Updated: Jul 29, 2020
You’ve finished the draft, revised and edited it to perfection and are ready to send your baby out into the world. But who do you send it to? How do you write a query letter that screams “read me!”? And what about that dreaded synopsis?
Here are five resources to help you write and polish your submission package for agents and publishers.
Your query letter is like a handshake at a job interview—you want it strong and confident, not weak and flimsy. Is it the best place to hook an agent’s interest in your manuscript.
However, query letters are difficult to get right. Which is where QueryShark comes in.
QueryShark is an agent who critiques query letters and posts them online. Reading through the archive can help you avoid common query letter pitfalls and put your best query-foot forward.
And, if you’re feeling brave, you can also submit your query letter for QueryShark to inspect.
In my research, agents often ask for the following in a query letter:
Title, word count, genre and target age group (i.e. Adult, Young Adult, Middle Grade).
Your pitch or text similar to back cover copy. You may also choose to include a tag line. Important note: some agents prefer a pitch that is more akin to a synopsis, so always check their submission guidelines before querying.
Comparable titles: feel free to use TV shows and movies as well as books.
You author bio: make sure it is relevant (i.e. writing experience). Agents are less interested to hear about your dog and that you play squash on the weekends.
Tip 1: Keep it short—around 300 words.
Tip 2: Consider any unique selling point(s) (USP): Ask yourself, what makes your manuscript amazing and/or different? Are you writing a spy thriller and are an ex-spy—great USP! Does it possess a high concept idea? Think Man in the High Castle’s—what if the Nazi’s had won WWII? Or Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson—what if, a thousand years ago, the hero failed and the Dark Lord won?
2. Litopia Pop-Up Submissions
Once you’ve perfected your query letter, head over to Litopia’s Pop-Up Submissions. Every Sunday evening at 5pm UK time, Agent Peter Cox from RedHammer literary agency reviews the first 700 words of five manuscripts fresh off the RedHammer slush pile.
Why 700 words? Because, realistically, 700 words—just over a page—is all you have to hook an agent in. It’s all very well to say your manuscript has an amazing second chapter, but if your first chapter doesn’t excite, chances are your readers aren’t going to stick around to get there.
Watching these shows can provide huge insight into how to grab and, more importantly, keep a reader’s (and agent’s) interest in those oh-so-important opening paragraphs. You’ll learn the common pitfalls that afflict opening pages and how to avoid them. And if you submit, you’ll see the first impression your work has on an industry professional—live. As stated on the Litopia site, it is a chance to “be a fly on the wall as your submission is considered”.
Note: There is no pre-selection or pre-reading of work submitted to Pop-Ups, all submissions are read in the order they are received.
Also check out: Litopia also runs a Writer’s Colony, complete with writing resources, a flash fiction club, a writing critique forum, and a chat room. The chat room is incorporated into the live Pop-Up shows and comments from fellow writers can also offer feedback and guidance.
3. Susan Dennard’s one-page synopsis guide
Yes, we hate them, but the synopsis is a crucial bit of kit for your query package. Some agents ask for 300 words, some ask for 3 pages, but from what I’ve seen, the most common appears to be one to two pages.
My first attempt at a synopsis was nothing short of a train wreck. I started several times, hit the bottom of the page and realised that I’d only made it through the first third of my manuscript. The task felt impossible until I read this article.
What Dannard does is break down the task into an 11-point format. Write a sentence or two for each stage, string them together and voila, synopsis! While my synopsis has evolved since I first followed this guide, it was this guide that helped me navigate the process of condensing the plot and characters of an entire novel to one page.
Further reading: Synopsis Do’s and Don’ts by K.M. Allen
Query? Check. Opening pages? Check. Synopsis? Check. Next up, create a list of potential agents and publishers to submit to. For that, QueryTracker is a fantastic tool to have at your fingertips. With a free membership, you can filter this database of agent and publishers according to genre, see what authors they represent, build a query list and keep track of your queries.
Tip: Don’t limit yourself to querying one agent or publisher at a time. It is common to have several queries out at once. Agents expect this. All they ask is that you notify them if you receive an offer of representation.
5. Manuscript Wish List
Another exceptionally useful tool for agent research is Manuscript Wish List and the #MSWL tag on Twitter. On these platforms, you can find a smorgasbord of information about agents who might take an interest in your work. From comparative titles, sub-genres, storyline preferences, favourite books, and links to their agencies and submission guidelines.
On the Twitter side, you can uncover the types of stories, characters and themes agents are on the hunt for. Here are a few examples: # MSWL
Having this information on hand is not just useful for zeroing in on agents who are the most likely to take an interest in your story, but it’s also handy for tailoring your query letter to each agent*. Just a line or two is all it takes to show you’ve researched the agent and have seen their interests and your novel align. If an agent's #MSWL tweet matches your manuscript, mention that when you query them.
The Manuscript Wish List website also has an agent directory, which is also free to search.
*Always do this.
Once your query package is ready and your list of agents and publishers is awaiting you, take a deep breath, steal your nerves and set that puppy loose. The general consensus in the writing community is to send queries out in small batches. I do four or five at a time, other writers do more, some less. Chances are you'll get rejected, and that's okay. Rejection is normal, don't get disheartened. Revise, refine, persevere, and move on to the next on the list. It took children's book author Brian Gehrlein 594 rejections to find his agent. If that's not a lesson on the payoff of persistence, I don't know what is.
Lastly, before you agree to any representation or publishing contract, it is wise to screen an any agent or publisher before you sign the dotted line.