Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How to Write a Query Letter

Apart from writing synopses, one of the tasks that writers hate most is creating query letters. It's a necessary evil, though, because in the USA at least, a well-written, dynamic query letter may be your one shot at getting a reputable literary agent's attention.

Below is my best advice on query letter writing. (It's excerpted from a much longer article that went live on the Writer Beware website today: How to Find a (Real!) Literary Agent--a complete tutorial on how to research, query, and submit to literary agents--while avoiding the bad guys.)

Enjoy!

- Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware

-----------------------------------

What is a query letter? It’s a business letter, professionally written, carefully proofread (NO TYPOS!) that basically introduces your book and asks the agent “would you like to read this?”

A query letter is not a synopsis. It’s not your autobiography. It’s short, pithy, and very well written. I can’t overstress how important a good query letter is. It’s a chance to showcase your writing to the agent. A poorly written query letter will axe any chance you have of the agent wanting to see read your manuscript.

The most common mistakes aspiring authors make in writing query letters are as follows:
  • 1. Writers make it too long. A good query letter is brief, no more than one page long. When I say “one page” I mean a few hundred words long. Not one page crammed from top to bottom with narrow margins.

  • 2. The writer tries to include a synopsis of the book instead of a “sound bite” (I’ll cover writing this below). You can’t write an effective synopsis of a novel-length work in fifty words or less, honest. What you can do is write a “verbal snapshot” of the book in dynamic, fascinating language. That’s the “sound bite.”

  • 3. Writers tell too much about themselves and their lives. Agents and editors don’t care if you are mentally or physically handicapped, or your mother is sick, or your kid is sick, or you just escaped an abusive marriage, etc. Everything in the query letter, including in the credentials section, must relate to your book, and your ability to write it. Telling the agent about yourself in an attempt to gain the agent’s sympathy so they’ll read the book is kiss of death.

  • 4. Writers make a point of telling the agent or editor about all their friends and family members who loved their book. Or about the published authors who read and loved the book. I made this mistake myself when I started out -- it’s a natural one to make. But resist! Agents don’t want to be told what your friend and family thought. They also don’t want to be told what to think. “This book will be a surefire bestseller!” is not a line to include in your query.

  • 5. Writers who try to make their writing experiences look like credentials when they aren’t. Writing a few articles for local newspapers for no pay doesn’t count as a writing credential. The same goes for recipes in your parish cookbook. Or having a letter printed in the Washington Post. What counts is writing you were PAID to do.

  • 6. Writers who inform the agent that the book they’re submitting is the first book in a 12 book series they’ve spent the last ten years writing. This reeks of obsession, and agents will make the sign of the cross and back away. Concentrate on the book you’re trying to sell.

There are two kinds of effective query letters. The first type is a good, workmanlike business letter, and it does the job. It's short, to the point, written in dynamic, specific language, with NO errors of any kind -- no typos, punctuation, spelling, grammatical, etc. Remember, letter-perfect!

The other kind of query letter is weird, quirky, but so irresistible and creative that it will capture the attention of an agent even though it's far outside the "accepted" model. This kind of query letter springs from true talent and writing genius, and really can't be taught. I've seen some of them, and they leave me in awe -- and they immediately captured the interest of the agent(s) they were sent to. However, since they can't be classified or taught, I'm going to concentrate today on the first type of query letter.

My suggested "template" for a query letter runs like this:
  • 1. First paragraph: introduce your project in a one line description of the book, giving the title and genre. In this paragraph you also should specify the length of the manuscript, in number of words, not number of pages. Make it clear that this is a completed, polished book. Sometimes it can work well to quickly compare the book to another work the agent would recognize. However, instead of announcing that “My book is just like X,” use language such as, “In the tradition of X,” or, “Should appeal to readers of X.”

