Building on the elevator pitch…
At the conference you got a request from the agent/editor of your choice. You celebrated. (You did celebrate, didn’t you? A drink at the bar, a chocolate bar, a salad bar, whatever, but you must celebrate every step of the way!) Now you have to send a query/proposal letter, perhaps the single most important letter of your life. No stress, now, okay? (cheeky grin)
Paraphrased from an article by my friend Craig Faris (firstname.lastname@example.org ): Most writers feel that a query letter is probably the hardest page they will ever have to write. But what makes it so hard is a simple lack of direction. Once writers have mastered the blueprint, building a query letter becomes no harder than developing a character. The main thing they must keep in mind is to, “Think like an agent or editor thinks.”
A query letter has one purpose, to introduce the agents or editors to your novel and make them want to read more. If you tell them too much, there’s no reason to read further. If you tell them too little, there won’t be enough interest to read past the query. With close to 100 query letters a day, agents can usually tell whether or not to read further by the end of the first line. So your query has to be the one that is so professional, so intriguing that he reads your entire letter, turns the page, and reads the rest of the submission. Nothing can be boring in a query or the agent will simply stop reading.
A query is like a billboard. With a billboard you have 20 seconds max to sell your product. With a query you have seconds, not minutes to get your message across. If you’ve got a great teaser, consider starting the letter with it. When my AKA’s Dr. Rhea Lynch series sold, it was with a quick teaser. “Think: Kay Scarpetta, if she tried to keep her patients alive in the ER rather than slice and dice afterwards.” That told so very much about my book!
One of the biggest mistakes people make in a query is trying to turn it into a synopsis. A synopsis can and should accompany any query, but it goes on a separate sheet, single spaced and (in this case) no longer than one page. If the agent is interested, he will ask for a more detailed synopsis or an outline later. Right now your goal is get the agent to ask for more.
My friend Craig Faris has broken these down and I am totally stealing parts of this from his article (with his permission.) Here are a few simple steps to help you lay out your query letter:
Step 1: Finish your novel BEFORE writing your query. I cannot stress this enough. Very few agents will bother reading a query if the book isn’t finished. It’s okay to query first in non-fiction, but not fiction. Be sure to include the word count. A good first line is: “I have completed a 90,000-word science fiction novel entitled, My Sci-fi Novel.” (Although I wouldn’t recommend that title)
Step 2: Neatness counts. A query letter is a single-spaced one-page letter that is typed or printed on 24-pound stock, measuring 8 1/2 x 11 inches. Don’t hand write a query letter. Don’t print it on flowery stationery with colored ink. Use a high quality laser printer if possible. Don’t bother to have your name turned into a logo or print up stationary. You want your letter to stand out, but overdoing it won’t help. You are selling your writing, not your name. And if the agent / editor accepts email queries, send it that way, but by the same format. But get someone else read it after you so they might catch what you missed – that *could* is spelled *cold* or some other non-spelling-typo your spellchecker won’t catch.
Step 3: Spell the agent’s name right. Never address a query to Dear Sir! If you don’t know the agent’s name, call and ask. Then ask how it is spelled. Also, make sure you know his gender. A letter to Ms. Ashley Grayson will be promptly rejected. Ashley is a he.
Step 4: Be polite. You are asking a complete stranger to invest his or her time in reading your work. Agents are real people and they have feelings like everyone else. One of the worst mistakes you can make is to come across like you are offering the agent the opportunity to represent you. They get to pick and choose, not you.
Step 5: Know exactly what you’ve written, and describe it by its genre. Mystery, Romance, Mainstream Thriller, Legal Thriller, Science Fiction, Dark Urban Fantasy, whatever best describes your novel, include it in the first line. Find out what the agent likes and send the letter only to agents who accept your genre. Don’t kid yourself. If an agent doesn’t like thrillers he won’t like YOUR thriller. There is no sense in wasting the agent’s time or yours if they don’t represent your genre.
Step 6: Describe your novel in ONE paragraph and if possible, compare it to similar published and hopefully successful novels. If the agent represents one of these novelists, all the better. Remember, you want to make it interesting enough for him to read the complete synopsis so don’t try to tell the whole story in the query.
Step 7: For agents who only accept hard copy queries: Include in your query a reference to your single page synopsis and the fact that you are including a self addressed stamped envelope for his/her convenience. Sometimes the SASE gets lost and this will go a long way in convincing the agent to reply on his or her stationary. And be sure to include the proper postage in stamps. A metered envelope is no good after a week. If you expect your materials returned then you need to include enough postage to do so.
Step 8: Be reasonable. DON’T CALL THE AGENT ON THE PHONE! Don’t demand a reply or threaten to kill yourself if you don’t get a reply promptly. Don’t expect answers within a week. Don’t send your entire manuscript unless it is requested. Do thank him/her for his time and include a daytime phone number and an email address. If an agent loves your work, he will probably call rather that write or even email.
Step 9: Above all, be professional. Try to put yourself in the agent’s shoes. A typical New York literary agent, for example, comes to work on Monday morning and is hit with perhaps 100 emails, letters, and proposals of various lengths. In addition to that, the postal service might bring another 200 letters and manuscripts on their daily run. The real secret to getting an agent’s attention is professionalism. That’s why I wouldn’t recommend a gimmick or a “funny” letter. It’s also why you should never try to bribe an agent. Agents, editors and publishers are inundated with people trying to be different everyday, when what they are desperately seeking is someone who is a true professional. If you want to get noticed, be the author of that letter!
See the query letter Next week.