Query Letters

Ah, the query letter. Much has been written in the blogging community about this important marketing tool. For a truly exhaustive discussion, consult the archives of the venerable (and now retired) Miss Snark. Her blog was educational, clear and savagely enjoyable to read, so if you're embarking on the process of securing an agent, do yourself a favor and look through her offerings on the subject.

This week, Nathan Bransford's blog chronicles his disdain for beginning queries with rhetorical questions (Did you ever leave to check the mail and come home to a naked man making a sandwich in your kitchen?).

My take on it is simple: research and personalize. The blogging community has served as a fantastic tool for learning about the nebulous publishing industry. It's a great place to share feedback and network with other writers.

But I'd say the best information comes from the industry insiders-the agents and editors who pull back the curtain and write perceptively about their trade and the business of selling manuscripts. Check the links on the right of this blog for a list that will be updated periodically.

The first step is to drill down on your genre, then take out a resource like Writer's Market, a fairly up-to-date source filled with reputable agents. If you want to keep your search online, look at agent query and try to compile a list of agents that represent your genre.

After you have a list of potential business partners, begin looking for some information on them. Many agents have websites that are frequently updated with notes. Many, many of them blog, and you can get to know them that way. Pay attention to the guidelines-you must ensure that you've followed the instructions on their site to the letter.

Formatting? 10-12 pt font in Times New Roman or Courier New is preferable. If you can get it all down in 12-pt font, nice work. The letter will look professional and the agent will appreciate not needing to squint.

Now, if you can personalize your letter, the opener is the place to do it. If you read the agent's blog, briefly mention that. If you met them at a conference, mention your experience. I think this illustrates that you're serious about learning about the industry, and you've taken some time to get a feel for who this person is.

Then you need to hit 'em with a hook. Maybe summarize a central theme. Look to capture the story in a single sentence. I started my query to Bernadette with a simple declarative sentence:

Evil came to Oregon in the winter of 1807.

Move onto a synopsis. One to three paragraphs that encapsulate the setting, plot and characterization. No cliff hangers. If you feel the need to use a rhetorical question, this would be the place to use it.

Mention your education, if it's relevant to the storytelling or the quality of the writing. If you're a cop and you're working on a police procedural, that's in. If you have an MFA from the University of Iowa, that's in. If you spent your youth hunting gators in the Florida low country, and your book's about that topic-of course it's relevant.

Credits next. Generally speaking, if you have published your writing in reputable (i.e. edited and competitive) publications, include that. If you write for a living-whether in journalism or technical writing, mention it. If you have no credits, merely mention that this is your first novel, or say nothing at all.

Prior to signing off, make some modest comparisons to books and writers that sincerely influenced your writing. This illustrates that you have a feel for the market-that you're thinking about where your piece might fit in. Be realistic though. J.K. Rowling's books were excellent, but I feel bad for all the agents that need to read query after query claiming to feature the next Hogwarts.

There are many writing forums and communities out there that will help you refine your query letters (absolute write is a supportive place). When you finish the first draft, let it sit for a spell before revision. The key is to say as much as possible, with attractive, active phrasing, in as small a space as possible.

Be considerate. Don't be boastful. Don't sell yourself short either, or put yourself down.

So I'm curious, guys. How have your queries worked out? Where are you in the publishing process?

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