The Query letter. No, really–it is not an evil device of torture sent from the writing Gods just to make you suffer. Okay, well it might be, but the ability to write a good query letter is also an integral part of any writer’s repertoire.
It is difficult to write a captivating and effective query letter that will not only command the attention of an agent/editor, but also shed light on your fiction/non-fiction project and make them care enough about your protagonist/story/piece that they want to see the entire manuscript. Imagine condensing a 100,000 word book into a query letter of less than 200 words…wait…where are you going…I’m not trying to scare you. I’m trying to explain how to do this without tearing out your hair.
The first part of the query letter:
Depending on whom you ask, a standard query letter will either have 3 or 4 essential parts, also depending on what type of work you are presenting and your personal preference. An outstanding query should include the following:
The introduction, or opening lines:
You only have one chance to make a first impression. This is a common enough phrase and also very true when it comes to a situation where your first hand-shake must be done via paper or electronic media. It is somewhat of a disadvantage to not have the ability to make eye-contact and use your presence when trying to command attention. Still, there is no reason why you cannot exude confidence and let your personality shine through when presenting yourself via the written word.
It may seem like a good idea to use a crazy hook at this point in the query. You want to stand out, right? Asking a rhetorical question or being silly will land your letter in the dust bin. Guaranteed. The agent/editor is busy. They are looking at your query letter to find out basic information about your book. Is it interesting? Is it marketable? Does it have the potential to turn a profit? What makes it unique?
You should begin this section with a brief introduction of yourself and your work. If you have any relevant credits to your name, use them. By relevant, I do not mean “I am a stay-at-home mum and this is my first book.” I mean: “I was a journalist with the Chicago Sun Times for 13 years and have also published previously with-” Relevant information that supports your ability to write well and handle business is all the personal info you should include. You should also include the genre, title and word count of your manuscript at this point.
Example of poor query opening:
Dear Editor or Agent, –Always address queries to a specific person.
What would you do if you were abandoned by your husband in the middle of nowhere?–Beginning with a broad and general question like this detracts attention away from the point in your inquiry. My name is Jane Doe and I have been a nurse for 20 years. Please consider my teen romance where you can find out the answer to my above question.–Unless she is writing a book on nursing in some fashion, her job is irrelevant. She does not give anything other than her genre.
Example of a well-written query opening:
Dear Mr. Waltham, –Query addressed to specific person.
I found your agency on “AgentSearch.com” and noted that you are currently open to submissions from speculative fiction authors. After reading your guidelines,–She has noted where she found his listing and let him know that she read and put some thought into the agency’s guidelines before submitting. it is my belief that you may be interested in my novel “The Whispering Brook,” a speculative fiction novel of 55,000 words.–Book title and length included. My book is about a woman in a small Eastern village who must teach her people to trust conventional medicine in order to save the lives of children during a diphtheria outbreak.–A little preview of the book without going into too much detail. Your synopsis will be in the next portion, so this does not need to be detailed. I have a history of small press publishing and have won a couple of awards for my fiction entries in national contests. –Credits that are relevant to fiction writing and support her cause.
* you may choose to refrain from mentioning credits until the third part of your query, the author bio. I personally, enjoy reading queries that give a hint of any expertise the author in question may have, right up front.
This concludes the opening of the query letter. Please stay tuned next week for part 2: the synopsis.
Here are some things to keep in mind until then:
Double and triple check your query for spelling and grammar errors. There is never a more critical time to avoid making these mistakes than when you are trying to impress your abilities as a writer upon an editor/agent.
Ensure that you have spelled the name of the person you are addressing as well as the name of the agency correct. There are so many uncommon spellings that it is easy to address something to “John” instead of “Jon.”
Remember to include your contact information. Epic fail if you expect an editor or agent to take the time to look you up.
The best query letter in the world does not guarantee you a win, but it can’t hurt.