Query Letter in a Nutshell

You can read about the do’s and don’ts on query letters from Google to space, but which way is the right way? The agent’s way, of course! After all, they’re the ones surfing through seas of slush to find the perfect story (for them). Of course, every agent looks for something different and it’s up to you to do your homework (research, read, and research!). But even dedicated researchers enjoy a head start. I give you, writing a query letter in a nutshell (proceed with coffee!).

Cheer up, Sunshine.  These #writingtips will help (I hope)!

Cheer up, Sunshine. These #writingtips will help (I hope)!

What is a query letter?

  • A letter that accompanies your submission to an agent or editor (it is the hook to your manuscript, so make it good!)

What is NOT a query letter?

  • A link to your website or other outside source (social media) – it’s not about YOU. It’s about your story.
  • An assumption that the agent will read your letter/manuscript (they have a lot to get through (some get 500 a week, yikes – thanks agents!)
  • Reaching out through Twitter. You can’t just link your story to an agent and assume they have everything they need to make a decision (if the work is right for them).
  • A desperate “please, read me!” letter filled with forced gimmicks. THIS IS A BUSINESS RELATIONSHIP. Don’t make yourself look “crazy” – you don’t need to do anything to make yourself stand out. If you’ve done your homework, your WORK will illuminate it’s promising potential. Remember, the story is what’s important…not how creative you are in a query (Sorry! No pink resumes needed here.)

Remember, agents take serious time reading your letter/manuscript, so spend equal time providing them what they need to determine if your story is right for their agency. A lazy query letter captivates…zero agents…nor do uninformative assumptions. You’ve spent a bundle of time on your manuscript (I’m sure!); so don’t trip at the finish line.

Write a good query, don't throw your hard work in the PASS slush.

Write a good query, don’t throw your hard work in the PASS slush.

Got it? Great. Moving on…what is an agent looking for in a query letter? Simpler details than you think!

Query Letter in a Nutshell (in my preference of order – yours might be different):

  • Personal Greeting
  • Brief Introduction of Your Book (type, and why it fits your agent)
  • Summary of the Book (FOCUS ON PLOT, like description on the back of a book)
  • Comparative Titles
  • BRIEF biography about yourself (don’t call attention to your lack of experience)
  • Thank You Sentence
  • Formal Send-Off

Details and Examples:

Ok, I'm ready; fire away!

Ok, I’m ready; fire away!

  • Personal Greeting: Dear Mr./Ms.________ (specific agent name)
    • You shouldn’t send query letters to every agent you see on Chuck Sambuchino’s guide to literary agent list. Every agent is an individual (What? You’re kidding? No, I’m not.). Not every agent is seeking your genre – so don’t waste his/her or your time.
    • This is where research comes into play: Writers who research agents ACTUALLY REQUESTING their genre are more likely to have that agent inquire them for more of the manuscript. I know…it doesn’t sound like brain surgery…but it is nice to hear – send young adult novels to agents looking for young adult…not adult or children’s (same goes for your book genre; i.e. romance, mystery, etc.)
  • Brief Introduction of Your Book Type (and why it fits your agent)
    • One sentence on your book type, its word count, and why it’s a good story for the agent.
      • My ______(genre; i.e. YA fantasy) novel _______ (title of book IN ALL CAPS) (85,000 words – number of your novel’s words in parentheses) might be a good fit for you because _______ (evidence that you’ve done your research and are catering this letter specifically to this agent’s interests).
      • Example: My adult mystery novel FINDING JEFFREY (65,000 words) might be a good fit for you because you have published many thrilling mysteries in a historical setting.
  • Summary of the Book (FOCUS ON PLOT, think…the description on the back of a book)
    • Okay – probably the toughest part. Why is it so hard to write a 150 word summary of your book when you’ve written the whole monstrous dang thing? Because you’ve written the whole monstrous dang thing. The best summary you write is the summary when you get out of your head. Avoid backstory. Avoid naming more than three characters (one or two is better). Avoid complicated details.
    • But what will be left to write about, you ask? The Plot. And that’s all the agent probably wants. They need to make sure the story is right for them before reading further.
    • My best suggestion? Avoid focusing on details and as a result you will likely increase the amount of tension in your summary. Without tension the blurb won’t draw in potential readers. Read about 20 back covers of books at once and then rewrite your summary. Consider screenwriter Blake Snyder’s logline from HELL (clear visual, target audience, ironythe hook!), and stop thinking. Then write – who, what, (when?), where, and why. The reader will find out how if they read the book.
    • For example: Here is a synopsis for Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach
      • After James Henry Trotter’s parents are tragically eaten by a rhinoceros, he goes to live with his two horrible aunts, Spiker and Sponge. Life there is no fun, until James accidentally drops some magic crystals by the old peach tree and strange things start to happen. The peach at the top of the tree begins to grow, and before long it’s as big as a house. Inside, James meets a bunch of oversized friends—Grasshopper, Centipede, Ladybug, and more. With a snip of the stem, the peach starts rolling away, and the great adventure begins!
  • Comparative Titles
    • Comparative Titles. Some agents want them, some don’t care – but they don’t hurt, so why not add them? You can read my blog on comparative titles for more details, but since I promised blogging a query letter in a nutshell
      • Have one, no more than two, AND MAKE THEM CURRENT.
      • Don’t focus on similarity in plot…why would an agent want to sell the same book? Instead, focus on voice, style, tone…no story has a 100% innovative plot (we all follow some sort of structure/pattern), but each stems from a unique voice.
  • BRIEF biography about yourself (don’t call attention to your lack of experience)
    • One to three sentences on a brief bio, including information RELATIVE to your writing experience. You don’t need to tell the agent you are a single mom dying of cancer…pity points aren’t going to help you.
    • However, you might want to mention…
      • MFA in creative writing (not a requirement for publishing, but it helps!)
      • You’re a debut writer
      • Any publishing experience
      • Other published works
      • Where your from/education
      • Profession (if relatable to writing experience)
    • I’ll say it again because it’s that important – less is more! (i.e. if you don’t have a bunch of experience or no published work…it’s not the end of the world. Just don’t call attention to that detail more than you have to. Saying you’re a debut writer – fine! Discussing how you’ve tried to get an agent for the next Harry Potter for five years…not so much).
  • Thank You Sentence
    • Always, ALWAYS thank an agent for their time and consideration (in one/two sentences). It’s just polite. Besides, the agent is probably cross-eyed by the time they read your query, and will appreciate your sincerity.
    • Example: Thank you for taking the time to review my manuscript; your time is greatly appreciated. I look forward to hearing from you.
      • Professional, Polite, Simple, Sweet…Sold (assuming you followed the previous steps).
  • Formal Send-Off
    • You’re not buddy-buddies with the agent…yet (but you could be with the right query letter). Don’t drown your send-off with superfluous words. Sincerely works just fine, followed by your name, e-mail, and website address (if you have one).
    • For example:

Sincerely,

Cookie Monster

cookiefiend@gmail.com

www.ilovecookies.com

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!  I'm ready!

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy; time for writing and revising!

Phew! So that’s it, a query letter in a nutshell. Hopefully this distracted you long enough to recharge your batteries before 5 – and if not, send me comments or tweet me. I’d love to continue the discussion!

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