The dreaded query letter, the single greatest symbol of both a writer’s hopes and dreams as well as their deepest, darkest fears. Will the agent love my manuscript and raise me up to Publishing Elysium? Or will they cast it into the Pits of Rejection? This single document is perhaps one of the most important ones an author can write, falling only shortly behind their manuscript. In some cases, it is the one and only glimpse an editor or agent has of your beloved work of craft and a bad first impression can mean a terse letter of rejection and a night of whiskey and sorrow.
As I mentioned in my A.G. Howard post, one of our local library systems has been hosting a four part writing series and the second in the series concerned the creation of the all-important and much-reviled query letter. This is one of the most dreaded parts of being a writer. This single letter can decide both the fate of your manuscript and yourself as an author; or, that’s at least how it might feel. Prior to this moment, you’ve received feedback from hopeful earnest and impartial beta readers and almost certainly subjective opinions from your friends and family. Now you’re putting your labor of love out there to a wholly impartial and calculating professional, someone that doesn’t care how much blood and tears you’ve put into your work. All they seem to care about it whether your book will sell. Don’t they know art cannot be measured in dollars?
This is not necessarily an incorrect assertion: an agent can’t take into consideration things like effort or passion. Or artistry. They are a consumer of (or perhaps an investor in) manuscripts and like any consumer (or investor) they are looking for the best value. Is this a well written novel? Will it appeal to an audience? Does it have the potential to exceed its own media and be marketable in some other venue? An agent will care for their authors, nurture them to a certain degree and certainly work with them to create the best manuscript possible and achieve success. But you have to get their attention and interest first. That’s where a good query letter comes in.
So, what is a query letter? A query letter is a one-page letter introducing you and your book that is usually sent to an agent or approving editor. A query letter usually consists of an introduction to your manuscript and a hook, a mini-synopsis of the book and an author bio.
So, let’s pick this apart, one section at a time. First off, the introduction and hook. An introduction is simply a personal message from the author to a prospective agent. You will succinctly introduce yourself, provide a greeting of some sort and explained how or why you are sending your query to them. Knowing about the agent and the genre they represent is key to a good introduction. Knowing their history can also be a great asset. For example:
Greetings Mr. Stephenson,
My name is Sean Burnside and I am sending you a query for my YA novel, Bite My Aschii, because my research indicates you represent the YA market and have had great success in both the cyberpunk and vampire genres. I feel my novel is an excellent fusion of both genres.
Next comes the hook. The hook describes the basic premise of the novel, a very broad and concise explanation of the plot. It also identifies the target audience, suggests how the novel is unique in comparison to other novels in the same genre, details the central conflict of the novel and what the main character’s quest is. It should also reflect the voice and tone of the novel. This is especially important as two similar stories can be wildly different if their tone is different. Imagine how different Twilight would be if it had a comedic tone instead of a romantic one. With that in mind, lets continue with my (perhaps) imaginary manuscript from before:
Fifteen year old Bryce Losambra always thought life on the streets of New Hackensack as a freelance data-jacker was hard. The roving bands of violent Clockwork Droogs and their insatiable thirst for cat milk were always a problem. And the Self Servers, -shambling amalgamations of flesh and ice cream machines- have always been a problem, given their propensity to track down cybernetically-enhanced individuals and rip off their tech then eat the flesh like a sundae. But now freaking vampires? VAMPIRES?!
NightRaven was hot. Real hot. Like, smoking hot. Bryce knew that something was wrong when her love bites drew blood, but Bryce always liked the occasional bit of kink and strange. Now, he is unable to keep any food down and can hear a heartbeat from two hundred feet away. And his cyberjack and digideck are on the fritz. Cursed with both undeath and some seriously malfunctioning cybernetics, he is the most ridiculous thing imaginable: a vampire that sparkles. And sparks.
Hunted by both the authorities and tweens, he must find NightRaven and make her take it back. Or at least make her loan him the credits to fix his tech. He can deal with an unquenchable thirst for human blood, but being unable to jack in and watch the latest episode of “Hackensack Haz Gotz Talentz” is too much for a teen cybervampire to bear. At least there are no werewolves. Screw werewolves.
The next part is the mini-synopsis. This is exactly what it sounds like: a brief, chapter by chapter overview of the manuscript. In general, this should be less that a page, giving only a brief explanation of the course of the novel. Following the mini-synopsis, the last component of a query letter is the author bio. This will vary from author to author, but should include basic biographical information, your genre interest and your writing / publishing experience. Obviously new writers will have very little to list here, but a succinct bio is not an issue. Keep it to the facts, without a lot of hyperbole.
And that are the four key components of a query letter: introduction, hook, mini-synopsis, and author bio. However, the creation of a sterling query letter is not easy at first try. Trust me. This is an important document and one that you will want to work to refine as thoroughly as you work to refine your other writing. Agents almost never look at your manuscript first without first seeing a query letter (or perhaps a pitch during a writing convention). There are a number of suggestions and pitfalls, so it is important to be aware of some additional do’s and don’ts so that every attempt you make to market your work has the best chance of succeeding.
Tips before sending your query letter
- Identify your market and genre, be able to articulate what market you most easily would appeal to.
- Identify any unique attributes you might possess as a writer that an agent might find marketable. Being editor of your high school newspaper would most likely not be worth listing, whereas being editor of the collegiate literary review might. Having 150,000 followers on YouTube or your blog (i.e. baked in fanbase) would definitely deserve a mention.
- Find a book that is similar to your own book. Who represented it? What publisher bought it? How well did it do?
- Find a resource for agents and what they might actively be looking for. Some useful sites for this are: Writer’s Market, QueryTracker.com, AgentQuery.com, and mswishlist.com
- Research the agent(s) you are sending a query letter to. Sending ‘steampunk’ to a ‘sci-fi’ agent would be applicable, but sending ‘erotica’ to the same agent might not.
- Examine the boxes, back covers and jackets for your favorite movies and books. They make excellent examples of hooks for a query.
- Write your query to elicit emotion. Agents are looking to be moved more than educated.
Here are some things to avoid when writing your query letter:
- Be descriptive, but concise. Do not exceed a single page (single spaced).
- Avoid a novel that exceeds 100,000 words. The industry standard for a debut novel is 80,000 words.
- Specify a genre. It is acceptable to market your novel as having cross-genre appeal, but you need to be clear about who the target audience is.
- Show what a good writer you are in your query, never tell someone you are a good writer.
- In contrast, do not be critical of your own work in your query letter.
- Write your query as a descriptive piece, not as a review of your work. Avoid editorializing.
- Only describe the inspiration for the work if it is either integral to understanding it or is uniquely interesting.
- Don’t say that writing is your life long dream in the query letter.
- Don’t relate how much your relatives and friends enjoy your work.
- Try to avoid using modifiers in your description.
- Agents know their market. Don’t try to sell your manuscript by telling them how much the market needs you.
Hopefully, this information might be as useful to others as it is to me. I am continually grateful to Kim and Ashley at the Southwest OKC Prior Library for hosting these seminars and making them informative and enjoyable. I’m looking forward to the last in the series but am also somewhat sad, since it will be the last in the series and I feel I have learned a great deal, something that will make my own efforts to sell my novel that much less difficult.