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Dazzle the Editor or Agent with a Query Letter

Selena Robins - All Rights Reserved

 

"Talent alone cannot make a writer."

~~Ralph Waldo Emerson~~

THE END. Your manuscript is finished!

You've polished your characters, climax, black moment, and tied up all the loose ends. You’ve edited, read it over and over, and fixed your mistakes. You've put your body and soul into your manuscript, and probably endured a few sleepless nights and added on some extra chocolate calories.

You are now ready to send your baby to an agent or editor.

Most publishers and agents require a query letter, and sometimes a query letter and synopsis before they will read either a partial (first three chapters) or the full manuscript.

What is a query letter?

A query letter is the first contact via the written word that a writer sends to an agent/editor, in hopes that the agent/editor will ask to read their manuscript.

The query letter is also one of the most important pieces of writing a writer will compose. This letter is your chance to not only deliver a great first impression but also a lasting impression. The opportunity to dazzle the agent/editor into that all important request; "Please send me a partial," or better yet, "Please send the full manuscript."

Keep in mind that agents/editors can receive up to 500 query letters in a two-week period. She has probably read thousands of them, and rejected thousands of them. Make her job easy by presenting the best letter, clean, crisp and clear. At the same time make it hard for her to reject your letter.

Keep this mantra in mind and repeat it to yourself over and over again while preparing your letter.

"Never give the agent/editor any reason to reject my work."

You will most likely have as many as 5 to 10 drafts of your letter before you achieve a professional, polished query. Start off with writing down the outline of your book; all the points you think are necessary to tell the story. Pretend you are talking to your friend or partner, and are telling them about your story. Fill as many pages as you need to, you may end up with as many as 10 pages or more. That’s okay, because as you go through each step, you will edit, chop, and polish until you end up with a one page succinct letter.

 LETS START WITH THE BASICS:

Use high quality white paper, or your personal letterhead. However, remember the less graphics, color and clutter the better. Agents/editors read hundreds of letters and manuscripts. A lot of "white space" on the letter will win points with a tired eyed agent/editor.

Use a large, easy to read font: Times New Roman 12, Courier 12 or a favorite of the editors Vie spoken with, Bookman Old Style 12.

Use standard business letter format: your name, address, home phone and email on the top. The date. Agent/Editors full name. Agent/Editors title. Full Address. Salutation: Dear Ms. Greene (always try to get the agent/editors name, better than Dear Editor or Dear Agent).

Single Space the letter.

GETTING TO THE HEART OF A POLISHED QUERY LETTER:

Name Drop:

Name drop whenever possible and state that up front in a manner that is confident but not boastful.

Did you meet the agent/editor at a conference?

Did you attend the agent/editors workshop?

Did you meet a colleague of the agent/editor who suggested you write to them?

Did you have a phone conversation with the editor/agent?

Did an author from the publishing house you are targeting read your manuscript and advised you to send it in?

Name-dropping is an eye catcher, and will grab the agent/editors attention right away.

Examples:

1.         Dear Roberta Houston:

I recently met Vicky Maple at the New York City RWA workshop where she informed me that Penguin is actively acquiring for their paranormal line.

2.         Dear Catherine Orleans:

I enjoyed your workshop at the Toronto Mystery Writers conference. Thank you for taking the time afterwards to speak to me in private about my 90,000 word completed romantic suspense.

3.         Dear Trish Debold:

Carly Phillips has read my completed 100,000 word historical, and advised me to send you this letter.

4.                  Dear Nancy Brown:

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me regarding your exciting new line, Flipside. As per our telephone conversation, I am submitting the synopsis and three chapters of my completed 70,000-word manuscript, Second Time Around.

TONE:

The tone of the letter should reflect the tone of your book.

If the query letter is light and humorous, but the book is dark and gritty, that conflict will only serve to confuse the editor. (Remember your mantra - "Never give the agent/editor any reason to reject my work.")

A serious, gritty book requires a serious tone; a humorous book requires a humorous tone in the letter. Even though this is obvious, I have read and have had editors tell me that they get conflicted when the letter had a serious tone and the synopsis was uplifting and funny. This only gives them a reason to reject the author.

FIRST PARAGRAPH:

Introduce yourself briefly

State the title

Word length (do your research, do not send them a 50,000 word manuscript when the publishing house guidelines state 100,000 words)

State whether or not it is completed. Most agents/editors have completed manuscripts from floor to ceiling to read. If you are going to send them a letter stating that your project is incomplete, you are making it easy for them to reject you. It is best to finish your manuscript before querying.

