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Workshop:

Writing Query Letters for Novels

By Lazette Gifford
Copyright 2008 by Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved


The idea of writing query letters frightens many new authors, and that's understandable, within reason.  It's hard to imagine your carefully honed 100,000 word novel reduced to a couple paragraphs of terse -- but interesting -- description.

However, people write query letters all the time, and so can you.  It's an art that takes practice, just like anything else in writing.  The best part is that much of the query letter is created in an easy format, allowing you to concentrate on the small section dedicated to selling your story.

Your part in this workshop

This workshop does not lend itself to 'now you do something' exercises.  Instead, you should read the entire workshop and then use what you learn to set up a template for your own future query letters.  There is a full version of the query letter at the end of the article. 

For the rest, practice your 'middle' part, even while you're still working on your novel.  Just think of the time and stress you'll save if you have your query letter done before you finish your final edits!

Step 1: Basics -- Research, Paper, Font, etc.

The first thing you need to figure out is where you are going to send your query letter.  Some places have very specific instructions about what they want and how to deliver it to them.  While much of this workshop is a generic setup that will work for most places, always make certain you have read the guidelines.

You want your query letter to look professional.  Use good, plain white or light cream paper if you are mailing your query, and non-html emails if you are using email.  Many people turn off the html function for email, and it can make your letter look odd if you have relied on too much html when creating it.  There is nothing you are going to write in this query that requires fancy work, so a plain text email will work just fine.

A query letter is always single-spaced.  This is good news because it gives you more room to devote to your story pitch.  Set one inch margins all around and always left-hand justify the lines so that there is a ragged right hand side.  Use a black, 12 pt fonts such as Times New Roman, Courier, Arial, or any font that is close to those styles.

Under no circumstances use colored paper, colored fonts or fancy fonts.  You can use professional looking letterhead paper for a printed query, as long as the letterhead is not overly ornate and conveys the proper impression.  Do not use a letterhead for your daily professional job like doctor, lawyer, etc.  From the Desk of Jane Doe is sufficient, along with your address.  Keep it simple and sharp.

Step 2: Top -- Header, Address, Dear....

If you do not have a letterhead, simply type your name and address at the top left-hand side of the page. 

Drop one line and add your email address.  This is usually not covered in many articles and books on query-letter writing, but in this day of the Internet, having your email address prominently displayed can be a real help.

After the email address, skip a line and then type in the 'to' information -- the name of the person this is going to, the name of the agency or publisher and the address of the company.  I'll cover the 'name of the person' a little more in a moment.

Drop another line and add in the date.  This is another optional addition, but it can help the editor keep track of the time frame for the material on hand.  It never hurts to give a small, unobtrusive nudge to help keep things moving.

The last section at the top of the query letter is the first place where you will have to do some real work.  This is the 'Dear' person part, and goes with that 'name of person' in the address.  There are a number of possible pitfalls in the 'Dear' section, but they are easy to overcome.

You must make an effort to find the name of the proper person to send your letter to.  This means the proper editor for your type of book at the publishing company or the name of the agent handling your type of genre at an agency.  'Dear sir or Ma'am' is not acceptable.  It shows that you are too lazy to go look for the information, and if you aren't even that interested in the company, why should they be interested in you?

The Internet is a good source for relatively up-to-date information of this type.  Some books and articles suggest that you call to get a name -- but this may not be practical.  Do your best to find the proper name... and then don't worry about whether it is right or not.  If you have at least made an effort, it will show, even if the person to whom you have addressed the material is no longer with the company.

There is another part to this that can be tricky -- the Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms problem.  Which should you use?  The answer is simple.  You can always write Mr. when it is obvious the person is male.  But what about a name like Dana?  I've known both male and female people by that name.  And what is the proper address if the person is clearly female, and you have no idea if she is married or not?

Dear Dana Doe is perfectly acceptable and can be used in all instances, even if you know the person is male.

There -- that's the top part of the query letter.  Now let's look at the part that is going to give you trouble.

Step 3: Middle -- Hook and Synopsis

This is the part that is going to take you a long time to do.  Realize that from the start and you'll avoid a lot of stress over the 'get it done' problem.  This is also a spot where you are going to do a great deal of experimentation, rethink your story premise, and probably realize new things about your novel that you never considered before.  That happens when you have to distill the work down to the most interesting aspects of the story.

Some people suggest that you start the body of your letter with a simple statement about seeking representation and such -- but to me that's stating the obvious, and a waste of precious space.  Instead, I suggest you jump straight into the matter at hand -- catching the editor or agent's attention with the story.

First, you are going to need a hook -- a single, interesting line that draws the reader (the editor or agent) into the story.

Mark Carter should never have followed the ghost of his murdered wife down a dead end street.

A line like this one will draw attention long enough to keep the person reading.  That's what you want.  After the hook, go into the basic, interesting details of the story -- and that does include telling the ending.  A query letter has to prove that you can bring the story all the way to a satisfying ending.  In this respect, editors and agents are not like regular readers.  They will not be drawn in by a 'read the book and find the answer' sort of query. 

 

Two years after the shocking death of his wife, Mark has finally put aside his grief, sold his home, packed away his wedding pictures, and taken a new job.  At twenty-five, he's even found a new romance.  Then, on a stormy afternoon, he sees the ghostly apparition of Allisia jogging along the road where she had died.  In a frenzy of shock and grief, he leaps from the car and runs after her... and into a perilous world of shadows and ghosts, truths and deceptions. 

Mark has stumbled into a world that parallels his own, and there he learns that his wife was not really human and is not fully dead, but rather is trapped in the area between worlds, where dangers he could never have imagined stalk her -- and now hunt him as well, as the link back to the world of light. 

