Alright, so I put out a call for agent-related questions on Twitter and look! Some people had questions! So what follows is me trying really hard to be helpful.
what confuses me is that agents say your QL [query letter] must SPARKLE, yet they expect you to follow a rigid, ordinary template. How on EARTH do you achieve both requirements, all at once?
I'm tempted to just say "practice," and leave it at that, but I know that's like the least helpful thing ever. But for aspiring authors who are also bloggers, think of it like a review request. When you get a review request, you want to know certain things about the book: title, genre, and a quick summary. And the summary needs to be clear enough that you know what the gist of the story is: a man and woman who fall in love online while being rivals in real life (You've Got Mail) or a girl who gets mistaken for a super-famous popstar while in a foreign country (The Lizzie McGuire Movie). The summary in your query needs a bit more meat to it than that, but it needs to be easily understandable. Which is one of the hardest things to do -- take this novel that's over 50k words, and condense it into a paragraph or two. I know. To make matters worse, there are query letter considerations that don't matter as much in a review pitch: you need to include your bio and publishing credits (if any), word count, and a personalization to that particular agent. Plus the query letter should showcase your writing "voice."
Writing all of that out I have no idea how it ever, ever works. I'm so sorry. But here are some things that worked for me in writing query letters (and note that I wrote a lot of query letters):
1. Have a template. Different writers do it a bit differently in terms of the structure of the letter; personally I always opened the letter with my summary, then included the title, word count, and genre. Next, I included any publishing credits and then ended with whatever reason I was querying that particular agent (personalization). I know this sounds super-rigid, and in a way it is. But it's also really helpful; when you know that the structure of your query is already set up, you can really start to focus on the summary, which is the most important part and brings me to the next thing...
2. Know what your story is about. This is one of those things that, hopefully, comes before you're even at the querying stage, but I know it doesn't always. In terms of "what's your book about?" a good foundation for writing your query is to know (a) the protagonist, and (b) their situation. For instance, The Hunger Games is about a girl who is forced to compete in a fight to the death. (A note that I did not actually come up with this whole character + situation thing; it's something I read years ago on another blog and though I want to say it was Ally Carter, I can't find the exact blog post on it, which is sad because it was an awesome and informative post.)
Once you know the basic character + situation, you can work on figuring out what plot points and which other characters are important enough to warrant a mention in your summary. Which brings me to...
3. Prepare to write a few drafts of your query letter. Mainly the summary. In my experience, it takes a few tries to figure out what needs to be included and what doesn't, as well as work out the phrasing of your summary. You want your voice to shine through (this is the SPARKLE that's mentioned in the question) and that's really, really hard to do, but it gets easier once you've got the more practical points of the summary hammered out.
4. Have a beta-reader for your query. Alright, I'm totally serious when I say that when it came to all my query-writing, my sister was absolutely invaluable. She read my summary; she told me if it made sense (like, if she could even tell what the book was about), if it sounded interesting, if it sounded like every other book out there. She went so far as to highlight the lines that she loved and scratch out the ones she didn't like or thought I needed to work on. It's crazy helpful to have someone willing to read through multiple query drafts and give you feedback on what works and what doesn't. If this person hasn't read the book, don't worry! That can even be better -- after all, the agents you send your query to won't have read the novel first either.
So in answer of how to write a query that sparkles while still following the rules -- honestly I think it's a lot of tenacity and practice and time.
are agents looking to work with self-pubs and what would that relationship look like?
First, a caveat: I long ago decided self-publishing wasn't the right path for me, which means that I am not exactly a fount of information or advice in that direction. That said, this is an interesting question though I'm not sure I entirely understand it. If you're asking if agents are looking to work with self-published authors who plan to continue self-publishing and don't want to pursue traditional routes, my best guess would be "no," just because I don't see how the role of an agent fits there. If the agent's job is primarily to sell your book to a publisher and you are the publisher, then it sort of sounds like a middle-man for... um... yourself. Which is confusing.
On the other hand, if you're asking if agents are looking to work with self-published authors who want to transition into traditional publishing: from all the blogs I read this is becoming a bit more accepted than it used to be, especially as self-publishing itself becomes a more legitimate avenue. This post, by Rachelle Gardner, talks about this and answers some of the questions that crop up. And of course, being an agent, she has worlds more information on this than I do.
what type of books are agents looking for right now? i see a lot asking for MG and LGBT books, yes? no?
Oh, you're so asking the wrong person. I honestly don't know if there's a trend toward what genre/subject matter most agents are looking for right now, but when I was researching and querying agents, I spent a lot of time on agentquery.com (which is one of the best websites out there for those in the querying stage) going through the agents who were listed as representing YA. I'd look and see (either on Agent Query or their agency website) what in particular they wanted. Some agents accept anything. Others are more particular; they like YA sci-fi and paranormal and contemporary, but please no fantasy. Stuff like that. And still others have interests that aren't exactly genre related; they'll say instead that they're looking for books with a "strong emotional core," or "commercial stories." And unlike with lists that editors have, I'm not sure that this actually changes: from what I can tell it seems like in many cases what an agent likes is what they like and that's what they want to represent; it's so dependent on their reading tastes and what they enjoy working with, so it doesn't change constantly the way certain trends seem to.
I really hope that makes sense.
Did you send many letters out?
Um, yes. I queried for four and a half years -- four different novels. I sent over 150 queries. (I actually don't know how many queries I sent for the first book, but it was 165 queries between the last three.)
PS. Any other questions? Go to the comments!