How To Write The Perfect Query Letter
You’ve finally typed those two magic words, “The End.” Now, you’re ready to (cringe!) share your masterpiece with the world.
And suddenly there are two new words to master–two words that strike terror deep into the heart of all would be (and even some established) writers. Every agent, every publishing house, everyone but your Aunt Martha, is requesting you send a “query letter.”
(The music swells as a flash of lightning illuminates your stricken face in direct rhythm with a loud clap of thunder.)
A query letter? What’s a query letter? You research the term and what it means to you, then come away more confused than when you started.
“Be unique,” one reference says.
“Avoid being cutesy,” another advises.
“Make your letter stand out in the crowd,” a third sage on the subject will say.
It comes down to one fact that all the so-called experts agree on: A query letter is your sales pitch to the editor or agent of your choice. It’s the equivalent of a golden key, the Yellow Brick Road, and a foot in the door of the publishing industry.
Before you begin your quest for the perfect query letter, you must find the perfect agent or publisher for you. I recommend two books for starters: Jeff Herman’s “Writer’s Guide To Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents,” and the annual, “Writer’s Market,” published by Writer’s Digest. Both provide up-to-date listings of professionals in the publishing world. Jeff Herman’s book also includes interviews, which helps give you a feel for what each person might be looking for as well as a little insight into his/her personality.
What do you look for in an agent? The Association of Author Representatives (AAR) gives a complete listing of questions you should ask a prospective agent. You can check out their website at www.aar-online.org for advice and resource information. Even if your agent is not a member of the AAR, (s)he should be familiar with AAR’s Canon of Ethics and follow them.
The main thing to remember when seeking an agent is that the writer should not have to pay any money BEFORE signing a contract with a representative. Avoid agents who charge reading fees or who will refer you to other professionals who can “fix your book.”
Once you have a general idea which agents or editors you wish to target, check with other writers for personal on-hand experience with these professionals. How? Simple. Ask.
If you’re not a member of the Romance Writers of America, become one. Join a local chapter, if possible. Go on the Internet. Writing loops abound, and writers are extremely generous about sharing information regarding the road to publication. From these sources, draft up a list of dream agents/editors you would like to represent your work. If available, check their websites for instructions on individual submission procedures.
Ready for the next step? It’s finally time to draft that query letter. But how do you start?
With the basics, of course. Use the same formatting as you used for your manuscript–one inch margins, a nice, clear font (12-point Courier or Times New Roman.) Good, thick paper–white! No onion skins with fancy curlicue borders or pretty heart backgrounds. Black ink.
Once you’ve set your preferences, you’re ready to begin the actual letter. Everyone has a perfect method for what to include in those paragraphs. But there’s the rub. No one method is perfect for everyone. Only through trial and error will you find the query letter that will work for you.
If you wish, you can take advantage of my drawer-full of rejection letters and try something similar to what finally succeeded for me. Something my dog taught me: direct, honest begging.
Sad, but true. My query letter is nothing more than the humanization of Kismet at the dinner table. Kismet is a black Labrador Retriever, currently three years old, and still very much a puppy with some habits we just can’t seem to break. At dinnertime, particularly when we have pizza, Kismet falls into her usual routine.
First, she places her head on my thigh and looks up adoringly with her saddest puppy eyes. It’s a subtle approach, meant to put me at a disadvantage, and it never fails to capture my attention.
If that doesn’t gain what her heart desires, she’ll gently nudge my arm with her wet nose. A trifle less subtle, but not overly intrusive.
She follows up with a reminder that she believes herself deserving of pizza crust–a puppy sigh, which in her case comes out like a burp. And since her head is still on my thigh, I get not only the noise but the bubbly sensation as well.
If all else fails, she’ll use the direct approach–one paw replaces her head and remains atop my thigh until she gets that pizza crust. When she finally obtains her objective, she licks my hand to say thank you.
So how do we translate that into a successful query letter? Five simple steps become five simple paragraphs:
The subtle introduction: Inform the agent/editor how you learned of him/her and why you wish him/her (out of the thousands of possibilities) to represent you. Don’t be afraid to tell them why you feel you would be a perfect fit for their organization. If you genuinely see a connection, you can compare your work to one of the agency’s or publisher’s established authors, but do not demean or diminish that author’s work in your comparison.
The nudge: Briefly describe your work. Key word there: BRIEFLY. Who are the hero and heroine? What’s their big conflict? What keeps them together despite that conflict? Limit yourself to no more than five or six sentences.
The puppy sigh: If possible, follow your description with the reason you think this story could be an easy sell. (NOTE: This may require a great deal of research into the markets.) Be confident, but not egotistical. DON’T include your belief that this work will break all box office records if only you can get Mel Gibson to play the lead role in the movie version. Advise him/her of your writing experience and credits. And don’t skimp. Association in RWA, services you’ve performed for your local chapter, contest awards, or articles published in other forums can be included here. Do not, however, mention the fact that you were editor in chief of your elementary school’s lunch menu.
The direct approach: Back up your query with a sample, usually the first three chapters, if possible. If not, pique the target’s interest so that (s)he’ll want to see a sample as soon as possible. This could be done with a synopsis (see my article on the Top Ten Questions for a Successful Synopsis.)
Gratitude: Don’t forget to thank the agent/editor. Again, be confident, but not arrogant. Never include phrases like, “I hope you’ll like it,” or “you’d be an idiot not to take me on as a client.”
Still confused? Well, here’s what my query letter looked like for my novel, “The Bonds Of Matri-money.”
Dear Mr. Or Ms. Target, (Be sure to direct your letter to a real person, not just a nameless, “Sir or Madam,” and be formal: use Mr. Or Ms. You’re not on a first name basis yet!)
With her fledgling charitable organization floundering near bankruptcy, Renata Moon will do anything to stay afloat. Then she learns of a reality game show seeking contestants for a chance to win one million dollars. There’s just one catch; the show is for newlyweds. Undaunted, she convinces her part-time business partner, Connell MacAllister, to take the plunge with her. But when they arrive in Bali for the show, they discover they’ll remain handcuffed to one another while competing! Now, Renata and Connell, virtual strangers, must learn to work together if they hope to win.
“The Bonds of Matri-money,” is a completed 60,000 word contemporary romantic comedy which takes advantage of the current craze for reality television shows. I’ve also written several other contemporary romantic comedies, four historicals, and a futuristic romance. Currently, I serve as President for my local RWA chapter, the Long Island Romance Writers (LIRW) and have has several articles published in their newsletter as well as in RWA chapter newsletters worldwide. Several of my articles can be viewed at the LIRW website: www.lirw.org or at my personal website: www.ginaardito.com
With this letter I’ve enclosed a copy of the synopsis and the first three chapters of “The Bonds of Matri-money.” If I’ve managed to capture your interest and you wish additional information, please feel free to contact me.
I look forward to hearing from you and thank you for your consideration.
You may use my letter as a template for your own, but please do not quote directly from the above example. Just as each writer must find his/her voice when writing a story, so must (s)he find the proper voice for a query letter. Your voice is as unique as your signature. It’s a part of who you are. And it’s what makes you and your writing special.
Best of luck to you in your quest. Kismet and I wish you all the pizza crust your tummy can handle!