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Thread: FAQ: Andrew Jameson How to Write a Query Letter

  1. #1
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    FAQ: Andrew Jameson How to Write a Query Letter

    I'm not an expert on writing query letters, or on what agents want, but I am an expert on researching information. So I put together a bunch of information from different sources on how to write query letters. Most of the information below is sourced from one or more agents or authors; the original source is a click away. Some of the information comes from my own observations; I will try to be clear when my opinion comes into play.
    Please note that this is very much centered on queries for novels. Much of the information can be adapted to non-fiction books or articles, but the basic nitty-gritty pieces are novel-centric.

    Finally, I'm not claiming everything in here is absolutely THE WAY IT'S DONE. There are legitimate differences of opinion on some fine points, there are things that might matter to some people more than others, and sometimes the offbeat works (Ref 16MM). If you have some additional information that offers an alternate take, please post it and I'll incorporate it.

    HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER
    Writing a query letter (cover letter) is hard. It's a lot of work. It takes multiple rewrites. But it shouldn't be confusing. All those "rules" you've heard about query letters? There's a reason for every single rule. I'll try to take the mystery out of writing a good query letter by explaining what to do, and, more importantly, why you want to do it.

    OVERVIEW
    There's a lot of information here, so I've broken it down into sections which roughly correspond to sections you might write, or concepts you might include, in a query letter.
    • BACKGROUND: What to think about before you write your letter.
    • RULE NUMBER ONE: What the purpose of a query letter is.
    • THE BASICS: Format, length, and the overall look of your query letter.
    • GREETING/OPENING: How to say hello.
    • REQUIRED INFORMATION: The little facts you need to include.
    • PERSONALIZATION: Personalize your query letter for each agent.
    • HOOK or TAGLINE: Grab the agent's attention with one sentence.
    • MINI-SYNOPSIS or STORY SUMMARY: The hardest part: What's the story about?
    • BIOGRAPHY: A little about you.
    • MISCELLANEOUS: Some other things you might include, or not, as the mood strikes you.
    • CLOSING: End the letter.
    • WHAT NOT TO SAY: Things you don't want to include.
    • WRAP-UP: Some things to check after you've written your first draft.
    • REFERENCES: Don't believe me? Talk to these folks about it.
    • POSTSCRIPT: Or tell me about it.

  2. #2
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    BACKGROUND
    First, realize a good query letter will only get you so far. It's far better to make sure you write a good book than spend time on a query letter, because while a good query might get you responses, only a good book will get you a contract (Ref 23a, Ref 26e, Ref 13k). But you already know that.

    Second, remember that agents are human. That means they're all different, and they'll disagree about what they like and don't like. Something one agent finds intriguing, another will hate. Something that aggravates one agent, another will love. Some agents love detailed queries (Ref 18b), some like them extremely short (Ref 19). There's no accounting for taste, and your query letter is guaranteed to not please everyone. There's no such thing as a perfect query letter, so write the best one you can, the one that presents your work in the best possible way. Then query multiple agents.

  3. #3
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    RULE NUMBER ONE
    There is one and only one primary rule for writing a query, and everything else stems from this rule. The rule is this: The query must sell you and your work. One more time: The query must sell you and your work. It's a sales tool, and it's only purpose is to get the agent to request more of your work (Ref 7, Ref 9, Ref 13a, Ref 16u, Ref 22). As you're writing your query, remember Rule #1, because everything you put in your query should be there because, in some way, it sells your work.

