Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How to hook an agent. (Advice for aspiring writers: Part 3)

So, after yesterday's post, you know what it takes to make your novel totally kickass. Today, I'll give you my tips on the dreaded query letter. And, don't forget! Tomorrow, a query and first chapter critique will go up for grabs here on the blog. So, to get you ready, here are my pearls of wisdom.

There’s all the stuff on query letters you can find on awesome blogs such as Nathan Bransford's, agent turned author, which I couldn't say any better. Without Nathan, I never would have had the first clue about where to start, so I owe him everything. You can have my first born, Nathan. No, really. Take her. *clears throat* But I digress. Nathan has the basic anatomy of a good query in his sidebar with links to examples. Read as many examples of successful queries as you can find. The only bit of my personal wisdom I can impart here is that, if you’re finding it difficult to find “the hook” for your query letter, maybe your novel doesn't have a strong enough one.

Just like your novel has to hook readers in the first few pages, your query letter has to hook agents in the first few sentences. You want to pick the most intriguing part or parts of your novel to focus on, and write a one to two paragraph catchy description. A good hook needs to allude to the conflict and tension in your novel, BUT…remember the purpose of the query is to get them to read the sample pages, so you don’t need to give everything away. You want to tantalize with the letter. Give them a taste and make them want to read to find out what happens. You definitely need to hint at the outcome, but you don’t need to spell it out. Think of it as a slightly spoilery jacket copy. You pick up a book, turn it over, and read the jacket copy. Based on that, do you want to read the rest of the book? If your answer is yes, there was a hook—something that drew you in. Something you absolutely need to do is avoid getting bogged down in the minutia. This is NOT a synopsis of your novel.

I hemmed and hawed over whether to share my Personal Demons query with you and finally decided I would. I’ve removed one sentence that is major spoilery, but the rest is what I sent to agents. For those of you who have read Personal Demons, you will see that there are major plot points missing, as well as major characters. (Think: Gabe) Again, the query letter is not a synopsis. Only include the most intriguing parts/characters from your novel. So, here goes:

Dear Ms. (Name of Agent),

I hope I can interest you in my young adult novel, Personal Demons.

Lucifer Cain works in Acquisitions—for Hell. Frannie Cavanaugh is a good Catholic girl with a wicked streak and a unique skill set that has the king of Hell tingling with anticipation. Luc shouldn't have any trouble tempting her down the fiery path, except she makes him feel things. Things demons aren’t supposed to be able to feel. But, despite how much he wants her, what he feels most is an overwhelming need to protect her—from him.

With the whole of Heaven and Hell doing battle for her soul, the last thing Frannie needs is to be lusting on some demon. But she is. So the big question is: does the mere fact she’s fallen for a demon condemn her to Hell? If it does, is that a bad thing if Luc’s there? But he might not be, because he’s changing. He’s also falling down on the job and the higher-ups are noticing—which generally means dismemberment and the Fiery Pit—unless she can figure out how to save him. But, before she can save him, she needs to save herself.

Personal Demons is a sinfully edgy 80,000 word young adult novel told in alternating first person points of view. It’s got something for everyone: angels, demons, action, love, humor, danger, a sound track and a little hanky-panky. If you’re tempted by Personal Demons, I’d love to forward sample chapters or the full manuscript at your request.

I want to sincerely thank you for your time and consideration. As requested, I have pasted the first (# of pages the agent asks for in submission guidelines) of my manuscript below. My contact information is also listed below.

Warm Regards,


(Side note: Personal Demons was 80K words when I queried agents, and I'm told that's a pretty reasonable YA word count. It grew to 84K after revisions for my agent before we submitted, and to 91K in revisions for my editor. This isn't unusual.)

(Side note #2: It's generally okay to paste a few manuscript pages into your query even if the agent doesn't ask for any in their submission guidelines. I generally pasted in the first two pages in this case. That gave them a flavor, but sending more than that felt pushy to me.)

So, there you have it. My request rate with that letter was over 50%. Once you catch the agents attention enough to ask for the manuscript, the manuscript has to sell itself, so be sure not to query before you've done everything in yesterday's post and you know your manuscript is as killer as it can possibly be.

There are resources online, such as the lovely…I mean sharkly Janet Reid at Queryshark who will rip your query to shreds. Or, you can enter to win a query critique here tomorrow. I’ll also critique your first chapter (up to 20 pages). So, check back tomorrow for my advice on querying and to enter to win the first of four critiques.


  1. Thanks for these (I read yesterday's post too) and for sharing your query letter. They've been really helpful! I especially enjoy the links for starting points.

  2. Yeah! You posted your query. Thanks. All your tips are super helpful. I appreciate you taking the time to do this :-)

  3. Thank you for these great posts over the last few days. And thanks for sharing your query letter. It was spicy! This really helps.

  4. Can't wait till my writers' group meets again to share this with them. Thank you for your online mentoring.

  5. this is an awesome post, really helpful. love the query letter - very professional yet interesting

  6. You are the best. Thanks for the advice.