Back to basics, the query letter.

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Is a query letter really that important? Yes, my fellow writers. I cannot be emphatic enough about just how important. It does not matter if you have a good synopsis and tight, clean sample chapters. The query letter is your foot in the door, so to speak. Even if the foot gets stuck in the door for only a fleeting minute or so. The point is, our curiosity has been aroused.

Now a lot of you, those who’ve been hands-on with the research part of the submission process, already know the information I’m going to mention below. I raise my hat to you for all the hard work you’re doing. Trust me, it will pay off in spades during the harrowing process. However, the reason I found this post to be important is because of the recent spate of queries I’ve been receiving. Sometimes it astonishes me how little effort the author has gone into introducing himself and his work to me, and making sure the tone of his email is positive and respectful.

Let me go through some examples,

1) A query sent with no content in the body of the email, aside from two attachments. One containing the synopsis, the other containing the sample pages.

2) A query written to me by an editor.

3) A query that mentions a lot of unnecessary information in the author’s quest to sound mysterious, while leaving out the main plot points, therefore, leaving the main questions unanswered.

4) A query that gives me a time-limit or exclusivity, when I have not asked for the latter, and do not appreciate the former.

5) A query that has been sent to me more than once within thirty days (patience is key, people.)

6) A query that does not mention what’s original about their story, compared to a dozen others.

7) A query that clearly indicates the author has not bothered to do any research regarding agents’ respective tastes.

8) A query that expounds on the greatness of the author’s own writing and how he believes it’s similar to (bestselling author’s) work.

The first thing to remember while sending out a query letter is, the way you write one sets the tone of how the prospective partnership could be, at least in our minds.

If you sound pompous and full of yourself, then I’m going to wonder how you’ll absorb my notes on revisions, if it’s required. I’m also going to wonder if you’ll be able to work with the team at your publishing house, especially when things may not always go the way you planned.

If you sound conscious and unsure of your writing abilities, by telling me that I should feel free to reject your work, since you’ve already been in this game long enough not to feel bad, it tells me you’ve been rejected before. That is not the best first impression to give. You must always strike the right balance between confidence in your abilities and humbleness.

If you give me a time-limit and exclusivity, it’s mostly going to come off as being a tad high-maintainence, assuming that your manuscript is the only one I’m looking at (which isn’t true). This does not show me that you value my time, but shows me that your time is so important, you’re unwilling to be patient like everybody else.

Now let us talk about how a query letter SHOULD be. Firstly, like I mentioned earlier, your query sets the tone of your relationship with the agent. But it also sets the tone for the kind of book you’ve written. If you’ve written a murder mystery, but the tone of your query is sarcastic and funny…this does not make sense, does it?┬áMake sure the query reflects what kind of a manuscript you’ve got on your hands.

Secondly, start your letter with a brief explanation as to why you chose the agent. Was it because something about the agent’s profile caught your attention? Was it because you read a book she wrote, or an article she wrote, or an author she represents? Was it because something in her blog made you feel like you could connect? Was she referred to you by someone? If so, who? –This information should be concise. Once you do this, mention the title of your book, what genre your book falls into (try not to club a million genres together, be specific), and what the word count is.

Then we move onto the pitch. Give me a paragraph of information about your story that introduces me to the main character, what his predicament is, what he needs to do to solve it, and what’s standing in his way. What are his choices and inner conflicts that make things harder for him to resolve. If the story is set in an international location or a different time period, you could find a way to begin with that information, too.

I once read a query that went something like this. ‘This story is about the dysfunctional relationship between a mother and her daughter. When the daughter got into drugs, the mother had to throw the daughter out of the house to make her learn a lesson. The daughter had no choice but to fend for herself. When she fell pregnant, the mother decided to forgive her, take her in…after a lot of tough situations…the both of them realized the importance of a mother-daughter bond…’

What does this tell me? Nothing. Has the relationship always been dysfunctional? Was there a specific reason why her daughter was being so difficult? How did the daughter fend for herself? Wait, she fell pregnant? Was there a romance in there somewhere? Abandonment? Why did the mother decide to forgive her? What tough situations?

Of course, it’s not possible to give the agent all the answers in one short paragraph, but it should give us the main points and turns in a plot, while leaving something for us to wonder.

The last paragraph should introduce me to you. Do you have an M.F.A (from where?), have you been writing for long? Have you published anything before? (If so, be specific- where? when? who is the publisher?)

Lastly, a line thanking the agent for her time, and saying something positive.

So there it is. A query letter is not that difficult, especially when you’ve gone through the battle of writing an ENTIRE BOOK. So why not spend an extra few hours researching how query letters should be?

5 responses »

  1. Wonderful post. Informative and helpful from the agent’s POV. There is always room for improvement when it comes to writing queries. It’s your first impression to an agent; it could also be your last.

  2. Lots of good advice. I’m always torn when I research an agent. Should I write my query such that it’s obvious I’ve done my research? “I see you are from India, I have an Indian character in my novel”. That seems like pandering… but pandering does work sometimes, as any politician knows. What do you think?

    Oh, and by the way, I actually do have an Indian character in my novel. Sometimes we have to be sly with our pandering! :)

  3. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve came across many how to, what to, and what not to do articles about query letters, but this is the first tip I’ve seen about the tone of the query matching the genre of the novel. I’ll be sure to remember this when I’m ready.

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