6.24.2014

How To Query Letter


Look, I'm not a big bad-ass New York Times bestselling author. Yet, anyway. I still don't have an agent, and I'm working on getting one as we speak (okay, two weeks after writing this blog, I got an agent, but continue...). I have written a lot of query letters, though, and I think I'm pretty good at it. In the past, I have managed to catch the attention of some pretty major agents who are infamous for turning down just about everybody.

Of course, they invariably turned me down after reading the partial or full manuscripts they asked to see, but hey, that's the nature of the game, and it's made me go back to the page and try to be a better writer every single time. Currently, I am going through the agent submission process with my latest novel. This is my fourth go-round. The first two books didn't make it very far, and rightly so. The third book was a co-authored piece that got a lot of attention but ultimately struck out as well, because it needed additional character work, and we decided to put it on permanent hiatus. Still, though, we had a hell of a query letter, and we got a lot of partial and full manuscript requests because of it. That's what a query letter is supposed to do.

This time, for KUDZU, the process has been even more exciting, because I'm managing to catch the attention of some real king and queenmakers in this business, and even though I can't be certain they'll want to represent the book I have to offer them, I get a small thrill every time one of them responds with interest. Of sixteen or so queries, I've received three full manuscript requests, one partial request, and four total rejections (three of them outright, one of them passing after reading the full). The others I haven't heard from yet, but it's only been a few days. Rule 1: Be Patient. These people are busy as fuck.

So I thought this was a great time to talk about query letters in general and give whatever handy advice I can for those of you out there pulling out your hair trying to craft the perfect one for your book.

First off, I learned most of my query-fu from the great folks over at QueryShark, who go to great lengths to look at the letters authors submit and then critique them. You wind up learning a lot about what NOT to do over there, and when it comes to the art of the query, that's often the best way to learn.

So taking a cue from them, I'll post the draft of the query letter I've so far sent to two agents (per their submission requirements I also submitted either the first five pages or the first chapter along with the letter). One of them, from a very prestigious firm, just requested the full manuscript. I'm not saying this letter is the best thing ever, or that someone else couldn't do better, or that other aspects of my submission (like the excerpts or my publishing credits, such as they are) aren't also increasing my success, but the letter appears to be making a dent. The blue parts are, of course, not part of the actual letter.

