While you are busily polishing your novel, or waiting impatiently for the kind souls who are reading your book to get back to you, it is a great time to write your query letter. That in mind, let us look at a few things about your query letter.
Writing a good query letter is more important than writing a good book. At least it is if you are looking to get published. For most literary agents that you query, this letter is the only representation of your writing that they will ever see. If they don’t like the letter, they aren’t going to read the included sample chapter. Some agents do not even want a sample chapter included. Your letter may be all they see, so make it worth it. Check, check, and re-check. Like your book, this letter needs to be perfectly polished with no typos and no grammatical errors. It should be written in an engaging and entertaining way, all under the mask of to-the-point business correspondence.
Keep it short. You don’t have much time to both pitch your project and show that you are a stellar writer. Keep the entire letter, greeting to closing, to between 250- 350 words. Use positive language and dynamic sentences to convey what you need to say in as concise a manner as possible. Be creative, but never lose sight of what this letter is. It’s a business letter, pure and simple. It is not where you go into detail about your life, your childhood, and your exciting career as a dishrag salesman. It’s more about the book than about you, and don’t forget it.
The letter must contain:
-Greeting, including the specific name of what agent it is going to. No “Dear Sir or Madam at BooksRUs Literary Agency.” If it isn’t to a specific person, that shows you were too lazy to do your research. If you are too lazy to take five minutes of your time to find out who you are writing to, why should they spend five minutes of their time reading your letter? In the next segment of the series, we’ll talk about how to research what agents to send it to.
-Summary of your book. This is a short summary, like you would find on a book cover, geared to make people want to read it. Do not confuse this with the synopsis. A synopsis is all of the story, spoilers, ending, and all, condensed into a 1-2 page document. Some agents may request a synopsis, but this is not what you usually put in the query letter. The best advice I ever read about writing a summary said to try writing it in the style of the book. I also suggest reading summaries of other books to get a good idea of how to make it interesting and dynamic.
-Description of the book, including title, genre, word count, and any published writing credits you may have.
Know your genre! Do some research, look at the qualifications of the genre, and make sure that your book fits it. I wrongfully thought of my book as a paranormal mystery, when it is in fact a supernatural thriller. The difference between the two are small but significant. I know one writer who has written a book who, every time they hear a genre, says “My book is that genre!” Seriously, no book is that much of a chameleon, nor should it be. Just because it has a romantic element doesn’t make it a romance novel. Research the genre and choose wisely.
Know your word count as well. And if you are an unpublished author trying to get a book in print, your first book better be between 60k and 80k words. (Unless it is historical romance or sci/fi fantasy, which can go up to 100k words.) This is a rule of thumb, of course. But look at some famous, well known authors. Stephen King’s Carrie and J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone are both mighty short books. It’s easier for a first time author to get a short book published, and most agents won’t even glance at a first book over 100k words. Once you are established, that’s when you get to write longer books. The two books mentioned above are both in the 60-80 k range, and closer to the 60.
If you do not have any writing credits, that will hurt you, but don’t fabricate them. An agent is going to be your best partner, coworker, and confidant, so don’t try to start out with a lie. And don’t bring up ridiculous credits just to have some. No agent wants to hear how you worked on your High School’s yearbook team or once had a letter to the editor published in a newspaper.
Your letter should have something personal about the agent you are querying. This is the hard part. If you have been recommended by someone the agent knows, or met the agent at a writer’s conference, then you have it made. If not, then Google is your best friend. Research each agent, look at their work history, their tweets, etc, and see if you can find something to say about each specific agent that will look appropriate in a business letter. It might be the mission statement of the agency that drew you to query them, or it might be a common love of pet ferrets. Find something short and personal to say about the agent you are writing to. The purpose of this is simply to show that you did your research and took the time to write to a specific person, not just a name you picked out of a guide to agents.
Research each agencies guidelines for submitting a query. Each agent and agency has different things they expect in a query letter. Some will want your first chapter of two, or the first 50k words. Some will want none of the book at all, just the query. Some will ask for a short personal bio, or want you to answer the question “Why are you the perfect person to have written this book?” Research each one individually and send them exactly what they ask for. No more, no less.
Attach nothing to the letter. Agents traditionally will not even open an unsolicited query with an attached document. That means that they will delete your thoughtful, well written query about your brilliant book without even reading it. Sample chapters, if asked for, go in the body of the email, below the closing. I’ll say it again. Attach nothing to the email! Speaking of email, I have done solely email submissions. While there are still a few hold out agencies that accept only snail mail submission, that was hide bound enough, and tree killing enough, that I was not personally interested.
Closing. Thank them for their time and consideration. Keep in mind how very many of these emails agents read every day, and thank them kindly for reading this far in your query. Under the signature, include contact information, including snail mail address, email, and phone number.
Writing query letters sucks, big time. Expect it to suck. Instead of continuing with writing your books and stories you will spend an unprecedented amount of time polishing a summary, paring down words to get under the length requirement, finding out the specific query requirements of each place you send it, and researching personal tidbits about people you don’t know. It can take me over a half hour to finish each one, and that is after I wrote the basic query letter. But there are no shortcuts with this. Do it well, do it correctly. You spend a long time creating your work, spend the time to give it its best chance at publication. Yes, it sucks. Yes, it keeps you from writing what you want to write. But it is absolutely necessary.
Next time- How to research agents and which agents to send your query letters to. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and read everything Nathan Bransford has written about writing query letters. As I still can’t get the link function to work in this blog, here’s one to copy/paste: