On Publishing: Writing a Query Letter

“Sometimes the fall kills you. But sometimes, when you fall, you fly.” 

–  Neil Gaiman

 

All my unpublished novelists in the house, put your hands up!

I understand that today’s post—much like a lot of my writing posts lately—is for an extraordinarily select audience. Most people, even bloggers, have better things to do than write a novel and actually try to get it published. I personally…well, don’t. Publishing is my main goal at the moment, and I’ve come to realize that for those writing query letters, hearing (reading) about the struggles of the few others in the same boat can be immensely reassuring.

First of all, to get everyone on the same page, what the heck is a query letter, anyway?

Let’s go back to the stats I mentioned in my last post. The average agent gets around thirty proposals every day. If every single one of those was a full or even partial manuscript, they literally wouldn’t have time to read them all and still be able to function. At best, they’d be able to glance over the first page or two, then move on.

Fortunately, somebody came up with the brilliant concept of query letters. Now, instead of agents getting thirty or so novels dropped on their desk or in their email inbox, they receive thirty or so one-page letters (they should be one-page, at least) giving a brief overview of the proposed book, much like the inside flap would if it was published.

And so, that’s the final test for an aspiring novelist. Okay, not the final test, but certainly one of the most daunting. Now that the author has finished their brilliant book, they need to write a brilliant letter talking about it so as to hook every agent who lays their eyes upon it.

Not as easy as it sounds, let me tell you.

 

This is how the professionals do it, right?

This is how the professionals do it, right?

At first, as an optimistic writer who had already had to handle many problems with this project, I did the rational thing: after picking through the Guide to Literary Agents, I turned to Google.

A fine example of a time when Google worked too well. I realized that there are hundreds of thousands of sites (and people running them) giving advice as to how exactly to format a query letter, and what you must do and what you must never do and if this isn’t included you automatically fail and never forget this and aah I need to go take a nap while my brain explodes.

Yes, it’s that painful.

But I managed to make sense of it. I came up with a list of “ironclad rules,” which included the tips I read in GLA as well as the rules that came up frequently in my search, such as how to format the letter. Not to mention, I looked up the submission guidelines of agencies in which I was interested.

So, while you might not much care, I’ll put them up anyway: my personal ironclad rules for writing a strong query, pieced together from other ironclad rules.

  • Address to “Dear Mr./Mrs. Last Name of Agent”…always better to err on the side of formality
  • Personalize the letter, either at the beginning or end. Tell the agent why I’m querying them specifically.
  • Mention that the full manuscript is indeed available, and give word count along with genre
  • Keep under 350 words
  • Make sure contact info is in the letter
  • Avoid redundancy like the kind in the image below

 

You don't say?

You don’t say?

Anticlimactic, I know. Those are all probably things you’ve heard a million times already. But the thing is, there isn’t really one way to write a query letter. Its job is to convey what the book is about, and it’s the author’s job to figure out which way works best. Other than that, it’s really in the writer’s control. The agent wants to see that a potential future client can write well, and there’s no web sites that can give instructions for that. A lot of them try, but in the end, the query comes from the author’s core. The letter-writing process is unique for each novelist.

I’m a senior in high school, and most of my classmates spent New Year’s Eve 2012/2013 at friends’ houses partying. Me? Well, first I watched Iron Man and The Avengers, but that’s not the point. After THAT, I sat watching the Times’ Square celebration with my laptop in front of me, blasting MC Hammer’s “Too Legit to Quit” in my headphones (they played it during the celebration!) all while trying to write the query letter for my manuscript. Well, technically not the entire query letter, but the plot summary portion of it. I worked my way through the stack of young adult novels next to me, reading their inside flaps and hoping for a burst of inspiration.

And it sort of came eventually.

I had the structure of my summary done by the time 2013 hit. The writing was awful, but the structure was there. I went to bed, woke up a few hours later in the morning, then got the other half of my inspiration burst (I guess it was delayed?), and I finished off the summary portion.

That night, January 1st, I emailed it to my ideal readers and watched the season one finale of Criminal Minds, a heck of a way to celebrate the end of winter break. Then one of my IR’s emailed back their official approval while I listened to my favorite song, “The Riddle” by Five for Fighting.

And that’s how I got my query letter written.

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