What You Need to Know About Query Letters: An Interview with Joanna MacKenzie

Joanna Mackenzie, Literary Agent

Joanna MacKenzie, Literary Agent

Joanna is a Literary Agent with Browne & Miller Literary Associates, where she has helped shape many client manuscripts into books that have gone on to become bestsellers. Though her passion lies in commercial fiction, she has also represented family saga, middle grade and YA, romance, and women’s fiction. We are so honored that she’ll be teaching our first Writers Night Out of the year. To give you a taste of what you can expect at Query Letter 101, we asked Joanna a few questions on the art of pitching to an agent.

CWC: What is the number one thing that makes a query letter great? 

This is, unfortunately, quite subjective and, therefore, hard to pinpoint, but the number one thing that makes a query letter great is good writing. A query that flows, that is engaging, that contains a compelling synopsis is going to get a closer look. A letter that piques my interest and is written with confidence is going to get considered. Authors need to think about jacket copy when they write a synopsis for their manuscript. The same thing that compels someone to pick up a book in a bookstore is going to get me to want to read your work. Also, make sure your letter compliments your manuscript. If your manuscript is funny, write a funny letter. If you’ve written a mystery, make sure your synopsis gets me thinking (and a little scared).

CWC: What’s the worst mistake a writer can make in a query letter?

I think the worst mistake a writer can make is to not know what they’ve written or to try to appeal across too many genres all at once in their letter. I get really hung-up when a writer can’t tell me what their book is. For example, “This is a YA manuscript, but could also appeal to fans of Urban Fantasy and Historical Romance.” If I’m confused, I’m going to have a hard time telling editors what the manuscript is and editors don’t buy what they can’t easily define.

CWC: Is there anything that writers tend to ignore when it comes to pitching an agent but is actually very important?

Professionalism. At the end of the day, this is business correspondence, not to mention a “cold call,” so putting your best foot forward is key. Email, in particular, tempts people to be casual, but there’s something to be said for a letter that spells my, and the company’s, name correctly, for example.

Interested in learning more? Regular Registration is open for Query Letter 101 until January 13, 2014. Space is limited, so reserve your spot now!

2014 workshops include Query Letter 101, Writing Sex in Fiction, and Breaking into Self-Publishing. Sign up for our newsletter to find out information on those events and more.