Hello, all! My plan for the next few weeks is to do a series of posts about query letters, AKA how to lose your mind (figuratively, I hope) in three hundred words or fewer.
First of all, you’re probably wondering what the heck a query is. Simply put, a query is a letter that you send to an editor or literary agent to introduce them to your story. It’s basically a cold call, and you’re the telemarketer, which means that you have one page at the most to get the agent or editor in question interested enough in your book that they give it a read. It’s your foot in the door.
A query letter has five basic parts to it: the salutation; the pitch; the “housekeeping” (which is to say the nuts and bolts—genre, wordcount, etc.); your biography; and the closing. We’ll go into each of these parts in more depth later.
So, how do you craft a query letter that’s going to get your story the attention it deserves? Here are some general tips, and later we’ll start looking at some more specific things you can do.
- Be professional. You’re not writing to a close friend; you’re addressing someone who works in the industry you’re trying to break into. Make it sound like you know what you’re doing. Though, on that note, you also want to sound personable and comfortable in your writing. Aim for the sort of language you might use if you were writing to a prospective employer or colleague, because that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re trying to enter into a business partnership.
- Open your letter with Dear Mr. or Ms. Use the full name of the person you’re addressing (Dear Mr. Alex Warner or Dear Ms. Jennifer Green, for example). Once you’ve spoken a little and you have a feel for the kind of person they are, you may be comfortable using simply their first name or a less formal greeting. Always take your cue from them.
- Never query more than one agent per e-mail. Under no circumstances send a mass communique or start your query with “Dear Agent”. If you do, it will probably be deleted without being
- Read Query Shark. There’s a couple conflicting opinions on what actually goes *in* the query, what you can safely leave out, and the order that it should go in. I’m fond of the Query Shark structure (go check out her blog for examples), which goes immediately from the salutation to the pitch. Some people prefer to put the housekeeping first, but a lot of agents just skip it and go straight to the pitch, anyway. That’s what tells them more than anything else if they’re going to like your story, so you might as well save them the time skimming to it.
- Write your pitch in present tense, third person. This is true no matter what tense your story is written in. For example, “When Jamie’s car breaks down, she knows she’s in trouble.”
- Break your paragraphs into bite-sized chunks. No more than two to three sentences per bit. It will feel counter-intuitive, but most agents read queries on the bus or subway or at lunch or on their phone late at night. Big wads of text blur together and make it unreadable.
- Keep your sentence structures short and simple. It’s tempting to be creative and use long, complex sentences. Remember, though, a lot of the time agents skim these things very quickly or when they’re tired or in between calls to their clients. You don’t want them to waste time trying to figure out what the heck you meant. A simple subject—verb—object structure is best.
- Practice good word economy. You’ve got a small amount of room to make an impression—300 words, maximum. Make sure that everything says exactly what you want it to without any additional fluff.
- Spend most of your words—about 150 to 200—on your pitch. Since this is the part that actually wins agents over, it’s important not to skimp on it but also to get right to the point. We’ll talk about refining the pitch later, but keep in mind for now that while it’s the heftiest part of the query, it should still be pretty lean. Your housekeeping and biography should both be shorter, maximum 100 words
- Your closing and signature should also be professional. It’s tempting to say that you’re looking forward to hearing from them or hope to hear back soon. Resist! Simply say thank you for your time and consideration and then close with your name. Under that, put your mailing and e-mail address and your phone number. If you have a website or blog, include the address. This is important in case they decide to contact you about representation.