Query Letter Basics

By this point in my writing life I should have earned some sort of certification in the art of query letters. I’ve spent countless hours obsessing over each of mine. I’ve written, revised, thrown out and rewritten each of mine at least a dozen times. I’ve researched query letters, read books, articles, watched videos and participated in group discussions about the basics of querying. And yet, the art of writing a query letter still feels like an elusive talent.

Don’t get me wrong, I think I’ve come a long way. My query letters are effective. I have an understanding about the structure and purpose of a query as well as how to write a decent one. What I lack is the innate ability to create a query that is pure artistry—and, I’ve decided that’s okay.

A few years ago I decided to learn more about what makes an effective query. I began looking for opportunities to read the kind of queries that are sent out on a daily basis. I participated in group query critiques, researched query letters for books I’ve read, took part in some early stage contest queries, and read a bit from the inbox of a small publisher. While I did have the chance to see which query styles and information made the greatest impact, I was also astonished to see some of the “queries” that are being sent out. While I understand some of the enthusiasm-based mistakes of newer writers, I feel it’s time I add my voice to the list of those who really, really—really!—want you to have the best chance at success. After the amount of time you’ve spent on your novel, you should do it justice by submitting it with a professional query.

To start, these are not query letters—ever!:

  • “Dear _______, I’m attaching the first chapter of my novel as directed on your website” (that’s the entirety of the communication. Also, the website stated no attachments)
  • “Dear ______, Category: Young Adult. Genre: Horror. Word count: 76,500.” (yeah…that was all there was)
  • “I have several fiction projects, all of which can be viewed at this link. If you find any interesting you can contact me and we can discuss publication” (I’m not following that link, nor is anyone else)

So, what is a query?

A query letter is a formal, professional, letter that writers send to agents, publishers, magazines, or writing contests that describes a project they’ve written (or are proposing) and are seeking representation/publication for.

The purpose of a query (which Jane Friedman so perfectly describes on janefriedman.com) is “to seduce the agent or editor into reading or requesting your work” (Note the word “seduce”! It’s perfectly used).

All the bits:

The following are all the bits & pieces your query letter should have. Some authors will change up the order (ie-book details first, personal info last). When I’m reading a query I’m not as concerned by the structure of the letter as in the work that’s been put in to making it interesting, but there are some traditionalists who prefer a specific structure—and some even list that on their submission guidelines!

  • The greeting. Be specific in whom you are addressing your query to. Do not send a “Dear Sir or Madame” or “To Whom It May Concern”. You should have researched this agent/publisher and have in mind exactly who your submission is targeted towards.
  • A brief and personalized paragraph that includes the reason you’ve chosen this agent/publisher to submit to. Did you hear them speak? Read other books they represent/published? Read an interview? Let them know you’ve done your research and why you’ve chosen them.
  • Your hook. This paragraph will include the details of your book: a brief description of the story (this is not a synopsis!), the word count and genre.
  • Your bio. Again, this is a brief paragraph. If you have published works, writing related awards, or anything else that’s literary related include that. If you have special training or skills that lead you to be specifically qualified to have written this book, please mention that. Do not mention that your mom, spouse, friend, or your cousin’s best friend’s neighbor loved the book.
  • Your contact information. Yes, if you’ve emailed the query letter your email address will be evident—unless it’s been forwarded from a first reader, to a follow up, distributed to a team, and back again. In closing your query—as with any other professional letter—be sure to include your name, phone number, and email address (and please, for the love of all things good in the world, if your email address is left over from your partying days consider a more professional one for writing correspondence—nobody wants to correspond with BigPimpDaddy69@getit.com).

 

Even with a perfectly crafted query it’s up to you to research agents and publishers to ensure you’re targeting your submissions appropriately and following submission guidelines. I’ve returned several unread queries, referring writers to the submission guidelines. In talking to publisher/agent acquaintances there’s a consistent practice in rejecting—or even deleting, unread—queries that don’t follow guidelines. You’ve spent so much time writing your novel, give yourself the absolute best opportunity by making sure your query letter shows the same dedication to quality as your manuscript.

 

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When It’s Okay to Not Write

Every writer has hit some sort of a writing slump. Maybe you’ve lost your momentum, your excitement for a project, or maybe you just don’t know how to progress or where your story is going.

There is no limit to the number of tips and articles to help you get past a period of writer’s block. While many of them are very helpful there is also something to be said for putting your project aside for a while.

On each of my novels (including my current WIP) I’ve gone through a period when I’ve put the project aside for several weeks to several months. Sometimes I began another project or worked on editing another. Most of the time though, I used those breaks to really think about my novel. I reviewed my character’s background stories, motivations, I imagine interactions they might have with each other and with strangers. Sometimes I let dialogues be carried out in my head. I even planned a birthday party for a character during one of my writing breaks.

But as “unproductive” as each of those breaks has been something miraculous happened during each one: I discovered a mind-blowing plot twist or element that I hadn’t considered before. And each one of those revelations led me to a renewed and productive writing period.

For my YA medieval I discovered that an integral character would die (okay…there were two beloved characters who died and both came from a similar non-writing period). I also realized that a minor character, one who seemed to have pulled along by the devious plot of another, is actually quite strong and manipulative in her own right. She’s actually been the driving force of a major plot and is about to become the main character’s most formidable opponent. Until I set aside my writing I’d only ever recognized her as a mousy, subservient pawn in the game that was being played.

For my YA bootleggers story I solved two problems through a writing sabbatical: how to bring my character’s best friend back into the story line and whether a main character was going to die (yes, I do spend a lot of my non-writing time determining the death toll of my books).

My current WIP (a YA martial arts fantasy) is still very much in the early stages, but I’ve already taken a break from it to discover that someone I least expected is going to become the new Oracle. There is one potential death pending, but I haven’t gotten a divine answer on that one yet.

I’m not suggesting it’s ideal to stop writing entirely. Sometimes working on another project can push your current one from your mind, making it more difficult to resolve that which was preventing your progress. Taking a break and using the down time to ruminate on your project (or obsess without writing) can open up answers that you’d never imagine when sitting at the keyboard forcing the story onto the page.

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