Saturday, June 1, 2013
How to write a query letter for agents and publishers
You can find guidelines for writing query letters in many different places: online at sites like Charlotte Dillon's, in resource books like Writer's Market, or at your local writer's group or conference.
However, I thought it might be helpful for me to post the query letter I used when I was seeking representation for One Night in Boston. Of the 42 agents/editors I sent it to, 36 requested either a partial or a full manuscript as a follow-up, which is a pretty good return. Ultimately, I secured publication with Samhain Publishing, and it will be a Summer 2007 release.
In total, I've queried 4 novels over the last 6 years and received all kinds of feedback along the way. Now, I'm sharing with you the tips I've found most helpful:
1. You are writing a business letter, or a business email, depending on the agent's preference, so follow the standard format. Contact info, paragraphing, spacing, closing, should all be appropriate and correct.
2. Open your query letter with straightforward information. Some people suggest a "hook" in the first paragraph--just don't make it too long! I'd also suggest including the title of your work, the genre, the word count, and why you're contacting the agent (reference, response to conference pitch, found the agent on Agentquery.com, etc).
3. The middle paragraph(s) should include a general description of your work, including the main characters and their struggle/conflict. What is their central goal? What is the overall theme of the story? How is this work both similar to, and different from, other works on the shelves today? What will make this attractive to the target audience? Who is the target audience?
4. Include some brief biographical information about yourself. This means any education/experience with writing and any publishing history or contest wins you might have. It doesn't mean a long-winded description of how your great-aunt loves your work or how your three cats keep you company when you write in the wee hours of the morning. If you don't have any publications to your name, or specific background that relates to your genre or topic, then don't put anything at all.
A simple statement such as "The Mystery of Seven Slippery Sisters" is my first complete novel is fine.
5. Close with an offer to send more material, if you haven't included any in the first mailing. Make sure to indicate that the work is complete (and it should be, if you're querying agents).
6. Proofread twenty times. At least. Then give it to five other people and ask them to proofread it. By the way, this includes confirming the spelling of the agent's name. Don't rely on one website or source for this; I'd check at least 2 different places.
7. Open your letter/email with Dear First Name Last Name of agent. "Dear Agent," "To Whom It May Concern," and "Dear Sir or Madam" are too generic and suggest that you didn't do your homework. You need to target a specific individual, and I recommend using the person's full name rather than Mr./Ms./Mrs. to avoid any possible gender screw-ups. Ashley Grayson, for example, is a man. Wonder how many query letters he receives addressed "Dear Ms. Grayson..."??
8. Make sure to follow the agent's guidelines when submitting material. Some will ask for a query letter only. Some accept emails only. Others want the first three chapters. Include a SASE for snail mail responses. Tell them they may recycle the partial/full manuscript unless you want to pay the return postage to get it back.
9. Make a generous list of agents to target. Many people have an "A," "B," and "C" list of their top choices, and they work their way down. Unless the agent says "No multiple submissions," I recommend sending your query letter to multiple agents each day/week/month, according to your timeline. The query process can take a long time, and there's no need for you to wait for a reply from each single agent before you send out another query.
10. Your query letter should be no longer than 1 page (or its equivalent, for an email). Really, agents slog through sometimes hundreds of queries each day. Get to the point, and grab their attention. Period.
Okay! Below is my original query letter for One Night in Boston, along with a few notes in brackets. Good luck with those queries, and remember: do not let rejections stop your query process. What one agent turns down, another may very well scoop up with excitement and enthusiasm. Keep at it!
Dear Susie Agent:
Can anything really change in 24 hours? Can everything?
My mainstream romance novel, One Night in Boston, offers a twist for the contemporary romance reader because it takes place over the course of a single day and night. (Think of the award-winning television show "24" translated into the romance genre: twenty-four hours unfold in twenty-four chapters.) Complete at 85,000 words, One Night in Boston tells the story of Maggie Doyle and Jack Major, college lovers who meet ten years after their relationship ends and discover a renewed attraction that is both stronger and more complicated than the first love they shared. As RWA indicates that you are an agent who is accepting new romance writers I thought you might be interested in taking a look.
[Opening paragraph includes general info about the book, its length, its topic, what makes it unique, and why I'm sending her this letter]
Maggie, a single but struggling entrepreneur in rural Rhode Island, faces foreclosure on her interior design business, thanks to a spiraling small-town economy and her mother's nursing home bills. Her only option: find the stepbrother she hasn't spoken to in years and convince him to loan her the money she needs. Jack, meanwhile, has carried on his family's business legacy and become CEO of a major Boston corporation. He's also just become engaged to a successful attorney, who's planning the city's biggest wedding and driving everyone crazy doing it. Though the marriage will join two prominent families and please his father, sometimes Jack still thinks about the fireworks of his first love.
Maggie's search for her stepbrother leads her directly to a high-profile charity ball...and to Jack. A dance, some reminiscing, and a spontaneous kiss startle them both into realizing that old feelings haven't died. But then Jack's fiancée arrives at the ball, and Maggie flees only to find herself trapped in a violent storm that has closed half the city streets. Jack follows her, but when Maggie reveals the reason she left him in college, and the reason she cannot be with him now, both are forced to realize that people change, that memories are tempered by years, and that time alters even the things we most want to stay the same.
[Two body paragraphs give a very general overview of the hero and heroine, their goals, their conflicts, and the underlying theme of the book: that time changes everything, whether it's 24 hours or 10 years]
I am an RWA member who earned her PRO pin in 2003. Previous online publications/contest wins include "Time for Teacher", a narrative essay published by RunnersWorld.com in 2002, and "Hawkman and the Widow Thompson" (short story) and "Untitled" (poem) which won 1st and 2nd place in WriterOnline's Mystery Contest (2003) and 5 Senses Contest (2004), respectively. I am currently working on my next One Night...book, which will also explore the ways and places desire can bloom overnight. A synopsis, sample chapters, or the complete manuscript of One Night in Boston is available upon your request. Or, you may prefer to read an excerpt on http://www.allieboniface.com. I am available via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or telephone (999-999-9999). Thank you for your time and consideration.
[Closing paragraph, while a little long, mentions my previous writing experience - notice no full-length publications - my membership in Romance Writers of America, which indicates an interest in and familiarity with the genre, and my contact info. While I did mention my plan for future One Night books, it's not a wise idea to query more than one project at a time. Notice it's a only a mention, here]
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