Writing a Query Letter (The Subtle Art of Begging)

Yes, I’m well aware how many others offer advice on writing a query letter. In point of fact, I mentioned it in my post It’s Not You, It’s Me. Okay, It’s You that Google shows 22,300,000 hits when I search “query letter.” Checking that number again it’s now 27,900,000. So why am I adding to that mountain? Because I’m a writer, and I know the pain and stress that goes into it.

So everyone is on the same page, let’s start at the very beginning.

What is a query letter?

Sometimes also called a cover letter, a query letter is, in essence, you asking someone, pretty, pretty, please, to read your work because it really is awesome and you know they’ll totally love it! Yes, you should word it a little better than that, but let’s be honest, you’re trying to convince someone to take time away from making money to look over your work because you think it can make them more money. The important thing to remember is that your query letter isn’t trying to get you published, even if it’s being sent to a publisher. A query letter is successful if it opens the door. After that, it’s up to your work to stand on its own.

Anatomy of a query letter

A query/cover letter is basically just three parts.

  1. The introduction. This is the easy part. You’ll need to tell them a few things:
    1. Word count of your work (I round to the nearest thousand, though you can be more precise if your letter is about a short story).
    2. Genre, and be specific. If it’s urban fantasy or space opera, say so.
    3. The title. Yes, this is something they should really know.
    4. Less easy is a “hook,” or reason why they should keep reading, and it shouldn’t be more than a sentence.
    5. A summary of your book. This is the hard part. You need to boil your story down to one to three paragraphs that will make someone want to read the whole thing. The common advice is to look at jacket copy (the summaries on backs of books or on dust jacket flaps). I also like to think of it as a movie trailer.
    6. Your bio. This is where you’ll put any publishing credits you have. If you don’t have any, don’t panic. This is also where you can say why you think you’re the person to write this book.

Somewhere in your letter, it’s not a bad idea to mention who you see as the intended audience for your book. Sometimes it’s implied, if you compare your work to another author’s (or, uncommonly, another popular form of artistic expression that is along the lines of your book, such as in the example below.)

Details matter

Remember this letter is going to be the first impression someone gets not only of your writing, but of you. How do you want to be seen? If you take the time and put together a polished query letter, you’ll come across as someone who treats their writing seriously and professionally.

  1. The title of your book should be in italics and all CAPS.
  2. Address your letter:
    1. To a person. Do NOT use: To whom it may concern, Dear sir/madam, or the like.
    2. To the correct person.

i.      If you’re sending it to a publishing company, address it to the acquisitions editor.

ii.      If you are sending it to an agency, send it to the agent who handles books in your genre.

  1. To Mr. or Ms., never the person’s first name.

i.      EXCEPTION: If you can’t tell the person’s gender from their first name, (some names are used for both), don’t try to guess. Use the whole name. For example: Dear Leslie Smith. Not: Dear Ms. Smith. Leslie could be a man, and wouldn’t you be embarrassed if he asked to see a sample of your book after you address him as Ms.?

  1. Include the name of the company
  2. Include your name and contact information.
  3. Personalize the letter. Include something that tells the person you’re querying that you didn’t just send out the literary equivalent of an email blast. Did you read on his bio page that he’s looking for your genre of work? Mention it! Does she represent an author you like? Tell her! Things like that are small, but they can make the difference.
  4. Note if you included any requested materials (synopsis, sample, etc).

I work well from examples, so below you’ll find the basic template, slightly modified for online publication, I used when submitting The Stolen Child. I ALWAYS modify the template and try to personalize it for each submission.

If you don’t get any requests for samples, it’s never a bad idea to look over your query letter again and see if you can improve it.

Bishop O’Connell
100 Awesome Author Circle
Some City, Any State Any Zip Code
Phone Number
Bishop@A-Quiet-Pint.com

Month Day,Year

Agent/Editor Name

Agency/Company

Address

City, State, Zip

Dear Mr./Ms. Agent/publisher’s name:

This query relates to my 96,000 word urban fantasy, The Stolen Child. This manuscript has strong literary and commercial appeal. It’s a character driven thriller. Here’s the novel’s premise:

Tonight, for the first time in over a century, a mortal child will be kidnapped by faeries, and it will happen in the United States.

After a terrible accident takes the love of Brendan Kavanaugh’s life, he condemns himself to exile from Boston, Massachusetts, the city he calls home. Now, many decades later, he has a plan to exact revenge on the faeries who caused the accident, but his plan is blown to bits when they make an unexpected move and kidnap a mortal child. As Brendan vows to find the girl and bring her back to her mother, Caitlin, he is drawn deeper and deeper into dangerous events that threaten not just his life, but the treasured memory of his love as well.

Like the rest of the modern world, Caitlin is certain that faeries exist only in children’s stories and Disney movies. Her life is simple; she’d worked hard, slept too little, and spent every possible moment with her four-year-old daughter, Fiona, the center and joy of her life. But when Fiona is kidnapped, Caitlin must accept that not only do faeries exist, but they are not at all like the characters in those children’s stories. These faeries have evolved alongside humanity, trading in their arrows, handwritten letters, and horses for guns, cell phones, and sports cars. But she has little time to process it all, as her daughter’s life hangs in the balance and Caitlin must, against her better judgment, trust Brendan and some of these strange beings to help her get Fiona back.

Stolen Child is the first of a series. I’m fascinated with history and myth, as well as how the two are connected. Throughout history, myths have shaped culture, and culture has in turn shaped myth. I believe it’s time to take back the faerie tale from Disney and make it what it once was, but for a current and modern audience. I seem to have found a bit of vindication in this, as there are currently three television series based on faerie tales; Once Upon a Time, Grimm, and Lost Girl. If you’d like to see my manuscript, or a sampling thereof, please contact me through any of the means provided above.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Bishop M. O’Connell

One thought on “Writing a Query Letter (The Subtle Art of Begging)

  1. Pingback: On the Road to Publication: Lawyer, Agent, or Me? | A Quiet Pint

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