Anyone attempting to get traditionally published eventually has to write the dreaded Query Letter. It is essentially a one-page pitch letter to an agent or editor, introducing your story and yourself. The query letter is the source of fear, angst, procrastination, and much hair pulling and head banging. But it doesn’t need to be.
Here are the essentials you need in a query letter. I’ll go into more detail down below.
The Story Teaser
Something about the Agent/editor (if you know it)
Do you need to write the whole business address on an e-mail? I believe you do, for two reasons: It is the correct way to write business correspondence, and it shows the agent or editor I’ve done my homework. The basic format is to write your name, address, phone, and e-mail at the top, usually as a centered header. Then double space and write the date. Double-space again and write the name of the agent and their title, the agency, and the address. Lisa Collier Cool’s book, pictured below, is a great reference to show how this should be done.
When I first started writing, writers snail-mailed everything to editors and agents. We hoped that by the time our letters or partials, or full manuscripts were read, that editor or agent was still there. Now we do most things by e-mail and we can easily look up the targeted agent or editor online. In many cases they have a link to their e-mail. A good source for this is WritersMarket.com.
It is vitally important that query letters are addressed to a specific agent or editor. Never, ever, address a letter “To Whom It May Concern.” “Dear Sir or Madam” or “Dear Agent/Editor” is just as bad. Always address a query letter to a specific person: “Dear Mr./Ms. Johnson” (depending on whether the agent is male or female). If there is a question of gender, address it with the full name; “Dear Leslie Johnson.”
The Story Teaser
This is the first paragraph of the query letter. Here is where writers get stuck. How do we boil a 60,000+ word novel down to one paragraph? But this one single paragraph shows the agent we know what the story is all about and why they want to read the manuscript. Make sure you name your main character and the situation in which they find themselves. Keep the writing tight and end with a teaser.
An example might be: “When Anne Massengale receives the old brass key in the mail, it is exactly what she needs. Out of work and about to be evicted, this is a chance to start over where no one knows her. The key leads to a tiny cottage in the village of Ripley Cove, on the edge of the Pacific Ocean – and a body on her beach. A second body follows two days later, along with a strange letter. Police Chief, Sam Taggart, looks at Anne as his prime suspect. Desperate to clear her name and stay alive, Anne pits herself against a killer who will stop at nothing to see her dead.”
Here I list whether the novel is complete (it should be) and the word length. I add the setting and, if there is a historical setting, list the date. Lastly, I’ll describe the audience of the book, and anything that will lure a reader into picking up my novel. Using the example above, I’d say:
“Ripley Cove is complete and runs 90,000 words. Set on the Oregon Coast, this novel is written for anyone who enjoys a slightly dark, edgy story with plenty of secrets, a cunning killer, and determined sleuths.”
What constitutes a writing credit? Any other traditionally published novels, magazine or newspaper articles. If you’ve self-published a novel with a large number of sales, mention that. You needn’t mention every sale, but do add the most recent and any significant sales. If you write a very successful blog with a large following, mention that, but don’t mention every blog post you’ve published.
Here’s my paragraph: “I have been a freelance writer for over 30 years. My articles have been published in Among Worlds, Power for Living, Bread for God’s Children, Woman’s Touch, At Ease, Fellowship Today, Confident Living, Northwest Family Living, North Whidbey News Times, and South Whidbey Record, among others. As well, I am the author of a published historical novel, If I Perish.”
We all have to start somewhere – even Stephen King and Nora Roberts were beginners once – so having no credits is not a deal breaker. Simply don’t add anything to this paragraph.
About the Agent
An Agent or Editor’s site or blog will often have a bit of information on them. I happened to read about one agent’s new puppy and mentioned that in my query. This was helpful to establish a rapport between us. She asked for the novel, and while she ultimately turned the manuscript down, we had a friendly correspondence.
Read the agent or editor’s guidelines carefully and do exactly what the guidelines say. Some agents don’t want inclusions; if so, leave this paragraph out. If the agent only wants the first ten pages, tell the agent here that you have included the first ten pages in the body of the e-mail (very few accept attachments). Then polish those ten pages till they shine and paste them into the e-mail. Don’t add an extra page unless page 10 ends abruptly. You can usually get away with an extra paragraph or two, but no more than that. I’ve found the usual is the first 1-3 chapters. State what you are including in the letter and if it is a simultaneous submission. If you are sending by snail-mail, remember to add a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE) for return of the manuscript. My paragraph goes something like this:
“With this query I have included the synopsis and the first two chapters for your consideration. I will be happy to send the full manuscript, if you’d like more. This is a simultaneous submission.”
I always thank the agent or editor for their time and consideration of my submission. This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s surprising how often this is missed. I let them know I am looking forward to hearing from them. Again, it’s a small bit of politeness and it never hurts to be polite. I make sure to end the letter in a positive way, with either Sincerely, or Best Regards.
If I am sending by e-mail, I always put my e-mail under my name. If I’m sending by snail-mail, I will put a header at the top of the page with my name, address, phone, and e-mail
This is the way I do my closing:
“Thank you for your time and consideration of this submission. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
I love to hear (and learn) from my readers. Have you written a recent successful query letter? Feel free to share your tips with me.