The All-Important Query Letter

You’ve got a manuscript that’s ready for publication. You’ve compiled a list of literary agents you’d be interested in working with. Now it’s time to send your work to these agents and hope one of them likes your work enough to represent you in your publishing dreams.

Sounds easy. It can be. Some authors find a literary agent right away. Other authors take years to find one. There’s no guarantee your path will be short or easy, so put on your thick skin and get to work. The only sure way to get an agent is to ask.

There are two acceptable ways to ask a literary agent to represent you:

1. Pitch your book to an agent at a writing conference.
2. Query an agent via mail/email.

The first way, in person, is the best way. You get to meet the agent and she gets to meet you. You tell her about your book: what it’s about, what genre it is, how many words it has, if it’s completed, and if there’s time, throw in some info about yourself. The pitch needs to be quick because there will be other authors waiting impatiently behind you to get their three minutes with the agent, so you need to have your pitch perfected. It’s got to catch the agent’s attention and make her hungry to read it. She may ask for the first couple of pages and skim them. Or she may ask you to send her a couple of pages via email to read later. If she’s really interested in the book, she may ask to see the whole thing. That’s an exciting moment, and you’ll rush home from the conference overjoyed at the prospect of landing yourself an agent. Get your manuscript to her immediately (by whatever means she wants, either snail-mail or email) and sit back for the waiting game. It’ll take anywhere from one month to six months for her to get back to you. Use the time wisely to work on your next book.

If you can’t make it to a writing conference, or if your #1 top agent doesn’t attend conferences (it happens), you’ll send a query letter. Check your agent’s submission guidelines before you do this! Some agents want the first five pages. Some want the first fifty. Some want a couple of pages and a synopsis. Some want pages, a synopsis, and a full proposal. Some just want the letter with nothing else attached. Do exactly what the submission guidelines say to do — if you ignore them and send whatever you feel like sending, they’ll probably deep-six your query. After all, if you can’t be bothered to follow the guidelines, they can’t be bothered to read it.

Query letters are easy, once you master them. But just like everything else in life, mastering the art of query letters takes time and practice. Noah Lukeman has an excellent e-book called How to Write A Great Query. If you’re new to query writing, I suggest you purchase the book. But you can live without it. There are basically three parts to a query letter:

1. Introduce yourself
2. Introduce your novel
3. Ask for permission to send more information

These three parts can go in any order, although that last one makes sense last. I like to begin with #2, introducing the novel. I begin with a hook, a single sentence about the book that is intended to pique a reader’s interest. Or it could be an entire paragraph, like the blurb on the back of a book. The main goal of this is to make the agent want to read the book. Make her thirsty for more.

The second paragraph tells about you. Not what you do in your free time or how many kids you have, but information about your writing career. Do you have other books published? What makes you uniquely qualified to write this book? If your novel is about time-travelers, it’s good to point out that you’ve got a PhD in physics. If you’re writing a mystery, it’s wise to mention that you were a homicide detective for 15 years. If you have no publishing credits, it’s ok to write that you are unpublished, but it’s not necessary. The goal of this paragraph is to let the agent know a little bit about you. 

The last paragraph is ultra short. It’s basically a “thank you for your time, may I send you a sample chapter” type of thing. 

You can find sample query letters on the internet, if you need more than I’ve given you here (you probably do — don’t feel bad about that). Try this one by Charlotte Dillon, or this one by Preditors & EditorsMargot Finke posted three examples of successful queries on her site. There are tons more out there, so feel free to surf for a couple of days to get a feel for what a great query letter looks like.

-Sonja
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