Indicate which genre and/or sub genre you are targeting. Again, do your homework and make sure that your "cowboy, secret baby" story is being pitched to the correct line in that publishing house.

Examples of first paragraph:

Example 1:

MILLIONAIRE BACHELOR DAD is a completed 60,000 word contemporary romance set in New York City.  This story is targeted for the Silhouette Romance Line.

Example 2:

Locked up with her family’s archenemy! Will Lady Emma Simmons survive Sir William Chadwick’s overtures? Castle of Passion is a completed 100,000 word historical romance set in Scotland. This story is targeted for Avon’s Historical line.

Example 3:

A retired ER nurse, I've completed a 90,000 word medical suspense entitled, Doctor Suspect, I would like to submit for consideration to your Medical Thriller imprint.

SECOND PARAGRAPH:

This is the most important part and the meat of your query. This paragraph will summarize your book in one, maximum two short paragraphs.

Think about the blurb on the back of a novel or the teaser on the back of a video. You don't have much more room than that.

This is the place to SHOW OFF YOUR UNIQUE VOICE:

Agents and editors are looking for: "Writers with a voice."

However, while "showing off" your fresh, new voice, you also need to tread carefully. Agents/editors do not want to read about a scene in the query; they also do not want plot points, which belong in your synopsis.

The query's job is to give a complete but brief picture of your manuscript. Encompassing these major points:

Hook

Goal

Motivation

Conflict

Brief description of what the book is about

All these points are written in one or two paragraphs (at the most) in a concise and confident manner. Remember, you want to dazzle the agent/editor with as few words as possible.

To help achieve this, make every word count by using effective words, not purple prose. Stay away from using sequence of events. Instead, emphasize the conflicts and the dynamics of your characters personalities.

Once you have written all the major points of your story into how ever many pages it takes, go through it all and ask yourself the following questions in order to cut out what you don’t need to result in one or two paragraphs.

What is the hook?

What is your book about?

What is the theme?

What makes your characters and their conflicts interesting?

Remember the basic fiction formula:

"Characters + problems = internal and external conflicts."

Pretend that you have limited time with an agent/editor. She is giving you 5 minutes to describe your book. What you want to do is whittle down the description of your book to get to one paragraph, two maximum and capture the essence of the story.

Examples (the following example have all resulted in a request for the full manuscript):

Selena Robins

Example 1: From my book: "Sabrina’s Destiny."

Inheriting her family’s Vermont inn gives down-on-her-luck Sabrina Monroe plenty of headaches and not enough money to buy pain relief. Just when she thought her life couldn’t be more complicated, she meets a mystery woman who makes oblique references to her destiny before bestowing upon Sabrina a mystical gift that brings her renewed hope. Magic has saved the day! That is, until her newly hired handyman arrives, and her life suddenly careens out of control.

Example 2: From my second manuscript: "Island Sizzle."

This steamy romance follows the hilarious trip of Maddie Saunders, an impetuous, sassy young journalist.  She learns that the road to seduction is filled with stop signs, speed bumps, and detours.  If she’s lucky, shell end up at her fantasy destination Sexual Boot Camp!  Alex Donovan, the lust-of-her-life, who turns her fantasies into an X-rated film festival, is reluctant. This is no time to fall in love or is it?

Example 3: From my manuscript: "Her Bodyguards Secret."

His name is Cade Fitzpatrick, undercover cop, (a.k.a. Cade Webster, personal bodyguard) wildly handsome, arrogant, and controlling. He is everything Laura Marchetti, the daughter of a prominent Chicago family does not want in her life. When their lives intertwine, Laura is determined to resist him, since he resembles all the dominating men she’s encountered in her life. Cade ignores the desire he feels for her, especially since he is undercover to investigate her family’s connection to mob style criminal activity. Someone wants Laura dead or is it Cade they’re after? They will both have to take a risk and trust each other, without reservation to stay alive. But nothing is more dangerous than love.

I created the following blurbs to show more examples:

Sample 1:

Trudy Holmes finally meets the stranger she’s met online. In real time, she’s mesmerized by his charisma and attentiveness. He brings her to his lake house - a rundown cabin in the secluded Montana hills. Soon after her arrival the seduction becomes deception and the passion becomes possession, Trudy realizes she’s been kidnapped. Torn between fear and desire, Trudy must escape but her zealous admirer has other plans.

