How to write a query letter

Brian G Turner

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When you're submitting your manuscript to agents/editors/publishers, it helps if you can write a strong query.

According to query shark, these are the basic rules you need to know how to follow - or know how to break:

Query Shark: CrimeBake 2015 Effective Queries Workshop

(These are the first three points):

1. A query letter is a business letter
The purpose is two-fold
1a Entice the agent to read your pages/request the full manuscript
1b Demonstrate you are not an asshat.**


What this means:
1c Don't speak of yourself in third person, state the obvious, try to be witty.

NO: Felix Buttonweezer has published three novels, and learned how to kill people at CrimeBake 2015.

YES: I've published three novels and attended your class on query letters at CrimeBake


NO: I'm writing today to introduce you to my novel
NO: I'm writing to ask you to review my novel

NO: Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya and I've got a novel you're going to die for.
NO: Your website says you are looking for homoerotic haiku. Boy have a I got a book for you.

YES: Jack Reacher found himself in hot water once again.



Take away: Starting with the name of your protagonist and the problem s/he faces is a good start to an effective query.


**an example of author asshat: "I'd like for you to sell me on why I should retain your services as a literary agent."




2. A query letter requires "show don't tell" exactly like your novel
Example: "My novel is funny" is less effective than actually being funny on the page.

NO: THE SONG OF THE KALE LEAF is beautifully written, with a strong distinct voice, and characters that come alive on the page. It explores themes of being green in a colorless world.

(The reason you think this is the right way to go is you often hear "write like a dust jacket" but that's not good advice.)

YES: Elizabeth George has a ready smile and eyes that miss nothing. You might mistake her for harmless, until you read her books.

NO: KILLING FLOOR explores themes of alienation, democracy and familial bonds.

YES: Jack Reacher was enjoying his seventeenth cup of diner coffee when the SWAT team in Margrave, Georgia rolled up to arrest his ass.

Take away: The less abstract your query the better.



3. A query letter MUST tell an agent what the book is about
3a Who is the main character?
3b What does he want?
3c What is keeping him from getting what he wants?
3d What must he sacrifice to get what she wants?


Example:
3a Jack Reacher
3b wants to see the grave of an old, almost forgotten blues musician
3c when he is suddenly, inexplicably arrested for a murder he could not have committed.
3d When the guy behind the false arrest is also killed, Reacher can stay in town, at great peril to himself, to solve the case or he can leave shake the dust of this crazy town off his sneakers and get on with his wandering.


And the actual recommended format?


Subj: QUERY-Title by Author


Dear (Name of Agent)

FIRST: 100 word paragraph answering the question "what is this book about?"
Have a line break every three lines Big blocks of text are hard to read

SECOND: Your writing credits and bio.

THIRD: Genre/word count. Maybe even title if it fits better here.[iv]

FOUR: Any kind words; how you found me; why you picked me to query.

Closing: Thank you for your time and consideration


Your name
your email
your telephone
Your website
Your blog
Your twitter name
Your facebook page
Your physical address
 
I'm pretty sure that there is some flexibility in the formatting. Ie I wouldn't put writing credits & bio above word count & genre. I'd have my personal details at the top. I can't see any reputable agent scrapping a letter query because the author's email address is at the bottom rather than top, or vice versa.

Most of the former, about the content, surely is just common sense. Don't be a moron, engage the agent in a professional manner, as if you're entering into a business relationship. Which it is.
 
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I have seen the suggestion that some agents are looking for a one sentence 'hook' and then a 100 to 250 word paragraph 'summary'. So perhaps finding out as much as you can about what the prospective agent is looking for might be helpful.
 
Finding a way to summarise a novel in just a couple of paragraphs I've found exceptionally difficult, especially when dealing with multiple protagnists.

However, I've found that visiting similar titles on Goodreads has proved inspiring, as each usually has a succinct description on their page.
 
And from agent Julia A. Weber - Slush Pile Bingo:
Julia A. Weber on Twitter

query-bingo.png
 
I asked a US agent on AW whether submissions for US agents written in British English, rather than American English, would be acceptable. His answer was that it shouldn't be a problem.

However, it's since occurred to me that leaving a doc in British English might end up throwing a US agent out of a MS through constantly noticing spelling differences.

And if I self-published I'd want to cater for the US market above all others - which means making the choice of American English again.

So now I've changed my default language in Word to English (United States) and applying what changes I can.
 
I asked a US agent on AW whether submissions for US agents written in British English, rather than American English, would be acceptable. His answer was that it shouldn't be a problem.

However, it's since occurred to me that leaving a doc in British English might end up throwing a US agent out of a MS through constantly noticing spelling differences.

And if I self-published I'd want to cater for the US market above all others - which means making the choice of American English again.

So now I've changed my default language in Word to English (United States) and applying what changes I can.

I think you're pre-empting something that isn't a problem for any agent, anywhere.

But, also, this made me twitch really badly. (I'm hoping @ralphkern maybe sees this as he has more experience than me as he went through the transferring to US English with @Jennifer L. Carson.)

It's not just about spelling. It's about idiom, about word usage. If you translate your UK spellings to US you could easily end up with a mess of a manuscript that purports to be American, but doesn't sound like it. That will pull an agent out much, much more than translating spelling - which they do all the time - would. Especially since you use words that pulled some of the readers on AW out, and which I think are more used in the UK eg Coppicing. (But I might be wrong about that.)

Also, if you get an agent they will seek both a UK and US publisher who have copy editors to do this for you. If you self-publish, employ a US copy editor to help with the transition.

So, sorry - but in case anyone is reading in and thinking this is a good thing to do - I think better to stick with the one you're comfortable with and showcase your work in a way that doesn't feel odd. UK spellings will not jeopardise your chances with any agent - a clunky exchange will.
 
I've already written with American English preferences in mind, simply not in terms of spelling. The ones I'm aware of are subtle, and shouldn't upset a British English reader (forward/forwards, leaped/leapt, first floor/ground floor, etc).

However, it still strikes me as a good idea to submit with American English spellings to American agents. Presuming an agent were engaged by my prose, I wouldn't want them thrown out of it by noticing British English spellings. It also feels a little rude on my part to submit British English to American agents - can you imagine how uppity some British agents might be if American English were submitted to them? :)

Either way, I've always had it in mind that self-publishing should be an option to take seriously, and that means being aware of a US readership. That also means being very aware of how my text would read in American English, rather than expecting a couple of search/replace commands to solve everything at the last minute. We saw with one of the Scott Lynch books how that can backfire! :D
 
I find it quite surprising that agents would want to have the book "sold" to them in the way outlined above ("Jack Reacher found himself in hot water..."). Personally, I would have thought that this would show how good the author was at pushing their product rather than the product's actual quality. But if that's what they want...
 
However, it still strikes me as a good idea to submit with American English spellings to American agents. Presuming an agent were engaged by my prose, I wouldn't want them thrown out of it by noticing British English spellings. It also feels a little rude on my part to submit British English to American agents - can you imagine how uppity some British agents might be if American English were submitted to them? :)

This is simply not the case. Look at #askagent - this question comes up all the time. Neither British nor American agents care. Inish Carraig was picked up by an American agent, working in the London office of an American agency. British agents get American English submitted to them all the time, and don't get uppity. Ditto American agents.

I know I'm going on about this but I really, really don't want anyone reading this thread to believe this is any sort of a problem. It isn't. It happens every day. It's expected.
 

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