It would be wonderful if we could just send sample chapters out to agents and publishers and dispense with the whole query writing thing altogether. Our writing and work could stand for what it is and there would be no need for the constant hair pulling and rethinking of things until our brains explode. But sadly, writers have to live a double life: one of the avid writer and one of the door to door salesman.
A query is a simple pitch of your novel or fiction work to agents or editors. It has become a necessity in the writing world, something almost ALL agents and editors require before even asking for those sample chapters that you know will win them over. So how do you write a query? Better yet, how do you take a story with so many twists, turns, and subplots and turn it into a one page pitch? First of all, relax. I know you’re sitting there biting your nails in frustration over this. It doesn’t have to be that hard. One of the first mistakes writers make when crafting their query is over thinking it. That can be a downfall in itself.
-Dear So and So…. Get the Agent or Editor’s Name Right-
I, too, am guilty of the flat standard, “Dear Agent”. But I realized after years of research and hard work that you just can’t blanket a query like this. It’s a guarantee that your query will end up in the deleted files section. Agents and editors want to know that you’ve done your research on them. They want to know that you have targeted them because you read that they accept your type of work. When you have a name, use it.
Tips for your greeting:
-Be respectful and professional and use Mr. or Ms. and the last name in your greeting. Think of how you’d feel if someone you didn’t know was emailing you with “Yo, Mike!” Sure you want to show them how much of a blast it would be to work with you but this is not the way to do it.
-Use Ms. when querying a female editor or agent. She may be married, she may not be. You don’t want her to see Mrs. up there by her last name if she’s a proud single woman.
-Ummmm…. not sure if the name is male or female? Then it’s okay to use their full name with no Mr. or Ms. but don’t make a habit of doing this.
-Can’t find a name or the agency wants you to just submit it to them as a whole? Then make sure you put the name of the agency or publishing house in the greeting. For example, Dear Stardom Publishing should suffice in this instance but don’t be tempted to blanket the rest of the queries you submit.
The opening paragraph should be a simple statement of intent. For example, “I am seeking representation for (or publication of) my 70,000 word romance novel, Shiver in the Wind.” That’s it, no more, no less.
-Body of Query-
This is where you make your pitch. This section should be no more then two or three brief paragraphs. You may be tempted to try to entice the agent or editor to read more and while that’s a valid goal, the main thing you need to keep in mind is that agents and editors want details. So instead of saying that your main character is being chased by someone, tell them who is chasing your main character and why. Don’t worry about giving too much away. You’re not trying to hook them the same way you’d hook a reader. It is not the goal here to keep things from your prospective agent. You WANT to tell them the punch line, the climax. You WANT to tell them who killed Col. Mustard in the library with a candlestick.
So how do you turn your super duper fantastic 300 page novel into two or three paragraphs? After you finish scratching your head and quit threatening to burn the entire manuscript, do this: Think about the main theme of your story. Don’t get caught up in the subplots and minor details. Describe your main plot in those paragraphs and don’t be tempted to get wordy. Introduce your main character and briefly tell the agent about their trials, their pitfalls, and how they come out of it at the end. Then go to your favorite critique group and ask your peers if your description makes sense to them. While it may make sense to you, you are intimately involved with your writing and you are definitely biased. It is important for you to get feedback and take constructive criticism for what it is; a chance to better yourself and learn.
Keep it brief. If you have any relevant information to put here then do so. Do not put how long you’ve been writing or how bad you want to be published or just how sorry they would be if they passed your work by. They don’t care if your cousin’s best friend read it and loved it. If you have no fiction credits to your name then omit the About Me paragraph. Trust me. I’ve asked agents personally about this. It doesn’t matter if you’ve published tons of non-fiction, they just don’t care.
-Use a Standard Closing-
Always keep this paragraph brief. Thank them for their time and that you’d be happy to send them chapters of your work for further review upon their request. Then follow with a “Sincerely, Your Name”.
That’s it. Keep it brief, full of details, and professional. A query letter should be no more then a page in length. Anything over that will be less likely to keep their attention.
Best wishes and good luck with your search for an agent or editor!