Query Letters – How to write a good one

You’ve just typed The End on your manuscript, your gloriously awesome book that’s going to rocket to the top of the New York Times best seller list! Editors are going to line up at your door, fighting to be the one privileged enough to publish your work. Thousands of people will stand in line for your signature at book signings, and you’d better clear your schedule for the television talk show circuit. Oh, and make sure your bank account is big enough to hold all the moolah that the USPS is going to deliver to your door. You are on your way, baby!

Except…no one is knocking. In fact, no one is even lurking in the shrubbery. And when it comes down to details, you’re not entirely sure how to get the attention of those New York editors, or even agents. You’ve been talking up your project to all your relatives, your friends, even your acquaintances. You’ve let a select few read your work (you deserve to be paid for it, after all!), and they rave about it! Why, it’s better than (fill in the blank with your favorite—and very rich—author)!

What to do???

This is what: set up a systematic, professional plan for querying.

It’s going to require hard work, persistence, and a thick skin to sell your work. If you do this part right, you’ll have a much better chance of actually getting published. And if your work rises above the fray, you may make it to that rarefied atmosphere of best seller-dom. If you do it wrong, you’ll get nowhere in traditional publishing.

A query letter, whether submitted via email or hard copy, is a one-page business letter with a fairly standard format. It is brief, professional in tone, and your only chance to connect with some agents or editors. Let’s look at the elements of the letter, and some common pitfalls to avoid, as well:

Research your targeted agent/editor. Make sure s/he is interested in the type of project you are pitching. Don’t send your speculative fiction to an agent who represents cookbooks and memoirs. Make sure they are accepting new clients. Then, send an individually addressed letter to the specific person—and spell their name right. The advent of email queries has tempted too many authors to try the ‘Dear Sir or Madam’, multiple-recipient approach. Sound like spam to you? It does to the recipients, and most delete without reading. I can’t stress these items strongly enough. I follow several agents on Twitter, and the biggest reasons for not reading past the first paragraph of the query letter are included in this list.

Cutesy doesn’t work. Use white paper if submitting via hard copy, or no background wallpaper on your email submission. Use standard fonts and font sizes. Times New Roman 12 works well; beautiful flowing script fonts don’t. Remember, this is business—on your end and on theirs.

Pitch finished projects. Keep in mind agents get thousands of queries a month. An unfinished manuscript isn’t competitive.

Only include personal information as it relates to your project. Your family, hobbies, other career, etc., are not fodder for this letter. If your story has strong elements that include fighter pilots or dulcimer players, and you are a fighter pilot or a dulcimer player, then include that; otherwise, as fascinating as your background is, it’s irrelevant. Also, resist the urge to say that your mother (or best friend, or spouse, etc.) thinks yours is the best book ever. Let the agent or editor be the judge.

Do include any writing credits. I’ve had interesting responses with this. At a pitch session for book length fiction, I sat with one editor who literally wadded up my nonfiction writing credits and threw them away. Clearly, he was unimpressed. However, the next editor was quite taken with the same information and spent time exploring it. Those credits lifted my submission above the standard in her mind. Bottom line: it doesn’t hurt to include writing credits. At the very least, it demonstrates that another editor somewhere thinks your work is worth publishing, and that you have experience with the editorial process. Always list membership in writing organizations and contest wins or placements. Again, some agents/editors value this more than others. But if you don’t toot your own horn, they’ll never know.

Keep it professional and polite. A query letter is a great place for confidence, but not such a good place for an overinflated ego. If you have a critique group, run your query letter past them. Sometimes they can see an area you need to emphasize more, or can suggest better wording. As an aside, one of my critique partners discovered she was pitching the wrong aspect of her story. Once she corrected that, her queries began getting responses.

So the basic format is:

Dear Ms. Specific Name Spelled Correctly,

I am seeking representation for my completed, xxx-thousand computer word count (name of genre) manuscript, Best Book Since War and Peace, set in (time, place). (If the story has a theme that is unique, you may wish to include it here.)

The next two paragraphs are like the back cover blurb would be for the book. Generally, one paragraph for the main character, the second for the other lead. Go to the bookstore (or your private library) for examples. Your goal here is to give a solid sense of the plot, a taste of your voice, but not a synopsis with lots of details or the resolution of the story.