Sample 2:

It takes a village to raise a child, but when that child is Queenie Littleton, the results are at times bizarre. Thanks to bankruptcy and a lack of employment skills, Queenie now spends her days cleaning house for retired con artist Tony "The Trickster" Tomassi. When Trickster turns states evidence, and accepts entry into the witness protection program, Queenie inadvertently joins him. Together, they’ll they travel across State lines swindle casinos - and dodge Mafioso mayhem.

Sample 3:

Returning to his tiny hometown of Roll, Arizona, District Attorney, Chad Bowman is shocked to discover that his prime witness in a high profile murder case is an utterly gorgeous woman Marley Davis. A woman he'd hoped never to see again. Marley had been his true love, his only love, until she betrayed him in the worst possible way. Marley can’t forget that it was Chad’s false accusations and lack of trust that torpedoed their love five years ago.

THIRD PARAGRAPH:

The third paragraph is about YOU. This is where you brag. Add details that will show you are a serious writer, and one who has studied her craft. Talk about your writing experience and credentials, prior publishing history, if any (including articles, poetry, short stories); professional writing memberships; and any relevant information that helped you write this book.

Examples:

1.      I have been writing for fifteen years.  Romance is my first love, though I have published non-fiction articles in national magazines. I’ve been a member of Romance Writers of America, New Jersey Romance Writers, a number of on-line writers groups, and a wonderful critique group where I was fortunate to work with a published author. I'm proud to add that this manuscript was a finalist in this year’s Golden Hearts contest.

2.      I’ve been writing for over ten years, and have always been a voracious romance reader. Imp a recently published author with Treble Heart Books and Arabella Romance Magazine. I am an active member of RWA and Ottawa RWA. My research and the study of human sexuality provide me with an understanding of how humans engage in romantic relationships.

3.      In addition to my ten years of police work, I also counseled teenagers in distress. I've had several articles published in the local papers, and have published a short story in a national magazine which was well received.

Lastly:

State that you are enclosing an SASE and thank the agent/editor and express your hope for a prompt reply.

Examples: (keep it simple)

I will gladly send you either the first three chapters of Sabrina’s Destiny, or the complete manuscript.  I have enclosed a synopsis and a SASE for your reply.  Thank you for your time and consideration. 

DO's AND DON'Ts

The DON'Ts

DON'T:            Forget the basics: spelling, grammar, punctuation, strong, clear and vivid writing. Your query is the first impression the editor has to sample your writing.

DON'T:            Write a long story synopsis or include an autobiographical account of your life, your writing history or your children. Just focus on what makes your book special. Why does your book fit this publisher's line? This is where research is vital, and also reading a few books from the line you are targeting.

DON'T:            Talk about being published is a "life long dream" or that you are "tickled pink" about this whole process.

DON'T:            Tell the agent/editor how hard you’ve worked on your book.

DON'T:            Tell them that your project is still "in the working stages."

DON'T:            Mention that other publishers have rejected you.

DON'T:            Include other peoples (especially family & friends) comments.

DON'T:            Request advice or a critique.

DONT:            Include off topic information about yourself or the agent/editor.

DON'T:            Discuss copyright info, contracts, movie rights, royalties or advances.

Example of a "DON'T" Query Letter:

January 20, 2004

Avon Books

New York

Dear Editor:

I am a great fan of all your books, especially Dark Angel, by Diane Reeves. I'm writing you because I respect and like your company and want to give you the opportunity to be the first to see my book NIGHT STALKER, guaranteed to climb to the New York Times bestseller list.

My husband read it and said it even scared him. My mother thinks I've finally made it and that I really didn’t waste all those years on writing, and my Aunt June, who doesn't like to read thrillers usually, missed her bridge games to give it a read.

Night Stalker is a thriller, a cross between the show CSI and Law and Order with a European twist. In my opinion it is a real nail-biter, even better than Dark Angel! The story is about an Interpol Investigator and an American Private Investigator. They fall in love while working together to solve murders, but it turns dangerous. How you ask? Read the book and I will show you how.

I know you will love this book and will want to sign me up right away with an exclusive contract. I am a Brownie Leader, baseball coach, a member of the murder mystery writers group, and I belong to the Woman's auxiliary baking group.

If my boss who is really busy can take the time to read this, then I think you can too. I am excited for you to read the whole book.

