Thursday August 21
Subscribe to RSS Feed

Writing the Query Letter

on March 17th, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on May 14, 2013

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

The Setup

~  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.

OR

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.

The Format

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.

Tips
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

genre

word count

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.

***

Tags: ,     Posted in: A Reader Asks..., A Writer's Life

12 Responses to “Writing the Query Letter”

  1. Brian says:

    Beth, thanks for posting this. As usual, your advice and tips are really helpful. Just a quick question. I read, in a few different places, that character names should be omitted in the query letter, using “the protaganist” instead. Thoughts?

  2. Brian, include character names, but only the main one or two. The only place I’ve ever seen a recommendation to not include a name was in a blog with tips for querying a script (and I never followed up to see why that recommendation had been made). For novels, include character names.

  3. Hi Beth. Good refresher on writing queries. You’ve definitely hit the high points and I like your points about referring back to meetings at conferences. The query is a marketing tool and the goal is to get the editor/agent to read more of your work. Useful tip about sending the email to yourself, since email programs can do strange things to our text.

  4. James, it is a marketing tool. And sometimes we forget that we are the best salesmen for our products—our stories and ourselves. But when we understand what we’re selling, we should be able to solicit requests for submissions.

    I’m glad you stopped in.

  5. Suzanne says:

    Hi Beth ~
    What a great article, and so timely in my own life! I’m just in the polishing phase of my query letter. I’m doing some research about pros and cons – querying agents vs publishers and editors directly. As an editor, what are your thoughts on the topic?

  6. Suzanne, this one might simply come down to personal choice, but I see no reason not to seek out an agent first. Unless you know how to deal with publishers and everything involved—what to ask, how to ask, contract ins and outs—why not let an agent deal with that side of your career? Be the writer and let someone who specializes in the other facets of writing do what they do best.

    You do have to pay an agent, but they earn their money. Would you be able to represent yourself in negotiations as well as an expert would?

    Yet some writers would rather handle everything themselves, and that might be the right option for some of them, especially if they understand contract law or know a contract lawyer. But even then they might not know everything necessary to make informed decisions about who to go with as a publisher and the specifics they should ask for in a contract. An agent would have lots of advice about how to approach publishers, about what you could expect in return for your name on the dotted line. An agent could also tell you what not to expect.

    Agents have knowledge and skills that experience gives them. Even if a writer gets a favorable contract, does that mean she’s chosen the right publisher?

    And there are practical issues as well. For example, some publishers only accept submissions from agents or agented writers. That’s a big consideration if you’re considering a specific publisher.

    I definitely lean toward going with an agent. I’d want the best, the most qualified individual representing me, and I realize that that person wouldn’t be me, not in this circumstance.

    Of course, this means you have to be accepted by both agent and publisher, two steps rather than just one. But you can let your agent do her thing and get back to writing, a definite plus to ease the sting of a big minus.

    Why might you try going without an agent? Is there a particular reason you wouldn’t want to use one? They definitely have strengths that a writer could use.

  7. Kat Sheridan says:

    Fabulous advice, as always. I love that you recommend the description look like the back cover copy of a book word–this is the place to use all those juicy, enticing words that compel a reader (or an editor or an agent) to want more.

    Also, I loved your example of the time travelling thieves. I think you need to write that book!

  8. Thanks, Kat. Those enticing words are just what we want to snag the interest of agent or editor. As for the thieves, purely an example. But you are welcome to use them. . .

  9. Toni Pacini says:

    I have been advised by several authors to note in my query, elevator pitch, etc., that my book has been compared to a classic, To kill a mockingbird.”
    I do not think that happens because my book is as good as To kill a mockingbird, although I know it is well done. Instead, I am sure that I often hear this comparison because I wrote my Memoir, ALABAMA BLUE, in a first person narrative style in the Southern Gothic genre.
    One person recently told me that publishers would think I’m arrogant if I use this comparison.
    But it does tell the publisher the style in a succinct way. Your opinion will be appreciated.

  10. Toni, I’ve seen the same advice, to compare your story to a known book for that instant identification. Yet I’ve also seen advice that suggests you shouldn’t, especially not a comparison to classics or bestsellers.

    For the elevator pitch, I’d say don’t do it. At least not until you’re asked for more info. The pitch itself should be a line or two that reveals the heart, the main thrust of your story. You can’t describe your own story when you make the person you’re pitching to think about another book. At the naming of that other book, you’ve instantly directed attention away from your own.

    And if you use another book in your pitch, what do you intend to convey with the mention of it? You could get lucky and the agent or editor might immediately think of Southern gothic. But she might as easily think oh, a racial story. Or maybe something about law and justice in the south.

    You can’t control another person’s first reactions and if you’ve only got the few seconds of an elevator pitch, wouldn’t you rather speak specifically about your story, about what makes it the unique story that it is?

    For the query you might have some leeway, but you run the risk of making yourself sound as if you think you’re a writer on par with Harper Lee or some other noted author. Again, you can achieve an instant identification, but is it the right one and is it worth directing the focus away from your manuscript? I can’t see that naming another book would be worth it.

    That said, you may get asked for a comparison or asked about the audience for your story—what other books would your intended audience enjoy or be likely to have read? At that time you could share the comparison with To Kill a Mockingbird.

    Others might give different advice. But these are my reasons for stressing your own story at that first contact. There’s plenty of time later to make comparisons.

  11. Emily Hall says:

    Hello Beth,

    I am finishing up my query letter for a nonfiction self help book. I currently teach a class (I designed) that this book is based on. The class has been quite successful and I have a number of excellent, well written testimonials from participants stating how beneficial this class and it’s concepts have been in their lives. Is this information at all beneficial for me to add to the section of my credentials and if so how would you suggest going about it? (i.e.link to testimonials page, or copy/paste one in the email query) I do have other credentials that fit to ‘sell myself’ but these testimonials are real life demonstration of how this information has helped a specific population of people. Thank you for your time and thoughts!

  12. Emily, unless these students are well-known in a way that the agent or publisher can recognize their importance or use them in some way, I suggest you not include any reference to them and their testimonials in your query letter. You may have the chance to point out the success of your program at a later time, but the query isn’t the time for that unless the testimonial is a really big deal. Agents and publishers have no way of knowing who these people are, so the inclusion of testimonials at this point means little to them.

    This would be different if, say, you had written a book about the program you devised for public education that was successfully adopted by thirty states and your testimonials were from a dozen satisfied state school superintendents.

    Also, if the agent or publisher is interested in your manuscript, it’s likely that they’ll check you out. If you’ve got a testimonial page, they’ll find it without you having to point it out.

    Use the space in the query letter to sell the manuscript. Once you get a dialogue going, you can add the extras.

    I hope that helps.

Leave a Reply

Pings and Trackbacks