Query Letters 101: Your Query Letter

You may think you have an entire synopsis to impress an agent but really, you have one sentence. A great query letter is about so much more than a convincing synopsis of your manuscript. It’s about relating, conversing, understanding, and grabbing an agent’s attention.

  • No less than 250 words, no more than 700. Aim for about 400.
  • Don’t try to be cute and use weird paper or fonts. Stick with Arial, Cambria, or Times in 10 or 12 point font.
  • Use paragraphs! Don’t stick everything in one huge chunk of text. You’ll scare agents.
  • Personalize your letter! This sets good letters apart from great letters. While each one of your query letters is going to be 97% the exact same as the last, 3% of that should be personalized for each new agent you send it to. Show agents that you’ve put in the time and effort to get to know their tastes before querying them.
    • Always address each letter to the agent by name
    • Use one or two sentences to tell them why they are the right match for you.
      • “I noticed that you represent Gregg Olsen’s YA series ENVY. Because of this, I really think you’ll also enjoy my dark, psychological, YA thriller.”
      • “I had to query a fellow journalism woman!”
      • “I love that your nieces and nephews play such a huge role in your literary career. I hope one day, they’ll get a chance to read my novel.”
      • “I read your blog post titled ‘Be the Evel Knievel of Writing’ and it inspired me to finish my manuscript with a non-linear story structure.”
      • “I read your interview on Day-By-Day Writer and felt compelled to send you my query for _____.”
  • Use your letter to embody everything about your writing. Keep your voice and tone consistent but remain professional.
    Focus on the project you are currently pitching, even if you have been previously published. There is a place to talk about previous publications! Don’t worry. PITCH ONLY ONE MANUSCRIPT PER LETTER.
  • Be specific about plot details but don’t give everything away. You want to leave the agent wanting more so he will request your full manuscript!
  • Optional: Include the first five pages of your manuscript copied and pasted into the e-mail after the closing signoff. NO ATTACHMENTS. Some agents say not to include these pages, some do not specify. But there is always the chance that she will find herself just reading the pages anyway.
  • No e-mail blasts. It is unprofessional, lazy, and not personalized.
  • If another agent or publisher has referred you to an agent, mention it in your letter.
  • Query Letter Must Haves:
    • Personalized salutation, Personalized tidbit about agent, Title, Genre, Word count, Protagonist name, Description of protagonist, Setting, Inciting incident, Villain, Protagonist’s quest/purpose, Protagonist’s goal, Your Bio, Author’s credits (optional), Your name, Where you can be found online
  • Know your genre, type of project, and age group.

Much of this information came from an excellent class I took on LitReactor.com taught by the brilliant and lovely Bree Ogden. If you want more, sign up for some classes there!! There’s another Art of the Query Letter class coming up in February.

Check out the previous parts of the Query Letters 101 series:

Research and Glossary

Letters and Agents

Trapped Tales Book Release

One of my short stories, Bloom and Fade, was selected to appear in the anthology Trapped Tales. The book features 10 short stories, all from very different genres and in differing styles, so it keeps you turning pages! It’s an easy afternoon’s casual reading, check it out.

I want to share Bloom and Fade with you, readers! I’m sort of in love with this story; I dedicated a lot of time to it and it went through well over 30 drafts before it was just right. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do! Give it a read under the cut.

Continue Reading

Query Letters 101: Research and Glossary

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Research is Your Best Weapon

Care about your writing and your project enough to learn as much about the industry as possible. Being prepared, researching agents, and knowing the jargon is going to give you a huge leg up.

  • “Big Six” (Now the “Big 5” as Random House and Penguin have merged) – The six largest publishers: Random House, Penguin Group, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Macmillan
  • Commission – The amount an agent receives for their services. Agents typically receive a commission of 15% for all domestic sales and 20% for foreign sales. Agents only receive commission on works they sell, and thus aren’t paid unless the author is paid.
  • Exclusivity – When an unpublished author gives an agent an “exclusive” look at their manuscript, usually for a period of time. This means the author cannot then send their manuscript to another agent during that time period.
  • Genre fiction – A blanket term that refers to books with certain familiar settings and plot conventions. Genres include romance, science fiction, mystery and suspense, westerns, etc.
  • Partial – A partial manuscript. When an agent likes a query they may ask to see a certain number of pages or chapters. If they don’t specify, just send 50 pages.
  • Royalties – The amount an author receives on every net copy sold of their book (see “net sales”).
  • **TWO TERMS THAT YOU WANT TO USE VERY CAREFULLY: Author and Book. You are not an author until you are published. Until that point in your career, you are a writer. You have not written a book or a novel until you are published. Until that point in your career, you have written a manuscript.
  • Key agencies: know the reputable agencies. Check websites such as querytracker, absolutewrite, literaryrambles, and agentquery to read up on the good and the bad agencies.
  • Contracts and Rights: You can’t know all of the different types of contracts because every agency and publisher will be a little different. But know the overall norms of contracts and rights. Such as: how much percentage is normal for agents to take on your advance, what a typical advance from a publisher is, what the royalties on a paperback, hardcover, or e-book are…etc. This will help you to avoid pitfalls. It will help you avoid agencies or publisher out to take advantage of you. You can find a lot of advice on publishing contracts on the web.
  • Comparative Book Titles: It’s good to know other published books that are similar to yours. This will help you accurately categorize your manuscript. Also, by knowing the popularity and success of these comp titles, you can adjust your publishing expectations.
  • This is a fantastic glossary of publishing terms. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2009/08/book-publishing-glossary.html