  4. #4
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    THE BASICS
    Before getting into specifics, let's get the basics out of the way. Remember a query letter is a business letter (Ref 15, Ref 16c, Ref 18a). That means keep it serious (Ref 1, Ref 2, Ref 6, Ref 24a). No pink paper. No pictures (Ref 16b). No bribes (Ref 7). No gimmicks to make it "stand out" (Ref 11f, Ref 13h). Appearance matters (Ref 23a). Make your prose stand out, because that's what's important. Your query letter is a request to enter into a professional relationship with an agent, ignore that at your peril.
    • FORMAT: Single-spaced, 12-point font, spaces between paragraphs (Ref 1, Ref 6). This is a standard business letter format, because (one more time!) a query letter is a business letter.
    • LENGTH: Keep the letter succinct (Ref 13g). One page (Ref 1, Ref 15, Ref 20) is best, and briefer is better (Ref 9, Ref 12, Ref 16k, Ref 24a). Strive for a high ratio of information to word count. Don't cheat with font size--no one like to read eight-point font. The length restriction isn't really because of paper size, it's word count (which means this applies to e-mail queries!). Don't bore the reader: an overly-lengthy letter won't get read (Ref 19), and what good is that?
    • LETTERHEAD or CONTACT INFORMATION: Make sure you include contact information. That means email, address, and phone number (Ref 1, Ref 18a, Ref 20, Ref 21b, Ref 13k), either on a letterhead or underneath your signature (Ref 16d). Make yourself easy to contact.
    • SIGNATURE: Conclude with "Sincerely" and sign it at the bottom (Ref 6). Just like a business letter.
    • SPELLING: Check you spelling and grammar (Ref 1, Ref 16h)! Errors are distracting (Ref 14c, Ref 23a), and first impressions count.
    • CONTENT: Query about one project at a time. (Ref 2, Ref 4, Ref 11a). You might mention other projects, but only in passing (this is covered in more detail below). You don't have enough space to adequately cover more than one work in one letter, so don't.
    • ATTACHMENTS: What do you send with your query letter? Whatever the agent asks for (Ref 3). This varies from agent to agent, so do your research. The ability to follow directions is important. Seriously. For snail mail queries, this will always mean at least a SASE (Ref 4, Ref 6, Ref 16o, Ref 21b). If you've searched and simply can't find an agent's preferences, it's usually acceptable to include the first five manuscript pages (no more!) with your query letter (Ref 1, Ref 13f)--and even strongly recommended (Ref 14f, Ref 16l), although opinion onthis is not unanimous (Ref 25a).

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    GREETING/OPENING
    Start your letter with a salutation, just like you would any other business letter.
    • For the salutation, my preference (and what seems to be most common) is using "Dear," as in "Dear Ms. So-and-so" (Ref 6, Ref 16w, Ref 19). "Dear" is so common and standard as to be almost invisible (like "said"). Some people prefer "Attn Ms. So-and-so" (Ref 1), but this strikes me as a bit impersonal. Use it if you like, but "Dear" is more common.
    • Address your letter to a particular person, not a generic "Agent" or "To Whom it May Concern" (Ref 6, Ref 11a, Ref 19, Ref 21b, Ref 24a). You want to convince the agent that your work is right for her. That's hard to do if you demonstrate you don't even know who you're sending the letter to.
    • Make sure you spell the agent's name right and get the gender right (Ref 2, Ref 6, Ref 17, Ref 18a, Ref 24a). A little thing, yes, but it costs you nothing to do it right, so why wouldn't you?
    • When you're done with the salutation, don't start the letter by introducing yourself, as in, "My name is Andrew Jameson, and I..." (Ref 7, Ref 16f). This is a business letter, not a conversation. Your name's at the bottom of the page.

    After the greeting, you can start the letter in three different ways: with some factual, business-like information, with a personalized approach to the agent, or with a hook. Remember that the opening paragraph has pride of place: it's the first thing the agent reads. Here are some of the tradeoffs:
    • FACTUAL INFORMATION ABOUT THE BOOK: Some agents like the factual, business-like information (genre, title, word count etc) up front to understand what they're getting into and orient them to the upcoming story (Ref 19, Ref 21b). The business-like opening may be phrased like, "I am seeking representation for ..." and/or introduce the work with title/genre/word count. The advantage here is this gives the agent necessary information right away to orient her to what's happening. However, keep this short! Get to the good stuff as quickly as possible.
    • OTHER FACTUAL INFORMATION: If you have a very strong bit of factual information that will interest the agent, you can lead with that. For example, if your manuscript has won a prestigious prize, you have the serious interest of a major editor, or you have a compelling personal story, this might be the type of information that seperates your query from all the others.
    • PERSONALIZATION: Personalizing your query means showing the agent why your work is right for them. You can start the query by emphasizing the aspects of your manuscript the agent might find attractive.
    • HOOK: A short, one-sentence hook starts your query letter with a bang (Ref 7). The advantage of a hook is it gets the most interesting aspect (the story, right?) up front.

