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?
Tuesday, July 03, 2007