From Query Letter to Sale (In an Ideal World)

Your manuscript MUST be completed (unless you are writing nonfiction) and have gone through as much editing as is possible. You may have sent it through one or more beta readings. You may have even paid a substantive or line editor to go over your manuscript.

You will send out approximately 80 bazillion query letters to appropriate agents. Steel yourself.

An agent(s) will express interest and request a full or partial manuscript. She will love your book and offer to sign you. It’s possible that multiple agents will request your manuscript at roughly the same time; a good agent will give you appropriate time to consider which agent/agency to accept an offer from.

A good agent will keep frequent contact with you, probably via a phone or Skype call. This is a serious relationship so be sure it is the right one. Be sure they are going to fulfill all of your professional needs.

An agent will give you ample time to look over a contract and should be able to answer any questions you have about it.

Check out the other parts of the Query Letters 101 Series:

Letters and Agents

Your Query Letter

Query Letters 101: Letters and Agents

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Tonight I’m teaching a small workshop to me writing group called Query Letters 101. I suspect most of you will not be there, which is really a shame. I have every intention of dropping some serious knowledge this evening. Lucky for you, my lovely readers, I’m going to spend a few posts talking about literary agents and query letters. I hope it helps!

Many of you may know this already so I’m going to try and hit the important points quickly so I don’t bore anyone. You’re obviously reading this because you know that this is an important tool to publishing. If you’re interested in pursuing the traditional publishing route (agent, publishing house, book) then this is a skill you’re going to need to polish as much as your manuscript.

A query letter is your introduction, your first impression, your cover letter that presents you to a literary agent. Your literary agent is your best tool for getting your book sold to a publisher. He or she represents you, pushes for your best interests, sells you and your work, and should help you negotiate contracts. When it comes to traditional publishing, an agent is going to be your best friend. So you want to make a good first impression with your new best friend, right? Right. That’s your query letter.

Literary agents receive hundreds of query letters every week, most of which – it’s just a numbers game – they are going to reject. Filtering through all of these letters is only one part of the job that agents have to do, so they can only budget so much time for this task. You need to grab their attention immediately and be interesting enough to hold it. This is going to be the job of the first sentence or, if you are very lucky, the first paragraph of your query letter.

You need to do some research and some thinking before you decide who to send your query letter to and this will also shape the kind of letter you’re going to write. What genre does your novel fall into? Sci-fi? YA? Literary fiction? Make sure the agent(s) you’re querying represent the genre(s) you write. Additionally, make sure your agent(s) of choice is currently accepting queries. Otherwise you’re wasting your time!

An agent should ALWAYS: talk with you via Skype or phone or even in person, be head over heels in love with your work, champion your project, be honest and forthright about their previous sales records. An agent should NEVER: charge you for their services (a 15%-20% royalty upon sale of your project is normal; an up-front payment is not normal in the industry and a red flag that something is probably wrong)

Check out the other parts of the Query Letters 101 Series:

Research and Glossary

Your Query Letter

New Year, Old Novel

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My main project at the moment is completing the manuscript for “Dark of the Wood,” an urban fantasy story inspired by Little Red Riding Hood. It sounds weird, but I promise you it works. Anyway, I have a mental timeline for getting this project done and then setting it free into the world of agents and publishers.

January 31: I will have the first draft of the novel completed.

March 31: I will have the second draft of the novel completed (possibly after some beta reading).

May 31: I will have the third and final draft of the novel completed.

June 1: I will begin querying agents (I have my query letter written and polished already).

Forever(?): I will keep querying agents and annoying people and working my butt off to sell this book.

Why? Because I believe in it. I like it. I think it’s funny and dark and well-written and highly marketable. But, more importantly, I have to believe in my work because if I don’t – who else will?

Believe in yourself. Believe in what you’re doing. Work and rewrite and drive yourself crazy and talk to friends and other writers and edit and polish and BELIEVE. The hardest part about writing is just doing the darn work. So if you’re writing – you’re already succeeding.