Monday, July 9, 2012

Writerly Things ~ Query Letters

For this episode of "Writerly Things," I'll touch on a subject near and dear to the hearts of those aspiring to publication—query letters (also known as the "pitch letter.") (And by "near and dear," I mean, "which causes much grinding and gnashing of teeth and, possibly, alcoholism and/or abuse of cold medications with sedating properties.")

If you're not familiar with this term, lemme 'splain. (No, there ees too mush—lemme sum up.) In the business of publishing, the query letter is similar to the cover letter you write to accompany your resume when you apply for a job. Only, the query letter isn't selling you, but your book. (OK, by extension, it's selling you as well, but mainly, it's meant to highlight your work.) In a query letter to a literary agent or editor/publisher, the writer endeavors to interest the reader in requesting a look at the work in question, with an eye to securing either representation (in the case of an agent) or publication (in the case of an editor).

Now, I'm no query letter expert. My own experiences with hooking a person's interest have been mixed. For my first book, That Fatal Kiss, I queried publishers and managed to get a nibble from one editorial assistant, bless her heart, who requested the full manuscript (or MS) but passed on the project. For my second novel, Bedeviled, I concentrated on querying agents instead and got three bites but no offers of representation. Le suck. This sad reality notwithstanding, I have had plenty of experience in formatting query letters/query packages and will share them with y'all here. (Please note: this is just how I do stuff, which isn't to say it's the best way, but it's one way, and if you've never done this before, it might prove helpful to you.) Also, I query for fiction, so the info below is for that sorta query.

How I Get Started
I identify the agents who seem to be interested in representing the kinda stuff I like to write, using resources like:
At a query workshop, one agent suggested looking up the acknowledgement pages in my favorite books to see if the authors thank their agents and perhaps query those cats (assuming they're open to unsolicited queries).

To research the more promising dudes, and make sure I really want to query them, I'll check out:

Once I've got a list of folks, I visit/bookmark their agencies' Web sites to learn their submissions requirements. If none can be found, I'll go with the guidelines on AgentQuery or QueryTracker, and/or I'll use my best judgment (such as it is).

What I Include in A Query
That'll depend on the agent or publisher's stated requirements. Sending things in excess of what they say they want is a waste of time, energy, and money. And I'm both lazy and cheap, so I like to keep things simple, if I can.

A Query May Comprise:
  • The query letter
  • That and a synopsis*
  • These and anywhere from 1 - 50 pages of your MS
  • These and an outline*
  • Any combo of the above items
*I'll write more about the synopsis and outline in a future post. God willing. (I'm of Portuguese descent, which equals superstitious, which means nothing is certain till it actually happens.) ('Cause we're fatalistic like that.)

How I Format My Query Letter
  1. 1" margins all around (for paper; I don't sweat margins in an e-query)
  2. Font: If a paper query, something with a serif, like Times New Roman. If e-query, a sans-serif font, like Arial
  3. Block style business letter (though mostly I've been querying via e-mail, but either way, it's all aligned left)
  4. One page in length (check each person/place's requirements, though; sometimes 2 pages are acceptable but generally, from what I've read, less is more)
What The Hell Goes Into a Query Letter?
These folks give good advice on the matter:

Once I've got the basic letter written, I get to e-mailing/posting to the individuals, being sure to check I've got the right names in the right letters and tailored each query to each agent appropriately. If mailing a query, I include a self-addressed stamped envelope for a reply. My experience is that, generally, only a negative reply will require the SASE (unless, I suppose, the person you're querying doesn't do e-mail).

OK, so, that's all I got. Fellow writers, what words of wisdom would you add to this query letter primer?

30 comments:

  1. Hey Mina. Really enjoyed this post, I'm obviously not published yet, but I will make a point of checking out the links to see what I can glean from them. Cheers!

    Also, loved "The Princess Bride" reference. Hands down the best film for all the family ever made. Fact. It rocks. Very hard.

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    1. "Princess Bride" is a definite favorite - the film and the book!

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  2. It never even occurred to me that you'd need to write a query letter! Does it cost too much to self publish?

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    1. I haven't taken my self-publishing research as far as pricing things out, but I understand it's not necessarily the self-publishing that costs a lot, but what you should to in advance to prepare your book for publishing that can be pricy. For instance, hiring an editor is often advised, but will run you at least $1000. Probably. Hiring a pro to do your book cover can also get expensive.

