Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Query Letters: The Business Side of Writing

Okay I admit it, I’ve never written a query letter. But since I need to produce one for an upcoming Saskatchewan Romance Writers meeting (I think) I figured now was a good time to learn.

Apparently agents and editors read these things and you need to be able to write one to grab their attention. Nothing like leaving it all riding on a one page letter. Yes, one page tops.

First off, ditch your creative writing hat and put on your business suit. This will put you in the right frame of mind. A query letter is the tool used to grab an agent/editor’s attention. Your goal is to illicit an invitation for further sample chapters or even a whole manuscript. Do yourself and your intended audience a favour by keeping it simple. No cutesy fonts or backgrounds. Resist the urge to scrapbook your letter. Keep it single spaced with a simple 12pt font, align paragraphs to the left, no indentations and leave a space between paragraphs.

Here is the information my query is going to contain, hopefully, along with some other stuff.

It will start off with a real name and a title. Keep it real people.

The first paragraph will be my introduction. If you are published offer your credits. Lying is bad and will get you nowhere. If you are unpublished now is the time to show you are familiar with your targeted agent’s/editor’s line and show you’re querying the right agent/editor for your work. Mention the title of your manuscript. If you’ve met the person you are writing to now is a good time to remind them.

Here’s where it gets a little queasy.

The second paragraph will contain the summary of my manuscript, preferably in two to three sentences. First sentence - give them the Hook. This is the one sentence tagline for your book. You’ve got the next two sentences to state your mini-synopsis which expands on the Hook. You may choose to mention the main characters, reference the conflict, and end by leaving the agent wanting to read more. Think of the blurbs on the back cover of your favourite book.

Miss Snark says to “answer these questions at this point in your query. Who is the protagonist? What dilemma does he face? How does it get resolved? Answer each question in less than 25 words. That's the skeleton for a good query letter. It may not be your finished version, but it will give you the bone structure you need. If you CAN'T do that...don't query me. Your novel needs the work then, not the query.”

Check out her ‘new’ blog at You can also reference her ‘old’ blog at Both contain valuable information.

My final paragraph will contain practical information such as word count and the status of my manuscript. This goes to show two things. Stating word count once again proves you’ve done your homework and you are submitting to the correct agent/editor. The status of your manuscript states you’ve finished, proving you can follow through with a project. Mention any necessary enclosures such as a synopsis if one is required.

I’ll end by saying thank you for your time and consideration. Sincerely me and include my home address, telephone number and email address unless I’ve decided to provide the information as a header at the top of the page. I will not include a cc to other agents/editors to save time or/and postage.

Here’s where I get confused. Some sources said to query more than one agent at a time (up to 5 or 10) and some said to only query one person at a time. I have no idea which is the better advice. Please help. Me thinks one at a time would take forever.

The final bit of advice suggested you have someone critique your query letter but I was too chicken to post an actual query letter written by me here, so I didn’t.

Please help me out by offering further tips, advice or pointing out errors in my strategy. Do you enjoy writing query letters? Do you stress over writing them? Do you have examples of exceptional query letters you’d like to share?


Tara Maya said...

I compile an expansive list of all agents I *could* query, then, after I research all of them, compile a short list of the agents I would love to have. I query them first. When I get a reject, I send out a new query to the next agent on my list. I also just send out a new query if I haven't heard back from an agent after a month or so.

Karen said...

Hi Tara,
That sounds like a practical and organized approach to a big job.

So what I need is a system, maybe a spreadsheet or something? Course first I'd have to compile a list.

Thanks for your help, Tara.

Hazel said...

This is very useful information, Karen, and laid out in such a practical way.

I am so far away from actually needing to write a query letter to flog a finished novel that I will just have to file it away for future reference.

Thank you for reminding me that there is a business side of writing, like it or not.


Janet C. said...

