Five Points to Hufflepuff, Please

English: Coat of arms Hufflepuff, house of Hog...

Coat of arms Hufflepuff (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every week, I read a number of submissions for the online journal Fiction Fix, and the authors’ cover letters are available, as well. Although I don’t always read the queries, I sometimes check them out to see if there is any kind of intro to the story. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started reading a piece, only to wonder if it was some sort of attempt at humor or just terribly written. If the author clues me in with something like, “This is a dark comedy,” at least I’ll have an idea of how I’m supposed to read it. One time, I had to re-write a critique when I found out that the current story was a lightly edited memoir, recorded from an elderly woman who had served as a nurse in WWII. There were still parts I thought should have been cut, but I could no longer argue that it was unrealistic; as subjective as the point of view was, the events had actually happened.

One other thing that Fiction Fix does is to award well-written or unique cover letters. The ones that are nominated by the staff for Fiction Fix‘s Gypsy Sachet Award are tagged, and I always read them. I’m actually quite disappointed, sometimes, when the cover letter knocks my socks off, and then the story that follows is just meh. I do understand that writing a great query does not guarantee publication, but it goes a long way toward warming an editorial staff toward a particular author.

When it comes to submitting queries for my own stories, I keep these preferences in mind. I want to include all the pertinent info, but I also want to do so in a way that doesn’t bore the agent or editor to death. They have to read this stuff all day, and mine shouldn’t be the one that makes them decide to take a lunch break at 9:00 A.M.

I keep a file of all the queries I’ve ever written to literary agents, and once I receive a rejection (or once it’s been so long that I have to accept I’ve been rejected, form letter or no), I change the font of the entire thing to red. So far, I have twenty-seven of these ugly red things, going back to late 2004. I know, in almost nine years of literary agent querying, that’s not very many, but if you consider that eleven are from this year. . . it’s kind of depressing.

Why do I keep the darn things hanging around, reminding me of my failures? Well, for one thing, I don’t want to send the same query to the same place that’s already rejected me. For another, I don’t want to make the same mistakes, and at least I can look back and see if I’ve improved.

Assisting me this with year’s queries was literary agent Mary Kole, whose advice I obtained from her book Writing Irresistible Kidlit. Kole gives a brilliant sample query from one of her own clients, although she is quick to point out that “even the most amazing query in the world can’t stand in for a brilliant book” (271, Kindle version). Too true. It’s also true that it’s hard to make a bad story sound good (while being honest, that is), but it’s also a sad fact that many agents request a query only – no sample chapters, not even a helpful synopsis. So while it’s easy for agents to say that they’re looking for a great novel, not a great query, if the only thing they ever see is the query, it has to be top notch.

There are two querying problems I’ve always had: boiling the plot of a novel down to a few short paragraphs and keeping it interesting. Brevity is a problem of mine, anyway (which you know if you’ve read many of my posts), and it’s especially hard snail mailing a query because all that necessary heading stuff eats up so many lines. With this most recent go-round, I’ve both e-mailed and snail mailed queries, and believe me, it was fun trying to cram the same info into two very different formats. But I did it, with Mary Kole’s help.

To digress for a moment, I’ve read countless sample queries, and I’ve written many more than the twenty-seven rejections currently on file. Plenty of how-to publications outline the proper cover letter format, and supposedly all the author has to do is fill in the blanks with her particular information, and the job’s done, right? Or, say you see a great cover letter that won an author a literary agent – I should just be able to swap out his info for mine. But it never works out so neatly. I find that successful letters have personal touches that simply cannot be copied. It’s all very well for an author to candidly admit that he and his wife blew the $500 he received for his award-winning short story instead of buying groceries, but I haven’t won $500; I don’t have a cute little story like that. Plus, since my published works were for adults, and I’m currently shopping a middle grade novel, mentioning my publishing history hardly seems pertinent.

So how to achieve just the right tone, find the perfect words to not only adequately say what I need but also win over an agent? Kole gives an excellent formula for coming up with what she calls the meat. “The best way to hook me into reading further is to make me care,” she writes (264). Good point. How does one do this? Well, by answering some very basic questions about the story: “WHO is your character?”; “WHAT is the event that launches the story (the Inciting Incident)?”; “WHAT (or who) does the protagonist want most in the world?”; “WHO (or what) is in the way of her getting what she wants (her obstacle)?”; and “WHAT is at stake if the protagonist doesn’t get what she wants?” (264). Put that way, it’s a lot easier than, “Tell us about your novel in three paragraphs.” For someone who’s known to ramble, specific parameters are a must. (Plus Kole answers her own questions using The Hunger Games as her example, which is awesome.)

After going through this exercise, what I had was bare bones, but I was able to succinctly state the most important aspects of my story. (This can also be used as a writing tool, to show how much a story still needs to develop and/or how much exposition needs to be cut.) At least the meat of my query was good.

As for the rest, ugh. I muddled my way through and was much more confident than in years past, but I was still missing that last bit of inspiration.

It finally came – late – from one of the agents way down on my list. (Actually, she was the last one, but the one before her was a snail mail query that I hadn’t yet sent, so I was able to tweak it, too.) This agent works for quite a large agency; she was one of twenty-one agents listed on the website. I love it when agents have bios because, otherwise, I’m unsure of how our personalities might mesh or collide (although that’s not a problem yet). This particular agent set the bar really high, asking for a “wonderful, personalized query letter.” And the kicker: “Five points to Ravenclaw if you can make me laugh out loud!”

I’m always afraid to admit that I love Harry Potter, especially since I write fantasy. Oh, it’s just another J.K. Rowling wannabe, I can hear them saying. But it couldn’t hurt, I thought, to mention that Harry Potter was my inspiration for getting into kidlit again. Or that the five points would do me more good in Hufflepuff than in Ravenclaw (and that has more to do with me being a Jill-of-all-trades than a Cedric Diggory groupie).

So I sent those two queries off, and my fingers are crossed. If one of them lands me an agent, maybe I’ll provide the letter as one of those useless samples that kind of (but not really) helps other authors. The important thing is to be yourself in your query, and this particular agent was one of the first to give me specific permission to do that. I suppose it’s only fair to let them know who they’re dealing with, anyway.