The Complete Nobody’s Guide to Query Letters

Written by Lynn Flewelling

Whether I’m giving a bookstore reading or teaching a writer’s workshop, one of the most frequently asked questions is always, “How do I get my first novel published? What’s the trick, the secret?” The secret is that there is no trick, just skillful, focused effort.

The first step is to write a really good book. The next, equally important, step is attracting the notice of someone in a position to get it into print. Some people do this by networking at conventions, or striking up a relationship with a published author who recommends them to their publisher, both viable routes. For most of us, however, it’s a “market by mail” venture. Whether you decide to seek an agent, or go straight to publishers, you need a letter of introduction – the query. Dissected and examined critically, the query letter is an elegantly concise piece of promotional writing. You have exactly one page to introduce yourself and your novel-just four or five clean, tight paragraphs, each with its own specific purpose. That doesn’t sound so hard. We are writers, after all, right? But the devil is in the details, especially for a newcomer with no track record or flashy credentials.

That’s where I found myself a few years back when it came time to market my first fantasy novel, Luck in the Shadows. I hadn’t published any short fiction; I’d never been to a convention to network; the few published authors I knew before I was already well into the process were literary sorts with no connections in the genre world. According to the prevailing collective wisdom that persists among the unpublished, I didn’t have much of a chance.

Happily, the prevailing wisdom is wrong. It’s certainly a plus to have a few fiction credits or an influential mentor, but it’s not an absolute necessity. If it were, I wouldn’t be writing this article.

So, there I was back in ’94, with a book I was burning to sell and no idea how to go about it. As I chewed my way through various “how to” books, it quickly became clear that the most important tool I needed was a great query letter. It’s a writer’s introduction, our calling card and, hopefully, our foot in the door.

For us nobodies, it’s basically a cold sales job; we’ve got one page to engage an agent or editor’s interest, make them want to flip the page to scan our carefully chosen sample chapters. Some agents and editors glance at the letter but read the chapters first. Others read the query and reject the chapters unseen if the letter doesn’t sing. You never know, so write the letter like it’s the one thing standing between you and success. It just might be.

Here’s the query letter that sold several agents on Luck and ultimately led to a two-book contract with Bantam.

Specific person

Dear (Agent/Editor’s Name):

I am seeking representation for my fantasy adventure novel, Luck In The Shadows, complete at 170,000 words. I am enclosing a synopsis and a sample chapter. The sequel, Stalking Darkness, is nearing completion and another free-standing book featuring the same characters is in outline form.

I love thieves and spies – those sneaky people who live by intuition, skill, and inside knowledge. In fantasy, however, they are often portrayed as dark, ruthless characters or relegated to second string roles, a la Falstaff, as useful or amusing foils for more conventional heroic types. Luck in the Shadows gives the rogues center stage.

Seregil is an experienced spy for hire with a murky past and noble connections; Alec is the talented but unworldly boy he rescues and takes on as apprentice. “I admit I’ve cut a purse or two in my time,” Seregil tells Alec soon after they meet, “and some of what I do could be called stealing, depending on who you ask. But try to imagine the challenge of overcoming incredible obstacles to accomplish a noble purpose. Think of traveling to lands where legends walk the streets in daylight and even the color of the sea is like nothing you’ve ever seen! I ask you again, would you be plain Alec of Kerry all your life, or would you see what lies beyond?” Alec goes, of course, and quickly plunges into danger, intrigue, and adventure as their relationship deepens into friendship. The interaction between these two forms the core of this character-driven series.

I’ve been writing professionally for ten years and am currently a freelance journalist. My articles appear regularly in the Bangor Daily News, Preview! Magazine, and Maine In Print. I’ve covered everything from software to psychics; my interview credits include Stephen King, Anne Rice, and William Kotzwinkle. Thank you for your consideration of this proposal. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Lynn Flewelling

First things first. When approaching any market, make certain you’re writing to the right person. If you’re using a reference book-the Writer’s Market, for instance- make sure it’s the latest edition. Addressing your query to someone who left the agency three years ago shows a lack of research on your part and can prejudice some readers against you before you’ve even begun your pitch. The same goes for spelling their name wrong, addressing them by the wrong title or gender. (Any mail I get addressed to “Mr. Lynn Flewelling” is immediately suspect.) Such errors may not automatically land your query in the Round File, but they aren’t going to win you any points, either.