    Your language in writing a query letter is very important. It must be smooth, flowing, and persuasive, without telling the agent what to think, or engaging in hyperbole. That one-line description of the work is often a make-or-break. In the writing business we sometimes refer to the one-line description as “the elevator pitch.” This term comes from Hollywood, and is based on the idea that writers should be able to summarize their books in one arresting, unforgettable line that will capture the attention of a producer or agent – while taking no more time than would be required for an elevator ride.

    (An example of a one-line description that actually sold a book to an editor occurred to me while I was waiting in line to get into a restaurant at a World S.F. Convention in Los Angeles in 1984. Harriet MacDougal, a Tor editor who’d acquired a previous collaboration from Andre Norton and me, was standing in line just in front of me, while waiting to get into the café for breakfast. After we exchanged greetings, Harriet asked me what I was currently working on, and I replied, "Andre and I are writing Witch World: The Next Generation." Harriet promptly told me to send her a chapter or so when I got home, which I did. She put it under contract.)

  • 2. Second paragraph: here's where you’ll need to get very creative, and showcase your best writing skills. This is the paragraph where you provide the “verbal snapshot” of your book in the form of a “sound bite.”

    Michael Cassutt first described “sound bites” to me, and I'll never forget the example he used – the sound bite for an apocryphal television show. “Bongo and the Pontiff. She's a chimp. He's the Pope. Together, they solve murders."

    I never forgot it -- and that's the POINT of a sound bite. It sticks in your head, like a tune you can’t forget. I repeat, it is NOT a synopsis. Instead it’s a “verbal snapshot” of a book’s storyline, a few lines that are so vivid, so enticing, that the agent will immediately want to read the entire book.

    An example of one for my first published book, a Star Trek novel titled Yesterday's Son might have read: "While checking computer data from a recent mission, Mr. Spock discovers he sired offspring with Zarabeth back on ice age Sarpeidon. Grimly determined to do the right thing, he travels through time using the Guardian of Forever to retrieve the boy. But instead of a child, he encounters a young man, Zar, who has grown up with dreams of the father who would someday rescue him…and love him. When these two must work together to stop a Romulan takeover of the Guardian of Forever, conflict is inevitable -- and far from logical."

    That's a sound bite. It’s a brief encapsulation that captures the heart and soul and “flavor” of the novel. Not a synopsis, not a summary. It’s a verbal snapshot, designed to intrigue, to spark interest in reading. The language you use should be vivid, specific, and dynamic. When that agent puts down your query letter and goes off in search of more coffee, that sound bite should run through his or her mind.

  • 3. Third paragraph: this paragraph should contain a summary of your credentials for writing the book. If you don't have any, then don't try to manufacture them -- that looks really lame. Credentials fall into three categories:

    - Best and foremost, writing credentials. Writing credentials mean you’ve sold your writing. That means you received money for the right to publish it. Cite the venue, giving the title of the article, short story, or book. If you didn't receive any payment for the writing, chances are you shouldn't mention it. Things like letters to the editor published in your local paper don't count. A recipe in a parish cookbook doesn't count. POD books where you paid the POD publisher to make the book available for sale don’t count. Any vanity-published book definitely doesn’t count. E-books might count if you can document having sold a lot of copies. (Think thousands rather than dozens or hundreds.)

    - The other two categories of "credentials" you can mention would be lifetime experience, and/or academic degrees – providing they relate to the subject of your book.

    There's no point in mentioning that you have a degree in quantum physics if you've written a humorous fluffy unicorn story. Or a romance novel set in the Miami drug culture. If you’ve written a science fiction novel dealing with, say, the true nature of dark matter, mentioning your degree would be relevant.

    The same goes for lifetime experience. If you have written a detective novel, and you can truthfully state that you've been a homicide detective for 10 years, that's definitely worth a mention.

    Mentioning your age, marital status, number of children, grandchildren, whether you have bunions, or gout, is NOT relevant, so don't bother mentioning these things. (Corollary: do NOT send the agent pictures of yourself, gifts, cash, or anything except what the agent asked for. You wouldn’t believe some of the stories I’ve heard from agents about what aspiring writers have sent them. Nude photos were the least of it!)

