If there’s anything you should have learned from this blog, it’s that the world of publishing is more of a jungle than a fairy tale. If you want your work to get noticed by an agent or a publisher, you’re going to have to craft a crack-a-lackin’ query letter.
But with agents recieving hundreds of query letters every day, how can you ensure that your pumpkin bursts into the carriage that wisks you away to that not-so-distant land of literary success?
Fear not, friends! That’s why we have people like Kris Asselin to aid us.
Kris is considered a “query expert”—that is, she’s had so much experience with this process, she now uses her expertise to help other authors.
I began querying in 2016, knowing nothing about the process or how to properly form a query letter. After seven months of rejection, research, and utter despair, I stumbled across Kris’s website by chance when reading an article she had written for WriteOnCon. After learning of her frustrations, her triumphs, and her overwhelming desire to help other authors, I hired her for a full review in February, 2017.
After having my query letter, synopsis, and opening pages critiqued, I received one partial request, seven full manuscript requests, and two full offers. I was even awarded “Best Pitch” by agent Melissa Jeglinski at the 2017 Atlanta Writer’s Conference.
Not too shabby, eh? Trust me—this lady knows what she’s talking about. If she didn’t, I wouldn’t feature her on this comopletely unbiased, non-commerical, and utterly ad-free blog.
Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of internet frustration over query letters: What they are, how to compose them, and how to make them good. I asked Kris for an interview on the subject, and she graciously accepted.
And so (Drumroll, pease!), without further ado, an interview with Kris Asselin:
KA: Thank you so much for having me, Hannah! I’m so happy for you—and I’m so glad I could help you in some small way on your journey to publication.
Querying is often the most stressful part of this process, and I hope I can shed a bit of light on it today! As people might know from my website, I started querying agents in 2010. After more than 150 query letters, I’m now happily signed with Kathleen Rushall of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. In the fall of 2013, I signed with Bloomsbury Spark for my debut young adult novel, ANY WAY YOU SLICE IT, which came out in April 2015 as a digital only novel. I’ve recently rereleased AWYSI in print with small press Wicked Whale Publishing.
HK: Believe me—the honor is all mine! How do I know when I’m ready to query?
KA: Tough question because as you know, you can keep tinkering ad nauseam. So, at some point, you need to stop yourself. A good rule of thumb is to have a good critique group—when they say you’re ready, trust them. Also, don’t worry if you happen to query too soon—most authors have. If you feel like you need to make some revisions after you’ve sent out a few queries, just don’t send any more. Make your revisions, and then start again.
HK: What components should my query include?
KA: Your query letter should be no more than three or four paragraphs. The first paragraph typically includes the word count, title, and genre of your book, the reason you queried that agent, and a “hook” about your book—a tag line or one-sentence pitch. Second/third paragraph is a short blurb (think back cover) about your book that doesn’t give away the ending, but tells the reader some basic things about the protagonist, his or her journey, and what the stakes are.
HK: Glad you mentioned stakes. I LOVE stakes. They slay vampires and make things interesting. What distinguishes a good query from a bad one?
KA: For me, a good query is specific, but doesn’t give away the ending—my suggestion would be to read a lot of back cover copies. You’ll start to get an idea of what the body of the query should be. The sole purpose of the query is to get the agent to request pages.
HK: How long should my query be?
KA: No more than one page—three or four paragraphs, or no longer than 250 words.
HK: *jaw drops pathetically* So you’re saying my query should be 250 words? But, Kris, my book is 120,000 words! How am I supposed to summarize my entire book?
KA: This is probably the hardest thing to do in your query. You want to take the main plot and synthesize it down to the most important elements. Leave out backstory. Leave out subplots. Who is your MC, and what is his/her goals/problems?
HK: How much of the story do I need to tell in my summary?
KA: You don’t have to tell the whole story. You don’t have to give backstory or motivation. You should never tell the ending (as opposed to a synopsis, where you always tell the ending).
HK: Should I do something “edgy” to get an agent’s attention?
KA: The most important thing to remember about a query letter is that it is a business letter. It’s your introduction to an agent or editor, so you want to keep all business. Edgy *might* catch someone’s eye, but it might not be for the right reasons.
HK: What catches an agent’s eye?
KA: I can’t stress this enough. Good writing catches an agent’s eye. Good writing. You shouldn’t need gimmicks if the writing is there.
HK: What is a “hook,” and why is it important?
KA: The hook is usually in the first paragraph of your query and gives the agent an idea of what they are about to read. It can also double as a twitter pitch, if it’s short enough. It’s a one-sentence synopsis of the plot. For example, our hook/pitch for ART OF THE SWAP is “Two girls trade places in time to solve a legendary art heist across two centuries!”
HK: Intriguing! I won’t touch time travel with a ten-foot pole, but that sentence hooked me. So what are comp titles, and how should I use them?
KA: Comp titles show the agent that you’ve done some market research. You might liken yourself to the writing style of another author, or liken your themes to another book recently published. I would suggest staying away from huge best sellers as comp titles. Definitely don’t say, “My book is the next Harry Potter.”
HK: How much information should I include about myself?
KA: Remember, this is a business letter. Include any relevant publications you’ve had, any relevant educational experience, or any awards you’ve won. Include organization affiliations if they are relevant (SCBWI or RWA). Don’t include personal information about kids or grandkids, or other irrelevant information.
HK: What mistake do you see querying authors make the most?
KA: The biggest mistake I see on a regular basis is authors not giving specific enough detail—you need to include the things that make your book unique to you. Also, I see a lot of clichés. Something like: “She had to make a decision that would change both of their lives forever.” There’s nothing there that’s specific about anything.
HK: Yea, that’s pretty ambiguous. Sounds a lot like the trailer for the latest TRANSFORMERS movie. So I’ve been querying for a long time, and I’m getting discouraged. When should I give up?
KA: It sounds harsh, but write the next book. So many authors get signed on their second or third novels, not their first. Write something new and start querying again.
HK: You’ve written queries, battled through the query trenches, and helped countless authors achieve their dreams. If you could give new, querying authors one piece of advice, what would it be?
KA: Don’t give up. Keep writing as long as you love it. Keep practicing your craft.
Go to conferences/workshops if you can. Join a critique group. The old adage that it takes 10,000 hours is true for writing as well—keep at it!
HK: Thank you so much for your time and sagacious insight, Kris! I’m going to go chew on the whole “not including my grandkids” part…
Check out Kris’s website and her services at www.querygodmother.com. It worked for me.
 HK: HA! Told you so. See “Your Query Letter and You” for a discussion on this topic and some really bad umbrellas.
 HK: Again—told you so.
Photo Credit: @aaronburden