BWS 10.01.18 report: How to Write a Query, with Cassandra Rodgers

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After a long career in finance, Cassandra Rodgers decided to pursue her love of literature by getting involved with running a literary festival. Organizing panels, looking after authors and managing promotions paved the way to her current career as a literary agent. At our first event of the year, Cassandra spoke to us about how to write a great pitch.

What Makes a Query Standout?

As a literary agent reading queries is an integral part of my job. It is a privilege and a pleasure to have a first look at the work that is being created by many talented people.  That said, I receive approximately 20 queries. Due to sheer time constraints, I am not able to respond to, or look at, everyone’s work in detail.  The quality of a query is perhaps the best screening tool I use for effective time management.  These are some of the things that I look for before determining if I should ask for a full or partial manuscript.

The Opening Paragraph:

Briefly tell me the title of your book, genre, and word count.  Word count is very pretty important – there are guidelines that publishers are looking for in each genre. If, for example, you have a 250,000-word commercial fiction novel, this shows me that you don’t know these guidelines and it can be a red flag about your knowledge of the industry.  You must be mindful that this is a business and I am in it to sell manuscripts to publishers.

Also, address me directly.  I want to see that you understand what authors I represent and why your work would be a good fit for my list.  The genres I represent can be found on my website and it doesn’t include Young Adult work. So, for example, if you send me a YA piece, it  illustrates that you haven’t done your research and could indicate, again, a lack of understanding about the industry.  I understand that you are sending this to many agents but each query has a better chance of being looked at if they are personalized.

The Second Paragraph:

Briefly tell me about the plot of the book.  This paragraph (or perhaps two at most) should be no longer than 100 to 200 words, serving as a bare bones description of the book.

I need to be able to understand quickly the elements of the story.  Tell me about the main characters and the conflict they are facing, the stakes that are at risk, and the choices they may have to make.  Please tell me the setting but don’t tell me the ending!  I want the basics to lure me in and create the desire to read the manuscript. Keep focused on the major characters and plot points; I tend to lose focus and interest if a number of sub-plots are discussed.  Highlight anything that makes this book different from those on the market right now.  You could also use the third paragraph to list comparable titles that are on the market to give me an idea on where you feel this fits on a bookstore shelf.

The Final Paragraph:

Briefly tell me about yourself.  Highlight any courses you have taken in writing, work that has been published, significant awards you have either won or been shortlisted for.  If you have worked with a professional editor, please let me know.  It’s ok if this is your debut novel, in fact, most of the books I have sold have been by debut authors. I want to see a level of professionalism and seriousness about the craft.  Use humour if appropriate – I once asked for a manuscript simply because the last line of the bio made me laugh out loud.

Sending out a query to an agent is a brave and often nerve-wracking part of the business.  It should be done after your manuscript has been completed, polished, and you feel confident that it is at the best point that you can take it.  I have the deepest admiration for anyone who can get a manuscript to that level, and it would be a shame to miss out on a great work due to a poorly crafted query.

In the end, it is the quality of the manuscript and not the query that will make me want to work with a writer but a solid, professional query is the best way for me to see that manuscript.

Watch this space for features on our upcoming guests Crystal Mars, Anar Ali, Sonia Diplacido, and Alicia Elliott. See you at our next event on March 14, 2018, 6:30pm, at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St., Toronto!

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