Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
I’ve had a couple of requests for an article on a query letter, so let’s look at the necessities you’ll want to include in that first contact with agent or publisher’s editor.
A query letter is typically your introduction to the person you want to represent you or publish your novel. That introduction should be business-like, but it can also reveal your personality and/or the feel of your story. That is, you don’t want to sound like a cold and distant robot, but at the same time you don’t want to portray yourself as the best buddy of someone you’ve never met. The point is to introduce yourself and your story and to solicit a request for your manuscript (or solicit representation).
The good news is that the format, while allowing your personality to show itself, is fairly standard.
In three or four paragraphs—on one page of paper or the equivalent, if you’re querying via email—you introduce yourself and your manuscript, and you request that the agent or editor—addressed by name—read your work and either consider you as a client or consider publishing your manuscript.
This is a sales tool and you’re selling both yourself as an author and your manuscript.
What To Know Before You Approach Agents and Publishers
~ Know what genres the agent represents or the publisher publishes
~ Know what writers and books the agent or editor has represented and what kinds of stories she prefers
~ Know what she is currently looking for and what she isn’t in the market for
~ Know the genre of your manuscript
~ Understand that the manuscript must be finished at the time you approach agent or editor
~ Address your letter to an individual, not to whom it may concern. Get names from websites or verify spellings by calling the agent’s or editor’s office.
~ Use your opening paragraph as a hook. If you’ve met the agent or editor before and she asked you to submit a query, remind her—briefly, briefly, briefly—of the occasion and tell her you’re following up. Mention the title of the story.
Use that first paragraph to entice. Here’s where you can give a one-liner about your story, including the genre, and point out why you think Polly’s Adventure with Blackbeard’s Crackers would be a good fit for the agent who specializes in stories about pirate pets. Show that you’ve checked out the agency or publisher and concluded you and your story would work well with what they produce. (This is definitely a time for showing rather than telling. You don’t want to say, “I checked you out and concluded I’d be a good fit for your imprint.” Simply let it be known through a word or two the reason you’re approaching this particular agent or editor.)
The first paragraph will be short, but you can also include word count and the all-important fact that yours is a completed manuscript. (Or you can include this information in your final paragraph.)
If the agent or editor has revealed something personal that connects to your story, consider mentioning it in your first paragraph. For example, if she’s mentioned on her blog that she has a passion for tennis played on clay courts, there’d be nothing wrong with—and everything right with—mentioning that your mystery opens with a murder at the French Open (which is played on a clay court).
~ Second and third paragraphs (and maybe a very short fourth one) are the pitch. Here’s where you lay out the back-cover blurb or the mini-synopsis or the teaser that will have agents and editors requesting at least a partial if not the full manuscript.
You can write these paragraphs in the style of the story or just in a way that hints at the feel of the story. The point here? Make the agent or editor want to read at least the first 30 pages or few chapters. Make your story sound good. And write this section in present tense (for the most part).
Introduce your main character(s), typically protagonist and antagonist or hero and heroine. Lay out the initial story problem or inciting incident. Include setting details of time and place. Highlight the conflict and point out challenges that keep your main character from solving his problem right away.
Write your blurb in the style of the story—humorous or fast-paced and breathless or suspenseful.
Kena Selway falls through a hole in the sky and ends up in London. The London of 1867. Once she realizes where and when she is and why she’s there, she only has to steal the necessary artifact, one of Queen Victoria’s formal gloves, and then she can leap back into 2016. Easy if she has her travel key, the ancient orb that guides her merry band of time thieves through the ages. Impossible without it. Impossible, too, without her partner, Jackson McMahon. Jack arrived in London the same day she did. But he landed in the middle of a political demonstration, let his fists fly before engaging his brain—as is common for him—was arrested, and now awaits hanging at Newgate Prison.
Kena wants to believe she’d never leave without Jack, that she’ll free him or die trying because that’s the kind of person she is. But the truth is, she can’t leave without him; the orb key only works if the thieving pair travel together. She’s stuck until she can free Jack from his cell. And if she can’t free him before his execution, neither of them will be going home.
