Query Letter Basics

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Following David’s lead with his Back To Basics series, I’d like to cover some basics about Query Letters. Query letters are an unavoidable part of this business, so it’s in everyone’s best interests to know this material thoroughly.

For starters, let me make sure everyone is on the same page as far as terminology. I’ve heard even long-standing pros in this business mix up the difference between query letters with cover letters. A cover letter is the letter (and for the purposes of this discussion, the terms/words “letter” and “e-mail” are interchangeable, so don’t get hung up on that detail) that you send to accompany your story or manuscript or whatever else it is you’re sending.

“Dear publisher/editor/agent, Attached/enclosed, please find the manuscript we discussed at the convention last month. I appreciate this opportunity to submit it directly to you and hope you find it to be too compelling to put down. Please send me bags of money and we can be BFFs.”

Whatever. It’s called a cover letter because back in the old days when everything was done by snail-mail, this letter sat on top of the accompanying material, literally covering it.

Similarly, a query letter is also exactly what its name implies: it’s a letter asking a question. Query letters can actually take several different flavors, which you can think of in the most general terms of as “before” and “after.”

I’m going to start with “after” simply because it’s the easy one to describe. It’s the letter you send to find check on the status of your submission, as in:

“Dear publisher/editor/agent, Where the heck is my contract and bag of money, you dumb…”

Well, you might not want to… okay, you might want to write that, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I’m sure you get the idea, though. This kind of letter is merely to check on the status of your submission. Querying like this is necessary from time to time, but my rule of thumb is that I don’t send one out until I’m past the time period they listed in their submissions guidelines (most guidelines include information about how long a writer should expect to wait until they get a response (you did check the guidelines, right?)), PLUS an additional (roughly) ten percent. By that I mean that if the guidelines say you should expect to hear something in three months, I’ll wait the full three months, and then another ten days to two weeks, minimum. If it says thirty days, I’ll still wait at least a week.

And when you do query, keep your tone polite and professional. The reason for this is that you don’t want to irritate the people who hold sway over the fate of your literary masterpiece. It may be far from ideal, but the reality is that these frequently overworked people don’t appreciate (gasp, shock) being pushed. It’s reasonable for you to ask the question, but let me assure you that the writer who sends a query on day 91 when the guidelines say 90 days, and said writer queries thus for submission after submission after submission, is not making any friends. What he or she is doing is putting him or herself on a rocketship to Planet Rejection.

The other kind of query letter that I mentioned—the “before” letter—is the one that is most necessary for novel writers. Let me mention here that while all sorts of books require all sorts of query letters, the kind of query letter I’m going to be talking about here applies only to fiction/novels. Non-fiction books call for a different kind of query, but since Magical Words is about fiction, that’s what I’m going to talk about. With short stories, you rarely need to query before submitting; you just write the thing and send it in according to the guidelines (you did check the guidelines, right? (anybody detecting a pattern here?)). But with books, it is equally, if not more, rare that anyone wants you to submit your masterpiece. The agent or editor needs to be enticed first. This is where your query letter comes in, and it is vital that you get it right, because if you don’t, that’s the end of the line.

In a nutshell, a query letter for a novel has to catch the attention of whoever is reading it in a way that makes them want to read the novel it’s describing. Sounds simple, right? Well… conceptually, yes. The execution can be a real beast.

There are different ways of approaching it, but at its most basic, you need to describe, in one or two paragraphs (and no more) what the essence of your story is. In fact, the entire letter needs to be no more than one page—and if you’re pushing your margins out to .333 inches and shrinking your font to Verdana 6, you haven’t really written a one-page query letter.

That can be your whole entire query letter. Nothing wrong with that.

In my opinion, the best way to think/learn about writing concisely about your own novel is to go to your local bookstore or library (or your own personal library) and read the material on the back of paperbacks. The material on the dust-jacket of a hardcover novel is too long; you don’t have that much room to convince someone in your letter. But the back of a paperback (trade paperback or mass market, either is fine) is just right. In fact, I’ve heard numerous stories of the wording on a query letter being the exact, or nearly exact, wording that ended up on the back of the book when it was published.

In addition to your one or two-paragraph description, if you have something about you personally that makes you particularly suited to write this novel, include it. It can come at the beginning of the letter or the end (I’ve seen it done both ways, though I personally prefer to keep the personal info at the end; it’s the gravy, not the meat and potatoes). Examples might include established workshops that you’ve attended, and/or previous publications (short stories, novels, or other). If you’re an astronomer writing a novel about space travel, you should also include that, but if you’re an astronomer and you’ve written the best high fantasy since Lord of the Rings, leave it out. Nobody is going to care. What if you don’t have any of these credentials? Then skip it. Nothing sounds worse than a writer trying to pad a non-existent resume.

Other optional things (opinions vary) are comparing your work to existing novel or movies (“It’s Dirty Harry meets The Little Mermaid“), and explaining to the editor or agent why you are specifically submitting your work to them. This last item helpful if there is a true reason why you think your work is right for a certain venue, but be wary of kissing @$$ for the sake of kissing @$$; agents and editors will smell that kind of thing a mile off.

