Query Letter

Query. A good word for Scrabble and that troublesome “q”? Webster’s Dictionary defines query as a question or inquiry. Hence a query letter is one you write to ask (and convince) an agent or an editor to take a look at your story.

First you have to research which agents and publishers would be interested in your kind of story. This is important--sending a query on a romance to a children’s book agent or publisher not only wastes time but is unprofessional. Make certain of the spelling of the person’s name --accuracy and good impressions count. Use a current Writer’s Market or agent/publisher web sites to learn which agents and publishers accept your genre. Address your query to a specific person. Double check to avoid disreputable agents or publishers--Preditors and Editors is one site. http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/pubagent.htm

Homework done, you’re ready to write. Remember that this is a business letter/query. You have one single spaced page, at most one and a half pages to obtain a request for your manuscript. Here are some suggestions--there are no hard and fast rules as to how many paragraphs you need. Start with a letterhead or:

Your address (Use left alignment and a business-like font)
City, State zip


Agent or editor name
Agency or Publisher
City, State zip

Dear Ms. or as the case may be Mr. Last Name:

First Paragraph: I start this paragraph with a one sentence hook about my story. To roughly quote Moira Allen at http://www.writing-world.com/basics/query.shtml (query information for magazine articles but much there applies to books.) “There are several hooks: The Question. Often, this is a problem/solution or informative hook posed as a question, such as: What would you do if...? The attention-grabber. The goal of this type of hook is to make the reader sit up and take notice -- hopefully long enough to read the rest of the story." Include a working title, the genre or market (such as historical romance), approximate number of words, and thatthe manuscript is completed. (Put a blank line between paragraphs)

Second Paragraph: Give a taste of your book. Think of the blurbs on the backs of books you read. Introduce hero, heroine and the protagonist. Demonstrate the flavor of the story--show you can write well. This paragraph often determines a request or a refusal.

Third paragraph: Background and Experience or Qualifications. What about you shows that you are the best person to write this story? Give education. Teaching experience, or writing experience. If weak in this area keep it brief.

Fourth paragraph: Closing paragraph. Have a sentence about the inclusion of synopsis (jargon for a different blog--check how many pages the person you are sending it to wishes to see) and sample chapters (usually the first three.) Thank the person for their time. Do not set a time for a reply--patience is the keyword. Also mention the SASE --more jargon-- Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (with correct postage for return of your material and/or a reply).

Space for your written signature
Your full name

Some reminders:
Use standard good quality size white paper. If you use a letter head keep it simple and business like--do not use company letterhead stationary.

Make certain you have checked what the person your writing finds what they ask to see in a query.

Proofread carefully; perhaps several times. Spelling and punctuation errors, typos, coffee stains etc. will only decrease your chances of success.

Email Queries
Today many publishers are accepting email queries. Most of the same rules apply as for printed queries. One major difference is that your contact information goes at the bottom of the query, not at the top in an email. Check the agent or editor website to see what they wish to see in the query, if you can send synopsis and sample chapters, and what to put in the Subject line.

Most of all remember that faith in your story, patience, and persistence and then more persistence, faith, and patience are required. It isn’t unusual to receive many rejections before finding the agent or editor who loves your work. Keep fine tuning and resending new queries. If you don’t send them you can’t ever be published.
Fellow writers, what have I forgotten? What have you found works best in query letters?


Reese Mobley said...

Wow! Great post. You sure know your stuff. Query letters are so important in our business. Thanks for providing an easy to use format. And thank you for taking the fear out of properly formating one. I never know if I'm doing it right. Must be the M&M's. (grin)

Penny Rader said...

Thanks for tackling query letters, Joan. Query letters are not my strength and those I wrote usually landed me a rejection.

I think a program Roxann gave on hot premise helped me nail down the paragraph about the story. The next query I wrote resulted in a request for a partial, and then the full. The contract offer came within three weeks of that email query.

Reading the letter out loud helps me catch missing words, typos, etc.

Joan Vincent said...

Glad the format style helped. Knowing the basics frees you for the "other" stuff involved. I have to credit Mr. Worth's secretarial classes in high school. I don't often use much of what I learned in those but my stint on the school paper was a different story. Or maybe it was those mimeograph fumes--lord, I'm almost as old as Methuselah!