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    REQUIRED INFORMATION
    There's a number of pieces of factual information you must include somewhere in your query letter (Ref 16x). These don't have to be at the beginning, but they need to be somewhere. Required info includes:
    • TITLE (Ref 1, Ref 6, Ref 11a, Ref 21b). Give the agent a handle to grasp your book with and show that you've thought through your manuscript (Ref 25b). You should probably make sure your title is carefully delineated from the surrounding text by putting it in italics or all caps.
    • WORD COUNT (Ref 1, Ref 6, Ref 21b, Ref 23b). Word count, not page count, not chapter count (Ref 25b). Word count is important, because a book that is too long or too short is hard to sell. In general, an adult novel should be around 100,000 words, while YA should be around 50,000 words (Ref 1, Ref 14d, Ref 26f). However, different genres and lines have different preferences, and there's no hard and fast rule. The agent will still look at a wide range of word counts (Ref 13d). But the farther you are from "ideal," the more trouble you'll have.
    • GENRE (Ref 20, Ref 23b). Include a standard genre for sure (Ref 4, Ref 21b), and maybe subgenre if you're comfortable doing so (Ref 3). This gives the agent an idea where your book might fit, at both the agency and with publishers. Don't list a hodge-podge of genres (Ref 11i, Ref 25b); list where the book will be shelved in the bookstore. And for Heaven's sake, make sure the agent you're querying actually represents the genre (Ref 22, Ref 23a, Ref 17).
    • SETTING. Some people suggest including the setting of your story (Ref 6, Ref 16k, Ref 18b) to orient the reader. My thought is setting is a strongly suggested, but not required, piece of information, and will probably more naturally fit in the story summary.
    • FICTION/NONFICTION. Make it's clear whether your book is fiction of non-fiction; this question may already be answered by your genre. And for heaven's sake, don't say "fiction novel" (Ref 1, Ref 16g). The redundancy grates on some people's nerves.
    • CONTACT INFORMATION. Include Email, address, phone number (Ref 1, Ref 18a, Ref 20, Ref 21b), and URL (only if you want Ref 16d, Ref 21b). These should go up in your letterhead, or down below your signature (Ref 16d). Make it easy for the agent to find the information and get in touch with you.

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    PERSONALIZATION
    Remember that all agents are different, and their taste runs to different things. You know that, and agents know that, too. So let the agent know why you chose her to send your query to. Or, more to the point, why your book is right for her (Ref 11a, Ref 12, Ref 13h, Ref 13k). How could you do that?
    • Show how your book is similar to one the agent already reps (Ref 1, Ref 13h, Ref 16q, Ref 25c). This tells the agent why she might like your book, and demonstrates that you did your homework.
    • Look for an agent's preferences--interviews, blogs, statements on her web site (Ref 16q). Does she like character-driven novels? Unconventional plots? An imaginative setting? Tell why your book matches her preferences.
    • If you have an in--you've met the agent at a conference, you've corresponded before, you have a mutual acquaintance, whatever--use it (Ref 12). But be careful! Don't overstate your connection to an author or mutual friend (Ref 11j) or stretch a tenuous relationship (Ref 16p). Remember you're hoping to start a professional relationship with this agent.
    • Don't state what amounts to "I found your name in a book" (Ref 1, Ref 16g, Ref 26d). This isn't personalization. Anyone can look in a book or on AgentQuery to find the names of agents. Personalization means explaining why the agent is special.

    Do you have to personalize your query? Not really (Ref 16i, Ref 27f). But it is one more method to sell you and your book, and the more reasons you can give the agent to ask for more, the better off you'll be.