The fourth paragraph will list your writing credits.

Close with a polite ‘I hope to hear from you soon’ and make sure to include your contact information.

Keep a spreadsheet or record of your queries. Make notes; don’t be afraid to follow up after a reasonable time (usually listed on the website), but don’t stalk. The publishing community is a small one; take care to develop your reputation as one of consummate professionalism. Divas and stalkers have no place in the business.

Query. A lot. Set aside time, set a specific goal, and keep the queries flowing. Follow the submission guidelines on the websites; they differ. Evaluate your responses and adjust future queries accordingly. But keep at it. And continue to work on improving your craft. If you’ve significantly revised and improved a project, don’t be afraid to re-query. Agents and editors really are looking for great stuff to publish. Give your work its best chance to catch their eye.

There are lots of sites and books out there that are great resources. Check with your writing organization for reputable agents, and make sure agents you query are members of the Association of Author’s Representatives. *No legitimate agent will ever charge a fee for reading your work.

What have your experiences with querying been like? Any advice? Questions? I hope this post helps rocket your work to the status of ‘sold and published’ – and best seller-dom!

 

 

 

 

About Leslie Lynch

Leslie Lynch writes women's fiction, giving voice to characters who struggle to find healing for their brokenness – and discover unconventional solutions to life’s unexpected twists. She is an occasional contributor to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’s weekly paper, The Criterion. She can be found at www.leslielynch.com and is on facebook and Twitter@Leslie_Lynch_
This entry was posted in Catholic Writing and Publishing, Encouragement for Writers, Fiction, Marketing Your Work, The Writing Life, Writing Tips and Tricks and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Query Letters – How to write a good one

  1. Angie says:

    I’ve pinned this to Pinterest with hopes of needing it very soon!

  2. Leslie Lynch says:

    Well, Angie, I hope you DO need it soon. Very soon! Thanks for stopping by, and for the Pinterest pin! Good luck to you.

  3. Don Mulcare says:

    Dear Leslie,

    Many thanks for sharing your experience with query letters. Perhaps in your next contribution you can expand on how you get the addresses of the appropriate editors and agents.

    Best wishes

    Don

    • Leslie Lynch says:

      Hi, Don,

      There are several resources for agent and editor contact information. Writer’s Digest produces a massive compilation in book form annually; it is often available in libraries, or you can purchase it online or at any bookstore. If you belong to any special genre fiction groups, they often have lists of those interested in that genre (or magazines, short stories, etc). If I’m not mistaken, you expressed interest in Hollywood and script work; I’d start with Writer’s Digest or a scriptwriter’s guild. The forums at Catholic Writers Guild can be a gold mine of information for Catholic-based works.

      You do have to research; go to websites and see what folks are interested in. Go to the AAR website and check out the individual websites of member agents. These ideas should give you a great start, and you’ll discover more as you delve deeper.

      Good luck to you!

      • Don Mulcare says:

        Dear Leslie,

        Thank you for your generous and most informative response. I’m new to the CWG and appreciate your guidance. There’s much research ahead.

        My efforts in fiction lean toward novels and short stories rather than screen-writing. The writing process and product give personal enjoyment. I’m beginning to look for an editor/agent, but would first like feedback from CWG members if possible.

        Again, many thanks!

        God Bless,

        Don

        • Leslie Lynch says:

          Don, what type fiction do you write? Are you a member of a specialty author group? If not, check out some of the groups out there. There are excellent groups for mystery, thriller, and romance. Science fiction and speculative fiction probably have groups, too, that I’m not familiar with. If you write literary fiction, check out your local university or library for nearby (or these days, online) resources.

          Check out writers conferences. They are awesome resources, even if they aren’t a gathering of exactly the genre you write. Networking and getting involved in writer communities are crucial to the process, both for finding publishing opportunities and for finding encouragement.

          You’re on the right track already. You belong to CWG and you’re asking questions. Keep at it. You’ll find your path.

          • Don Mulcare says:

            Hi Leslie,

            Thanks again for your response and for suggesting research directions and resources. My genre is probably “none of the above.” The works of Bruce Marshall (Father Malachy’s Miracle”) and Myles Connolly (The Bump on Brannigan’s Head and Mister Blue) would fit in the same genre. Perhaps these are pseudo-biographies. They may be “mystery” stories in the sense that religious “mystery plays” are mysteries. They have a trace of the “Lives of the Saints” running through them.

