Recently I’ve been enjoying The Shit No One Tells You About Writing podcast, hosted by author and creative writing instructor Bianca Marais and literary agents Carly Watters and Cecilia Lyra from P.S. Literary Agency. For the first half of each episode, Carly and Cecilia pick apart authors’ query letters and opening pages, offering their advice on how to make them stronger. For the second half, Bianca interviews authors about their writing and publishing experiences.
I’ve gleaned the following “rules” for query letters and opening pages from Carly and Cecilia’s segments on the podcast. And this list is by no means exhaustive! If you’re an aspiring author working on polishing your manuscript or looking to query agents in the near future, I highly recommend binge-listening to this podcast. At the very least, It’s motivated me to get on the treadmill with headphones.
So here they are, some tips from the experts for giving yourself the best chance of querying success.
1. Capitalize book titles
Capitalizing titles helps with readability. Agents read queries in batches, so if your query is at the end of the batch, chances are the agent’s eyes are getting tired. Help them out! This also helps them remember your title.
Capitalizing comp titles also lets them see immediately that you’re talking about other books. (See #8 for more on comps.)
2. Focus on plot and characters
Carly has said this a few times: “I can’t sell feelings.” When agents pitch a book to publishers, they’re pitching the plot. The hook. Use your query to help agents know exactly what your book is about, and show them you can summarize the plot in one or two paragraphs. (Summarize the hook in one sentence.) Don’t waste precious query letter space explaining emotions or trying to convey the theme. They’ll be able to discern the theme from reading it, and if you’ve done your job well, your writing will invoke emotions organically.
3. Dialogue needs to do at least two things
Dialogue has got to pull double duty. Apart from allowing characters to speak, it needs to add to the story. Use it to show us what that character is like. Give us information about what’s happened in the past (not in an info-dumpy way), establish setting, or use it to move the plot forward. Make the most of the words and the space, especially in your opening pages, to deepen your story and characters.
4. Establish a clear point of view
If you want readers (and in this case, agents) to stop reading as soon as possible, confuse them. Conversely, if you want to avoid confusing your readers, make the point-of-view character obvious from the start. We’ve got to know whose head we’re in!
Also, don’t head-hop (jump around into different characters’ heads in the same scene). Use line breaks to change POVs, if you’re going to use multiple POVs in the same chapter.
5. Be careful with action prologues
I’m not wading into the Great Prologue Debate here (should you use one, should you not), and I can’t speak for agents’ personal tastes. But this has come up a few times on the podcast: be careful with action prologues.
An action prologue is a prologue where something exciting happens: a bomb goes off, a gun fight, a chase, a monster. These are tricky to make work because readers primarily care about characters, not actions. If we haven’t had time to get invested in your character, it might be hard to care about the crazy thing that’s happening to them.
6. Keep readers immersed in scene
This is a huge one for your opening pages: keep readers in scene. Keep them in the moment of what’s happening. Add backstory later (and even then, weave it in seamlessly, not in huge chunks. But that’s another blog post).
For some reason, writers think the best way to secure readers’ interest is to explain, as soon as possible, what’s gone on before and why a character is the way she or he is. But it’s the withheld information that keeps readers interested, especially in the beginning. That’s the problem with backstory and too much information up-front: it kills curiosity. Scenes create story questions and let us discover the characters for ourselves.
7. Use active emotions
Cecilia talks about this a lot: passive emotions don’t incite curiosity. Grief is one example that comes up a lot, maybe because many of the books on the podcast have opened with funeral scenes. Your opening pages are meant to incite curiosity, to make the agents, and eventually, readers, want to keep reading. But it’s difficult to do this when the overwhelming mood of the first scene is sadness. We may feel sorry for the characters (or not, if we haven’t connected with them yet), but that’s not enough.
8. Comps should clarify, not confuse
Agents like to see comparable titles in your query letter, which lets them know two things: who is this book’s ideal audience? and does this author understand his/her ideal audience?
Choose your comps wisely. If you pick two very unalike books in completely different genres, that’s not going to tell the agent anything, unless you’re more specific (“this book blends the tone of x with the themes of y“).
Also, don’t choose a bestselling phenomenon of a book. It’s a little presumptuous, and it won’t tell the agent anything helpful.
9. Consider including trigger warnings
If your manuscript (and opening pages especially) portray content that may be sensitive to some readers, it’s courteous to include a short note in the query. Some examples of triggering material: sexual abuse, suicide, sexual assault, eating disorders, infertility, miscarriage, racism, sexism, misogyny, classism, and animal cruelty.
If you’re worried about spoilers—don’t be. If agents take your query further and request a full manuscript, they’re going to read the synopsis anyway.
Like I said earlier, this list is not exhaustive. If you listen to this podcast and hear any more “Golden Rules”, let me know! Hopefully I can add to this list, too, as I keep learning.
If you want your work to be dissected on the podcast, apply here.
Thanks again, Carly, Cecilia, and Bianca for taking the time to make this podcast!
Photo in graphics by: Patrick Fore