Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
March 2017

How to Write a Query Letter

A query letter is a short, one-page letter (now, usually a short email less than 500 words) sent to an agent (not an editor these days) to introduce you and your book in hopes of being asked to send more. Some agents ask that you include the first ten pages of your book with your query letter, but you have to do the work and figure out which agents want what and send them exactly what they want.

Yes, you have to individualize them. No, you can’t send out the same email to every agent on the planet. That looks sloppy and like you are spamming them, and your letter will immediately be deleted. If you want individual attention from an agent, including a response to your query, you need to write a unique email to every agent on your list.

Unless you’ve promised an exclusive submission (which, by the way, I don’t recommend), you can send out ten or twenty queries at once without making anyone angry. No one expects you not to be sending to many agents at once.

I recommend writing a three-paragraph query letter with the following three paragraphs:

  1. Introduction,

  2. Description of your book (often called a “hook”),

  3. Conclusion and thanks.

Keep your query letter as short as possible. I really think sometimes we as writers fuss too much over a query letter. Yes, it needs to be good. No, it doesn’t need to be perfect. It’s a business letter. Do NOT have someone else write your query letter for you. Especially do not pay for some business to write your query letter for you. It will stink to high heaven of this. Believe me, the agent can tell. And it doesn’t look good. Agents assume that if you’re a writer, you can write a simple business letter. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for advice from friends, however. Write up a sample and send it around or take it to your writers group. Revise as you would revise a manuscript, and do your best to keep it free from typos and grammar mistakes.

The introduction of your query letter is about the agent. This is your chance to say why you are sending your book to this agent. If the reason is really boring (like, I found your name on-line in a list of agents who represent this genre), then maybe skip this part. If you read the agent’s blog or follow them on twitter, mention that. If you are sending because you know a client, say that. DON’T say that you were recommended by a client unless you actually were. Agents will check this, I promise. In general, don’t go overboard with too much praise. Be professional, not fawning.

You will also want to mention the genre your book is (mystery, fantasy, science fiction, women’s fiction, literary, etc.) and what your target age group is (adult, middle grade, young adult). Have a word count that is reasonable (for most novels, that is under 100,000 words, but not less than 60,000 for adult books). If you want to mention a comparable book, you can, but resist the temptation to use ridiculously best-selling books like Harry Potter or Twilight, which don’t show you’ve done much reading in the genre. Also, never EVER say that your book is way better than anything else in the genre because it will just make you sound like an idiot.

The description of your book, or “hook,” portion of the query letter is the trickiest part, and is where you should focus your attention. J Scott Savage recommends that your “hook” focus around these four things:

  1. Protagonist,

  2. Goal,

  3. Obstacles,

  4. Consequences of success and failure.

So, in one (or possibly two) paragraphs, you must explain who your protagonist is, what the goal is, what a few of the obstacles to achieving that goal are, and what the stakes are—i.e. what happens if they don’t achieve the goal. Here is an example of a description of The Bishop’s Wife written in this way:

Linda Wallheim is a 50-year-old Mormon bishop’s wife who is nearly an empty nester. When her neighbor Jared Helm announces that his young wife has left him in the middle of winter, abandoning their adorable five-year old daughter, Linda cannot believe the story. She is convinced that he has done something nefarious to his wife, and though her husband and the police seem to all think Jared Helm is one of the “good guys,” she is determined to prove Carrie Helm is the victim of foul play. Along the way, she bakes cookies to get into the Helm house and rummage around for clues, and finds out she is both right and wrong about what has happened to Carrie. Who the real villain is surprises her, however, and hopefully will surprise readers, as well. It’s not always the open misogynist who is the real danger to the women of the Mormon church.

In this paragraph, I’ve introduced Linda very briefly, with a few stats that are most important. I don’t go into her history as an atheist or her past of losing a child at stillbirth. I hint at the fact that she bakes a lot, but that’s all I do. I talk about the central mystery (not the secondary mystery) and about what propels Linda—she is convinced she’s right and that the men are covering for each other. I talk about what she does to propel the plot forward and I hint at the final conclusion and its twist.

Here’s another one, for a fantasy novel I’m working on:

Jane Fairchild is left-handed, which means that none of the binding magic patterns on the Grand Isle seem to work for her. Still, she has to finish a shawl for her debut ball at Lady Winterton’s or she won’t be able to be introduced to society with her best friend, Susan Thorne. When Susan finds a book of ancient left-handed patterns in her long-deceased father’s library, however, everything changes. Suddenly, Jane is the expert, and it turns out that the binding patterns that everyone had assumed were getting better and better, are actually becoming more and more dangerous in the ways they imprison the darkness, a mystical power that was on the Grand Isle when the founders arrived there two hundred years before. Jane and Susan have to work together to communicate with the darkness before it swallows up their county—and every human on the island itself.

This feels to me like a gross simplification of the plot, which has four different points of view. I could explain that in this paragraph, and I could try to explain about Matthew Thorne and Frederick Fairchild, who have their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to fighting the darkness. But for the sake of a query letter, I’ve cut them out. I’m doing broad strokes here, not simple ones, and Jane is, in my opinion, the most important of the four points of view. I talk about the magic system, but not with any detail. You’ve got to be able to do this in a query letter and you’re going to keep doing this for a long time as you talk about your book. If you’ve got a one sentence Hollywood pitch of your novel (Jaws meets Happy Days), go ahead and use it. Think about this paragraph as the back cover of your book. It’s to introduce it to people who don’t know anything about it and to get them to open to the first page and read it.

Your final paragraph is your chance to talk about you. If you have some special expertise on the background of your book (you’re a lawyer and writing about the courtroom, for instance), mention it here. If you’ve got some genuine publication credits (beyond, say, writing articles for your high school newspaper) or have won some awards, mention a few of them. If this is your first novel, you can simply say that. There’s no need to pad this paragraph. It can be very, very short. I usually end with a final sentence thanking the agent for their time and hoping to hear from them soon.

That’s it. Don’t overthink this. If you’re doing it right, you will get requests for more pages shortly. If you hear crickets, I’d recommend trying a different middle paragraph and sending it back again. If you get nothing after that, I’m afraid all I can recommend is that you try doing a significant revision or writing a different novel. Most of the time, if your query letter is failing, it’s because of real problems in your book.

Good luck!

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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