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    HOOK or TAGLINE
    • WHAT IS A "HOOK"? First, a definition. I'm defining a "hook" as a concise, one-sentence tagline for your book (Ref 1). However, not everyone defines the word "hook" in the same way. Some people, for example, define "hook" as the story summary or mini-synopsis (Ref 16AA), which I'll cover in the next section. And that's understandable: the "hook" and the "story summary" are similar, and a short query letter with a long hook is virtually indistinguishible from a short query letter with a short story summary. However, to be clear: when I say "hook," I'm talking about the one-sentence tagline that is seperate from, but NOT used in place of, the longer story summary.
    • WHY USE A HOOK? The reason you might want a hook is to instantly grab the agent's attention by densely packing the biggest "wow" in the smallest space.
    • WHAT'S IN A HOOK? The hook introduces character, conflict, and why your book is intriguing (some examples: Ref 1, Ref 5). You'll often hear the suggestion that you phrase the hook as a question (Ref 9): "what happens when...?" or "why would you...?" That can work, but some agents feel that's overused (Ref 13i, Ref 13b), and I personally would avoid it.
    • DO YOU NEED A HOOK? Not really. Perfectly fine query letters are written with no hooks (Examples: Ref 2, Ref 8, Ref 17). Decide for yourself what's best (Ref 27c). If the conflict is difficult to understand in a short sentence, or you feel you'd rather quickly get to the main story summary, skip the hook.
    • WHERE DOES IT GO? Conventional wisdom is to open the query with a hook (Ref 7). This starts the query with a bang to grab the agent's attention immediately (Examples: Ref 5, Ref 6, Ref 24a). Putting the hook later in the query suffers from a couple disadvantages: first, the impact is muted because you're not opening your letter with a bang. Second, the "hook" starts to run into the "story summary;" this can be confusing if you're repeating information and there's no clear delineation between the two. Still, this can work at times, so decide for yourself.
    • ARE THERE DISADVANTAGES TO USING A HOOK?: A potential disadvantage is the agent may need to know some background to understand the fundamental hook. In addition, some agents like the factual, business-like information up front to understand what they're getting into (Ref 19, Ref 21b).

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    STORY SUMMARY or MINI-SYNOPSIS
    The story summary (or mini-synopsis, or "hook", as it's sometimes called) is the heart of the query, because it introduces your story: the characters and the plot, the things that differentiate your story from everyone else's. Yes, this is the most difficult part of the query to construct. Yes, it's hard to condense your magnum opus into two paragraphs. No, you may not give up and call your book indescribable (Ref 11i, Ref 16JJ). If you can't describe it, the agent can't sell it.

    Now then: how do you describe it? Because this is the most confusing and frustrating part of the query, let's take it slowly, a little at a time. Keep in mind that there are a lot of ways to put together a story summary, and inevitably some of my own biases will creep into here more surely than in other sections. So take the following with that in mind.

    Background: The reason for a story summary is to show what is different and intriguing about your book (Ref 22, Ref 23b, Ref 25b). What is better about your book than everyone else's (Ref 3, Ref 16w)? Why does the agent want to read your book and not the others in her stack? Remember you're trying to sell your work, and that means making it stand out. So how do you condense your entire book into two paragraphs or less? Answer: You don't. The story summary is not intended to describe your entire book. It's intended to provide an introduction to the core of your story. Think like a back-cover blurb (Ref 1, Ref 3, Ref 6, Ref 23b), where the language intrigues rather than summarizes.

    Five-step Approach: How do you construct an introduction to the core of your story? Focus on the important elements that make a string of sentences into a story. Here's a five-step approach (Ref 16n). This isn't the only way to construct a story summary by any means (Ref 16MM), but it will help you focus on what's important.
    • PROTAGONIST: Introduce the person your story is about. This means characterization, not physical description.
    • PROBLEM: Define problem or problems facing the protagonist in the story.
    • STAKES: Lay out the stakes (Ref 16FF). What happens if the protagonist doesn't solve the problem?
    • CONFLICT: Describe the conflict in the book (Ref 21a, Ref 11d, Ref 17, Ref 26h). What prevents the protagonist from solving the problem?
    • TEASER: End with a teaser. This means a cliffhanger, an important decision, a twist, something that will intrigue the agent.

    Let's look at each of these five elements in more detail.

