Author Bio: The author has over 5 years freelance experience in technical writing, editing and screenplays. More recently, this repertoire has expanded to include short stories and a series of urban fantasy novels in progress.
Writing a Query Letter
By Jess Haines
In keeping with the writing advice I’ve seen in prior guests’ posts, I’m going to give a crash course on writing a query letter to a literary agent. This is always a fun topic as there’s so much contradictory data out there, it can be difficult to navigate the cyber seas and find true and reliable sources of information on this subject.
Let’s break it down into the essential parts. You have your opening solicitation:
Dear Mr./Ms. (Agent name),
Do not, under any circumstances, use “Dear Agent” as your opening. It’s ill mannered to “email blast” queries to agents. Even if you’re using the same letter to query 100 agents, have the grace to address it to each one individually. If you’re sending to “general submissions”, “To Whom It May Concern” is acceptable. I don’t recommend using that salutation under any other circumstances.
Next, you have your opening paragraph. You can use this to give the agent the basics on your story and why you’re contacting them. It should be laid out like so:
I’m contacting you as I am seeking representation for my XX,000 word paranormal romance, GREAT STORY 101. I found your information on XYZ website. As I see you have a penchant for quirky werewolf/zombie love stories, I thought you may be interested in my work.
Of course, adjust the above to cover the information about your story and why you’ve chosen to contact that agent.
Vital information for this paragraph includes:
- Genre (use no more than two or three words to describe the genre you believe your story fits, such as literary thriller or humorous urban fantasy – don’t overdo it with something like mystery/romance/comedy/thriller/post-apocalyptic essay on financial and democratic management in tree farms).
- Word count.
- Title (all caps).
Nice to have, but not absolutely necessary to include:
- Why you are contacting this specific agent (“I met you at ABC Conference in June, 2006.” “Your name was on a list of agents in ________, and as you rep ______ and ____, I thought you may be interested in my work.” Etc).
In the following paragraph, possibly even two, you will describe your novel. This can be difficult, but should contain A) who is your protagonist, and a (BRIEF) description of what they want/are trying to do, B) what the big conflict is that’s preventing them from getting what they want/solving the issue, and C) what exactly is at risk.
Fluffy the werewolf is about to lose her job as a zombie curator after a few too many nights spent howling at the full moon, and not enough spent cleaning up the unfortunate messes left behind by her undead charges. She can’t leave her former lover, zombie Nathan Eaturbrains, in the care of someone else – the idea is too horrifying for her to contemplate. Somehow, she has to learn how to keep her furry side under better control – or she could lose Nathan for good.
(Note: If you haven’t learned by now, don’t take me seriously. The above is just an example – the point is to write about your work, and make it something that would inspire the agent to ask for more.)
The next paragraph should be your closing, and should include basic information about your writing credits for published work. Do not include self- or vanity-published novels about your family recipes or why Ulysses S. Grant was such a great president unless you sold a significant number of copies (fifteen to your friends and family is not enough):
My publishing credits include ___________. I have won ____________ awards.
MY ZOMBIE ROMANCE is my first novel. I have no publishing credits, but do have (a degree in zombie folklore / 5 years experience as a mortician / two werewolf children – you get the idea).
If you have no publishing credits, it’s okay to say so. This is not your platform to talk about your relationships, your kids, your pets, or anything else, unless it has direct relevance to your story. If you have specific experience related to the subject you are querying, you may include a (BRIEF) summary of it here.
For the closing salutation, simply say:
Thank you very much for your time and consideration.
123 Any Street
Sometown, CA 90023
BEFORE YOU SEND YOUR QUERY LETTER:
- Succinctly explain who your book is about, what the protagonist is trying to accomplish, and what obstacles they have to overcome in order to reach their goal.
- Double-check for any spelling or grammar errors.
- Make sure the agent you’re emailing/writing a letter to is the same one you’ve customized your query to (i.e., check your “why I chose you!” section to make sure you’re sending the right letter to the right agent).
- Triple-check for any spelling or grammar errors.
- Relax. Take a deep breath.
- Send your query.
- Do not ever use the words “fiction novel” in your correspondence with an agent or editor. Explaining why is another blog post all its own. For now, just take my word for it.
- Query an incomplete novel.
- Query multiple novels in one query letter. One story at a time.
- Use clichés to describe your characters or plot.
- Not send your query. To my knowledge, no one ever got published by sitting on their work, wondering if an agent would come to them.
For further information on query writing, visit the blogs of those who know best what an agent is looking for – the agents and editors themselves!
What about you, out in the audience? Any good recommendations of books or websites for query writing advice? Share it in the comments!
In closing, please remember to take a look at this anytime you’re feeling down about possible query rejection: Three Methods for Coping
Some snippets to show you why this link is helpful – think you’ve gotten a lot of rejections for a novel? Try this on for size:
Ray Bradbury, author of over 100 science fiction novels and stories – around 800 rejections before selling his first story.
Don’t give up hope. Even when you get a rejection like this:
Rejection slip for Dr. Seuss’s And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street: “Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – with hard work, persistence, and a lot of patience, you can make it. Continue to educate yourself, continue to hone and refine your prose, and good luck to all my fellow writers out there!
Hunted by the Others is the first book in her H&W Investigations Urban Fantasy series. The book is scheduled to be released on May 4, 2010.
Synopsis (Product Description):
They are the Others — the vampires, mages, and werewolves once thought to exist only in our imaginations. Now they’re stepping out of the shadows, and nothing in our world will ever be the same again…
IN A TOWN LIKE THIS, BEING A P.I. CAN BE MURDER
Shiarra Waynest’s detective work was dangerous enough when her client base was strictly mortal. But ailing finances have forced her to accept a lucrative case that could save her firm — if it doesn’t kill her first. Shiarra has signed on to work for a high-level mage to recover an ancient artifact owned by one of New York’s most powerful vampires.
As soon as Shiarra meets scary, mesmerizing vamp Alec Royce, she knows her assignment is even more complicated than she thought. With a clandestine anti-Other group trying to recruit her, and magi being eliminated, Shiarra needs back-up and enlists her ex-boyfriend–a werewolf whose non-furry form is disarmingly appealing–and a nerdy mage with surprising talents. But it may not be enough. In a city where the undead roam, magic rules, and even the Others aren’t always what they seem, Shiarra has just become the secret weapon in a battle between good and evil–whether she likes it or not…
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