Guest blogger: Literary agent Marlene Stringer

How I Choose What I Represent
(Or: Why Is My Query Letter So Important?)

Marlene StringerI love the query letter. It shows what a writer can do in a limited amount of space. My eyes don’t have the chance to glaze over, because it’s done before that can happen. Yet a lot of writers seem to disdain the lowly query letter, not take enough time to master the form, and not employ it as it might be used, as a targeted strategy, a guided missile of awesome. Instead, they use it as a dumping ground of unhelpful information, when all we really want them to do is to tell us a story….

Publishing is subjective. How many times have you heard that phrase? It’s a catchall, but like other expressions in common use there’s truth there. Agents and editors from a wide variety of disciplines and backgrounds bring their tastes and prejudices with them, and those play a role in the projects they choose. We can’t like everything. It’s the same when someone goes into a bookstore and browses. You may come out with a couple of books, you may come out with none. Totally depends on what you like, what you saw, and what you read on those covers. That’s the whole idea behind a query. To give enough information to pique an agent’s interest so they want to see more.

I represent what I can’t wait to tell other readers about. But for me to request a manuscript, a writer must query. Good query letters are rare. Mastering the query puts you way ahead of the pack.

While some clients come through referral, most arrive via the traditional query letter route or “slush,” the term for unsolicited material. Agents and editors generally start their careers reading slush. After weeks and months of reading hundreds of poorly-written queries and submissions, good submissions jump out from the rest. I know it’s hard to believe a reader can evaluate writing based merely on a letter, but in ninety percent of the cases, it’s true. Knowing you have this limited opportunity, why not do everything possible to make it work for you?

Here are some of the things I look for in a query:

• Is the query regarding a type of book or topic I represent? (Research an agent before you query. It’s really a waste of time and a bummer to receive a rejection simply because you chose an inappropriate target.)

• Is it a really original concept, or derivative of other book(s) out there? (Read, read, read so you know the market. Don’t limit your reading to your favorite authors. Try new authors, and read out of your genre and comfort zone.)

• Do I already have something or someone I rep covering the same territory? (I don’t want to represent projects that may be too similar simultaneously. Again, know your target.)

• Can I think of several editors who might like the project? (If I know only one or two editors who might like a project, odds of sale are slim. Other agents may know more editors right for a particular project.)

• Have I recently spoken with a number of editors who mentioned they don’t want any more of the type of manuscript? (Chick-lit, anyone?)

• Is the query professional? (Does the writer comprehend that publishing is a business, and that the query is a form of business letter? Is the information presented in a clear and professional manner, with all the details needed to make a decision?)

• Has the author bothered to do their homework for their genre? (I can’t sell a 200K word mystery. Know the genre you’re writing in and the expectations of the readers.)

• Is the query geared to me and my agency? (If I’m cc’d on a query e-mailed to a hundred agents, or addressed “To whom it may concern,” I know the writer is not seriously targeting my agency. This is not a query. It is spam and treated as such.)

• However, and most important: has the author communicated the story and hook in a voice that demands attention and makes me “have” to read more? (Work to develop your voice!)

Query letters are your introduction and your first impression. They may be the basis for your agent’s pitch to editors, or even help form the strategy for marketing your book. No one knows your manuscript as well as you, and no one else will be able to synthesize your voice and communicate the essence of your story.
I know it may not seem like it sometimes, but agents are constantly looking for writing that grabs them in that special way. A writer needs to master the art of the query letter to showcase his or her voice, and make their work stand out in a crowd. It isn’t enough to write a great book. An author needs to learn how to sell the great book. The query letter is a tool in your writer’s arsenal, and the first step in getting an agent’s attention in a subjective and highly competitive environment.

Marlene Stringer is the founder and managing agent of The Stringer Literary Agency LLC, and is always looking for terrific stories.

About Michelle Diener

Michelle Diener writes historical fiction and fantasy. To find out more about her and her novels, you can visit her website.
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17 Responses to Guest blogger: Literary agent Marlene Stringer

  1. JKB says:

    Brilliant post, Marlene! I agree that the lowly query is the one thing that’ll get you picked from the slush…and on the way to finding your perfect agent!