    Protagonist: What makes your protagonist tick? What is the character like? Why is the character interesting? Why should the reader care about the character (Ref 16BB)? Every story starts with a good character; show the agent why yours is great. Your characterization should be for one main character, or at most two. In the short space available, there is no room to describe multiple characters (Ref 16II). This may present a problem if you have an ensemble cast, with no one character clearly most important. But remember: you're not describing your entire book, you're introducing it, and having one interesting, fleshed-out character is better than mentioning five pallid two-dimensional characters. Pick your most interesting character and build the story summary around him/her.

    Problem: A story is not just characters (Ref 16CC), it's about problems. What problems does your protagonist face? Describe the problems through your protagonist's eyes; make sure to explain why these problems are important to your protagonist. If it isn't obvious, make sure to explain why the protagonist is the one tasked with solving the problem. Invading Huns is a problem, but if the book is about stopping the invading Huns, be sure it's clear why your protagonist is the right person to do the stopping.

    Stakes: Why is the problem important to your protagonist? What happens if the problem isn't solved? The higher the stakes, the more critical the elimination of the problem is to your protagonist. The more critical, the more exciting the story. Again, the stakes may be self-evident, but not always. Make sure it's understood why the protagonist considers the problem important, and what happens to the protagonist if the problem isn't solved. Invading Huns are clearly a problem to someone, but if your protagonist is a wandering loner, why does he care what the Huns do?

    Conflict: Not all problems involve conflict; conflict occurs when something prevents the protagonist from solving the problem. What stops your protagonist from solving the problem? Is it a person? Group? Nature? Himself? All of these? Once more, this may be self-evident--if invading Huns are your problem invading Huns probably provide much of the conflict. Finally, the more conflict the better. Invading Huns are nice; invading Huns, a cheating wife, incompetent general, and deserting soldiers are better. Stories are built on conflict--make sure yours has it.

    Teaser: Leave the agent wondering what happens next. Your book might have a number of possible "cliffhangers" to use as a teaser. The best and most interesting involve all of the previous four elements: your protagonist, his problem, high stakes, and conflict. Once you have a teaser in mind, make sure the rest of your summary adequately explains the teaser (Ref 27b). For example, if the teaser is an important choice the protagonist must make, ensure it's clear why the choice is important, why it's difficult, and why the progatonist must make it. Ending with a teaser isn't strictly necessary; plenty of perfectly good query letters do not. But remember, the reason you're writing this is to make the agent want more.

    Things to remember:
    • TENSE: The standard is to relate summaries in third-person present tense, even if your manuscript is not (Ref 16s).
    • VOICE: Your summary is a writing sample, and it's not just your story that can attract interest, but your voice. Let your voice show (Ref 2, Ref 6, Ref 11f, Ref 14b). Strive for tone to let the agent get a feel for the book. This is hard--very hard--to do in such a short section. But it's your voice that sparks interest.
    • LENGTH: How long should the story summary be? Some agents love longer descriptions (Ref 18b), some hate them (Ref 19). The average opinion seems to be "a paragraph or two" (Ref 20). In general, the shorter the better. Get your point across while you have the agent's attention. You'll have to work out your own balance between succinctness and specifics.
    • SPECIFICS: Mention specifics (Ref 16y, Ref 16GG). In other words, don't describe the plot in vague terms. Don't say "danger threatens." Say exactly what type of danger. Don't say "he is forced to make a decision that will change his life." Say exactly what the decision entails and why it will change his life. Remember you want to make your book sound different from every other book. The specifics are what does that.
    • LOGICAL CONNECTIONS: Include logical connections between events. Why do events happen; what causes characters to act the way they do? This is the difference between a story with a plot and a list of facts (Ref 13b, Ref 16z). Don't make this section just a summary of events (Ref 25b, Ref 16HH). Connect events together so it's clear why your protagonist takes the actions he does.
    • VERBS: Make your protagonist active (Ref 16m). Look at the verbs in the story summary: do they portray your protagonist as initiating action? Or do they portray your protagonist as being swept along by events? Avoid verbs that are passive and weak, replace them with strong, active verbs.
    • SETTING: You'll probably want to mention the setting of the story. A story taking place in 17th century Scotland has a different flavor when transported to modern-day New York.