            I’ll get back to you when I’ve investigated the leads you have shared. Thanks for your warm welcome to the CWG!

            God Bless,

            Don

  4. There’s a growing list of Catholic writers guidelines (pdfs to download) at CatholicsCommunicateChrist.com

    Leslie, yours is a very helpful post. I had to laugh when I saw “Ms Specific Name Spelled Correctly” ….imagining the editors blogging about ‘real queries I’ve received….Dear Ms. Specific Name Spelled Correctly…’!
    PS I noticed your blog is a good example for us all….thanks!

    • Leslie Lynch says:

      Charlotte, thanks for a great resource that is so specific for Catholic writers! I didn’t know it existed; the forums are a great place to go for word-of-mouth advice, but this is wonderful. Thank you!

      I had to laugh at your response to Dear Ms. Specific Name Spelled Correctly! We’ll just have to see if it shows up on some agent’s Twitter feed somewhere, someday… ;-)

  5. Don Mulcare says:

    Dear Leslie,

    Again I must thank you for you service as a wise and generous guide. Please understand that I am more a postulant than even a novice in the world of writing. You suggested that I check-out AAR in the university library or on-line. I went on-line and had fun.

    AAR is the first three letters of AARP.

    Aar is a tributary of the High Rhine.

    AAR stands for “All American Rejects.”

    But AAR also brought me to “All About Romance” and finally to “Association of Author’s Representatives.”

    These last two provided not only a sense of what genres exist in the published world, but to a discussion of problems with the current definition of “genre” and “what genres are in demand, now.” There were additional hints about “query letters.” For instance, some agents asked for the inclusion of the first five pages of the MS, and as you indicated, waived off any fees or charges for reading the query or manuscript.

    Mark, the author of the September 12, 2010 piece in the “All About Romance” page defined the term genre as a “description of books that give meaningful clues as to the content.” Mark complained that the current genre titles had been “broadened to the point of uselessness.” He listed a string of romance genres, which could also be seen as more generic forms: romance, sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, fantasy-mystery, comedy, adventure, comedy-adventure, fictionalized biography, historical-mystery, etc.

    The “Association of Author’s Representatives” site, which is now “bookmarked” on my computer, is an extraordinary treasure, with correctly spelled names of agents as well as their specific genres and preferences. The genres that seemed to be in demand at the moment are Young Adult and to a lesser extent, Urban Fantasy. I say this because so many agents list them and even request them.

    The point of my quest was to determine to what genre my writing might belong. I’m not deep enough for Literary Fiction. Altered Reality might loosely fit. I’d hope the adjective Christian would apply and that there might be some Humor or at least Irony involved. There are elements of Young Adult and Urban Fantasy in my work. Young adults are present and important but surrounded by other age groups who may be more important in the story. Some of the characters clearly fit into the fantasy category. The quest continues for a precise definition.

    Again, thank you and Happy Liturgical New Year!

    God Bless,

    Don

    • Leslie Lynch says:

      Don, this has been great fun watching you wade right into the water, so to speak. :-)

      I can identify with your difficulty in defining your genre. I still struggle with that, believe it or not. One helpful suggestion is to visualize your completed book (how fun is that!) and take a virtual trip through a bookstore. Where might the bookseller shelve it? It’s possible that it might fit best in ‘fiction’, and if that’s the case, you could pitch it as ‘fiction with elements of fanstasy’, or whatever fits. Another trick is to think of two movies or the works of well-known authors that combine the strongest elements of your story; Little House on the Prairie meets Lonesome Dove (Caroline Fyffe’s tagline) gives you a great, instant picture of what you’re going to get when you open her books, for instance. As you become more versed in the lingo and interact with other authors, agents, and editors, the answer may become more clear.

      Regarding genres, I think general or literary fiction and romance are the only two genres that have the possibility of sub-genres. I wouldn’t worry about that too much at this point. Just keep writing the best story you can write, because until that has been accomplished, genre doesn’t matter a whole lot – although it’s easier to get the form of the story if you know what framework you are using!

      Happy exploring!

