Query Letters 101: Your Query Letter

letters

You may think you have an entire synopsis to impress an agent but really, you have one sentence. A great query letter is about so much more than a convincing synopsis of your manuscript. It’s about relating, conversing, understanding, and grabbing an agent’s attention.

  • No less than 250 words, no more than 700. Aim for about 400.
  • Don’t try to be cute and use weird paper or fonts. Stick with Arial, Cambria, or Times in 10 or 12 point font.
  • Use paragraphs! Don’t stick everything in one huge chunk of text. You’ll scare agents.
  • Personalize your letter! This sets good letters apart from great letters. While each one of your query letters is going to be 97% the exact same as the last, 3% of that should be personalized for each new agent you send it to. Show agents that you’ve put in the time and effort to get to know their tastes before querying them.
    • Always address each letter to the agent by name
    • Use one or two sentences to tell them why they are the right match for you.
      • “I noticed that you represent Gregg Olsen’s YA series ENVY. Because of this, I really think you’ll also enjoy my dark, psychological, YA thriller.”
      • “I had to query a fellow journalism woman!”
      • “I love that your nieces and nephews play such a huge role in your literary career. I hope one day, they’ll get a chance to read my novel.”
      • “I read your blog post titled ‘Be the Evel Knievel of Writing’ and it inspired me to finish my manuscript with a non-linear story structure.”
      • “I read your interview on Day-By-Day Writer and felt compelled to send you my query for _____.”
  • Use your letter to embody everything about your writing. Keep your voice and tone consistent but remain professional.
  • Focus on the project you are currently pitching, even if you have been previously published. There is a place to talk about previous publications! Don’t worry. PITCH ONLY ONE MANUSCRIPT PER LETTER.
  • Be specific about plot details but don’t give everything away. You want to leave the agent wanting more so he will request your full manuscript!
  • If it is specified by the agent’s website, include the first five pages of your manuscript copied and pasted into the e-mail after the closing signoff. Attachments are generally not accepted. Some agents say not to include these pages, some do not specify. But there is always the chance that she will find herself just reading the pages anyway.
  • No e-mail blasts. It is unprofessional, lazy, and not personalized.
  • If another agent or publisher has referred you to an agent, mention it in your letter.
  • Query Letter Must Haves:
    • Personalized salutation, personalized tidbit about agent, title, genre, word count, protagonist name, derscription of protagonist, setting, inciting incident, villain, protagonist’s quest/purpose, protagonist’s goal, your bio, author’s credits (optional), your name, where you can be found online
  • Know your genre, type of project, and age group.

Much of this information came from an excellent class I took on LitReactor.com taught by the brilliant and lovely Bree Ogden. If you want more, sign up for some classes there!! 

Check out the previous parts of the Query Letters 101 series: 

Letters and Agents

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Query Letters 101: Letters and Agents

Royal Mail letter box stuffed full with letters

At this point I’ve taken one online course, attended several panels on the topic, and spoken to several agents and industry reps about them: I’m talking query letters. They’re a crucial step toward getting an agent and, in time, publication. 

The query letter is an important tool on the path to making it as a fiction writer. If you’re interested in pursuing the traditional publishing route (agent, publishing house, book) then this is a skill you’re going to need to polish as much as your manuscript.

A query letter is your introduction, your first impression, your cover letter that presents you to a literary agent. Your literary agent is your best tool for getting your book sold to a publisher. He or she represents you, pushes for your best interests, sells you and your work, and should help you negotiate contracts. When it comes to traditional publishing, an agent is going to be your best friend. So you want to make a good first impression with your new best friend, right? Right. That’s your query letter.

Literary agents receive hundreds of query letters every week, most of which – it’s just a numbers game – they are going to reject. Filtering through all of these letters is only one part of the job that agents have to do, so they can only budget so much time for this task. You need to grab their attention immediately and be interesting enough to hold it. This is going to be the job of the first sentence or, if you are very lucky, the first paragraph of your query letter.

You need to do some research and some thinking before you decide who to send your query letter to and this will also shape the kind of letter you’re going to write. What genre does your novel fall into? Sci-fi? YA? Literary fiction? Make sure the agent(s) you’re querying represent the genre(s) you write. Additionally, make sure your agent(s) of choice is currently accepting queries. Otherwise you’re wasting your time!

