“How do I write a query letter?” Notes from the Chicago Writer’s Conference, Part 5

If you’re just joining us, I’m in the process of working through my notes from the Chicago Writer’s Conference and turning them into digestible, topical tidbits on the publishing process.  So far, we’ve covered:

This week we’re going to talk about what publishers and agents want to see in a query letter.

How to structure your letter

Although everyone had slightly different advice on how to make your query letter stand out, they all agreed on one thing: Queries should be short. One or two pages that include:

  • A paragraph that proves you’ve done your homework and that you have a good reason for targeting that particular agent or publisher
  • A paragraph that pitches your book
  • A paragraph about you

Let’s look at these one at a time.

The first paragraph: “Why are you writing me?”
Remember those notes you made on the books you read while you were researching agents and publishers? This is where you will use them. Literally, in this paragraph you’ll write: “I’m writing you because you published x book which I loved and which is similar to my book because a, b, and c.”

Prettier words, of course. But that’s the basic idea.

The second paragraph: “OK, you’ve done your homework. What’s your book about?”

In the second paragraph, tell the agent or publisher succinctly what your book is about. This is not the place for long-winded descriptions of subplots. Stick to the major details of the dominant storyline, and remember that query letters are all about your excitement.

As Mary Robinette Kowal, author of The Glamorist Histories, put it, when you are trying to decide the amount of detail to include “think about what a 14-year-old boy would say about a movie that he’s just seen that he’s really excited about.”

Hooks are really helpful in this paragraph, if you can come up with a good one. The formula Kowal uses is to mix something familiar with something unusual. At the conference, Kowal described her own books using one-liners like “Jane Austen with magic” or “If Jane Austen wrote Ocean’s Eleven.” Next to those “Regency fantasy set in 1816” sounds very dull indeed.

Finally, there was some disagreement among the various presenters on whether you should give away key plot twists in your query. Some agents like to know about them in advance, others want to be surprised when they read your book. Hopefully by the time you’re ready to write your query, you will have a pretty good sense of your agent or publisher’s preferences from reading their blog and/or following them on Facebook and Twitter.

Or you could just read Query Shark for a while to get a sense of which details to include and which to leave out.

The third paragraph: “OK, I like your book. Tell me about yourself.”

No, you don’t need to tell the agent your life story. Just a few key details about yourself that are relevant to your book. Have you been published before? Tell them about it. Haven’t been published yet? Tell them where you live and what you do.

“As long as you’re not a tech writer. Never tell anyone you’re a tech writer,” said Marcy Posner, literary agent at FolioLit. “Agents are looking for a reason to say no, and they will reject tech writers out of hand.”

Duly noted.

Closing your query

This comes not from the conference, but from Query Shark. (What? You’re not reading Query Shark? Fix that, STAT.)

Query Shark states it so succinctly, there’s no point in me rewriting it:

“Close your query with one sentence: Thank you for your time and consideration.
Then your name.
Then your contact info.
ALL of your contact points: address, phone, twitter, blog, website.”

All set?

Bonus: Query etiquette

  • Never include your full-length manuscript with a query. Wait for the agent or publisher to request it.
  • When an agent or publisher does ask you to email them your manuscript, don’t break each chapter up into separate attachments. Send them your manuscript as one large file.
  • If you get a rejection, don’t write back asking for more details. Accept it and move on.
  • It is ok to do multiple submissions, just be up front about it. And if you do accept an offer with an agent or publisher, be sure to let the other agents or publishers who have not responded to your query yet know about it.
  • Similarly, it’s ok to say that you’re waiting to hear back from other agents/publishers before you accept an offer.
  • Also, read Query Shark. Religiously. Wait, did I already say that?

Good luck.

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