I've been aware of, but haven't been following, literary agent Janet Reid's Query Shark blog. Last week, however, I stumbled across a post saying she'd made the entire blog downloadable for the asking, so I asked.
If you're unaware, Ms. Reid critiques query letters sent to her for that purpose on the blog. I don't know her M.O. for choosing the letters, but if yours is chosen, she gives great advice, as would be expected of someone who reads thousands of queries each year.
The author of the query letter is then invited to revise it two or three times. Each time, Ms. Reid further coaches the author on how to improve it.
She recommends reading the whole kit and kaboodle. I printed up a large chunk, which used up one ream of paper, duplex printed. If I were to print the rest, I'm looking at another 300 sheets of paper, duplex printed. It also used up a laser ink cartridge. (Granted, it was a starter cartridge for our new laser printer.) The reason there's so much data is that the comments are included.
I read through the first 1000 pages and feel I've learned enough that I'm not going to print up the last 600 pages.
Some of my observations:
- If a large percentage of query letters that agents receive are as bad as these, it's no wonder that agents reject, as they say, 99% of what they receive. Almost all of the letters are simply dreadful, even if the story they're describing seems to have some interesting qualities.
- The Sharkives are entertaining to read for Ms. Reid's brilliant, snarky, razor sharp wit and her (im)patience in coaching the author to bring out what their story is really about. Her wit reminds me of my husband's, although her barbs are on a different subject than my husband's would ever be.
- In addition to Ms. Reid's observations, the people who comment frequently have some very useful things to add.
- The people who comment have also formed a cult following. When they're not critiquing the queries, they're generally shooting the breeze in a highly literate, entertaining manner.
- Other times, they're majorly kissing up to Ms. Reid about her brilliant, snarky wit. (And yes, she is brilliant.)
Given that, I suppose it was worth wading through 1000 pages, using up a ream of paper and a laser ink cartridge.
But then something else floated my way via an email from RWA, that is ultimately, I suspect, more useful. Or perhaps both should be consulted in crafting a query.
It's a book by Michael Hauge, Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds. Though his 200-page book is geared toward the face-to-face pitching of scripts to agents and buyers in Hollywood, there's a wealth of information that could be translated into pitching a novel to an agent via a query letter.
My recommendation? Read Michael Hauge first. It takes only a couple of hours to breeze through what he has to say. Then move on to the Sharkives to read about common mistakes made in query letters, and how to improve them.
The principles Ms. Reid expounds are exactly the same as those that Michael Hauge puts forth. The Sharkives have the added benefit of actual, gawd-awful query letters that go through a succession of changes to make them sparkle. Sometimes they never do, because the author's overall writing skills just aren't there yet. Those are the sad ones, because their idea sounds good, but you just know that the novel is written at the same, non-publishable level as the query letter.
Other times, and rather infrequently, even after three or four revisions, Ms. Reid will declare of the letter, "By George, I think you've got it." And then everyone does a lot of high-fiving, and congratulating of the author.