I’ll end this here because today’s post is only intended to make sure you know the difference between cover letters and the two main kinds of query letters. Next week I’ll show you a before and after of my own query letter from when I was first shopping Dreaming Creek around, from an early draft of the letter, which got three requests for more out of almost 60 sent, to the final draft, which got thirteen request out of 30 sent.

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13 comments to Query Letter Basics

  • Edmund, this is wonderful — and hearing it from an editor makes it all the more perfect. I was asked to teach a seminar on queries recently, and I … well, I stink at it. I had to turn the offer down. I am marginally better at cover letters, but I hate writing them.

    But please, please, please tell me you did *not* receive this one:
    >>Dear publisher/editor/agent, Attached/enclosed, please find the manuscript we discussed at the convention last month. I appreciate this opportunity to submit it directly to you and hope you find it to be too compelling to put down. Please send me bags of money and we can be BFFs>>
    I was giggling in my morning tea.

  • No, I did not *receive* it. But I may have sent it…

  • Sarah

    I love serendipity! Emily (Pea Faerie) and I spent a couple hours last night hashing out agent query letters and gnawing our fingers over exact wording, especially on our blurb, so this is timely and much appreciated. (And thank you too Faith for the help!!) I’ll be sure to include the bags of money demand in all my future letters. 🙂

    Seriously, though is it completely inappropriate to mention a prior contact at a con in a query letter? I have a specific agent in mind to whom I want to say something like “At the LosCon panel on writing strong female characters you mentioned that you wanted to see more women protagonists who used their brains first and violence second. Our protagonist Deor…”

    Would that be appropriate / useful? I talked to her briefly after the panel, but didn’t have a chance to pitch the novel since she was obviously tired and said she had had people throwing pitches at her all day. I decided discretion was the better part of valor.

  • Sarah, I think it would be completely appropriate to mention the prior contact; that’s a legitimate connection, not a feigned or forced one. You might even say/add something like “I didn’t want to throw this at you at the con because you said you were being overwhelmed, but…”

  • Sarah

    Yes! Thank you! I shall do so forthwith. (I like words like forthwith, but not being a lawyer, I don’t get to use them much.)

    Also, I should say thank you to all the MW writers for pushing the “go out and self promote thing.” I’m naturally pretty introverted and I was raised not to toot my own horn, so the idea of walking up to strangers and saying “Hi! I’m cool. Want to read what I wrote?” makes me feel watery kneed. But I took the suggestions here to heart, especially the ones about having something to offer them, not just being out for yourself and it worked. The local B&N was happy to put up the postcards I offered them because I pitched it as a way to sell the Nook. Hooray for mutual self interest.

  • Thank you for this, Edmund. I’ve read posts elsewhere on how to format query letters, but I appreciate how you’re explaining *why* to do things in such a way.

  • Late to the party — I plead a Saturday spent . . . well, doing Saturday stuff. Like Faith, I truly suck at query letters, and so found this helpful. I’m looking forward to next week’s post with the examples. If I can suggest, I think that a post on cover letters — what works, what doesn’t, how much detail about a submitted story should go in, etc., could be really helpful as well. I know that I’d benefit from it.

  • Laura, Glad it was helpful. I know I always learn better when I understand *why* I’m doing it a certain way. Context is everything for me.

    David, Saturday stuff = good. I hope you enjoy it. I’ll see what we can come up with for cover letters; there are whole books written about query letters, but not nearly so much about cover letter.

  • Edmund, thanks for posting. I look forward to the next one.

    What I’ve found most frustrating about query letters is getting distance. After twenty or so incarnations of my query, I can’t see the forest for the trees. The same goes for the people reviewing it, who have either read my novel or the query or both. lol

    Hopefully your next post can help shed some light on things. (no pressure, though) *grin*

    Cheers, NGD

  • Sarah, I’m not an agent but in a former life I was a magazine editor who received a lot of article query letters. I think that mentioning that former contact is a wonderful idea. It shows that you were paying close attention to what she’s looking for, and that is a quality that agents/editors always want in a writer! Best of luck with your query–fingers are crossed for you.

  • Query letters are the bane of my existence. I hand them off to a friend, who inevitably tells me that they think it conveys the story but doesn’t convey how my story is special, or that it does a great job conveying the world, but not the characters. Or some combination thereof.

    Brevity is usually an issue for me, but doubly so when it comes to queries. I remember when a friend boiled down the entire first book of my series to: “A princess’s journey of self-discovery becomes the catalyst for war.” I think I could have cried, because it was so much more than that…but it wasn’t. I have trouble deciding what’s important or unique, because it’s all must-know information to me!

    Thanks for this, Edmund. I’m looking forward to the rest of this series. Good timing, by the way. 😉

    Lauren

  • Boiling an entire novel down to a single sentence like that is an art; you should thank your friend. “A princess’s journey of self-discovery becomes the catalyst for war” sounds pretty cool, too. I would read that book.

  • My original query letter to my eventual agent was so bad that after she signed me (after I’d gotten a book deal on my own) she looked at my query letter and then changed her guidelines for queries. That’s how bad it was. 🙂