Many of my valued fiction clients ask me for advice about contacting literary agents and publishers. The most difficult part of any proposal is the query. This is the one-paragraph summation of what your book is about and why the literary agent should devote eight hours of his or her life reading your 90,000-word novel. It takes the agent or publisher about ten seconds to read your query and then decide whether to reject your book or ask to see more. This means that if you’ve spent a year or more slaving over your novel, its fate may depend upon that ten seconds your query is read by the literary agent.
The most important thing about a query is that it must convey the essence of your book, not the details. It must address the underlying theme, not the fine points of your amazingly intricate plot. It must present the problem faced by the protagonist, and the difficulty of solving the problem.
Here’s an actual example of advice I gave to a client who was gracious enough to share his query with me. He wrote:
“I have been rejected hundreds of times, and made the novice mistake of querying way too early. I think I now have very few viable options left, but here is my current query that no one has positively responded to:
“I am seeking representation for XXXXX, a 72,000-word ethnic novel with literary sensibility.
The book focuses on the unlikely friendship between Negin, the daughter of an Iranian Baha’i man, and Habibeh, a house servant who believes that touching a Baha’i can cause fatal blisters. However, their friendship is not tested until Habibeh conspires to take Negin to her late husband’s nephew — a powerful cleric who is planning to capture Negin’s father. Negin prepares to flee, but the cleric’s brother arrests her father. Habibeh can help, if she pays a high price.
“I grew up in Iran and my family, like Negin’s, was pulled between the Baha’i and Muslim faiths. This is my first novel.”
This is what I wrote to him:
“Your query is too confusing. Leave out the names. Boil it down to its essence. Say this:
“When the daughter of an Iranian Baha’i becomes friends with a Muslim house servant, the two girls violate deeply held social norms. The danger deepens when a powerful cleric learns of their friendship. This insightful novel explores the clash between cultures in contemporary Iran, and seeks to explore the limits of the human heart.” You need to convey the theme of the story, not the literal facts. There needs to be tension and conflict, and you need to state the source of the conflict. Do not use the girls’ names – they are much too confusing for a query.”
The query he had been using was very confusing and required the busy literary agent to keep track of the names of the characters – and their names are the least important part of the query! I’m not an expert, but it seemed to me that his novel, if well written, should be snapped up instantly. It fulfills everything the publishing industry is looking for.
– Thomas Hauck is a leading professional ghostwriter and book editor serving both established and emerging authors.