If you read an interview where he or she mentioned wanting to see something like your story, mention it.
Next, you tell us about your story.
The Well-Written Query
The first important step when it comes to the meat of your query is to make sure it’s well-written. I’m not talking about verb placement and punctuation here, though both are equally important. I’m talking about making sure your book is conveyed in the best way.
One of the biggest aspects I always see missing from queries is a stake. Your query should tell the reader what’s at stake for your character. What will happen to your character if they don’t achieve their goal? What happens if they do? If you can’t list a stake in your query, chances are you don’t have a strong enough one in your book. That type of problem should be fixed before you begin querying.
The goal, motivation, conflict, and stakes should always be present in your query. If you’re missing all, or even one of them, your chances of moving through the slush pile diminish.
Keep It Simple
The next step is to keep your query simple. If you have a cast of characters you love, that’s fantastic, but keep your query limited to only your main characters. One good tip for writing a query is to read a lot of blurbs on the back covers of published books. Notice how the blurb lists only one or two main characters, unless the book has multiple points of view. If your book is told through multiple points of view, and not omniscient, each character should be mentioned in your query.
The second way to keep your query letter simple is not to bombard the reader with a ton of information about the world. This is especially important when writing science fiction and fantasy. I Am Number Four is a very popular first book in a long-running series. If you’ve read it, you know there’s a very intricate and detailed world that’s discussed in the book. However, the back cover blurb for the book focuses on the character and the dangers he faces while being on the run.
Finally, don’t look at your query as a synopsis. A synopsis tells the reader everything about your book. It details subplots and gives the ending of your story away. When you’re writing your query, don’t spill the ending to the reader. Queries should be written to intrigue and entice a reader to request more. If your query isn’t doing either, you need to revise it.
When you’re writing your bio in a query, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is giving too much information. A bio should remain professional, and should include only information that’s relevant to the manuscript you’re submitting.
Agents and editors don’t need to know about what you do on Friday night. We don’t need to know about kids, family, pets, or lifestyle unless it matters in the manuscript. If you’re querying for a manuscript that takes place in a hospital setting, and you have experience working in a hospital, that’s relevant to mention.
Second, refrain from comparing your books to bestsellers. Every month, we see submissions where authors compare their writing or book to Harry Potter, Throne of Glass, or The Hunger Games. You have a better chance of standing out when you’re not using all the titles of comparison everyone else is.
Query in Small Batches
And finally, if you’re querying and not receiving any requests from agents and editors, it might be time to go back over your query and opening pages. It’s important to query only in small batches, so if there is something wrong with your query or pages, you haven’t already queried every agent on your list.