Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Writing a query letter

A couple weeks ago I had the privilege to attend a presentation on query letters by Kimberly Gore Wehner. Following are the notes I took. (Neither Kim nor I take any responsibility for the accuracy of these notes. Just because I heard it doesn’t mean she said it. :-) ) Kim's blog can be found at: http://www.blog.klgore.com/

General Notes:

According to an agent who spoke at the last conference Kim attended horror stories are on the rise, vampyre stories are on the way out.

Your manuscript must be completed for fiction submissions. For non-fiction, you are pitching an idea, with the promise to write the manuscript.

Go the web site to get the instruction for querying the agent/publisher. Follow them to the letter.

o Try to find the name of the editor or agent you are submitting to and address them by name. (Be formal: Dear Mr. Jerk Face, not Dear Jerk)

o Do not submit to another agent in the same company. They will know. And if they feel it would be a good fit for a different agent at the agency, they will take it to them.

If your manuscript is non-fiction, be sure to justify why you are qualified to write it.

Include a list of your published works.

Pitch only one manuscript at a time.

o You can mention you have others later.

Publishers/agents do not want you to put your work on the internet. If they want to see a sample they will ask.

The larger publishing houses may only want to be contacted by an agent. (Read those guidelines.) Some smaller houses will accept direct submissions from unagented authors.

If you are have a children’s chapter book, be sure there are a lot of places to stop. (Chapter breaks)

Query more than one agent at a time. (It may take a long time for them to get back to you.)

Interview your prospective agent. (Let the other agents you queried know you are interviewing an agent. Give them a deadline to contact you.)

o Ensure you are a good fit personally and that they represent what you write.

o Set up expectations for both sides.

o Ask for the email addresses of authors they represent.

Know your audience. You are writing your query letter for the agent, not the public.

A couple of publications to consider:

o 2011 Guide To Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino (Out in August 2012)

o How to Write Attention-Grabbing Query & Cover Letters by John Wood

(My idea: Rather than say “This is my first novel,” say “This is the first novel I have submitted for publication.”)

Mention that it may be similar to XYZ. (Some strongly disagree with this.)

Don’t say that your story would be good for ….

o Or that “Readers and listeners will be interested in ….”

Don’t say you are looking for representation. (Why else would you be contacting them?)

Unlike a synopsis, in a query letter do not capitalize the character’s name the first time you use it.

The Letter:

This is your only chance to make a first impression

o Your writing will be judged on the letter

o Write it in the style of your story.

o Be professional, not casual.


o Keep it to a single page

o Single space

o Don’t double space

o If querying via snail mail, include a SASE

Include the genre and word count – rounded to the nearest 100.

Keep your query in the tone of your book

Explain why you chose this agent/publisher for your book.

o If you have met them and they requested a query, mention that.

o A tip for finding the name of agent is to Google everyone in the acknowledgments.

Be brief with the story summery. (250 words or less for a novel.)

Do not tell the ending. (That goes in a synopsis.)

Keep your main character(s) the focus of your letter. If the story won’t work without them, they should be mentioned. Never mention a secondary character unless it’s crucial to the plot.

In non-fiction:

o Start with the purpose of your article.

o Then why you are the one to write this article/book.

o Show what the reader will get from the article/book.

o Ensure your slant is known.

Start with an opening sentence that will blow the socks off the agent. You want to hook them at once. (If you can include something you know the agent is interested in, so much the better.)

In as few sentences as possible:

o Show a little of ordinary life.

o Tell of an exciting event.

o Give your protagonist’s goal

o State what choices must be made

o Explain what will happen if those goals aren’t met.

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