Dear Mr. or Ms. XXXXXX, [No Dear Sir or Madam or anything like that. Use the intended agent's name, even if it's a generic agency address. Double check the spelling or make sure you're addressing it to the agent you intend to send it to, because sometimes when you're sending out a few of these at once, wires can get a little crossed, and the only thing it results in is immediate ignore or rejection.]
On a hot July evening, a New York sunset plunges Amanda Crawford into harrowing memories of her childhood in Grace, Georgia. In particular, the day she'd helped her cousin cover up the murder of Chloe March, dragging the little girl's lifeless body into a remote bog, where the dying light had painted the water the color of blood. [Open your letter with the most important part: the hook of your story. Agents read dozens or hundreds of queries a week, and most of the time, they're only skimming until something interesting catches their eyes. Don't waste their time with introductions or other info about you. Save all that for the end.] After fifteen years, the secret has taken its toll on all involved. Amanda fights to hide her past at any opportunity, even from her doting fiance. Tonya, the cousin who dealt the lethal blows, once sought refuge in drugs and petty crime, but is now paying the ultimate price. And then there's Abel, the young man who confessed to Chloe's murder and went to prison without ceremony. His reasons for sacrificing years of his life for a crime he didn't commit are a mystery to all but himself, but he's coming up on parole soon, and he's terrified to leave prison, the only place he ever felt free. [What I tried to do here was paint a harrowing picture of the three main characters and their major internal conflicts, which ultimately drive the story. But I've done so in a simple and concise way. I've also laid in a little bit of back story. In other words, I'm conveying a tale about a few messed up people paying for the sins of their past. Depending on how your story is structured, you may have to do it differently, but whatever you do, focus firmly on your characters and your main hook, and BE COMPELLING. A query should almost read like ad copy.]
Amanda's fragile peace of mind begins to break down when she receives a call from back home. It seems Tonya is dying from AIDS following years of heroin addiction, and she intends to confess to Chloe's murder on her death bed. After reluctantly making the trip back home, Amanda discovers her cousin's reasons aren't as simple as a cleansing of the soul. She begins to uncover secrets in her family almost worse than the murder, twisted acts of devotion and coercion, and a sinister plan to wrap the past around her neck like a noose. [This is where I deal with main plot/conflict stuff that's happening in the now. Note how I didn't reveal too much. You want to make it enticing enough for an agent to go, "Oh wow! I need to learn what these secrets and twisted acts of devotion are! Send me the full manuscript IMMEDIATELY!" Wrap it up with a flourish. Look at all the book jackets and blurbs you have in your collection and go for the same spirit.]
KUDZU is a tale of deep family mysteries in a haunting southern setting, where masses of twisted vines consume the ghosts of the past, or anything else that stands in the way. It is complete at around 88,000 words. I wrote this book with the hope of reaching readers who also enjoy the works of _______ or _______, the latter of whom I discovered is your client, hence my desire to query you. [This is summary stuff. One final description of the TYPE of book, followed by its word count, your intended audience, and something that signifies you have researched the agent and why you selected him or her to query. They like knowing you have done your homework and aren't randomly carpet bombing the agent community.]
I write dark contemporary fiction that ranges from realistic to speculative realms. My debut psychological horror novel, STRINGS, released from a small press, Hobbes End Publishing, in October of 2013 to rave reviews. It has managed to reach the top ten on Amazon's bestseller lists in both horror and crime fiction. My next release, a dystopian science fiction epic called THE LAST SUPPER, is releasing from the same publisher in September. I also have a historical fantasy short story releasing from Apex Magazine at the end of the year, and I maintain a successful indie career with a large collection of short stories and novellas available on Amazon. When I'm not writing, I co-host Creative Commoners, a weekly podcast aimed at people trying to balance their creative pursuits with the demands of real life. [Obviously, this is now where you make it about you. Got publishing credits? List them. Did the book do well? Mention that. Didn't do so well? Don't mention that. Publisher now defunct? It's okay to say so. Don't have publishing credits? It's okay to say this is your first novel. Just don't deprecate yourself. ("I'm just a rookie, but I hope you like this..."). List other aspects of your life that might be relevant to your platform. Unless you won or made it to runner-up or honorable mention status, I wouldn't mention contests. I listed my podcast, because it demonstrates my willingness to engage in other venues with my creative endeavors. Whatever you do, be professional, own your accomplishments, and act like you know exactly what you're doing, even if this is your first time at bat.]
Per your instructions, I have pasted the first five pages into the body of this email, and I would love to be able to send you more. [This demonstrates that you have actually read the submission requirements, something a lot of authors just plain do not do for some befuddling reason. DO NOT be one of those authors. Also, this might be a good place to mention whether you have queried other agents and whether or not you have full or partial manuscripts under consideration. That's not always a requirement, but some agents like it, so be on the lookout for it.]
Thank you for your consideration!

A few other considerations to make:

1. NEVER OPEN YOUR QUERY WITH A RHETORICAL QUESTION! I put that in all red caps because it's so important. Opening with a question could very well be the death of any chances you might have had. It is done so much, it's cliche. It's the "in a world" of book queries. It's also just plain lazy.

2. Don't compare your book to movies or TV shows. Compare it to other books. Literary agents want to know that you understand the book industry and not one that is in many ways competing with it.

3. On a similar note, whatever you do, do NOT say "if you enjoyed such and such book, you'll love this." It sounds dangerously close to egoism. Let the agent decide if your work is similar to Stephen King's or whatever. Instead, identify the types of READERS you're hoping to reach with your work. Agents want to know you've studied the market, and that you feel confident in its placement on the store shelves. And yes, that's still relevant in the World of Amazon.

4. Don't say anything about sequels. Your job is to sell THIS book first. Don't get ahead of yourself.

5. Query writing is a learned skill. You'll go through a lot of drafts before you get one you're happy with. I actually have another version of this letter that went out to my first round of agents, and though it also resulted in a few requests, I wasn't terribly happy with it either. Don't drop the same query letter on alllll the people. That's completely blowing your wad. Query a dozen or so first. If you're not getting much response from the few you've sent them to, brush it up and try a different approach on the next batch.

6. Above all, keep it simple. Don't spoil major plot points. Don't get too much into the minutiae of your characters' lives or back stories. I revealed very little about what actually happens in KUDZU, but I gave just enough to make someone curious. When it comes to revealing everything that happens in your book, save it for the synopsis. That's a whole other breed of headache that I'll save for a different blog, but you'll need to have your synopsis and query ready to go at the same time, because some agents want both when you submit.

7. Finally, this isn't for agents only. If you're submitting to small presses or other publishers who don't require agents, you'll more or less follow the same query process. Read their submission guidelines and follow them to the letter.

I hope this helps. And if you have any other questions about the process, feel free to ask me below, or check out many of the resources available online. Read enough examples from authors who have successfully placed their novels, and eventually you might be able to write a good query letter too.

I'll let you know if someone actually likes the book...