We are pleased to have Anita Mumm, indie editor and writing teacher, with us today to give some experienced advice on a topic that frustrates many writers— the all important query letter. Anita is also giving away a FREE QUERY CRITIQUE to a lucky writer who enters our query contest (see below for details).
Thank you so much for having me! I adore middle grade and it’s always an honor to be featured here.
Middle Grade Mafia: When taking on the task of writing a query are there any questions you should ask yourself?
Anita Mumm: The first and most important question to ask yourself: Is my novel ready? You should never send out queries before your final draft is complete and polished to the best of your ability. If agents request the manuscript, they assume you’ll send it quickly, and they may lose interest in the time it takes you to finish.
Once you’re sure it is actually time to write the query, here are some questions for building the framework of your query:
(1) What kind of voice does my novel have? You’ll want to aim for a toned down version of that same voice; for example, if you wrote a lighthearted, humorous MG adventure story, try to convey that in the tone of your query. If you wrote a fast-paced mystery, it’s that suspenseful tone you should aim for. (Note: I don’t mean you should write the query in the actual first-person voice of your main character—many agents find that annoying.)
(2) What makes my main character unique and how can I convey that in a sentence or two? Just as your novel should be character-driven, your first order of business in a query letter is to introduce your protagonist in a clear, succinct, and interesting way. Try to capture a snapshot of who he is right before his world is about to change.
(3) What is the main conflict in my story and how can I boil it down to a couple of short paragraphs? The trick to keeping your query letter concise is not to incorporate side plots or secondary characters. Who is your protagonist, what does she want, and who or what is trying to prevent her from getting it? Don’t tell the ending—by ending on a cliffhanger you ensure agents will want to know more.
(4) What do I want the agent to know about me as an author and a person? The bio paragraph in a query is usually considered optional, but most agents I know appreciate a tidbit or two about the author—after all, the goal is to embark on a very close professional relationship. Try to narrow it down to a couple of sentences showing one or more of the following: (1) your experience as a writer; (2) relevant background experience (e.g. you are a doctor and you write about kids solving medical mysteries); or (3) a fun or quirky fact about you (just don’t go overboard with the quirkiness).
MGM: How do you summarize a middle grade novel that has a ton of action along with twists and turns without leaving out the juicy parts?
AM: See #3 above. J You don’t have time to tell about every twist, turn, and surprise in the 1-2 paragraphs of your query’s plot summary; even a synopsis doesn’t allow for that level of detail. See if you can boil it down to the main story line, add a dash of suspense (you can hint at the twists and turns, but stop short of revealing how exactly they play out), and leave readers with enough unanswered questions to make them want more.
MGM: I was pleasantly surprised to receive valuable feedback from agents during the query process. This helped me revise the manuscript before sending it out again. How many queries should you send out at a time while waiting for a response?
AM: I generally recommend starting with ten or so of your top agent choices. Once you have heard back from most of them, or once a few weeks have passed (whichever comes first), send to your next tier of ten or so agents. This gives you a chance to receive feedback, as you mentioned, and potentially revise the manuscript and/or the query.
Unless an agent specifies she wants an exclusive read of your submission, it’s always in your best interest to send multiple queries. You don’t have time to wait for a response to every single one before sending another—that process could take years!
MGM: At what point do you decide that a particular query isn’t working for you and you need a different approach?
AM: That’s a tough one. I would say if you have sent out more than two or three batches of queries and waited at least a month each time, if you’re still hearing nothing but crickets, it’s a good idea to take stock of whether the query itself could be the problem. Have a few friends whose opinions you trust read it for clarity: do they understand the gist of the story? Are there sentences or concepts that tripped them up? Gaps that make the query hard to follow? Typos?
(That said, I recommend getting as many eyes as possible on your query before you send it to anyone. It’s just so easy to miss the obvious in our own writing—we’re too close to it.)
Keep in mind that if you are targeting the right agents (i.e. ones that handle your genre and have expressed interest in stories similar to yours), and your query is excellent, chances are you’ll get some kind of positive response—a manuscript request or at a tidbit of personalized feedback even if it’s a rejection. A client of mine recently submitted a query for a genre that is very oversaturated. One of his top-tier agents replied that he was taking a break from that genre, but that he was quite impressed with the query itself. It wasn’t the response the author was hoping for, of course, but knowing he had mastered the art of the query letter was a silver lining!
MGM: Some advice I’ve heard recommends including the genre, word-count and title in the first paragraph while others recommend starting with the hook. Is there a better option?
AM: I actually don’t think one method is better than the other; it’s mainly about the author’s preference. Sometimes starting off with the genre/word count/title can set a more formal or professional tone to the query, while starting with the hook feels a little more informal and approachable (since you plunge readers right into the heart of your story). My advice is to do what feels more natural to you as a writer. You can also try to gauge which style fits a particular agent’s personality, based on the style of their website, blog, or other correspondence.
In general, I don’t think this aspect of the query will sway agents one way or the other.
Anita Mumm is an indie editor and writing teacher based in Denver, Colorado. Previously, she worked in submissions & foreign rights at Nelson Literary Agency, where she read upwards of 100, 000 query letters in the slush pile and pulled out gems such as Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile by Marcia Wells and The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann. For more about her work, as well as advice on writing and publishing, visit her Mumm’s the Word Editing & Critique Services website and blog.