Querying your book: tips and a glossary of terms.

If you haven’t yet entered the query trenches (or hopped on the query treadmill), you may not be familiar with the terms that get used on literary agents’ websites and places like Twitter to describe the things a writer might be asked to provide. (From what I’ve seen, these terms are also used by publishers, but my experience is primarily with agents so your mileage may vary.)

Here’s a quick breakdown of the ones I’ve encountered:

Query. This is a short letter (no more than one page in Word, single spaced), that contains two to three paragraphs about your story, as well as the title, genre and word count rounded to the nearest thousand. It also has a paragraph detailing any previous publishing credits or other experience that you may have. Some agents say that if you don’t have any publishing credits, you can also talk here about your passion for the genre, why you’ve written that particular story—that sort of thing.

Don’t include how long it took you to write the novel. If the timeframe is too short it flags a lack of editing; if it’s too long the book looks overcooked.

The story paragraphs should read like a blurb on the back of a book; they should showcase your manuscript’s voice and tell the agent who the main character is, their age if it’s a middle grade or young adult book, and the conflict or challenges they face. The goal is to hook the agent, make them want to read more. The paragraphs shouldn’t provide an outline of the story—that’s what the synopsis is for. But make sure you write them in the third person, even if your story is in the first person; I’ve seen a lot of agents talk on Twitter about not liking first person queries from the main character’s point of view. (Save your first person for the other paragraphs of the query.)

You can see Jay Kristoff’s successful query letter here. And for a great guide to writing the story paragraphs, check out this blog.

Pages. Some agents ask for the first few pages of your manuscript with the query, or after receiving the query and liking it. The magic number is usually five or ten pages. I always assume they mean double spaced unless they say otherwise.

Synopsis. This is a document that actually outlines the story. Most agents give you one to two pages (here I assume single spaced unless they say otherwise), but I’ve seen some ask for three paragraphs or 300 words. It’s a good idea to prepare a longer version and a shorter one so you’re ready for either.

Partial. This is a certain number of chapters or pages (50 pages, usually double spaced, seems to be common)—it’s what an agent usually asks for if they’ve read your pages, query and/or synopsis and want to see more.

Full.  Unsurprisingly, this is when the agent asks to see the full manuscript. If you get to this stage, high five! Even if they don’t offer to represent you in the end, you’ve still got some game. Double spaced is definitely the go here, unless they say otherwise.

R&R. This is a “revise and resubmit”—the phrase they use to describe the fact they like it, but have ideas for changes to the manuscript they’d like to see before they offer to represent you. You don’t have to do the changes, obviously, but if you don’t then you’re still looking for an agent. It’s your call.

Some basic rules of thumb for querying include:

Always check the agent’s website and follow their submission guidelines. In multi-agent agencies, make sure you pick the agent who is looking for your genre and otherwise seems to be the best fit. Many have blogs and Twitter accounts where you can investigate further. You only get one shot at each agency with each manuscript, so choosing the right agent is vital.

Don’t send unrequested attachments. Almost all agents want the requested materials at the query stage to be pasted into the body of an email to avoid viruses. If you send an attachment without being specifically asked to, you’ll almost certainly have your email deleted unread.

Be professional. You’re asking someone to represent you in what is, at the end of the day (and as much as we writers hate to admit it), a business endeavour. If they like your work but you come across as rude, pushy or precious, they won’t want to take a chance on you. If they say they don’t want to represent you, don’t do your nut at them. The best response is to not reply at all, but if you do, be polite and professional. Their rejection of your work is never personal.

Happy querying, and good luck!

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2 Comments on “Querying your book: tips and a glossary of terms.”

  1. Carissa says:

    This is a super helpful page! Bookmarked for linking in future posts!!

    One thing though, is I thought (though I am admittedly a total newbie at this) that fulls were always double-spaced?

    Also, now often it seems like agents are requesting .pdf format so they can quickly convert to e-readers. Though like you said, totally it’s best to wait and see if the agent gives you a specific guideline!


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