Unless you are already represented by a literary agency or publisher, or you are choosing to self-publish (more on that later) it’s just something that you have to do. So, now that you’ve finished and polished your masterpiece, it’s time to get on with writing the dreaded query letter.
You can find the basics of writing a query anywhere. Many websites will give you a general step-by-step process that will leave you with the framework of an average query. I encourage you to look at those sites as well if you are writing a query for the first time. What you will find here, however, are tried and true tips from someone who has sent out hundreds of queries, and, as a result of good query writing, has also sent out a LOT of partial and full manuscripts to prospective agencies.
The first thing you need to do, before you even begin to draft your query, is sign up with Query Tracker, (www.querytracker.net) and start researching agents who are accepting submissions in your genre. I cannot stress how important this is. Signing up is free and you will gain access to an inexhaustible database about agents and publishers. With a little research you will quickly find out what each agency is interested in, what their preferred submission guidelines are, and how to personalize your query directly to any agent of your choosing. You will also be able to keep track of all of your current and future submissions. It ain’t called Query Tracker for nothin’.
Next you’re going to want to write a brief, and I mean brief, bio about yourself. I want you to do this before you even open a word document on your computer. Grab a pen and paper (remember those archaic things?) and write down a few attributes that apply to you as a writer. No one wants to read your life story, unless of course you’re writing a memoir, and maybe not even then. In any case, all you need to include in this section are your name, any publishing credits or awards you may have, your education, and/or your career experience. Of course, that’s only if those credentials pertain to professional writing. You should never take up more than a short paragraph to give that information. The paragraph that I’ve written describing how you should write your paragraph is probably even too long a paragraph.
Once written, your bio is generally inserted towards the end of the query but that’s up to you. There’s tons of debate among writers about the best structure for a query and you can read dozens of articles on the subject. It wouldn’t hurt to read a few of them and use your favorite example as a guide while you write a draft.
With your bio taken care of, it’s time to move on to what may just be the hardest thing you will ever write: a summary of your book. It’s difficult for some people to compose because a summary absolutely needs to be many things at once. It needs to be catchy and have a great hook. It should be all-around interesting, accurate, and should also reveal some key points of the story without spoiling the plot.
Don’t worry too much if your first attempt at this is totally useless. It’s going to take a few tries to get it right.
Some other basic things you’ll absolutely have to include here are the word count, the genre, and if your novel is a standalone or part of a series. That information will already tell an agent a lot; whether or not the project is right for them is often decided then and there.
In some cases, turn of phrase will count for something, too. If your query is well-written, with no spelling or grammar mistakes, and, you’ve managed to achieve all this with unique flare, you’re way ahead of the curve. However, and you’d be surprised at how many newbie query-writers do this, you must resist the urge to do something too bold in an effort to be different. Even if your novel is epic historical fiction, don’t be foolish and write your query on parchment with a quill. To you it’s a way to stand out; to an agent it’s an unprofessional gimmick that works against you.
An agent wants your ideas to be creative but they want your work to look like work.
Knowing the agents’ name helps, too. I know agents who will delete a query unread if you address it “Dear Agent” rather than taking five seconds to learn their name and how to spell it.
Always keep in mind that this one-page document has the potential to sell your work, so you’re going to want it to be good. In fact, if you’re brave enough, there are places you can post your query letter online, (like the aforementioned Query Tracker, and also Absolute Write @www.absolutewrite.com), to be critiqued by other writers before you submit it to an agent. This is an invaluable resource that you ignore at your peril.
Go and write your query, then come back and read these tips again. If you took your time and followed them, you probably did a pretty good job with it. Drop me a line in the comments if you agree, or even if you don’t. I’d love to hear from you.
That’s all for now folks,