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Writing the Query Letter

by Jen Boucle

I was recently working with a client on a query letter for a novel he’s hoping to place with a literary agent. His first draft was long, elegant, filled with images … and I really had to stop him there. The publishing world doesn’t seem to be looking for that anymore, if indeed it ever was.

Here’s what I told him:

General: Perhaps we should have spoken, first, about the query letter as it is today. This is a lovely and elegant letter and unfortunately will end up consistently in the rubbish; the publishing world, at least in the United States, is not looking for anything lovely and elegant. It has to be to the point, to follow a form that isn’t particularly interesting but gives agents what they need to know.

There’s no ideal or perfect letter, but successful ones all have some things in common.

What most people don’t know is that your query letter is really your first marketing piece for your book. You need to try and sell the agent on it, and talk to the agent as though he/she were the reader to whom you’re trying to sell the book. Like it or not, it really is all about sizzle.

Structure: So let’s look at what needs to go into a query letter!

  1. You want to start with a “hook,” literally hooking the agent into wanting to read more. An example of an excellent hook I once read is this: “What if you learned that a family member was plotting to kill the president? Would you try to prove the plot, warn the person, call the police? This is the dilemma that Mark Watkins is facing …” Now, granted, a thriller such as that one lends itself well to an exciting hook; but I think that with some thought you could do one for your book, too. Get the agent interested, make him or her want to read the book, and then move on.
  2. Follow the hook with what you’re selling: essentially say that you’ll find the answer to the hook in the novel you’ve written. Include the title of the novel, the word count, and if you can possibly fit it into a genre, do so here. People like to be able to put books on shelves, figuratively as well as literally. (To determine the genre, ask yourself where booksellers will place it, in what section of the store. That will give you its genre.)
  3. Tell about why you’re the best person to tell this story. Make the reader feel that you’re the exact right writer for this book. Weave your extraordinary life experiences in to the telling of the story. SHOW the agent, make him/her excited.
  4. Finally, get to the specifics. What you want is to offer to send a full proposal, not the manuscript itself. This also includes a brief summary of your past publications, etc. (The proposal is phenomenally important, so don’t wait to get a request for it to begin working on it!) Agents will know what you’re talking about.

Next Steps: What I’d like you to do is a little homework. Google “query letters” and read about them. Read my comments and do an outline of your query letter, then put it aside and think about it some. Then rewrite the letter and send it back to me. Take heart: most effective query letters are revised many, many times!

All of this got me thinking about the many formulas out there, the options for doing things one way … or another. I’ve seen successful query letters that I would have said never had a chance in the world to succeed, and brilliant ones that still haven’t. The bottom line is, of course, that getting published depends on so many factors that it is in many ways a crapshoot.

The answer? Do the best you can; don’t give up; don’t take it personally … and  hone your craft.