Sincerely,

Ms. Author-in-Waiting

THE DOs

DO:     Set up the query as a business letter; try not to exceed one and half pages.

DO:     Be 100% sure you are targeting the right publisher and have the right address. Double-check all spelling of the publishing company's name and address.

DO your homework:            Your query letter has to be accurate. Once you have found the name of your contact person (agent or editor), verify and ensure your contact is still with the agency or publishing house. You can do this by using the most up to date publisher or agency information from Writers Market Review, or if you want to absorb the cost, phone the agency/publisher and confirm the information. Make sure his/her name is spelled correctly. Check to make sure he is a he, and she is a her.

DO:     Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope, your name, address, telephone number and email.

DO:     Create your letter as a "sales pitch." A query letter is not intended for the author to state how great the book is, or how endearing the characters are. That is for the editor to decide.

DO:     Pull the editor in right away with a strong hook.

Example of a "DO" Query Letter:

January 20, 2004

Avon Books

123 5th Avenue

Suite 2400

New York, New York

10279

Attention:   Vicki Robinson

                     Senior Editor

Dear Ms. Robinson:

I've recently completed a 90,000 word romantic suspense entitled, Night Stalker, I would like to submit for consideration to Avon’s Romantic Suspense line.

Monte Carlo, Monaco. The glittering playground for the rich and famous and gamblers with money to spare--and the hiding place for a shadowy stalker with nothing left to lose. So far, he's been able to murder and disappear in the surroundings, with all the odds in his favor. Until Interpol Investigator, Francesco Benito places his bets on a beautiful American Private Investigator, Sandra Lockhart, an expert at forensic science, and no stranger to this dazzling world of the power broker set. Together, Francesco and Sandra attempt to flush out the murderer. Her attraction to the sensual, brooding Benito is immediate--and provocative. As their love affair heats up, so does a secret that Sandra has kept hidden for fifteen years brew to the surface that will damage her professional credibility. The killer's obsession with Sandra will stop at nothing to destroy Francesco and Sandra's relationship and their lives....

In addition to my years of work as a forensic scientist with the RCMP, I've researched Interpol laws and the Monaco culture to provide a colorful and accurate backdrop for the story. I'm a member of Kiss of Death Writer's Group and RWA. I've published several short stories in national magazines, which were well received.

Attached, please find a self-addressed, stamped postcard and envelope for your convenience. Thank you for your review and I look forward to receiving your response.

Sincerely,

Ms. Write On

What to cut from your query letter:

Names and/or references to secondary characters or places. If this secondary character is vital to the plot, then use their relationship to the protagonist. For example: Nancy’s ex-husband. Roberts twin daughter. But only if these characters are absolutely necessary to show the hook, conflict and GMC.

Dialogue from your manuscript.

Prose that will appear in your synopsis.

Simplify the chain of events, which will show your GMC, instead of outlining a complicated and convoluted plot. Example: "On the run from common deadly enemies, forces David and Mary to an even closer relationship, putting their hearts in serious jeopardy."

Long words, purple prose, elaborate sentences or foreign words, which might need explanation. Every word counts when you are trying to get your point across in a short paragraph.

 Final checks before mailing your query letter:

Is it in proper format?

Are your thoughts clear?

Is your writing tight?

Is it addressed to Dear Editor, or to her personally by title and name?

Is it three pages long when the house's guidelines state one page only?

Is it letter perfect, with no spelling or grammar mistakes? 

Is the Genre correct?

Did you confirm the full address?

Did you include word count?

Does it look cluttered, or is there a lot of white space?

Did you include an SASE?

Did you include your phone number?

Did you include your email?

Try to respond promptly when a query is accepted.

And remember your mantra:

"Never give the agent/editor any reason to reject my work."

Good luck!!!

 

About the Author: Award Winning author, Selena Robins is the author of “Sabrina’s Destiny” – a paranormal romance comedy. “Sabrina’s Destiny” won the 2003-2004 Best Book Award, (Treble Heart Book Contest) and May 2004 Reviewers Choice Award (Road to Romance Review Site). She is currently working on a romantic suspense “Her Bodyguard’s Secret,” the sequel to Sabrina’s Destiny. Selena has written short stories for both adults and children, and is published in non-fiction articles as well. Visit Selena’s website www.selenarobins.com

 

 
 
 

         Last updated: February 19, 2007