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.)
- 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!