    Things to avoid:
    • EXTRANEOUS DETAILS: Get to the plot--no extraneous details (Ref 13b). Don't make your summary sound like a list of details and don't include a specific detail because it's in your book. This might sound like it contradicts the "mention specifics" point above, but it doesn't. Specifics should be included to explain the core of your story--the important plot points. Extraneous details are those that don't relate to the core story. If your protagonist's red shoes are central to the plot, they should be mentioned; if not, keep the extraneous detail out.
    • TOO MANY PROPER NAMES: Keep new terms and names to a minimum (Ref 3)--ideally two or three. It's hard for the reader to keep track of too many proper names, and you don't want the agent to be confused.
    • FIRST PERSON: Summaries (and synopses) are seldom written in first person, even if your novel is (Ref 16s). Third person, present tense is standard.
    • CLICHES: Avoid cliches (Ref 11g, Ref 16b, Ref 16HH). It's too easy to describe your book with an overused phrase. What's worse, cliches, by definition, make your book sound like every other book in the world. Remember, you want your book to sound different and interesting.
    • TOO MUCH BACKSTORY: Keep backstory to a minimum (Ref 16DD, Ref 16KK). Backstory isn't what's interesting about your book: what's interesting is the characters and the problem and the conflict. A little backstory is fine, particularly to describe setting or characterization, but don't overdo it. This is particularly a problem in SFF, where authors think they need to put world-building into the query, so be careful: focus on story (Ref 16LL).
    • "FINDS HIMSELF": A special case of a weak verb. If your protagonist is continually "finding himself" in situations, this implies a particularly passive, boring protagonist. A pet peeve of mine.
    • DESCRIBING TECHNIQUE: Describe your story, not your book. Avoid phrases like, "the book opens with," or "the protagonist is named..." (Ref 16NN) That emphasizes how you wrote the book, not the story in the book. It's more immediate and intriguing to tell what happens in the story.
    • THE ENDING: Don't give away the ending (Ref 16r). Remember the story summary is not supposed to describe the entire book, and it is supposed to be enticing and suspenseful (Ref 16EE). Giving away the ending is a sign you're describing too much of the book.

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    BIOGRAPHY
    The biography should be no more than a paragraph long (Ref 20), and should give information about you relevant to your writing in general and your story in particular (Ref 1, Ref 16v, Ref 18a). In writing your bio, remember rule #1: you want to sell you and your work.

    So what goes into a bio? The agent wants to know three things: 1. Can you write? 2. Do you have special qualifications for this book? 3. What else will help her sell this book for you? Let's look at all three.

    Can you write? This is the most important. "Can you write?" means, essentially, publications, but there are a few more items to consider.
    • PUBLICATIONS: This is the most important part of your bio (Ref 19PP). If you've published before, that shows that some editor, somewhere, liked your work. That's important--if you're a novelist, the agent wants to know you can write interesting, long-form fiction. If you have multiple credits keep it short (Ref 3). Emphasize credits that are most similar to what you're querying about. For a novelist, novel publication credits (interesting, long-form fiction) are best. Short fiction stories (interesting, short-form fiction) are next; followed by non-fiction books (interesting, long-form non-fiction) and then by articles (interesting, short-form non-fiction). Even if all you have are articles, you should probably include them (Ref 24a, Ref 13k), although some agents care only about the novel credits (Ref 19). Finally, don't say you're published when you're self-published (Ref 13h, Ref 16e). The agent will check, and stretching the truth isn't a good idea.
    • CONTEST WINS: Did your novel win a prestigious prize? Include that (Ref 21b).
    • CONFERENCES, WRITER'S GROUPS: Some agents like to see information about conferences and so forth (Ref 21b, Ref 23a) to demonstrate your seriousness about the profession. However, this can start to look like padding (Ref 27e), so you'll have to make up your own mind.
    • EDUCATION: If your education relates to your story, you should probably include it (Ref 1). If it doesn't, some agents see an educational background in writing as a positive (Ref 13k), although some do not (Ref 16QQ).