    The points youlisted are also extremely helpful and wise. Go you!! Brilliant!

  2. Edie Ramer says:

    Marlene, thanks for being our guest today. These are all great tips! I actually enjoy writing a query blurb. And now we have great resources, like Publishers Marketplace, Agent Query, Query Tracker and agent Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog. It makes it easier for the writer, and maybe for the agent, too.

  3. Michelle says:

    Thanks for a terrific blog, Marlene. I think query letters are something a writer learns from practice. Don’t send out the first draft. Put it aside for a day or two, give it to people you trust to look at, and then come back with fresh eyes to rework it. It will always be better for it.

  4. Margaret A. Golla says:

    Great post, Marlene! I actually had your agency bookmarked under my agent’s folder, but I write a little too young (middle grade) for what you represent. Oh, well, maybe when my character gets older you might just hear from me!
    Happy hunting!

  5. Very interesting and great tips for a querying author. I am always amazed when I see something from an unpub’ed who has written a 200k+ book and has no clue that it’s too long. I realize that 200K books can get published, but why stacked the odds against you from the get-go?

    For me, I’ve found that I can’t “read” my work for errors. Can’t see them. My mind adds in missing words, etc. Since I installed Dragon Speak, I can “hear” mistakes. Wish I’d had this before I sent out my first query.

  6. Kath Calarco says:

    Great point here – writers need to realize and remember that publishing is a business. I think it’s important for a writer to understand that you get what you give. Send out a “meh” query and rejection ensues. After all, the query is the “first interview” so to speak – step one to vast possibilities and open doors.

    I’m saving this blog as a handy guideline for when I’m back on the querying path. Thanks for the pointers, Marlene!

    Thanks MM ladies for another terrific guest. 🙂

  7. Very nice, informative post. Somehow it doesn’t seem right that a query letter feels harder to write than the book, but boy, it does seem that way.

  8. Kerri says:

    Excellent post! I think of a query letter as a first impression and whether it’s interviewing for a job or meeting the potential in-laws, first impressions are everything.

  9. Janie Emaus says:

    Great post! Thanks for the info

  10. Peter S says:

    Great advice.

  11. Heidi says:

    Excellent advice! I’ve found that the mini-synopsis in the query doesn’t end at getting an agent, either. You need to be able to write them for the book cover, or tell a stranger in the coffee shop who wants to know what your book is about, or to pitch reviewers.

    Now, even though I’m not writing query letters, I still write the “pitch” before I write my book. It helps me focus my writing, and it’s great practice for being succinct!

  12. LaDonna says:

    Great having you at Magical today, Marlene! You made great points, and I’ll definitely read your post again when I’m closer to the query stage.

    Best of luck with your agency!

  13. Interesting post! For me its the synopsis that I hate! I’m wondering, how important is the synopsis? Do you want it to be as creative as a query? Or can it just be the facts?

  14. Liz Kreger says:

    Wow! Great post, Marlene, and terrific words of wisdom. Gonna have to get out my query and take another look at it but I do think I have it short, sweet with all the pertinant information necessary.

    Thanx for joining us here at MM. I’m definitely going to have to save this blog for future reference.

  15. Angelina Barbin says:

    It isn’t enough to write a great book. An author needs to learn how to sell the great book.


    Sometimes the most profound ideas are the simplest. Thank you for sharing with us today.


  16. Marlene says:

    Thank you all for your comments, and for inviting me.

    Heidi, you nailed it. It’s a very useful tool.

    Lori, when I request I ask for a synopsis. Some agents don’t. I prefer it to be as short as the writer can make it – a page is great. The purpose, especially with new authors, is to see that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that the plot basically holds up. So for me, it is more “informational,” and doesn’t have to be so catchy. I read the synopsis after I read pages.

  17. Joe Barone says:

    Excellent post. Thank you.

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