Reading the market news in trade journals like this one can help keep you up to date on who’s where. Most agents and editors I’ve talked to say that a brief call to their office to verify the information is also acceptable.

And now, on with our dissection:

Paragraph 1: This brief opening accomplishes a number of things. It states what you’re selling, how long it is, and that it’s complete. (Some agents and editors will consider a few chapters and an outline from an unknown; most won’t. A finished novel proves that you can go the distance.)

The “synopsis and sample chapter” mentioned in this paragraph are the exact items this particular agent’s listing asked for. Giving them what they want-no more, no less- demonstrates that you’ve done you’re homework and are approaching them as a professional. If you send out multiple queries, be sure to tailor each query package and letter accordingly. No one likes a form letter. If you have other related works underway, it’s a good idea to mention them here, showing that you’re not a one-shot wonder. If you don’t, however, don’t worry about it, and don’t bother mentioning other works in a genre the agent or editor does not handle.

Paragraph 2: The “why I wrote this book” ‘graph. Those of you who are basing your science fiction epic on your Nobel prize-winning research in human genome mapping won’t have much trouble with this one. For those of us “nobodies” with less stunning credentials, it can be a bit daunting.

Most of the sample letters I found while researching queries were written by people who were, as stated above, basing their latest novel on their own research or some life-changing personal experience. In every case the author had an impressive publishing background of some sort, and none of them were first-timers. I, on the other hand, had simply written a book I really liked, so I said that and let the enthusiasm carry it. Keep it simple and direct. Don’t go on at length about your literary influences or what book first turned you on to the genre; they’ve seen that a million times. Just be sincere.

Paragraph 3: Give ’em a glimpse of the goods. You can’t tell the whole story; that’s what the outline or synopsis is for. Just give them the flavor, introduce the protagonist, and above all, demonstrate that you can write well. How you present your book here is just as important as the story itself. Make your thumbnail description concise but lively. Try to capture what or who the book is about. In short, consider this paragraph your book’s audition scene, and know that this paragraph is the one most likely get you rejected for the right reasons.

“Right reasons?” you ask.

Absolutely. Most editors and agents are book lovers just like the rest of us, with the same subjectivity of taste. If an agent doesn’t like books about dragons and that’s your main focus, then they aren’t going to want your book and you don’t want them representing it. What you want from an agent is an enthusiastic representative for your work. With editors, you want someone who’s excited by the prospect of polishing your manuscript into a salable book and getting it on the shelves.

A wise friend once observed that the ratio between rejections and acceptances is about 12:1. What happens generally is this: Agent One reads your carefully crafted query and thinks he’s seen your idea a hundred times before; Agent Three thinks it’s the freshest treatment he’s seen of that idea in ages; Agent Seven just plain hates that sort of plot; Agent Eleven can’t get enough of it. Simple persistence and faith are required to run this gauntlet, and rejection letters do have their uses. We’ll return to this shortly.

Paragraph 4: Experience and background. Got it? Flaunt it! Don’t got it? Keep quiet.

While the freelance writing I mentioned in my query by no means guarantees that I’m a good novelist, it does suggest that I probably know how to string words together. I also tried to be creative in my spin on the subject. I’ve written dozens of feature articles for local papers, and interviewed lots of interesting people; the ones I chose to mention in the query were selected to highlight my interest in the fantasy field, and in literature and authors in general. Whether or not it impressed anyone is debatable, but it did relate to the book I was selling.

A caveat: If your background has no bearing on the novel in question in some readily apparent way, it’s best to just leave this paragraph out, or keep it brief.