    Do you have special qualifications for this book?
    • EXPERIENCE: If you have an insider's view, some relevent experience of what's included in your book, mention it in the bio (Ref 10, Ref 14b, Ref 22, Ref 24a). The insider's perspective shows that not only can you get the details correct, but it might also give you an intriguing platform from which to pitch your book.
    • PROFESSION: Does your profession relate to your story? If so, include it (Ref 4, Ref 6). This shows you can get relevant details right in your story. If your profession isn't relevant, keep it brief (Ref 1, Ref 2, Ref 13e) or don't include it at all.

    What else will help the agent sell this book for you?
    • NAME-RECOGNITION: Is there a reason an audience might recognize your name (Ref 3, Ref 16OO)? Name-recognition gives your book an audience.

    What else can go in a bio?
    • AGE: Should you mention if you're a teenager? Opinions vary on this; some think it shouldn't be mentioned (Ref 11h), some think it should (Ref 14e). If this applies to you, you'll have to make up your own mind.
    • NOTHING: If you've got nothing, don't sweat it (Ref 14b, Ref 16a). Don't say you have no credits (Ref 24a), just skip the bio section. Some people argue that any details irrelevant to your story should be left out (Ref 9, Ref 27a), so you should stay with nothing (Ref 25b).
    • MISCELLANY: On the other hand, some agents like just a little bio to get a feel for the writer--their profession and education (Ref11a) and personality (Ref 20, Ref 19PP)--even if it doesn't directly relate to the story.

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    MISCELLANEOUS
    There are a few other things you might or might not want to mention, depending on your preferences. Consider these, but remember Rule #1: make sure that these elements sell you and your work. Otherwise they just take up space.
    • MARKET: What's the market for your book? This is not a marketing plan, but an alert to the agent about which people might buy your book. Be very careful here. Some kind of marketing savvy makes your query stand out (Ref 11c), and agents are on the lookout for underserved markets (Ref 16j). However, a market pitch is hard to do right (Ref 26j). If you have relevant experience, you could tie a market in with your bio (Ref 11b), but this takes a deft touch. Unless the ideas in your manuscript are particularly timely or far-sighted, don't talk specifically about markets and topics in your manuscript. The book description should give the agent all the information he needs to determine what kind of ideas you have (Ref 3).
    • COMPARISON TO OTHER AUTHORS: This is essentially a specific way of defining a market by comparing your work to other works that already have a defined market. Again, this is an area where you need to tread lightly. The emphasis here is not that you're trying to mimic another author, but rather to give the agent an idea of how you write and where your book might fit. Don't say your work is "just like" or "better than" another author's, particularly a bestseller (Ref 1, Ref 7, Ref 9, Ref 11i, Ref 13b, Ref 22, Ref 26i). That's saying your work isn't fresh and interesting. Instead, mention what readers who like another author might like in yours (Ref 3, Ref 10, Ref 11e), or compare and contrast your work to another author's (Ref 15).
    • MANUSCRIPT COMPLETENESS: It's standard in the FICTION market to send query letters only for complete manuscripts (Ref 2, Ref 4, Ref 16t, Ref 25b). Mentioning your manuscript is complete lets the agent know you can deliver the completed manuscript right away. Agents aren't going to take on an unfinished project, because it adds to the risk (Ref 10).
    • OTHER PROJECTS: Only query about one project at a time (Ref 2, Ref 4, Ref 11a). However, you may briefly mention other books you're working on (Ref 4). This tells the agent you're in the writing profession for the long haul. However, be careful. Some people don't care for this additional information (Ref 27a), and you certainly don't want to look like a loser by listning a series of old, unsold projects.
    • YOUR BOOK IS PART OF A SERIES: If you're currently writing a series, ask yourself: do you really want to commit to writing a series before you sell the first book? Remember, if you don't sell book one, it will be difficult to sell the subsequent books (Ref 13d). If you are writing a series that must be read in order, make sure you query about the first book in the series (Ref 4, Ref 13d). You may then mention that more books are planned (Ref 4, Ref 11b, Ref 13c, Ref 14c), but don't overdo it (Ref 16x). A series or series potential can be a selling point (Ref 24b), particularly in some genres (Ref 26g); in fact, mentioning that "the characters have series potential" may be a good idea. However, conventional wisdom states that you should be clear that book one--the book you're querying on--will stand on its own (Ref 16RR). Publishers may not want to commit to a series by an unpublished writer.
    • FIRST NOVEL: Should you mention if this your first novel? Good question. Some places say no (Ref 4, Ref 22, Ref 16RR). It's irrelevant and shouldn't be included. On the other hand, some agents don't mind (Ref 18b, Ref 27d), or even like new writers (Ref 13e), so it might be a slight plus. But whatever you do, don't be apologetic about being a first-timer (Ref 1, Ref 13b).
    • RECOMMENDATIONS: Should you mention a positive recommendation from an editor or author or friend? Well... Maybe. But be careful. If the recommendation is from someone relatively unknown, even a published author, then you probably shouldn't. If the recommendation is from an editor you've paid, then you probably shouldn't (Ref 13j, Ref 16b). But if the recommendation is from someone well-known and respected, then that might sway the agent's interest (Ref 14a, Ref 17). And certainly use a personal referral (Ref 21c) if you have one.
    • THEME: A discussion of theme is probably extraneous (Ref 24a). However, if you think theme will sell your work, by all means include it.
    • TECHNIQUE: Should you mention the structure of the book or a particular technique used to write it (alternating POV, say, or intertwined stories, or different time lines). Depends: is it important, and, more directly, will mentioning it sell your work?