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  3. Very enjoyable read despite the topic. I wish we could just send in the first chapter and go from there. I hate the idea of writing a 'hook' - ugh. Why san-serif for the email?

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    1. Yeah, writing about one's writing is super-stressful!

      Supposedly, sans-serif is easier on the eyes, when reading stuff on a computer screen, so I opt for that when e-querying. (And serif fonts are easier on the eyes on paper.)

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  4. This is a useful post Mina - I'll check it out again in future when I get nibbles, bites and big old kicks in the teeth from publishers.

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    1. "Kicks in the teeth" is exactly how rejection can feel! :-)

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  5. I'd suggest that people start writing queries before finishing edits, but not actually query until all edits are done. :-)

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    1. That's a great idea - I've even read that you should write your query before you start on your story, to sort of keep you on task/true to your original idea as you go along. There's merit to that, but it's also true that sometimes our stories take us in directions we hadn't originally anticipated. Thanks for chiming in, Misha! :-)

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  6. This is an awesome guide for querying. (: I'd mention that a lot of accepted queries hover around the 300-350 word margin.

    I hate the synopsis...ugh!

    I gave you an award over on my blog! (: http://flamecycle.blogspot.com/2012/07/award-number-three-stylish-blogger.html

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    1. That's a great point, about the word count. After I read this, I had a look at mine and was relieved to find it was 313 words. And thanks so much for the award! :-)

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  7. *Peeps around the door, waves, and dashes off*

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    1. I *totally* saw you, Mister Mark!!! :-P

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  8. A very informative post. Thanks for the info

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  9. First ... bachickawawa at your profile pic. ;D
    Second, there's an exercise I found helpful, but can't remember where I heard about it. :( Anyway, it said to write the query in 1st person--NOT to send out that way, but for you to have "voice" in the query.
    THEN switch it over to 3rd person for the letter to agents or pubs.

    I love QT, but don't visit there as much as I should.
    Have a great week!!!

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    1. LOL, Jackie - thanks!

      That's an interesting exercise, hadn't heard of that idea before. Maybe writing it in the first person lends an immediacy or urgency to the blurb that adds that extra bit of spark needed to engage an agent. Nice!

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  10. Mina, you are a riot! I loved the post. The only thing I can add is to look up books that resemble yours on Amazon, find the author's blog, and see if they list their agent (they usually do).
    I'll be querying in Sept. I wish both of us luck! :-)

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    1. That's a great idea, hadn't really thought of that before! Though I have noticed, as I've explored the blogosphere, that writers do mention their agents, sometimes right in their profiles. Thanks, Lexa, and GOOD LUCK IN QUERY LAND!!! (Be sure to dress in layers and pack a flask.) :-D

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  11. You are funny and informative at the same time.

    Though I must say that this is one of the scariest/most annoying parts of the writing process... and probably the reason that I never send anything out to potential publishers. I feel like it would become much less fun.

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    1. Thank you, Mr. Brown, and thanks for popping by!

      You're right; this querying business is *not* a good time (unless you're one of those masochists who delights in rejection). But maybe Misha's suggestion, above, of writing that query letter earlier on, rather than when you're done with your book, is a good way of getting the ick out of your system so you can enjoy the fun stuff.

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  12. Wonderful post, and entertaining, too! Oh, querying... sigh. My tip would be to drink wine. :)

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    1. Great tip - and would that be for *after* you've written your query, or during??? ;-)

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  13. Wow! You've done a great job summarizing the must have's of querying! Thanks for so many useful tips and amazing research. I'm bookmarking this page for future reference. =)

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    1. Wow, and thank you for that compliment, Gina!

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  14. This is an amazing post. The query letter is one of the hardest things to get right for most people. I know it is for me! I'm constantly changing my query letters, mostly the blurb. It has to be just right to catch the attention of an agent/editor. Just make sure you're representing your story in its truest sense. Sell it to the right audience. Don't make it something more - or less - than it is. That was one of my problems when I queried.

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    1. That's excellent advice - I had the same concern with my book Bedeviled. Not necessarily that I'd embellished, more like I had managed to explain the core of the story. Thanks, Christine - and thanks for tweeting this post!

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  15. Replies
    1. Thanks, Lisa - and thanks for that interesting link! I now feel confident about my ability to pen a romantic letter. ;-)

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