Great post, Karen - you cover all the bases. Check out my previous post "Back to the Drawing Board" for my strategy (because I really do have one). I believe I gave some links to web/blog sites that have some great information for the first time querier. I would also add to that list - a free database to help in your querying (including spreadsheet, up to date information on agents, and tips for writing a great letter - haven't signed up yet, but I'm definitely going to).

I would highly recommend getting people to read your query - that's how I progressed from 'Holy crap, this is horrendous' to 'Yeah, this is better'. I also found writing my middle paragraphs (the blurb) easier after I wrote it from my heroine's POV (first person). It gave me a better understanding of what was important. And I chose to write two short paragraphs, one each for the hero and heroine.

K - that's my 2 cents worth.

(pst - we need to do the first page for the next meeting, not the query letter, but that's a great idea for another meeting :)

Anonymous said...

Excellent information. Useful and it makes sense too! After doing research on the subject, I was ready to throw my hands up and say, "NO, I WON'T", in a very adult way of course. Thanks for making the process make sense.

Karen said...

Hi Hazel,
I'm not quite there yet either but I think I might start creating a list of agents like Tara suggested.

Happy writing.

Silver James said...

A lot depends on what the agent's policies are. Some don't mind multiple submissions. Be sure to check.

Jackie Kessler, over on Deadline Dames, has just done a three-part series on queries. Here is the link to The Query-Go_Round. The posts are in reverse order so scroll down to get to Part One.

Some time ago, Jungle Red Writers hosted this post: Wendy Burt-Thomas on Queries. Wendy wrote the book, literally, on The Guide To Query Letters.

FYI, the links may not show up in a different color. Just roll your pointer over them and click.

Karen said...

Hey Janet,
Thanks for your tips and I went back to your previous post and glanced at your links. Very useful information and worth going back and having a second read or a first read if you missed it the first time.

I will definitely ask for feedback. I'm all about sharing now.

And I know the next meeting is the first page but for some reason I thought the next one was queries (but I could have manufactured that idea out of thin air - happens to me all the time.)

Karen said...

Good morning, Anonymous,
Thanks for the kind words. I felt the same as you so I needed an understanding of the basics so I could wrap my head around the idea.

I hope like me you'll check out Janet's previous post and the links provided by our other wonderful commentors.

Good luck on future queries.

Janet C. said...

Hey, Karen - I racked my brain and April's meeting is about one-pagers. One page synopsis that you would hand an agent or editor during a pitch session (like we'll be doing in Surrey:)

Off to do some research to find out the difference between them and queries...


Karen said...

Hi Silver,
You make an excellent point. Its not enough to simply have a name, you need to know their policies on queries.

Now I'm off to check out your links. Thanks for the info!

Karen said...

Thanks for the correction, Janet.

Hazel said...

Just to confirm (from the minutes) that April is the meeting to discuss "one sheets" (otherwise known as a pitch?)

At the March meeting, the discussion topic is "Titles". For the critiquing part, (I think)it is the first 250 words or about one page of a story, which is to be posted ahead of time on the SRW blog.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Karen,
Good information on queries. I've queried editors but not agents, so I'm a newbie where that is concerned. I think Tara and Silver and Janet had good information. I'm so unorganized that I'd probably forget who I'd already queried and do it again! Not cool!.

Have a good day,

Karen said...

Thanks, Hazel.

I knew it was a one page something. ;)

Karen said...

Hi Jana,
Cybered over and got a copy of Till September today. Can't wait to read it.

And yes, a giant thanks to the commentors who are providing us query newbies with links and adding the voice of experience.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Great info on query letters, Karen. I'm like Jana - I've queried editors but not agents. My understanding is that editors frown on multiple submissions across the board (there aren't that many that take unagented mss to start with) while some agents don 't mind and others do. Like it's been mentioned, it's better to check their submission guidelines prior to sending.

