A requested re-post: How to Write a Query Letter

I’ve had a lot of people ask me how I got published, which is a fair question. Sometimes I wonder how I got published. And when I start to explain about query letters, their eyes sort of glaze over. So I thought I would share the query letter I used when I was searching for an agent. And give some thoughts on how to go about writing your own. I’m not saying it would work for everybody or that it’s grammatically perfect, but it worked for me.

First things first. Is your manuscript ready to be submitted to an agent? How many times have you revised it? Have you read through it objectively and analyzed it for typos and plot weaknesses? A lot of writers, understandably so, are so eager to get published that they spend more time perfecting their query letter than they spend perfecting their manuscript. (Agent Stephen Barbara wrote a great piece for Publishers Weekly on this, which can be found if you click this entry’s title.) Make sure you’re ready to start the ball rolling. First impressions count for a lot. Once an agent has passed, they’ve passed. You will not have the chance to re-submit.

Second, find your demographic. I used Agentquery.com to find a list of about 70 agents who represented supernatural fiction, women’s fiction and Southern fiction, as my manuscript was all of those things. It would have been pointless for me to submit to an agent who only represented non-fiction. I also went for agents who accepted email queries, because it’s much cheaper and faster than “snail mail” submissions.

Now, it’s time to write your letter.

Dear Ms. Smith:

Always, always, ALWAYS direct your letter to a single agent. Do not send a blanket letter to every agent in an agency. Don’t address it “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir or Madam.” Also, spell their names right.

Meet Jane Jameson. A permanent fixture on her mama’s prayer list, she’s unmarried, unemployed, and most recently, undead. Don’t ask which annoys Mama more.

Jane is a quirky voice of reason in a world where vampires have their own aisle at Wal-Mart. A day that started with her unceremonious firing from the Half-Moon Hollow Public Library gets exponentially worse when she’s mistaken for a deer, shot, left for dead and turned into a creature of the night. Now, she’s a poster child for local vampire politics and the suspect in a tragically lame murder. Life as a single gal, undead or otherwise, is never boring.

I have introduced my character, her background and her conflict. And I tried to drop little tidbits about the plot without giving the whole book away. Think of this introductory paragraph as the cover blurb for your book. What would you write to get a reader to buy your book?

Part oddball Southern comedy, part supernatural women’s fiction, I wrote NICE GIRLS DON’T HAVE FANGS after leaving my job as a newspaper reporter in western Kentucky. While I still work as a freelance writer and humor columnist, I had to channel that sardonic energy somewhere. 

Remember to give your title! Try to classify your book to give the agent an idea of whether it fits with their client list. Limit that classification to one or two areas. If someone told me they’d written a historical romance/spy thriller with paranormal elements, I’d probably tell them they need to focus and revise their manuscript.

Pay attention to your agent’s preferences. For example, several agents on Agentquery.com had NO VAMPIRES written in big letters on their profile, so I didn’t bother submitting to them.

Also, give a little information about yourself without over-sharing. You don’t have to give your whole life story, just a snippet. What is your writing background? Qualifications? Why did you write your book? Have you been published before?

I am writing to you because of your history of representing fiction with an unconventional voice and supernatural themes. The full manuscript, which is approximately 75,000 words, is available for review. 

Explain why you would be a good fit for the agent. Always give the word count. It gives the agent a clue as to whether they have time to read your submission.

Thank you for your time. I have enclosed a synopsis and first two pages of the manuscript, per your submission guidelines.

Say thank you, but don’t go overboard. And always follow an agency’s submission guidelines. If they don’t want email attachments, don’t send them. If they don’t want a synopsis, don’t send it.

Molly Harper

Now comes the hard part. Waiting. You’re going to get a lot of form responses (mostly rejections.) And some agents won’t respond at all because they consider a non-response their response. When you get a rejection, it’s tempting to write back and ask the agent why they’re rejecting you or whether they can recommend another agent who might be interested. If they wanted to give you this information, they would have written it in their original response.

There are three rules to follow.

1) Treat all query letters like business correspondence.
2) Be polite.
3) Behave like a stable person.

You’d be amazed how far that can get you.