Pat Davids said...

Wonderful informative post and I now have a good q word for scrabble. What more does a writer need?

Good point about the paper. Some people think colored paper and fancy fonts will make their work stand out. It does. It screams "I'm not a professional," all the way to the trash can.

Many people want to be published so badly or think what they write is so good that an editor will overlook things like a misspelled name or a poorly written query letter. They don't and they have long memories.

Joan Vincent said...

Penny, as you learned, the story paragraph is so important. What was the gist of Rox's program?

Your idea about reading aloud is excellent, too. Another thing I do is leave my draft for a day before re-editing to help me see what's really there rather than what I think is there--like hear instead of heard which spellcheck won't catch.

Joan Vincent said...

You are sooo right. Curlicue fonts and bright fushia paper will result in a quicker trip to the trash can. We can't emphasize enough how important it is to be professional.
And in case you sometimes end up with not only a q but too many vowels, quean will help--means "bit o' muslin" in my writing world!

Penny Rader said...

I'm hoping Rox will share the gist of her Hot Premise program because, um, my notes are in my house ... somewhere. Pretty please, Rox?

Rox Delaney said...

I'm here. Barely. ::grin::

The Hot Premise is Alicia Rasley's name for a high concept, short description of a book, spiced up a bit.

Start with your average GMC statement:
Hero (or heroine) wants [goal] because [motivation], but [conflict] is keeping him (or her) from getting it.

Without using names, describe the character, using strong nouns and verbs.

Dedicated attorney
Needs to make a decision about her career.

because of a case she lostConflict:
falls in love with a rodeo cowboy who can’t make commitments.So here’s what I ended up with for THE RODEO RIDER, coming out in August.

While taking a needed break from her career after a case has gone wrong and to attend her best friend’s wedding, an emotionally exhausted juvenile attorney and child advocate hopes to make a decision about the course of her future. But when she meets a bronc riding rodeo cowboy, who lives with a fear of abandonment, the two of them must learn that caution and the past must be dealt with before they can take a chance on love, the greatest prize of all.There’s a lot NOT said in that. For instance, as a child, the heroine had competed in show jumping and had sustained a serious injury, so she was not only familiar with horses, but she was very aware of the dangers the hero faced as a bronc rider. The hero is raising his 14-year-old nephew, which plays into her child advocacy.

And it’s far from the best “hot premise” I’ve ever written.

Here’s the one for BACHELOR COWBOY, to be released in January next year.

When a carefree rodeo bull rider is sidelined with an injury, his only goal is to return to his adventurous life—until he meets strong-willed farm girl, whose stable life has suddenly hit a bump. Together, they must learn that stability and adventure might be strange bedfellows, but when love enters the mix, anything can happen.Just remember those strong verbs and nouns and make it zing.

Here's a link to Alicia’s article on the Hot Premise.
The Promise of the Hot PremiseShe explains it sooooooo much better!

Rox Delaney said...

Oops! Sorry about the formatting. I should've looked at it again before publishing. :(

Joan Vincent said...

Rox, Thanks for the hot premise and examples. You've done a great job with something that is not easy. Your explanation should help all of us do this better.

Rox Delaney said...

Blurbs and Hot Premises aren't just for query letters. They're used in cover letters for submissions and proposals too.

Starla Kaye said...

Excellent post. I haven't done an actual query letter in years, but you covered everything as far as I remember. Thanks.

Becky A said...

Miss Joan,
Sorry I'm late and thanks for the great info. You've given us a great outline and made it look so simple. I've tried writing a few (queries) but now I'm glad I had more changes to make and never sent them. No hot pink paper but they would probably have been filed under: no deposit, no return!

Nina Sipes said...

You have no idea how badly I needed your post. Thank you.
Dang it! I LIKE pretty paper....a tasteful parrot in the corner perhaps?

Joan Vincent said...

Starla, Thanks for stopping by.

Becky, Like Roz, I like to see examples. Glad the "form" helped.

Nina, Thanks for the chuckle. I'd be tempted to put sunflowers. You wouldn't believe all the kinds what I have on and hung on the walls downstairs :)