My talk was on query letters. I thought I'd offer a short recap here in case you weren't able to come the workshop and are getting your feet wet submitting manuscripts to editors and agents. This is just my opinion, yo. Cross-check with what other people have to say about writing these little devils.
My agent is Caren Johnson. If I were still searching for an agent, here's the letter I'd write to her about my new novel, THE BOYS NEXT DOOR. (The middle part is straight from the back of the book because, as I discussed during my talk, Simon & Schuster's summary of the book is better than mine was.) This is formatted as if I were sending it over e-mail, which is what Caren wants. If the agent wanted snail-mail queries, I'd format it like a business letter. Either way, it should be about one page long (some people say two is okay; I say you should hook them in one).
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Dear Ms. Johnson:
I am seeking representation for my YA and adult romantic comedies. I saw on PublishersMarketplace.com that you have recently sold adult romantic comedies for Kelley St. John and YA novels for Caridad Ferrer. I thought you might be interested in my latest manuscript, THE BOYS NEXT DOOR. It's a YA romantic comedy of about 65,000 words. Working the summer at a marina near her lakeside home, a high school junior pretends to date the boy next door to catch his older brother, her childhood crush.
Lori lives for summertime at her family's lake house. She spends all season wakeboarding, swimming, and hanging with her friends—including the two hotties in the cabin next door. With the Vader brothers, Lori's always been one of the guys.
But while Lori and the "baby" brother, Adam, are inseparable friends, she can't deny a secret crush on Sean, the older Vader boy. This year Sean's been paying Lori a lot of attention, and not in a brotherly way.
But just as Lori decides to prove to Sean she's girlfriend material, she realizes that her role as girl friend to Adam may be even more important. And by trying so hard for the perfect summer romance, she could be going way overboard...
My first novel, MAJOR CRUSH, about a beauty queen turned band geek in a small Southern town, was published in 2006 as part of the Simon Pulse Romantic Comedies series. I also work as a freelance copyeditor of medical journal articles.
Thank you for your time, Ms. Johnson. I look forward to hearing from you.
(contact info goes here)
Here's how it breaks down:
1. First paragraph: the agent (or editor)
At first glance this paragraph seems to be about your book. Actually it's about the agent, and how your book fits the interests of the agent. Here are some questions you should answer in this paragraph:
A. What do you want?
I am seeking representation for my YA and adult romantic comedies.
B. Why are you querying this agent? Show you have done your homework (without seeming like a stalker). Let the agent know you have not just picked her name at random out of a book. You have researched her and think that the two of you would make a great team.
I saw on PublishersMarketplace.com that you have recently sold adult romantic comedies for Kelley St. John and YA novels for Caridad Ferrer.
Ideas for how to get information about what the agent wants:
-Agent web sites
-PublishersMarketplace.com--deals postings and member pages; you must pay $20/month for access to the deals postings, but you can sign up for one month, do your research, and cancel your membership
-http://www.rwanational.org/, Members Only, Industry Resources, Agent Update
-Issues of Romance Writers Report
-Acknowledgments pages in published novels
-You have met the agent
-You have queried the agent before and she asked you to send her your next project
DON’T RELY ON ONE RESOURCE! CROSS-CHECK!
C. How does your manuscript match the agent’s interests?
-Title - I thought you might be interested in my latest manuscript, THE BOYS NEXT DOOR.
-Genre - It's a YA romantic comedy
-Length - of about 65,000 words. (KNOW THE APPROPRIATE LENGTH AND DO NOT QUERY IF YOUR BOOK DOESN’T MATCH IT.)
-Hook - Working the summer at a marina near her lakeside home, a high school junior pretends to date the boy next door to catch his older brother, her childhood crush.
2. Middle paragraphs: the book
These paragraphs should look like the descriptions on the backs of published books. Consult current books in your genre. Note that to capture the reader's interest, these descriptions often feature the main characters' goal, motivation and conflict (GMC). If your book is told in alternating points of view of the heroine and hero, you may have a paragraph for each of them with their individual GMCs. THE BOYS NEXT DOOR is told solely from the point of view of the heroine, so the entire summary is her GMC.
Dixon, Debra. GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction. Memphis, TN: Gryphon Books for Writers; 1996.
-Goal - just as Lori decides to prove to Sean she's girlfriend material
-Motivation - she can't deny a secret crush on Sean, the older Vader boy
-Conflict - she realizes that her role as girl friend to Adam may be even more important.
3. Last paragraph: you
Give the agent the impression that you are serious about your writing. Agents and editors want to work with people who can take criticism, get their revision in on time and get to work on that next book.
-Previous book sales with dates and hooks.
-Other writing experience.
-Membership and involvement in professional writers’ organizations.
-Degrees if they seem relevant; people seem divided on whether agents and editors are impressed or turned off by an English degree. Having one doesn't mean you can write, and we all know great writers with no degree (Nora).
-How many unpublished manuscripts are under your bed...maybe not? I have seen people recommend this line for a query letter, but I don't go around telling just anybody that my first sale was my tenth manuscript. It might be better to stress your dedication to the craft rather than citing a number.
-Specialized knowledge or experience that enabled you to write this book.
-Hooky personal info (no pets). Good example: "I used to work for NASA." (Kelley is too cool!)
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If you're querying an editor rather than an agent, the same principles apply. You may not be able to research what the editor likes personally, but you should know, for instance, that your book is a Harlequin Blaze rather than a Steeple Hill Love Inspired. Query the editor who actually buys for that line. Your word count should be correct for that line.
I'd be happy to answer your questions here but frankly I don't know why you would ask me anything when you can ask Caren Johnson herself on her blog. She would love to hear from you.