Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Query Letters for Novels

My latest manuscript, Dragon Guard, a YA modern fantasy, is all set to be viewed by agents and/or publishers. So, of course, that means it's time for the dreaded query letter. I know many authors, myself included, hate this part of the process. We spend so much time getting out long manuscript (mine is over 70K words) as perfect as we can, and we need to summarize it in just a few sentences to entice an agent or editor to even give it a look. It can be quite frustrating.

I'm not professing to be an expert on the subject. How can I? I've yet to have an agent bite on a query I've sent in. But that doesn't mean I don't know the formula for creating a good query letter. I've spent hours reading through various query letter advice, both in printed form and on the Internet, and I've found the skeleton of a letter that should be serviceable every time a query letter is asked for. If you're not sure what you're doing, follow this format, and you'll be good to go. Of course, it's simply a format, and you will still need tight and sparkling prose in the letter, but at least you don't have to start from scratch.

Lets take a look at the format of a simple but effective query letter, which is three paragraphs in length:

1st Paragraph: This is your opening paragraph. You want to grab the agent's or editor's attention right away. You want to dive into the action. Think about dust jacket/back cover summaries--the plan is to get your reader, whoever it may be, interesting in your book from the get-go. Since characters are often the most important part of any story, the sentence I usually start with is: "[Lead character] is a [occupation or vocation] who [life situation]." After that, add 4 to 6 sentences explaining the "wow" factor of the plot. This, of course, means the main thrust of the story that will get readers excited. You will likely have interesting and exciting sub-plots, but for a query letter, stick to the basic plot that runs through the entire novel. If this basic plot isn't exciting in itself, you may have trouble selling the book at all. Finish this opening paragraph with a sentence about how the novel ends. It may seem strange to do so, since back cover summaries would never tell how the book turns out, but agents and editors want to know you can bring your tale to a satisfying conclusion.

2nd Paragraph: This is the background paragraph. Here is where you put the title of your novel, the approximate word count, and relevant parts of your personal background (if you have anything relevant--no worries if you don't; simply leave that out). You should then list your writing credits, if you have any. I also put a link to my web site, which has links to some of my credits, as well as how I can be found on various social media outlets. End this paragraph with a sentence or two to the agent or publisher about why you chose to send to them. Do a bit of research--go to their web site and see other projects they've been involved in; visit their Twitter feed/Facebook profile/blog if they have any of those; check to see if they are looking for specific materials in addition to their wide interests. When you are armed with some of this information, find a way to personalize your submission to this agent or editor. A little human touch can go a long way!

3rd Paragraph: This is the "Thank you" paragraph. This is two or three simple sentences. If you are sending only a query letter, write these two sentences: "Thank you for your consideration. I hope to hear from you soon." If you are sending in a synopsis, the first 10 pages, the full manuscript, or whatever else is required in the agent's or publisher's submission guidelines, you can add one more sentence telling what you've enclosed (or, more likely nowadays, what you've pasted in the body of the email below). An example would be: "Below is my short synopsis and the first ten pages of my manuscript." You, of course, can change the order of the sentences in this final paragraph so it sounds best to you.

That's it. When you finish the third paragraph, sign your name with a simple sign-off, such as "Sincerely," and you're done. Also make sure you read the submission guidelines carefully, as some agents and editors have specific information they want in the query letters they receive. But in most cases, this simple structure will serve you well. You still have to come up with your own scintillating content, but at least now you'll know where to plug it in. Good luck!