Paragraph 5: Your standard polite good-bye. Don’t press them for response times, hand down ultimatums (“You’ve got two months, then I’m sending it somewhere else”), or offer to call. The market listing which provided their mailing address should also include an estimated turn-around time. Be patient and don’t expect them to meet their own deadlines to the day. However, if you don’t hear back for a month after the listed time, a polite phone inquiry is usually appropriate.

A few additional basics:

  1. Stationery- Queries should be neatly typed on high quality, unadorned, 8 1/2 by 11-inch business stationery. While white is your safest bet, color-wise, you can probably get away with ivory, buff, or a light grey. Avoid brightly-colored paper and ink at all costs. The same goes for cute border prints, patterns, and dot-matrix printing unless you want your query to scream Amateur!
  2. Letterhead- A plain, business-like letterhead looks sharp and conveys your address information in a professional-looking manner. If you have access to a good laser printer you can design your own, avoiding pretentiously ornate or hard-to-read fonts, and illustrations. If you are gainfully employed, do not use your company stationery, no matter how classy it is. A letterhead from “Joe Bloe, Attorney at Law” will only cause undue confusion. And resist the temptation to style yourself “Jane Doe, Novelist.” That should be self-evident.
  3. The query package- As stated above, do your homework. Research each market and send them only what they ask to see. This usually doesn’t include “return reply” coupons (First Class postage is your best bet), photos of yourself, photocopies of writing samples, your resume, or manuscripts other than the one you’re currently offering.
  4. Proofreading- Do I even have to address this? According to my agent and editor friends, the answer is a world-weary “Yes!” A query (or manuscript) marred by typos, blotches of correction fluid, erasure marks, or coffee stains is a red flag to publishing professionals. If you’re sloppy with something as important as a query, what will you be like to work with on a manuscript? Chances are, they’ll spare themselves the trouble of finding out. Proofread your letter carefully for errors, then show it to some other trustworthy soul. Our own mistakes are often the hardest to spot, since we know what’s supposed to be there on the page and tend to see it whether it’s really there or not. Finally, retype or print out a crisp, blameless copy of the corrected letter.

While the purpose of this article is to help you make that wonderful first novel sale, I’d like to finish up with a few thoughts on rejections.

Fear of rejection is a reality for most of us. Many a good manuscript has languished in a drawer because the author just couldn’t face the possibility. Let’s face it, rejection sucks. But it’s also a normal part of the game. Sit around with any group of writers and sooner or later the war stories start flying. One-upping about who’s gotten slammed with the nastiest rejection letter is practically a sport. Rejections are our battle scars, and only those with the guts to strive earn them. Take comfort in the fact that all writers deal with rejection time and again throughout their careers. I keep a copy of Andre Bernard’s Rotten Rejections (Pushcart Press, 1990) close at hand. It’s an inspirational collection of rejection letters received by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and Jane Austin for books which now grace university required reading lists.

So when that first rejection shows up in your mailbox, toast yourself with a tall glass of something very nice. It’s proof that you’re off the porch and running with the big dogs now. Later, as those dozen or so rejections pile up on the way (we hope) to that first, glorious “yes,” study them carefully. They can be a useful guide. It was an agent’s thoughtful rejection letter that ultimately led to revisions that sold my first book. The most valuable rejection letter gives reasons. Many will be contradictory. One letter will praise what the last one damned as trite, then go on to nail you for something completely different. Some will be valid criticisms, others are purely subjective. If a certain comment strikes an “Ah ha!” chord, then take a second look at your work, but realize, too, that you can’t and shouldn’t rewrite the book to please every critic.

What you do need to watch for, however, are patterns. If five out of seven agents mention that they did not understand your main character’s motivation, or that your opening chapter did not engage their interest, then you need to take a hard look at what you’re sending out.

I began by saying that there is no secret trick to getting published. You can, however, think of the process as a game. Games have steps, rules, and strategy. The better you become at these, the better you can use them to your advantage. The good query letter is one of your most valuable assets.