Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Easy-Peasy Query Letter

By Amy

Last week at Grub Street South at Buttonwood Books, someone in the audience asked about query letters. Writers appear to be under the impression that the query letter is somehow the most grueling part of getting published. Not so!

Writing a query letter for fiction or memoir should take no more than 15-20 minutes tops. Assuming, of course, you've been researching agents while writing your book. By research, I mean you know the agent is legitimate, what projects s/he represents, and most important, that s/he actually sells books similar to yours. This is why a subscription to Publishers Marketplace is crucial about a month before the querying stage. Many agents list literary fiction as a genre they'll consider, but if over the past two years, s/he's sold primarily vampire mysteries and diet books without a single literary title on the horizon, find someone else to query.

Okay, the letter. Your first paragraph should be what we call in journalism, the nut graf. Here is where you'll write your title, genre, and -- very important -- how you learned of the agent. This is a business and your query letter should reflect that. Nathan Bransford, an agent with Curtis Brown, has a great post about this. You wouldn't interview for a job without first researching a prospective employer (and, yes, I understand the author/agent relationship is about teamwork). An example:

Dear Ms. Karchmar,

As an admirer of Scott Heim and Jennifer Haigh, I hope you'll consider my literary novel, The Bastion.

Perhaps you were one of a handful who turned up at a brilliant author's reading, got to talking, and when she discovered you were also a writer, she suggested you contact her agent, use my name if you think it'll help. It's happened to me countless times (another good reason to support fellow writers by attending readings). You could write in your query letter:

Several years ago, I spoke with Bryn Smythe after a reading from her novel The Hazards of Being Young. Though she hadn’t read my work, she suggested I contact you, noting your interest in commercial fiction. As such, I hope you’ll consider my novel, The Bastion.

See? Easy! Okay your next paragraph should be written in the voice of your book -- 3rd person, past tense no matter how it appears in your book --and tell about your main characters, main conflict, and should absolutely lead with the main theme of your story. Obviously, this is where you'll spend the most time. If you don't know the theme of your novel, take a walk, do some Yoga, find a quiet spot and reflect on what compelled you to write in the first place.

Third paragraph includes your publication history, and, no, letters to the editor do not count. Nothing published? No worries. Include that you're a member of your local writing organization. In Boston, we have Grub Street and PEN New England, among a long list. If you don't have one, start one. List what writing classes you've taken. Still nothing? Then tell why you're the person to write this book. If you work with children with autism and your protagonist does as well, then include that. It worked for Mark Haddon who was awarded the Whitbred for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night.

Ah, the final paragraph. Be nice. Include the first few pages of your book. Wrap it up:

I’ve enclosed the first five pages of my 85,000-word manuscript. Thank you for taking the time to read my submission. I look forward to hearing from you.

That's it. Simple. If you have an agent, care to share what worked for you?


olufunke grace bankole: said...

dear amy,

thank you for this simple, yet thorough presentation on the query letter.

i've just returned from a week-long novel workshop in san francisco, and the instructor, a well-noted writer, encouraged us to query an agent, even if we thought we didn't have enough of a 'publication background' to do so.

since then, i've been coming across information about agents, and the querying process. perhaps it's time for me to leap.

Therese said...

I agree wholeheartedly with this, Amy. So much emphasis seems to get placed on two things: having a very succinct "hook," and having pub credits.

I had neither in the query that landed me my agent. Rather, my letter was very much as you describe.

It ran to just slightly over one page--another "must not" I've seen touted everywhere. Better, though, to focus on the "must" list:

Must be professional
Must be compelling

A short list, and your post today proves how easily it can be done.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Iyan, I read about your workshop on your blog; it must have been invigorating. Leap and enjoy the flight. You'll be fine. Let us know how it goes.

Therese, you're so right about there being no real rules, just guidelines. Your enormous success with Souvenir proves that. Professionalism and compelling writing is the hook. Any word from the UK?

olufunke grace bankole: said...

dear amy,

thank you so much! i'll be sharing more as i go on.

yes, the vona "voices" workshop was truly life-affirming.

i still giggle at the thought that someone actually reads my blog--though i do get comments from time to time. :)

Therese Fowler said...

Amy, in fact I got my first-ever fan mail email earlier today! What an astonishing affirmation that was. :)

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

OMG! How exciting! Now, weren't all those hours of angst worth it, Therese?


Therese Fowler said...

You know, they were anyway. But to get that fully independent glowing reader response...well, as I'm sure you've heard from many who got here before me, it's a priceless reward.

Anonymous said...


The first ever post that says 'writing a query is not difficult.'
It made me sit up and notice. Thank You for this.
One thing; I have heard this debate on whether to send the first five pages with the query or not. Most agents do not mention this in their submission guide lines.
What do you say about this issue.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Reality, I queried by email and included the first page in the body of the email. If you were to query by snail, by all means include the first five pages or even the first chapter. Every agent I've spoken with liked seeing an example of the actual writing before requesting partials or fulls.


Anonymous said...

And what about the message engraved into all writers mind
"Thou shalt follow the submission guidelines."

A lot of published authors have said what you mention above and I still freak out at the idea of going beyond those agent guidelines.

Anonymous said...

No one ever got ahead in life by being a stickler for the rules.

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