I attended Writer's Fest this past weekend, which happened to be held at my all-time favorite bookstore, The Tattered Cover in LoDo (lower downtown for you non-Denverites). It was jam-packed with writerly folks (as in standing room only) when intern Anita Mumm from Nelson Literary Agency took the stage. NOTE: For anyone not following Kristin Nelson's blog, Pub Rants, stop now and go follow it...but come back. Anita discussed the "Top 5 things They are Looking for in a Query Letter," as well as what they're hoping to see more of at their agency:
1) Is the book the right genre? This seems obvious, but Anita said the audience would be surprised how many queries she receives for genres they don't represent. This agency reps commercial fiction, literary fiction, women's fiction, young adult, middle, grade, SF/F and memoir. Bottom Line: Do your homework before submitting.
2) Strong Voice. Ah, that elusive voice. It's hard to define but every agent knows it when they see it. Basically, the voice of the query should reflect the voice of the book (e.g. a humorous book should have humor in the query).
3) Is it a hot topic? They're looking for the "next big thing," and Anita joked that this does not mean vampires. Specifically, the Nelson Agency is seeking dystopian, post-apocalyptic, steam punk, sci-fi/fantasy, contemporary YA romance, Southern fiction, MG and YA with a strong boy MC, MG horror (seriously), and the more broad "strong literary fiction with a commercial bent."
4) Is the query concise but thorough? They want to see your plot summarized in a clear and understandable way. If the query is sloppy, they'll know the book is likely to be as well. Make sure to include relevant publishing history and note why you are querying the agency. However, Anita cautioned not to overdo the flattery. Stating that you met one of them at a conference or follow Kristin's blog is more professional than "You're the best agent that ever existed, and I'm naming my first born after you."
5) Is the author confident? There's a fine line between arrogance and being too humble, but they want to see that you have confidence in yourself and your work. On one hand, you don't want to say "I'm the next Stephen King and you'd be an idiot not to take me." (NOTE: this was a literal sentence Anita received in a query) I don't even consider that arrogance--I consider it being a jackass, but Anita is more polite than me. On the other hand, what she sees WAY more of is the opposite end of the spectrum. Things like "I've never published anything, but hope you'll consider me anyway" or "This is my first query letter, so please forgive my mistakes." Again, even if you're not published (like *cough* me *cough*), you want to project confidence in your work.
Anita also conducted a sample pitch session of what not to do, which was highly entertaining. Note: when asked how long your ms is, your answer should never sound anything like "Well, I have 30,000 words written so far." For more on how to pitch, see our earlier post here.
Hope this is helpful and happy querying!