Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Writing the Query Letter (includes an example)

 Many new (and established) authors have trouble with the first step in contacting an agent or editor, and that is sending a query letter. The query letter is a simple business letter that carries your hopes and dreams and is designed to make the recipient want to read your manuscript. When you've gotten a positive response to your query letter, you can send in your manuscript (or whatever portion of it that was requested) by writing "Requested Material" on the outside of your envelope. (If you've queried by email, you'll probably be given an individual's email rather than the all-purpose queries@agent.com.) The first thing visible inside your response should be a copy of the agent or editor's email or letter asking for your work. Without it, your manuscript will go into the slush pile.

A note about slush pile processing. In many cases, this is what happens on the inside.

The agent's or editor's staff will hold a meeting once a month or so. They're always behind in reading slush pile submissions, so the particular submissions under consideration this month might have arrived 4-6 months ago. Pizza will be ordered in. Slush pile manuscripts will be passed out at the table, and each person will read a paragraph or two of the manuscript before either setting it aside for more consideration or sending out a form rejection letter. There can be a lot of laughter at these meetings as particularly bad openings are shared with the group. Afterward, the few manuscripts that survived the session will be given a reading of up to fifty pages by staff who have to fit this into an already-jammed schedule. By the time an agent or editor actually looks at it, the manuscript will have gone through several points of elimination. At a small press, this process could be condensed, because there may not be much in the way of staff. This is why it's so important to get a positive response to your query letter before packing off your manuscript.

General points about query letters

•First chance to impress agent or editor

•One page single spaced business letter; email only if guidelines permit - many places have gone to email submissions, but don't assume

•Enclose SASE for response (#10 outer mailing envelope, #9 inner response envelope)

•Always send to an individual, not an agency

•Your grammar, spelling, punctuation, and word usage must be perfect - mistakes can count against you. Why tilt the odds the wrong way?

•Begin your letter with a hook that captures the agent's interest: a short, exciting mini-synopsis. Write exciting jacket copy for your book, and use it as the first paragraph of your query letter. If non-fiction, capture the flavor of the book, or use some exciting anecdote from it.

•Focus on the strongest, most dramatic points of your book’s plot and character interactions

•Don't give away the ending of your book in the query - let it tantalize the reader

•Follow the hook with a short bio of your protagonist

•Make sure the setting of the book is clear

•Tell the reader generally what type of book it is, but try not to be too specific - let the agent form own opinion

•Give the approximate word count and point of view

•If possible, mention books the agent has handled that are similar to yours

•Include brief biographical information for yourself - if you don't have any publishing credits, simply say it is a first novel and don't be apologetic about it, or omit any mention at all. If you are professionally qualified to write the book (physician writing a medical thriller), say so.

•End with a positive, direct request

•Don't be arrogant, don't say all your friends like the book or it is the next mega-bestseller

•Polish your query letter until it glows

Manuscript Format Mechanics

•Double spaced

•Wide margins, 1 inch minimum, preferably 1.25 inches all around

•12 point font

•Editors have different favorite fonts and you can’t please everyone - just choose something readable like Courier, Times, Geneva, or Helvetica - no script fonts. Courier is always a safe choice.

•Ragged right edges, not justified

•Use slug in upper right corner of each page – Name / Book Title / Page #, example Kennett / Gray Matter / Page 43

•Begin each chapter on a new page, skip down about one third of the page

•Include a title page with the book title, your name, and your contact information

•If you are supplying a manuscript to your agent for submission, put your agent's contact info on the title page instead of your own

•Clear print, dark ink

•Send in protective packaging to ensure manuscript looks good upon arrival – manuscript boxes are best, available at office stores. Use electronic submission only if invited to!

•Don’t reuse a manuscript over and over until it becomes worn-looking

•Don’t play little games like putting in a page upside-down to see if the manuscript has actually been read – it screams AMATEUR

•Include a SASE for an acceptance/rejection (acceptance usually comes by phone!). If you don’t include postage for returning the manuscript, it will be trashed or recycled, according to the office procedures of the agent

•Keep careful records of submissions and responses

•Always include a short cover letter with your manuscript reminding the agent that he or she has asked to see it. If you have received a written request for submission (in response to your query letter), send along a copy of it.

•Multiple submissions? Of course! Let the recipient know.

Exclusive readings should always have a time limit; when the time limit is expired, send a polite letter withdrawing your manuscript from consideration and indicating that you are submitting elsewhere.

Sample Query Letter 

Here's a sample query letter based on an earlier series I wrote under my real name of Shirley Kennett. It's addressed to a specific individual (at a fictional agency). The first paragraph is the hook, the second is the characters' bio, the third tells about the book and author in general, and it ends with a direct request to submit more material.

September 21, 2010

Harry Harrison
The Harry Harrison Literary Agency
123 Broadway
New York, New York 10025

Dear Mr. Harrison:

A brutal killer with the well-deserved nickname of Cut is loose in St. Louis, and he's out for revenge. First PJ Gray's partner Detective Leo Schultz loses his son in a homemade gas chamber. The body count goes up as prominent members of the law enforcement and judicial community are taken out. Schultz is running for his life, and it's up to PJ to face a cunning adversary alone. She has just hours to unlock the secrets of a decade-old murder, untangle a family history of greed, incest, violence, and stone-cold evil - and prevent Schultz from suffering the same fate as his son. She throws everything she has at the task, because the prize for solving the puzzle is the life of the man she loves.

PJ Gray is forty-one, a psychologist, single mother, and pioneer in the field of forensic computer simulation. She's professional on the outside, a little vulnerable on the inside, intuitive, quick-witted, and struggling with the gap in respect that cops have for those who aren't in the Job. As the civilian head of the Computerized Homicide Investigations Project (CHIP), she works with detectives to develop virtual reality simulations of murder scenes. Insights gained from her vivid crime scene re-enactments have shown themselves useful in solving previous homicide cases, yet PJ is still proving herself on the job, as a single mother, and as a woman looking for love. Her senior investigator, Detective Schultz, has been saved from premature retirement by CHIP. He's skeptical, curmudgeonly, not above bending the law in a good cause, extremely dedicated to his work, and much more than a co-worker to PJ.

Act of Betrayal is the fourth entry in the PJ Gray series. It is a suspense novel told from multiple viewpoints, and is 98,000 words long. My extensive background as a computer consultant enables me to do the virtual reality scenes in a vivid and authentic fashion. The series (Gray Matter, Fire Cracker, and Chameleon) takes the reader into the thrilling world of forensic computer simulation, which is in its infancy in the same way that behavioral profiling was during the 1970's. Readers of Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, and Jeffery Deaver will be interested in the series, which opens a window in an exciting new area of forensics to them. Books you have recently handled that are similar to Act of Betrayal are XXXX and XXXX.

May I send you the complete manuscript, or a synopsis and sample chapters?

Best regards,
Shirley Kennett


  1. wow thats super helpful info for those that may need it! Very cool Dakota!

  2. Great info! I will be saving this post since I want to be querying in the next month or so. My manuscript is done and in the process of being read by someone else and pretty soon I need to query.

    Thanks for the info! :)

  3. I hope it will be of some use. When I started on my first query letter, I had no idea what to do. Over the years I've gotten a lot better at it, with input from agents. If I can help anyone else from stumbling around, great!

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  5. Thanks Dakota! I have a friend reading my NaNoWriMo from 2009. If I ever think it's worthy, this will come in very handy. Bookmarking your page!

    Dottie :)

  6. Go ahead--submit your writing project. I'm cheering for you!