    If you have no credentials to cite, simply state that (Title) is your first novel, and that you’re working on your second. And then make sure that statement is true. Agents are not enthusiastic about “one shot” writers.

  • 4. Fourth paragraph: this last paragraph is simply a polite conclusion to your business letter. Thank the agent for considering your query. Tell them you hope to hear from them at their earliest convenience.

    Then you write "Sincerely," and sign your name. Don't forget your business-letter-sized SASE (unless you are e-querying).

Remember the old adage: “knowledge is power.” In the publishing field, ignorance is not bliss. The more you can discover about an agent you’re targeting, the better (which means thoroughly researching the agent BEFORE you query, not after). Not only will diligent research help to keep you safe from scammers and amateurs, it'll enable you to “tweak” your query so it will appeal to the particular agent you’re approaching. Remember also to read up on each agent's guidelines--not every agent wants to see the same thing--and to send them exactly what they ask to see, no more, no less.

Work hard, work smart, and stay professional. Good luck!

22 comments:

Kaitlyn R. Miller said...

Great post, very helpful! I love how you've laid out what each paragraph should contain.

I have a question. You say "state that (Title) is your first novel, and that you’re working on your second." I've seen the advice to just say that this is your first novel, but never before seen it suggested that you mention you're working on your second. (I know you need to be, though!) That seems to me to give a stronger implication that the novel you're querying with is the first novel you've ever written. That's not going to be the case with me, nor, I imagine, will it be the case with many other aspiring authors. Do you think it gives that impression? Do you have any suggestions for alternate wording?

Myne Whitman said...

Great article, I like how everything is so clearly laid out.

Sarah W said...

This is all wonderful advice, thank you!

May I also say that I absolutely love Yesterday's Son? My copy has moved with me since I bought it and I re-read it often.

Since I know the story so well, its query is a particularly helpful example---thank you again!

Jen J. Danna said...

Ann, first of all, I'd like to introduce myself. I know your friend 'Resa has mentioned myself and my writing partner to you as we make our journey through the wilds of the publishing industry. On behalf of both of us, thank you for all the advice and encouragement that you have sent our way through her. It is very much appreciated.

Thank you as well for this post. We are having some success with our query letter, but especially after Marcus Sakey's recent statements and blog posts about how anything less than a 75% positive response rate is too low, I've been second guessing our letter. We've tweaked it quite a bit up to this point, but I'm going to look at it again with your comments in mind. Thank you for such timely and useful advice!

S.M. Carrière said...

I hate querying, and I'm certain my query letters just aren't up to snuff. Thanks so much for this. I'll try it out and start querying again.

Eika said...

That was a great post. (And I'll try harder to make mine work. Never heard the pitch bit described as a 'sound bite' before; maybe that'll help me keep it from being a complete disaster.) I do have one question, though.

To quote: "5. Writers who try to make their writing experiences look like credentials when they aren’t. Writing a few articles for local newspapers for no pay doesn’t count as a writing credential. The same goes for recipes in your parish cookbook. Or having a letter printed in the Washington Post. What counts is writing you were PAID to do."

Are there any cases of writing that count, even when you're not paid for? I'd never dream of including 'I have a poem in my college's literary journal', but there are some small magazines that pay in copies of the magazine. I don't think they'd be a very big credit, but I consider them a step above the local paper. What's your opinion?

A. C. Crispin said...

I'm glad folks are finding the article useful. I've been wanting to polish it up and make it available for quite a while now. I was finally motivated to do so by the process of updating my personal website. (Which is underway, not quite done!)

To respond to Kaitlyn's question about what you should say about how many books you've written, if the book you're querying is not your first novel...

The problem here is that you want to stay upbeat and positive about your writing, so admitting in a query letter that you've written one or more other novels that didn't sell is probably not the best idea.

