October 22, 2019

The Zen of Catching a Literary Agent’s Attention

The Beginning of After

The Beginning of After

From inkpop on twitter, I picked up a helpful blog entry by author Jennifer Castle titled, “Catching an Agent’s Attention with a Good Query Letter.”

Read her post for a delightful, if maddening, account of how she sent out only two queries to literary agents, how each requested a full manuscript, and how each gave her an offer.

Eventually, her query letter broke down this way (her narrative):

Paragraph One:
(1) Friendly explanation of why I think you, dear agent, will be a good match for my manuscript. (2) Why my book is different from all the gajillions you’ve seen before and totally worth reading.

Paragraph Two:
Summary of the book in three sentences. Well yeah, they’re LONG sentences with lots of commas and stuff, but whatever. I’ve accepted that I can’t touch on every nuance in the book, but I definitely hit the big ones.

Paragraph Three:
A little about the story behind the story — why I wrote it and what’s special about my connection to it, and proof that I am not some crackpot. I’m coming at this from a unique perspective and professional experience.

Here, I’m giving you exactly what you asked for in your particular query guidelines. I’m hopeful in a mellow and pleasant kind of way.

I didn’t go for any gimmicks or stabs at humor. I went for the most readable representation of who I am and what my book might offer, and let the writing sample speak for itself. Boring, maybe. But it worked!

So, let’s analyze Jennifer’s success.

In her opening paragraph, she avoids (Query Shark) Janet Reid’s advice to jump in with the pitch. Her “friendly explanation” demonstrates a possibly thoughtful, measured approach, which would need to ring true for each agent.

She also differentiated her work from all the others. This feat can happen, but requires not Amazon searches, but a goodly amount of reading in her genre.

Then in paragraph two, she demonstrates that she can manage large amounts of (her own) material to get at (I presume) the central struggle of the story–in three sentences to “hit the big ones [nuances],” which I read as the major elements of her plot.

This leads her in paragraph three to be able to discuss her real entanglement with the plot and the deeper issues her story raises. (I doubt any author can convince an agent that the author is “not some crackpot.”) Every person’s vantage point is “unique.” So that seems of little help.

Then Jennifer concludes by touching every base: the query guidelines requested specific information or materials–and she submitted these. Her closing comments say to me that she was herself: at peace, not including shlock.

She calls her approach boring, and it seems somewhat passive (e.g., letting “the writing sample speak for itself”). Although the sample was limited, her technique worked 100 percent of the time (n=2).

Yet, I think she has hit upon the Zen of the querying process. Too many authors seem to carry a sort of anticipatory rage. They have heard how ill-treated they will be, they are ready for it, and it happens.

Resistance, as I recall from my study of Buddhism, is the cause of suffering. Devotees practice removing resistance by sitting on ridges and allowing the breeze to flow through them. They achieve a mellow pleasantness.

Many authors I know, however, will jump to one sentence: “Since 2001, I have been the creator and producer of “It’s My Life,” a PBS Kids website that encourages pre-teens and teens to explore life issues such as depression, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, and death.” These authors will notice that she has subject expertise.

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