Friday, February 4, 2011

Query Letters

That's right. Oh the horror!

But oh...the importance of them. Yes, they are important. Yes, agents really read them. Yes, they can be a pain. And, yes, there is a right and wrong way of writing one.

Unfortunately there are also dozens, if not hundreds, of books and articles that claim to 'know the art of query letters.' So it can be frustrating when you're trying to get answers to your questions because they'll be coming from so many different directions that you won't know which one to take. Believe me, I've been there. Which is why I decided to blog about it. This is not the only way to write a query letter, but I'm hoping this will put the do's and don'ts in a way you all can understand.

Alright, first things first. In order to understand what a query letter is, let's talk about what it isn't.
  • It is not a resume
  • It's not an opportunity to regail the agent with your ups and downs as an aspiring author
  • It's not a comparison letter so don't go rambling about how you are the next Stephen King, Danielle Steele or JK Rowling.
  • It's not an informal "Hey you" friendly letter
  • And it's never more than one page
A query letter is simply this:
  • The hook (the one line, attention grabbing line of your book that reels the agent in)
  • The synopsis (the fun part, where you get to condense your 100k+word novel into one/two paragraph)
  • Your biogrophy (the easiest part...it's about you!)
And it's all in a nutshell. Not an eggshell, not a coconut shell...a nutshell.

So now that you know what a query letter is and isn't, let's dive deeper.

A hook. Ah, yes, the one line that is supposed to make the agent want to read your book. It is your book's tagline. Straight to the heart of the story. No beating around the bush when it comes to the hook. That is how you write a hook. This might require some thinking though. Here's a few examples:

"Bridges of Madison County"
When Robert Kincaid drives through the heat and dust of an Iowa summer and turns into Francesca Johnson's farm lane looking for directions, the world-class photographer and the Iowa farm wife are joined in an experience that will haunt them forever.
 
"The Da Vinci Code"
A murder in the silent after-hour halls of the Louvre museum reveals a sinister plot to uncover a secret that has been protected by a clandestine society since the days of Christ.

"The Perfect Storm"
The true story of the meteorological conditions that created the "Storm of the Century" and the impact the Perfect Storm had on many of the people caught in its path; chiefly, among these are the six crew members of the swordfish boat the Andrea Gail, all of whom were lost 500 miles from home beneath rolling seas.


The second paragraph-mini synopsis. And I do mean mini. One or two paragraphs is definitely the way to go. This one is going to be trickier to do. Chances are you have a 200-300 (maybe more) page manuscript in your hands. Now you have to take that MS and condense, condense, condense, until you have a single paragraph. So here is where you must resist. Resist talking about how beautiful a blue your MC's eyes are, or how they are a family trait. How she has this quirky habit of stomping her foot every time she gets angry. How he likes to play pranks. Or even how there is this amazing tear jerking scene in chapter 7 that the agent just HAS to read. Resist! Get to the point of your story, even if you have to start with five paragraphs and work your way down.
 
And now the final paragraph. The mini bio that is all about you! Don't be scared when you get to this part. Even if you don't have any awards to brag about, or if you're not published. It's okay. Be truthful and tell the agent a little about yourself. The less you say, the more space you have for your synopsis. And please, for the love of all that's good, don't talk about your day job. Unless your character is also a nurse, teacher, or lawyer (which means you have been able to write a story that is true to the facts)...the agent doesn't really care. I know this sounds harsh, but it's true. They aren't going to say yes to your book just because you spent years in school, or because your job is super cool.
 
 
Congratulations! You've successfully written a query letter! Now for the formalities, random tips, and other stuff....
 
  • Always address the agent specifically. Writing 'To Whom it May Concern' could very well wind your query in the trash or in the trash box of the agents email account. Probably on accident. So make sure you take the extra time to look up the agent and figure out if it's a Mr. or Ms. Oh man, I cannot stress enough how important this is! You do NOT want to address C. White as Mr., when in reality her name is Cornelia White.
  • Please don't forget to mention the title of your book, the genre, and word count. After putting all that work, sweat and tears into your query...If you forget the title, well, wouldn't that just suck? So don't forget to do that! (oh and please note that most, if not all, agents will NOT look at first time novels that are more than 120,000 words long, so make sure of your word count before submitting)
  • Don't sound like you have a stick shoved up your butt. There is a right and wrong way to write a query, but it should also carry the tone of your book. Is your novel a supernatural romance with an arrogant hero? Or maybe your heroine is a sappy love sick puppy who just got jaded. Wait! What if your novel is more mysterious? No...don't write the letter through your MC's point of view...but yes, do show your voice in it. Your style. Give that agent a taste of your writing!
  • One page! One page! Single spaced, 12pt font, left margin, no paragraph indents. Extra space between paragraphs. I'm saying this because I was even freaking out about this and I don't want anyone else to wonder but feel too embarassed to ask. Also, keep in mind that when emailing your query, the fonts tend to change when pasting so sending yourself a 'preview' email might help get all the quirks out beforehand. Oh and btw...using a smaller font isn't the way to go.
  • If using snail mail...include a SASE (self addressed stamped envelope) Don't use a speedy mail delivery service. It doesn't make you look more awesome than the other aspiring authors.
  • Include your name and email and other contact information. Never include sample chapters unless the agent's submission guidelines say it is okay to do so. If you really, really think you need to send something, try not to send more than five pages of your novel until you get the go ahead.
  • No smelly, neon colored paper. For the love of everything good...please don't do that!
  • Make sure you don't compare your novel to other novels by famous authors. It's just not going to help you. Though, it is okay to let the agent know how your novel is similar to those she/he has sold.
Well, I really hope I've answered some of your questions about query letters. If you have anymore that weren't covered, feel free to leave a comment or email me directly.

Happy Writing!

11 comments:

  1. I definitely have to bookmark this, save it someplace for when I begin my query letters for HB.

    I kinda have an urge to test my query letter hooks now, on you guys. LOL!

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  2. Oh fantastic! Such a load of info that's really hellpful I'm sure.

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  3. What a wealth of information, Ree. You have managed to take a daunting task and outline it to perfection. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this!

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  4. Thanks so much ladies! This was what I was hoping for--to help! Phew..and I thought I ws coming on too strong. Glad you all liked this blog.

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  5. I know what it is to be worried about query letters. Even though I'm not even close to finishing my first novel, it's still in the back of my mind. I hadn't the first clue how to write one and I was dreading having to look through shelves of books at the library trying to find something that explains it in simple english. Now I don't have to cuz you laid it out so well!

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  6. Thanks Faith, that's exactly what I was going for. Simple instructions to follow. You wouldln't believe how complicated those books can get. So technical. When all they really need to say is, "This is what you do..." And that's what I tried to do here. Have a basic layout for people to follow. The research was worth it.

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  7. I was LOL when I read the bit about neon colored/smell infused paper. Do people really do that? I think I did that once with a resume after watching Legally Blonde. I was young and stupid. This is defintely going to be bookmarked for future reference. great advice.

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  8. Actually, yes they do. I read on an agent's blog about how she gets at least half a dozen querys in that form. I thought it was pretty funny. Ha ha, I've seen that movie. I can't believe you did that. Ah, to be young again.

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  9. Wonderful! How many times can I say I LOVED this? Great advice and an easy to read example of how to tackle this task.

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  10. Oh you can say it as many times as you want LOL!

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