An Agent’s Take on Query Letters

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So you’ve written your book.  You’ve crossed every T, dotted every i, (you don’t own a computer, I’m assuming?), and you’ve arced every character.    Now what?  The manuscript over which you have carefully toiled for the last year or two is ready to find a home.  First stop?  The dreaded query letter.  Whether you are heading to the small presses, or looking for an agent, almost every outlet for your book will require a query letter.  For some, this comes easy.  For others, it can be a task as arduous as writing the book itself.

I recently spoke with Sarah LaPolla, an agent with Curtis Brown in New York City.  Sarah is a generous agent who shares her insights with the writing community through her blog, Big Glass Cases.  On her blog she also publishes excerpts of manuscripts from new authors, allowing them some much-needed exposure.

Sarah LaPolla of Curtis Brown, LTD

Sarah is more than an agent, she is also a writer.  She received her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School.  This gives her a unique bond with her clients, making her an approachable champion of the craft.  In our interview I asked Sarah about her thoughts on the do’s and don’ts of querying, and what projects she’s interested in right now.

Q:  What are two or three simple things you look for in a successful query?

Sarah:  To me, a query is written successfully if it a) says what the book is about in a few short, descriptive sentences and b) follows my guidelines, which means via email and pasting the first five pages into the body of the email.

Q:  How many queries do you receive in any given week, and do you read each one personally?

I receive anywhere from 150 to 200 queries a week via email. I do read each one personally and respond to each one. I hate the “form rejection,” but it’s a necessary evil and I always feel that someone would rather have acknowledgment, even if it’s a rejection, than be left in the dark.

Q:  Does humor have a place in a query letter? (Please don’t say no, please don’t say no…)

Of course! There’s a difference between being funny and being kitschy, but being funny can be a huge asset for your query. You want to show personality, especially if the project itself is funny. One thing that writers sometimes do is write the query in the voice of their main character, which I think they think is funny or clever, but it’s always just awkward to read. So, use your humor well! Don’t force it, but don’t be afraid to be yourself either.

Q:  Do agents like to see that pieces of the manuscript were published elsewhere?

I don’t think it’s necessary to say that in a query letter, unless the publication is a major one.

Q:  What’s the number one mistake you see in query letters?

Not including a title. If you don’t have a title, make one up just for query purposes. I think a lot of writers have the mentality that a publisher will change it anyway, so they just don’t include one. Sometimes the publisher will change a title, but not every time. Plus, not only do I want to call it something, but I like to see the author’s own creativity.

 Q:  How much does the market (in terms of what’s hot in stores right now) play into what you are willing to represent?

The market is certainly a factor. For example, I say all the time (online) that I am tired of vampires and part of that is a personal preference, but another part of that is that the market is just over them for now. I emphasize “for now” because all trends come and go. If I have enough of an interest in a project, even if it’s not “hot” right now, that wouldn’t stop me from taking it on. A good story is a good story. There’s always room for that.

Q:  What brought you into the world of agenting?

Sarah: My desire to work in publishing brought me to New York, and from there I trolled craigslist and mediabistro for internships until I found one at a small literary agency. It wasn’t where I thought I’d be, but it was definitely what I knew I wanted to continue. A friend I used to intern with told me about a job opening in the foreign rights department at Curtis Brown, so I applied and a little over two years later, they let me start developing my own list.  

Q:  In terms of new clients, what are your interests right now?

I really, really want to see a scary horror novel (preferably with ghosts, but it can be more traditional too!) for YA and a Tana French-like mystery for either YA or adult. A well-written science fiction for YA would be great too – like a new Ender’s Game

Q:  Finally, what is one book that changed your life?

"It made me fall in love with YA," Sarah says of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Wow. Actually, I want to think this is a hard question, but it’s really not for me. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I read it when I was 14 or 15, which was the year it came out. It was about a 15 year old who felt alienated, which is pretty much every 15 year old. But I absolutely fell in love with the main character and his friends. I wanted to be in their group, even though they were somessed up.  

  I’ve tried to read it every year since then, so I’ve read it many, many times. Every time I find something else to connect with, even if it’s not the teen angst anymore. It’s just a brilliant book. It made me fall in love with YA, and it actually introduced me to YA. I doubt my love of books would be as great without it, so who knows if I’d even work in this field if it was never published.

If you’d like to query Sarah, please visit the Curtis Brown website for the proper guidelines.   I also encourage you to visit her blog, where you will not only read some insider tips, but will find new and exciting voices, as well.  I want to thank Sarah for stopping by The Write Life and answering my questions.

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2 Responses to “An Agent’s Take on Query Letters”

  1. Gale Says:

    Nice interview! Sarah is very generous with her time and experience to benefit unpublished writers.

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