An agent should ALWAYS: talk with you via Skype or phone or even in person, be head over heels in love with your work, champion your project, be honest and forthright about their previous sales records. An agent should NEVER: charge you for their services (a 15%-20% royalty upon sale of your project is normal; an up-front payment is not normal in the industry and is a red flag that something is probably wrong).

Next week, check out Query Letters 101: Your Query Letter

Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction

Can I talk for a hot minute about how excited I am to hear about Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction? Not only is it an anthology that is much-needed in the world, edited by a crew of disabled folx, it will also include stories that address the subject of what it means to be a disabled human now or in visions of the future.

As someone who’s struggled with chronic – often debilitating – pain for the past 9 years, this forthcoming anthology feels like it’s being made just for me. Considering that pain and disability can be one of the most isolating experiences around, having this collection around makes me feel like I am welcome here in the world and that it’s okay that I take up space – which we disabled people often feel isn’t true.

Widowmaker Banner

Open submissions will come around early next year according to the Kickstarter page and if you think I’m not submitting Widowmaker (a time travel/Wild West story with a disabled protagonist), you don’t know me at all. Considering that Widowmaker won an Honorable Mention from Writers of the Future 2016, maybe it has a shot.

Fingers crossed!

Knowing When to Walk Away (Hint: Not Yet)

I’ve been trying to find representation for my urban fantasy manuscript, Dark of the Wood, for at least two years now with no success. If my tactics aren’t working, clearly, something needs to change. I’m taking a two-pronged approach: deep edits and a rewrite based on notes that are forthcoming from a writer friend as well as re-branding it as contemporary fantasy and re-writing my query letter. I may also re-work the title.

Urban fantasy is no longer at the height of its popularity and, moving away from some common expectations for the genre, my book doesn’t contain a romantic plot; my two main characters are most definitely not romantically entangled. They have an interesting relationship, but it’s utterly platonic. I had thought that urban fantasy might be a relatively easy sell for an unproven author, but that hasn’t been the case.

I’m not giving up on the project, though.

I also recently unearthed a partial manuscript and some notes and snippets from an earlier project: a fantasy erotica novel with BDSM elements. But let me tell you what, if urban fantasy has been a hard sell, I can’t imagine how hard it would be to find representation for this. It’s also nowhere near being finished, so I’m playing a long game on this one.

Micro Fiction WIP

Flash fiction, somewhat by accident, has become a passion of mine. More specifically, micro fiction has been something I’ve been working at for a while. In line with Hemingway’s iceberg approach to writing, micro fiction requires you to utterly strip down your piece to the barest bones of pure necessity. It forces you to boil your story down until it is a potent elixir of words and implied meaning.

I actually taught an interactive workshop on micro fiction with two friends at Capclave in 2016. We’re hoping to teach it again (or maybe something else) this year as well.

Here’s one that’s in progress, clocking in at 23 words:

Helena shook the snow globe again and watched the glitter dance around the tiny figures inside. Her friends would never leave her now. 

What Blogging Has Taught Me

I run two blogs: this one and Beerily Thus, which updates Mondays and Fridays with beer reviews, knowledge, commentary, and more. I’ve been working on this blog for about three years now (it used to have a different name, but I shifted everything that I could over to here roughly two years ago) and Beerily Thus has been going just since November 2016.  And let me tell you, pumping out new and original content three times a week in addition to all of the other writing and critique that I’m doing tends to go over better some weeks than others.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  1. Titles are hard. Seriously. I’ve never been good when it comes to naming stuff and that hits home every time that stupid subject line sits there, blank, mocking me. You’ll note that this week’s title is… uninspired.
  2. Planning ahead is crucial, but I am very bad at it. I tend to forget that big holidays are coming up until just a few days before they arrive, which is why I almost never have seasonally appropriate posts.
  3. Queuing posts up in advance is a godsend. WordPress lets you write and then schedule posts, making it possible to keep things updating regularly no matter how busy life gets, when I’m traveling, or even if I forget what day of the week it is.
  4. Writing regularly, even when I don’t want to or don’t feel like it or am busy or am burnt out is important to do. I’ve preached about it before, and I’ll say it again: write every single day.
  5. List posts are easier to write when you’re suffering from writer’s block.

guilty