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Query Letter Basics for the Children's Book Market

by Marlo Garner

"This is really hard!" I'm quite certain that's the sentence most uttered by writers trying to concoct a strong query or cover letter.

They're absolutely right. It is hard to write a good query letter, especially when you're starting out. I don't know anyone who really likes writing queries, and most agree: the process—especially writing the short synopsis—can be confusing and daunting. But adhering to the list of ingredients and following the basic formula can make it that much easier.

These days, most queries to agents will be e-queries. In an e-query, you don't need to start with your address, the recipient's name/title/ address, or date as you would in a traditional snail-mail business letter to editors/publishers. For e-queries, simply begin with the greeting. If it is a snail mail query, then use standard business letter formatting.

First Paragraph

Some agents and editors like essential basic information in the first paragraph:

  • Title
  • Genre
  • Word count
  • Target audience/age range

Others like queries that start with why you've chosen to submit to them, or to dive straight into the hook and synopsis, and leave these basics until near the end. But note: this basic information should be somewhere in the query.

Do your research, online and through writers' organizations such as SCBWI, to learn about the agent or publisher you're approaching. Do they maintain a blog? If so, read it. For example, Agent X may be one those with a rampant distaste for queries beginning with a rhetorical question, especially one they can easily answer in the negative:

Writer: "Have you ever wondered what it's like to escape from a pickled herring factory?"
Agent: "Um. Actually, no." *Queryfail*

Thorough research will make your process so much easier.

The Synopsis

The synopsis needs to answer the basic questions:

  • Who is the protagonist?
  • What do they want and why?
  • What is getting in the way and what's at stake?
  • What does the protagonist do about it?
  • How does the problem escalate?

Common errors:

  • It's too vague. Be specific. Editors and agents see way too many vague synopses. What makes your plot different from all the others out there? What is specific about these characters that will make us want to hear their story? It's no use whatsoever telling an agent or editor that:

Betty-Sue goes on an emotional journey of self-discovery and learns what family means to her.

Substitute a different name and something else for ‘family' and that's pretty much every story. It doesn't provide any concrete information about the plot or character, except a name, and it's also:

  • Too didactic-sounding. Agents and editors don't need you to tell them what the protagonist or audience will learn from this manuscript. The themes of the book should be readily apparent from the synopsis—if it's written properly.
  • Too much self-appraisal. Good writing is so much about Showing vs. Telling, and you, the writer, have the opportunity to show you can ‘show.' Don't tell them your text is whimsical or lyrical—let that come through in the way your synopsis is written. Show them that you can write—and with style.
  • It's too dry. So often, writers say to me of writing the synopsis, "It doesn't flow like it does when I'm writing my book. It feels stilted and awkward." Try to get into your happy place or sad place or use whatever emotional fuel writing your book required. Make it exciting. Make it voicey. Make it sing. Have fun! Your passion and excitement will come through in your synopsis.
  • It gives away the ending. Set up the protagonist, setting, conflict, what's at stake, and what raises the stakes… and then leave the reader hanging and desperate to request your MS.
  • Not enough revision. Just like any submission-ready piece of writing, a synopsis needs to be revised multiple times before it's ready. I usually work with my clients on multiple versions of their query letters before we consider them ready.

Bio Paragraph

What you include here should be as relevant as possible. It can't hurt to say you are a SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators) member, if you are. Certainly, if you've won awards (as long as they're not utterly obscure) include that. If you have relevant publishing credits, list them. Your day job may or may not be relevant. For example, if you're an elementary school teacher or librarian, it is. But don't try to plump up your bio with irrelevant details or tell them about your dream of being an author. Why else would you be subjecting yourself to this query torture? And if it's your first book, don't be embarrassed to say so. You've written a book. That takes guts and determination and dedication and lots of hard work. What a feat! Good for you! You're amazing! But never "argue for your limitations."

Finish Up

If you're querying a particular editor or publisher, don't forget to say whether this is an exclusive or multiple submission. Thank the editor or agent for their time; that's just common courtesy. Do say you look forward to hearing from them—but I recommend you don't say "soon," especially if you're writing to an editor/publisher rather than an agent. It may be soon, but it may be not, and I've heard some agents and editors say use of the word "soon" may come across as impatience or a lack of understanding about the industry.

Email Signature

A neat, concise email signature—with your name and contact details and a link to online presence, such as a website or blog—looks professional.

And finally…

Proofread it! Check for grammatical and spelling errors. Check for word misuse such as their/they're/there, sight/site etc. Then have someone else proof it for you. If you have used clipart or fancy stationary (either e-stationary or the paper kind) get rid of it—simple and professional is best. Make sure you have the correct phrase in the email's subject line. Follow the agent's directions. And then proofread it again. Remember, this letter is your introduction as a writer, so errors in the query are unlikely to go down well.

The process of concocting a query is not nearly as difficult when you know the right formula. Keep it professional, keep it courteous, and above all, don't be afraid to send it. An atrophied manuscript is far, far worse than a rejection.