~ Include a brief bio, especially if you’ve been published. Only provide personal information if it has a bearing on your story—you’re a former astronaut and you’ve written a sci-fi mystery that takes place aboard a spaceship. If you don’t have any professional writing credits, that’s fine. You aren’t the first and you won’t be the last.
Don’t include self-publishing credits unless your sales were fantastic or you got a rave review in the New York Times. Don’t include writing awards unless they’re from well-known and well-respected groups.
~ Conclude with a call to action—what do you want the recipient to do? Request your manuscript? Take you on as a client? Whatever you’re looking for, spell it out. And thank the agent or editor.
Again, put this in your own words, maybe a little less or a little more formal based on your read of the agent or editor.
I’d love to send you a partial and the synopsis of London Ungloved, see if it’s a story you’d like to pursue. Thank you for your consideration.
The full manuscript of London Ungloved is available upon request. Thank you for your consideration.
Don’t send more than a query (not a synopsis, not the first 30 pages, and definitely not the full manuscript) unless you’ve been requested to include additional items. Follow the rules on this one.
This is a business letter, so use the standard format for a business letter. That means single line spacing and block formatting (no indentions). One line space between paragraphs.
No fancy fonts or unusual font colors.
Unless you know the agent or editor (and he knows you), address him as Mr. Smith, not Bobby.
If you’re querying via email, send a copy to yourself first to check out how it looks. Email programs can make your prettiest formatting go wonky. Either manually enter your text directly in the email or strip formatting from it before or after you copy and paste to lessen the chance of scrambled spacing and odd characters.
Check the agent or editor’s guidelines for what to include in the subject line. Many will tell you exactly what they want. If you find no specifics for the subject line, be sure to include the word query and the title of your story.
Even though the query is a business letter, if you’re sending it via email, you don’t need to include the traditional company name, address, and date that you’d include with a regular letter.
The query is a sales tool, so that means you make your story appealing. You’re selling yourself as well, so don’t bend over backwards to be humble or self-effacing. You’re not necessarily bragging, but do point out the good stuff in your story. Otherwise, if there’s nothing great to it, why would a publisher want to buy it?
Don’t be rude, but do be bold.
~ Once you write your letter, have a writer friend or critique partner rewrite it. Sometimes we’re simply too shy about promoting ourselves. Let someone else toot your horn if you can’t do it yourself.
~ Practice writing query letters for books you’re familiar with. Pretend you have to get a positive response in return—what would you say about a well-known book to get it requested today?
~ Do not include artwork (especially work done by your children) for a possible cover or your picks for the actors to play your characters in the movie version of the story or your life history or a list of all the manuscripts you’ve not sold. Stick with the essentials and that’s it.
~ Do not request that an agent or editor check out your website or your blog. You can include a link in your signature line, but don’t refer to it in any other way.
~ Meet up with agents and editors at conferences. If they hear your elevator pitch at a conference and request a query, they’ll remember your story and be looking for it.
~ Agents and publishers are looking for great stories and writers they can count on. But because so many writers approach them, they’ve got to weed out stories that don’t work for them or writers that don’t have it together yet. Do yourself and them a favor by only contacting those who are looking for what you have to offer and write a letter that shows off your writing skill. A poorly written query will only result in rejections.
Be sure to include:
title of the story
an enticing blurb
a request for action
contact info (name, pseudonym, phone number, email address)
That’s it for the basics of a query letter.
There is no one perfect letter fit for every agent and editor. They have preferences and likes and dislikes, just as the rest of us do, and one of your quirks may just line up with one of theirs.
Show them what you’ve got, don’t sweat it once you’ve sent the query, and plan to write more letters if you don’t get a positive response from the agent or editor of your dreams.
Get those queries out there. Get agents and editors interested in your stories.
If you have a specific question not covered here, ask it in
the comment section.
Let’s cover as many of the specifics as possible.