  6. Don Mulcare says:

    Leslie,

    Thanks again.

    I’ll work on the lingo and consider the potential bookstore placement of my “completed” books.

    Tried to tell you I liked your samples of Unholy Bonds and Hijacked, but I had no password to log into the comment section. The only reservation I had was the remark about “mousey librarian.” My wife wouldn’t like that.

    Take care,

    Don

  7. Leslie Lynch says:

    You’ve made me laugh out loud – for real! Thanks for stopping by my website. I honestly didn’t know what happened if one clicked on the ‘comments’ link on the right side, so you’ve just educated me! Comments can be left at the ‘Let’s Talk!’ tab, just like the blog here. I think I have it set on ‘moderated’, so it might take up to a day for it to show up, depending on how close to my email I am.

    Regarding the term ‘mousy librarian’… In my defense, those are the words of the villain, so he’s allowed to be a jerk! One of my favorite relatives is a librarian who saved my behind a bunch of times while I was going through college many years ago. ;-) Obviously, no offense intended to your lovely wife!

  8. Don Mulcare says:

    Hi Leslie,

    Hope I’m not bothering you with comments and responses. If so, I’ll mend my ways immediately.

    It became obvious that the “Villain” had made the degrading, stereotypic remark about librarians just as my finger rose from pressing on the “Post Comment” box. By then it was a little late to reconsider. Nancy was a high school librarian/library media specialist. She took courses in library science, so I met many of her classmates and colleagues. When I worked at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, a librarian or two shared committee assignments with me.

    The teaser from Hijacked put the bite on me, grabbing me, and did not let go of me as a reader. That was a great start that made me want to read more. It raised questions besides: “What’s gonna happen?” You are listed as a romance writer, so this didn’t seem like the “usual” way to start a romance. I really like “unusual,” so the next question I have is this: According to Mark from the All About Romance blog, all romances have to contain “they lived happily ever after,” I’m asking “how are you going to pull that off?” Again, I’m interested in what happens from this point of view.

    I’ll give your web page another shot. There is a log in requirement that may or may not let me voice my praise for you two samples. Let’s see what happens.

    Again thanks for sharing with me!

    God Bless,

    Don

    • Leslie Lynch says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Don! In Hijacked, they do end up with a ‘happily ever after’ and the great fun of reading the book (if I ever find a publisher for it!) is their journey to earn it. Unholy Bonds is a bit different, as it is the sequel to Hijacked and the protagonists from the first story are married, so they seem to have already attained their ‘happily ever after’. But all is not well in paradise, and they have more to learn. The way I can ‘get away’ with not having the promised ‘happily ever after’ is that in women’s fiction, the only expectation is for the HOPE of a ‘happily ever after’. Literary fiction, on the other hand, often has a tragic end or twist rather than a ‘happily ever after’.

      You might like to go to websites of special interest writing groups and read what they say about their genres. I don’t have the website for Romance Writers of America off the top of my head, but they have some educational information on their site which explains the depth of the romance genre.

      Regarding my website, if you click on the “Let’s Talk” tab at the top, you should be directed to a blog page much like this. I’ll check on it to make sure it’s behaving correctly, though!

      Again, thank you for your lively conversation!

      Blessings,
      Leslie

  9. Don Mulcare says:

    Hi Leslie,

    Have to go to a Town Meeting in a little while, so this will be shorter than I’d like. I’ll look for that Romance web page. Thanks for the suggestion.

    The upper right hand corner of your blog page has a log in dialog. It also works to start a blog. Could you tell me what is expected of one who opens a blog using that service. Thanks again.

    Thanks for letting me know about the happy ending. Since “Hijacked” does involve an airplane flight, do you include the ecstasy and technology of flying, from the pilot’s point of view?

    Where are your manuscripts on the road to publication?

    Got to go, but thanks for sharing your insights and experiences.

    God Bless,

    Don

  10. Leslie Lynch says:

    Hi, Don. The romance website is http://www.rwa.org/ My website is developed on WordPress, which is the same as this blog’s engine. You can check with some of the folks in the forums, or on WordPress itself to get started with a blog. It’s not too tough. I took an online class, and some people prefer to pay a third party to set it up and administer it, but I’m too frugal! WordPress is free; a blog is what you make it, expectation-wise.

