Monday, December 12, 2011

The Query Letter

Hi everyone,

To the aspiring authors out there hoping to get a publishing house to pick up your novel, I thought I would change things up a bit and publish a post geared toward you.

The first thing I want you all to realize is that Agents take queries very seriously; they read them and more importantly they will respond to the ones that spark their interest so make sure that you present yourself professionally!

So, what is a query letter? It is a SINGLE page letter that introduces you and your book. That's it and nothing more. Do not make the mistake of thinking this letter is your resume or the opportunity to ramble about your life as an aspiring writer. 

A query letter consists of three concise paragraphs:

Paragraph One—The Hook: A hook is a concise, one-sentence tagline for your book. It’s meant to hook your reader’s interest, and reel them in. The best way to understand how to write a hook is to read the loglines of the titles sold by agents.

Paragraph Two—Mini Synopsis: This is where you get to distill your entire novel into one paragraph. It’s your opportunity to expand on your hook. Give a little bit more information about your main characters, their problems and conflicts, and the way in which adversity changes their lives. Read the back flaps of your favorite novels and try to copy how the conflict of the book is described in a single, juicy paragraph. You can do this. You really can. You just have to sit down, brainstorm, write it and revise / reshape it until it shines.

Paragraph Three—Writer’s Bio: This should be the easiest part of your query. After all, it’s about you, the writer.  If you do choose to construct a writer’s bio (and you should), keep it short and related to writing. Agents don’t care what your day job is unless it directly relates to your book. Got a main character who’s a teacher, and that’s your day job? Be sure to say that. Otherwise, scrap it. Education is helpful because it sounds good, but it’s only really important if you’re offering a nonfiction book about A.D.D. children and you hold a PhD in pediatric behavioral science. If you’ve published a few stories in your local newspaper, or a short story in a few literary magazines, or won any writing awards or contests, now’s the time to list the details. Don’t go hog wild, but don’t be too modest either.

Congratulations! You’ve finished your query letter. As a formal closing, be sure to do two things: thank the agent for their time and consideration and alert the agent that the full manuscript is available upon request (gents will want to read the whole novel before they offer representation to you and your book).

Here are some other quick tips:

The Do’s

~ address your query to a specific agent
~ state the title of your book
~ mention the word count and genre of your book
~ mention exactly why you’re approaching the agent  
~ adopt the "proper" tone for your query letter
~ format your snail mail query using standard business letter alignment/spacing
~ list your phone number, mailing address, and email address (snail mail query)
~ include a self-addressed stamped envelope (snail mail query)
~ have a pair of "fresh eyes" proofread for typos and grammar mistakes
~ write your letter in the first person

The Do NOT’s

~ say: "I am querying you because I found your name in a writing guide/ database
~ sing the praises of your book or compare it with other best selling books
~ send gifts or other bribes with your query
~ print your query on perfumed or colored paper
~ shrink your font down to 9 point so it all fits on one page (12 point is standard;  11 if you’re desperate)
~ Fedex or mail your query in a signature-required fashion in order to make your query stand out
~ apologize in your query for being a newbie writer with zero publishing credits and experience
~ include sample chapters of your novel with your query UNLESS an agent's submission guidelines specifically SAY to include sample pages with your snail mail query
~ forget to list your email address or contact phone number on your query
~ forget to enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE)
~ start in the present tense and end in the past tense
~ include cover art
~ include copyright information
~ use fake flattery (e.g. I greatly admire your agency…)
~ mention the 12 (or any) previous manuscripts that you’ve written that didn’t get published

Some common phrases that new authors should NOT use in a query letter:

“This is the first book I’ve ever written!”
“I’ve been writing since I was five.”
“This would make a great movie.”
“This book will appeal to readers of all genres.”
“My friends/parents/teachers like my writing.”
“Oprah will love this book.”

REMEMBER: You never get a second chance to make a good first impression! If your letter looks bad, smells, is printed on cheap paper or photocopied it will be thrown in the garbage. Also, e-queries that are poorly formatted (all caps, colored and silly fonts, goofy pictures in the signature line) or that lose their formatting once they are sent will not make it to the top of an agents reading pile either.

Best of luck and happy writing!


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