And yes, we are working on one- sheets in April to give people time to create their one-sheets prior to the busy summer conference season. It takes time to write the:
- tag line
- 10 sec elevator pitch
- 1 or 2 para blurb
- find appropriate pics/ artwork, and
- actually create the thing with fonts, spacing, etc.

Tara Maya said...

I use Excel to keep track of all the agents I *might* query and -- on a seperate sheet -- *have* queried. This way when I hear about a new agent, I can immediately add her to my Might File. Later, when I have time, I research the agent and the agency and see if it might be a good fit.

Erika said...

I have never written a query letter either, but I used to read an agent's blog I'll be honest and say it's been a long time since I was a regular, but I'm just getting back into the blog thing and will definately be checking her out.

Best of luck on your query, I'll hope you'll share how it goes.

Karen said...

Good afternoon, Anita.
Thanks for your input. Hey, we should get together and have a 'pitch' brainstorming session, say late April or May, although you probably have your list of stuff organized already. You could think of it as lending a helping hand to the clueless.

Karen said...

I can see how it would pay to be organized. I think I should create a sheet and because I'm not quite ready to submit, start adding one name a week to my list and then by the time I am ready, I'll have somewhere to start.

Great idea, Tara.

Karen said...

Hey Erika,
Thanks for the info. And I will definitely keep you posted on my progress.

Captain Hook said...

Very informative post, Karen. A lot to think about there.

Two problems though. 1) Miss Snark does not run the blog Miss Snark's First Victim. Ask Authoress. She'll tell you that she was one of the first to have her query shredded by Miss Snark, but is not her.

2) Your goal is to illicit an invitation for further sample chapters or even a whole manuscript. Illicit means forbidden. You wanted to use the word Elicit, which means to call forth a response.

Karen said...

Hey Captain Hook,
Great critiquing. I stand corrected. Thanks for the input.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Karen, dropping in late to add my two cents. I enjoyed seeing your approach. If I were to offer a small critique on your layout, I would suggest moving your novel pitch directly under the salutation, and give your publishing credits and such after you've hooked the agent. I'm new to the whole thing as well, but that's what I've seen often when agents post successful queries on their blogs.

As far as submission goes, from what I've read around the web lately, the majority of agents I follow seem to accept that while single submissions are great, it's also unrealistic to expect an author to wait 3+ months on each response before they query again. As others have said, check the agent's website. If they say that they only do exclusives, then you'll want to send it solo. Others may not mind, and you can send it to groups.

I think a lot of it boils down to etiquette. If you've sent it out to a few people and you get an offer when another agent suddenly asks for a full, they don't want to feel like their time has been wasted. I've seen some suggest the courtesy of a follow-up (ie after partial, etc) if you've taken another agent's offer, or in the situation above, giving the second agent a chance to read and make their own offer as well, so that it hasn't been a waste of their time reading your work.

This is all just things I've gleaned from browsing, so I'm sure someone with more experience can come along and correct it :)

Helena said...

Karen, this has been a fascinating array of information, both in your post and the great contributions from all those who have commented over the course of the day (which is over already -- where does the time go?)

I switched hats today and put on my book/reading persona for my monthly book club meeting. We were discussing Atonement and watched the movie so we discussed both the book and the movie. Both great, in my opinion.

So it was still writing-related, because I read books and watch movies with a very different eye than I used to before I started writing.

But all this has nothing to do with queries! I know for a fact that I will have to be quite a bit more organised than I am now when I get to that point in the process. Even to the extent of being able to rattle off mentions of my characters, which I did yesterday (I think it was even in response to your comment about happy endings.) I used the name 'Fiona' instead of 'Laura' with Gordon -- I used to call my boys by the wrong name on the first attempt, but I usually got to the right one eventually. I don't think an editor or agent would be impressed if I couldn't keep my characters straight.

I don't know what Gordon is going to say either, when I get around to the next character exercise. I think he'll be quite put out with me.

Thanks for all the info in your post. Great stuff!