    In terms of the airplane technology, etc., in Hijacked, some of that is included, but I learned the hard way that readers skip over details that don’t ‘matter’ to the story. I tried to include enough to get the flavor of the characters without making the readers’ eyes glaze over!

    I am currently submitting to agents and editors, and about halfway through manuscript #3, which is also set in Louisville, but isn’t exactly part of a series.

    Have a great evening!

  11. Don Mulcare says:

    Leslie,

    Thanks again for sharing your time and talents with me.

    Dick Francis blends his mysteries with a course in the multiple facets of steeplechase racing. Since you live down in horse country, you would read his stories with a considerable advantage.

    Extrapolating from steeple chase racing to flying a plane, your inclusion of the right amount of the wonders and skills of aviation in a novel would further engage the reader in addition to the interest generated in the story-line.

    An elder gentleman in this area wrote about a WW II German fighter pilot. His draft is in the most primitive condition, but does weave into his plot, a bit of technology along with his admiration for the various fighter planes, transports and bombers of the time. A copy of his draft sits in the memory of my computer, since I transformed it from a hand written to word-processed document. The author and I are out of touch, I can’t really do anything with the unfinished draft. He told me about his plans for the conclusion of the book, but then he became ill and I’ve not seen much of him since then.

    Thanks for the info on the Blog Service. Nancy writes web pages, so I’ll ask her to help me. She also makes jewelry,and might have some questions for you in the area of quilting.

    Wishing you well with your agents and editors. I look forward with you to the day your novels appear in the book stores.

    God bless,

    Don

  12. Leslie Lynch says:

    Thanks for such an interesting discussion, Don! Hope you have great fun with a blog page. :-) And check with the gentlman whose manuscript you transferred to a word document; you never know – it might be something he’d be glad to let you develop.

    Blessings,
    Leslie

  13. Don Mulcare says:

    Hi Leslie,

    What is your take on the Tuscany Prize? Have you ever submitted a manuscript in this contest? You have award winning manuscripts. Was this the award that you won? I have something that might fit the Young Adult genre.

    I’m reminded by your advice on query letters of the Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien and his trials and tribulations on the way to the eventual publication of the Lord of the Rings.

    I liked your comments on the “I’m a Christian, expect me to behave as one” bumper sticker. We’d all be in a better place if we lived up to that expectation. Happy Advent!

    God Bless,

    Don

  14. Leslie Lynch says:

    Hi, Don,

    I am unfamiliar with the Tuscany Prize except for what I just read on their website. I would, in my understanding, perhaps rephrase their ‘reading fee’ as more consistent with the term ‘contest entry fee’; in that regard, it’s in the low end of the range of some contest fees, and quite reasonable.

    You have nothing to lose and a lot to gain, depending on your vision of your writing career. It would certainly be a feather in your cap to win and be published. A valid question is how Tuscany Press would market your work and whether the sales numbers are increasing, as this is a fairly new company. It sounds like a great company, a great opportunity, especially for Catholic writers. From a business standpoint, only you can decide if this is the direction you wish to travel – and that is truly an individual decision. Every person’s vision of their career is different.

    One last question I would ask, especially if you are a new writer, is whether or not any feedback is given to entrants. For the most part, I have found contest feedback to be quite helpful, and that is a plus. But some contests do not provide that; if it’s important to you, you might want to find or form a critique group, or utilize the critique forums available on the main Catholic Writers Guild website.

    Wishing you the best experience possible if you choose to enter!
    Blessings,
    Leslie

  15. Don Mulcare says:

    Leslie,

    You are most kind and generous. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. I’m looking for that group with which I can share critiques.

    Many thanks!

    Don

  16. Don Mulcare says:

    I’m slogging through the blog process. Thanks again for your kind assistance.

  17. Leslie Lynch says:

    Good going, Don! That’s all any of us can do, is keep on slogging. You have a gift for networking; I suspect any blogging you do will be quite successful.

    Blessings!

  18. Don Mulcare says:

    Leslie,

    Thanks again for your encouragement. For me, you have been the guiding star. Your kindness is most appreciated!

    For the time being, the blog will remain unfocused, but active. I would treasure any feed-back from you.

    God Bless,

    Don