He also learns of Allisia's part in a plot to invade his world, but that she had defected and is now paying the price for her love of him.  Uncertain whom he can trust in this new world, and learning he might become trapped as well, he still joins forces with her to fight back her former commander and defeat the dark forces bent on invasion.  Their success is bittersweet, however, since Allisia can't come back with him, and he must leave the shadow lands or risk being the key that opens the doors for others.

Bring this section to a close with a quick summation of the facts about the book:

Dead End Street is a completed urban fantasy novel of 96,500 words. The book has potential for additional stand-alone novels featuring Mark, his dead wife and the trouble brewing between the two worlds.

Step 4: Bottom -- credits signature

The last section is easy.  If you have legitimate credits, write them into a short paragraph that highlights your professional standing:

My recent publications include the novels Mirrors from Zumaya Press, Farstep Station from Yard Dog Press, and the short story Between a God and a Hard Place featured in Andromeda Spaceways In-Flight Magazine.  I have numerous other publications in both small press and electronic venues.

If you don't have any credits, don't worry about it.  Everyone starts with no credits, and while they are nice to add in, the ones I've listed above are not major enough to draw much attention.  If you are already professionally published, chances are you are going to be working through an agent, and this process will be somewhat different.

If you have written a book that requires special knowledge, and you happen to work in that field or have had an education in it, make note of that part here either along with credits or instead of them.  Any time you can add something that makes you look more qualified to write this particular story, add it in.

Close out this section with a simple set of lines:

I have enclosed an SASE (and list anything else that is required by the place you are sending this to, like first five pages of the novel, detailed synopsis, etc.).  Thank you for your time.

Sincerely

Author Name

There.  That's it.  It's really not that difficult once you learn how to write those important synopsis paragraphs.  The trick in the middle section is to discuss only the very basic parts of the story.  Notice that I did not go into detail about his new love, though the mention does hint at more conflict.  I don't go into detail about the conspiracy to invade his world and about the former commander they are up again.  I could have  talked about a subplot dealing with an old friend of Allisia's who might be the one who caused her 'death' but it's important to remember that this has to be short.  The basic storyline is usually the best one to cover with only hints about the rest.

The things NOT to do

There are some things you should never say in a query letter.  One is something I see done far too often -- saying that the book has already been turned down by someone else.  Why would you think the editor or agent needs to know this?  It gives a negative impression of the book and immediately sets up the feeling that it can't be good.  Never mention rejections for the work. They aren't important.  Each new query is a new chance, and the old ones are erased.

Also never mention how it has been critiqued by whatever critique group you happen to belong to.  Unless that group includes major authors who will also give cover-blurbs, it doesn't matter to the publisher.

Don't talk about why you wrote the novel, whether it was for a challenge like NaNoWriMo or because you felt an overpowering need to write a book that portrays the real world of bingo halls.  It doesn't matter why or how you wrote the book (except in the case of special knowledge mentioned above) or who helped critique it.  The book is not you, and it is not the history of how it was written.   The book has to stand up on its own.

Do not send out two hundred query letters at a time.  Keep the number small for a couple good reasons.  First, if any of the places you send to gives you some advice on how to make something better in the query letter, you want to be able to use that advice for future mailings.  Second, you want to start with the places you really want to sell to -- your dream agent or publisher.  If you send to two hundred or more people, do you just grab the first one that comes back with a yes?  Do you tell that person you're hoping for a better offer from someone else?  Don't try to be in too much of a hurry.

And one final thing to do:

Once you are done with your query letter, put it aside for a few days, and then go back and read it again.  Read it aloud. Be especially careful to fix typos and badly worded sentences.  Remember, this one page letter is going to sell your ability to write well.

Good site for more information:

http://www.sfwa.org/writing/query.htm

 

Below is the query letter:
 

My Name
My Street Address
My City and Zip Code

My email Address

Name of Person to whom you are sending
Agency or Publication Name
The Street Address
The City and Zip Code

Date

Dear Dana Doe,

Mark Carter should never have followed the ghost of Allisia, his murdered wife, down a dead end street.

Two years after the shocking death of his wife, Mark has finally put aside his grief, sold his home, packed away his wedding pictures, and taken a new job.  At twenty-five, he's even found a new romance.  Then, on a stormy afternoon, he sees the ghostly apparition of Allisia jogging along the road where she had died.  In a frenzy of shock and grief, he leaps from the car and runs after her... and into a perilous world of shadows and ghosts, truths and deceptions. 

Mark has stumbled into a world that parallels his own, and there he learns that his wife was not really human and is not fully dead, but rather is trapped in the area between worlds, where dangers he could never have imagined stalk her -- and now hunt him as well, as the link back to the world of light. 

He also learns of Allisia's part in a plot to invade his world, but that she had defected and is now paying the price for her love of him.  Uncertain whom he can trust in this new world, and learning he might become trapped as well, he still joins forces with her to fight back her former commander and defeat the dark forces bent on invasion.  Their success is bittersweet, however, since Allisia can't come back with him, and he must leave the shadow lands or risk being the key that opens the doors for others.

Dead End Street is a completed urban fantasy novel of 96,500 words. The book has potential for additional stand-alone novels featuring Mark, his dead wife and the trouble brewing between the two worlds.

My recent publications include the novels Mirrors from Zumaya Press, Farstep Station from Yard Dog Press, and the short story Between a God and a Hard Place featured in Andromeda Spaceways In-Flight Magazine.  I have numerous other publications in both small press and electronic venues.

I have enclosed an SASE.  Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Author Name