Monday, November 28, 2011

Query Letter 101

Since I am back out there, sending submissions out, I remembered that this was a topic that I hadn't yet covered on the blog. Here goes.


Scary stuff. Okay, I am lying. I don't really find it scary anymore. But I remember back when I sent my first query it was some heavy duty stress. Did I do it right? I actually had to look up WHAT a query was before I could write my first one. I mean, it means question, I knew. But in the publishing world, how was I, lowly wannabe writer, supposed to know what was supposed to be in a good one?

I researched people who knew what the hell they were talking about, at length, and recommend you doing that as well before you THINK about sending one out. My earliest queries, even with all my self assigned homework, were terrible. And I had read from some of the best (I followed Nathan Bransford's blog, Kristen Nelson's, I read Janet Evanovich's How I Write and read every sample I could get my eyes on.)

But they were still AWFUL.

Do I have it down now? Meh. I am not too shabby. And I am not scared of writing them. And you shouldn't be either.

What is a query?

A query is a letter to a publisher or a literary agent. It's a one page introduction to your work and you. It is sort of the letter version of, "Hello, there. I am Sam. I write books!" And if you send that out to an agent or publisher and they reject you, yeah, don't blame me. There is more. In one page you have to manage to blurb your book, blurb your writing credentials (if you have any) or why you think you are a good person to have written this book, and the vital statistics of the book. IN ONE PAGE. No one is going to read a seven page query. Not that I have heard of. If you find someone willing to read seven pages of query, please correct me in the comment section below.

But they want a synopsis, too?

They sure do. The synopsis is one or two pages about your book. Picture the bit about your book in the query letter as the part of the iceburg sitting above the water. They understand that most of the iceburg is under the water. But if you want them to strap on some diving gear and go into below freezing water to see it, that bit in the query better be good. Consider it like the blurb on the back of the book. Does it capture the reader? Sum up the basic premise and tone of your story in just a paragraph or two? If it doesn't, edit it.

But I don't have any writing credentials!

Do you think anyone does when they start? Probably starting your query letter out, "I have never written anything before but I sat down and wrote this bestseller that I know is going to not just become an international success but will become a blockbuster movie... and I have created the marketing on the dolls in advance, " is not going to win you any bonus points with an editor/agent. So don't. Be honest but you don't have to tell them you are so new at this that the shine hasn't worn off the bottoms of your shoes. Better to say something like, "I have been an avid reader and writer my entire life. This story was inspired by my years as a fry cook which were some of the most greasy anyone can ever dream of. I took creative writing courses for three years at Yada Yada University and am also a legal assistant which led to my vast knowledge of all things legal and assistant-y." If you are honest, even if your credentials are not that you spent five years sitting on the bestsellers list, you will not irk the person reading the query. Irking them is not good. But giving them reason to think you knew all about alien fry cooks that worked by day as legal assistants that you wrote about... That is okay.

You mentioned vital statistics...

I did. Yes, thanks for bringing that up. You need to include, at some point in this query, the meat and bones of what you are trying to get them to buy.

For example: Greasy Accountants, a sexy paranormal legal suspense, is a 90k manuscript. Although it includes elements of comedy when the aliens are working their night jobs as fry cooks, it is intended as a legal suspense-type story and has a strong murder mystery at it's core.

In that little bit (which, please, don't write a book about an alien legal assistant fry cook... this is me trying to give you examples. And I am leading with a bad example... sorry.) I managed to give you the genre of the story, the word count and any crossover elements. This is the meat and potatoes kind of stuff.

Can you give me an example?

Why sure! But I am making up another fake plot because I am sick of the alien fry cook legal assistant one. Okay, here goes:


Mr. Agent Publisherguy,

On the bitter cold streets of Juno, crime has a name. Robert Badguy has plagued the night, searching for women to slake his thirst and leaving a trail of bodies in his wake for more than a century. Hardboiled detective, Janice Goodcop, thinks she is close to solving the mystery. A new man in her life attempts to distract her from her case but she is too good of a cop for that. When a blizzard hits and she is holed up in a dingy cabbage factory with Badguy, will she finally find what she has been searching for?

Or will Badguy slake his demonic thirst on the one woman who could have saved his soul and that of Juno?

Chilly Vampires is an 80k manuscript full of paranormal elements. The vampires in this tale don't sparkle, they chomp. It does have a few steamy sex scenes, so the genre is romance with paranormal elements.

I was the editor of my highschool newspaper and went on to college to become the head of our monthly publication, the University Magazine. After college, I got married and had two beautiful kids and have taken occasional creative writing courses at our community college, Community College. Now that the kids have grown, I have returned to my first love, writing. I hope you enjoy Chilly Vampires. I attached the manuscript per your submission guidelines as well as a two page synopsis.

Nina Writer

That simple. And yes, that was all made up. Please don't make stuff up on YOUR query letter. And take your time. If they don't like this, they aren't going to read your synopsis and they will NEVER get to even your first paragraph in the actual book. So if you spend tons of time on ANYTHING... Make it your query letter. PLEASE. Edit and edit and reedit.

Some links I think you might find handy besides this one:
Nathan Bransford's How to Write A Query Letter
Kristen Nelson's Blog (Includes sample query letters that landed agents)
Query Tracker (a great site for finding and keeping track of who you are sending these to)

Happy writing!

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