Let me start with the standard MW axiom of “there is no one right way to do this” and proceed from there; if you Google “query letters,” you will find all sorts of advice.
Having said that, the two letters that follow are my first (failed) attempt, and my later, more successful one. The first one isn’t the first draft of my query letter—it’s probably the thirteenth—but it’s the one I ultimately felt good enough about to send out. It got (as I mentioned last week) 3 requests for the manuscript out of about 60 queries sent, which was all very sad and depressing until one day, after about six months of futility, it dawned on me that all these agents and editors weren’t rejecting my novel—none of them had so much as seen my novel. They must, therefore, have been rejecting the query letter. The query simply wasn’t doing its job (which is to entice the reader to want to read more).
So I set about crafting a new, leaner letter.
The second letter did much better, garnering 13 requests out of about 30 sent (including a couple of agents who had passed on it the first time). I honestly think the biggest difference between the two is that the second one is considerably more concise. In the first letter I was trying to squeeze in everything possible—every detail, every nuance, every plot twist—and it was simply too much. The difference between three fat paragraphs and two lean ones was enormous.
The second thing I think made a difference is that in the second letter, I started out with the meat of the description, opening with a story-related bang, instead of with more pedestrian background and a comparison of my novel to other novels (as I did in the first letter). Many knowledgeable people will tell you to compare your book to other current works in the market, and while I agree that it can be an effective way to convey the essence of your story, I think it’s the wrong thing to open with.
So here are the two query letters for you to read for yourself. Take my dirty, which I’ve hung out for the world to see, and learn from my mistakes as best you can so that you can make some nice new ones all your own. 😉
I should also mention (again) that my two-paragraph description in the second letter is what the publisher used (almost verbatim) on the back of the book, as well as on Amazon and their own website for product description when the book was published. That and the fact that I’ve heard the same story from numerous other authors is why I always tell people that the best way to learn how to write effective query letters is to study the back-cover text of paperback.
Dear Mr. ,
In August 2004, The Writer’s Post Journal published the first chapter of my novel, Dreaming Creek. It is with regard to that novel that I am writing to you today. In the spirit of national bestseller The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, Dreaming Creek uses the fantastic without dwelling on it – focusing instead on the way surreal events impact characters and their relationships.
On the vacation of a lifetime in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Danny Wakeman gets a fresh perspective on the world in a way he never could have imagined. At the mystic waters of Dreaming Creek, Danny and his girlfriend, Sara McBride, sip from the stream and find themselves on an astounding journey when they swap bodies and become stuck that way when Danny later gets pregnant. Trapped in each others’ bodies until the baby is born, Danny and Sara have no choice but to return home to the small town of Bedford Heights, VA and assume each others’ lives as best they can.
At home, though, Danny is ambushed with a multi-million dollar lawsuit which will cost him the 200-acre of lakeside farm he inherited from his recently deceased parents. Ultimately the suit proves to be a plot to defraud him conceived by someone Danny thought of as his oldest friend, Marcus Gaines.
Still pregnant and trapped in Sara’s body, Danny finally learns the truth and goes to confront Marcus, who has been trying to sleep with Sara for some time. When Marcus tries to rape him, the only way Danny can think of to end the assault is to reveal the truth that he and Sara traded bodies. But unbeknownst to Danny, Marcus has killed once before when his homophobic buttons were pushed, and he’ll do so again to protect that secret.
A graduate of Orson Scott Card’s Writer’s Boot Camp, I have had over twenty short stories and five essays published during the past two years. “Unfathomed,” also won first prize in Lynx Eye’s Eighth Annual ‘Captivating Beginnings’ Contest, and “Reality Check On Register Two” was on StorySouth’s list of Notable Stories of 2004.
I am currently looking for an appropriate showcase for this 83,000-word novel. If you are interested in reading more of my manuscript, please contact me as your earliest convenience. A SASE is enclosed for your reply.
I look forward to hearing from you; thank you for your time.
Edmund R. Schubert
Dear Ms. ,
In my mystery/suspense novel, Dreaming Creek, high school teacher Danny Wakeman has spent sixteen years incorrectly believing that his childhood friend, Marcus Gaines, saved his life after a farming accident. But Danny’s perspective on the world gets turned inside-out when he and the woman he wants to marry, Sara McBride, drink from the mystical waters of Dreaming Creek, trade bodies and get stuck that way.
Trapped in each others’ bodies, struggling to fit in to each others’ lives, Danny and Sara will have to pull together to overcome a perplexing lawsuit, a plot to defraud Danny out of his recently deceased parent’s farm, and an attempted rape—all of which ultimately prove to bear Marcus’s fingerprints. And before it’s over, Danny will discover that this pattern of treachery and violence goes all the back to his supposed farm accident, which Marcus designed to cover up an even blacker secret.
About me: In the past four years I’ve had over thirty short stories published in a variety of genres. In 2004 one of those stories won first prize in Lynx Eye’s Eighth Annual ‘Captivating Beginnings’ Contest, and another was nominated to StorySouth’s list of Notable Stories. In 2005 The Writer’s Post Journal included me in their annual Year’s Best issue. Recent publications include the 20th anniversary issue of Hardboiled Mystery magazine, and as a featured author in the May/June 2006 issue of Futures Mystery Anthology.
I am currently seeking representation for Dreaming Creek , an 82,000-word novel best described as an episode of the TV show “Cold Case” driven by a Twilight Zone twist. If you are interested in reading my manuscript, please contact me at your earliest convenience.
Thank you for your time; I look forward to hearing from you.
Edmund R. Schubert