Most writers have a trunk novel or two they have lying around, books that, for one reason or another, simply didn't sell. Agents know this. But there's no reason to mention them in a query letter.

As for an alternate wording, you'd have to play around with what works for you you. How about something like, "Though I've been writing for some years now, X is the first novel I've seriously queried. I'm currently working on my next."

That's off the top of my head.

I wouldn't mention self published, POD, or vanity published books to an agent unless the book had impressive sales that you can document.

-Ann C. Crispin

L. Bowser said...

This was an extremely helpful post.

Just looked up your credits and you wrote three of my five all-time favorite Star Trek books (Sarek, Yesterday's Son and A Time for Yesterday.) So, thanks for the post and thanks for the memories.

Glyn Pope said...

this is so good and informative. Worth copying and pasting and keeping. Thank you.
Glyn
http://glynpope.blogspot.com/

D.G. Hudson said...

Thanks, Ann, for posting such an informative article. I liked your specific details regarding the structure and presentation of the letter.

The great info that you and Victoria host on your blog keeps me well-informed and coming back for more.

Murees Dupé said...

Thank you for the great post. The information is very helpful.

wandering wraith said...

Thanks for this shiny gem of genius. Great post.

Jemi Fraser said...

Clear, concise & helpful - thanks so much :)

Nancy Tague said...

Very helpful as I now struggle with my query -- although it's for a nonfiction proposal, not a novel. I've often seen the advice to include something specific about why you are querying that particular agent or editor. Where in your formula would you put that?

Cari said...

Thanks so much for this. I will add to the crowd saying I loved all your Star Trek books (particularly Sarek!)

Andrew Culture said...

Totally different to all other query letter advice I've seen so far, and as I'm currently the proud owner of twenty seven rejections for my first novel I think it must be time to change tactics.

Anonymous said...

Don't know about the phrase "at your earliest convenience". It's vaguely threatening, suggesting that the recipient had better drop everything and deal with you if she knows what's good for her.

I used to see it a lot in my younger days, on letters I'd get from the student loan people and the utility companies reminding me that I owed them money.

Lucie said...

Great information! I have posted a link to this on my blog - hope this is ok?

A. C. Crispin said...

Linking is great, Lucie. We are happy when people link to our blog posts!

-Ann C. Crispin

Thomas Sharkey said...

Can an author write a "too brief" query letter?

This is the basic one I submit-

Dear Ms. Smith.
I am seeking representation for my YA fantasy tale, “Silvermoon”, complete at 52K words concerning Jason Longfellow, a werewolf whose world is turned upside down when he meets Jennifer Townsend, an Elf. It is a story of love and selflessness, of betrayal and death, of compassion and bravery, and of comradeship and adventure fraught with danger.
I am enclosing the first chapter as a sample of my writing as requested.
I was born in Manchester, England on the March 13th 1944.
I am an ex-RAF photographer, karate instructor and a junior league baseball coach and I reside in Germany with my family.

This will be my first publication.
Thank you for your consideration of this proposal.
I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Yours sincerely,

Thomas Sharkey
(address etc)

Or should I extrapolate?

Pie Plate Publishing said...

Great article! It's a perfect summary of what we're looking for - and not looking for - in a good query! As a newer publisher, we are already getting lots of queries, and we're finding that a good letter saves a lot of time for everyone!

Jeff Loett said...

My writing career has been as a playwright and I have had some very good success there. But, about four years ago, I got the wild hair to write a fantasy fiction novel and being the long-winded bard that I am, the thing turned out to be 450,000 words. Realizing that is a little long for a single book, I divided it up into three separate books of about 150,000 each. The individual books CANNOT stand on their own- it is a quest type story like Lord of the Rings so the final resolution does not occur until Book Three. I am ready to start sending out query letters to publishers/agents and after reading these comments, I am not sure what to do. Should I give the total length of the book as one long story or describe the story progression through each of the books individually. This books is very unique (they all are, aren't they?) but it may be hard to describe the very protracted story line on a single page. Any advice?