  12. #12
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    CLOSING
    Close the letter with a standard polite goodbye. "Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon," for example (Ref 2, Ref 25b). You might mention your enclosures and SASE, or not. Be brief and businesslike. Conclude with "Sincerely" and sign it at the bottom (Ref 6). Just like a business letter.

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    WHAT NOT TO SAY
    There are a few things you should probably avoid in your query letter.
    • Don't say how much you love your work, or your friends love your work, or the agent will love your work (Ref 3, Ref 19, Ref 24a). Everyone loves their own work; everyone has friends who love their work; everyone thinks the agent will love their work. This doesn't make your book stand out.
    • Don't describe how much time you spent writing your book, or how you poured your soul into it. No one cares, and this doesn't set your book apart.
    • Don't say you "recently finished" your novel (Ref 16y). That implies you haven't spent much time editing.
    • Don't describe your book the way a reviewer would, telling about how it's "humorous" or "exciting" or "compelling." Describing your book as "compelling" doesn't say why it's more compelling than every other "compelling" book. Here's where showing is better than telling (Ref 4, Ref 7, Ref 16u).
    • Don't be negative, or wishy-washy, or apologetic. Don't assume the agent won't like your book (Ref 4, Ref 16v, Ref 22). Remember Rule #1--the query letter should sell your book.
    • Don't be boastful (Ref 13h). Everyone thinks their stuff is good, spending time telling why it's good instead of showing how it's good is annoying and serves no purpose (Ref 27a). Put your best foot forward.
    • Don't start by introducing yourself (Ref 7). This is a business letter, not a conversation. Your name's at the bottom of the page.
    • Don't say you're published when you're self-published (Ref 13h). Agents do research, too, and truth-stretching isn't the right way to start off a professional relationship.

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    WRAP-UP
    Suppose that you've written the first draft of your query letter. How can you improve it?
    • First,I refer you back to Rule #1: Everything in the query must sell you and your work. Now that you've got it down on paper, go through your query. Does every element sell your work?
    • Second, look at length. There is some discussion of length above, but the basic question is: can you make it shorter? Don't use more length than you need. Emphasize the best points by weeding out the extraneous stuff around them.
    • Third, look at balance. This is something we haven't talked about before. Does each item take up the right amount of space relative to other items? Are you too heavy on bio, with not enough story summary?
    • Fourth, look at order. Are your strongest points up in the first paragraph? A personal referral, prestigious contest win, a successful earlier book, an outstanding platform (Ref 16OO), or a potential buyer for your manuscript might warrant going front and center to catch the agent's attention. Conversely, if the beginning of your letter isn't exciting, see if you can move some of that information to the end.
    • Last, post it somewhere for a critque. See what other people have to say.

  15. #15
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    REFERENCES

  16. #16
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    POSTSCRIPT
    Remember, query letter writing is an art, and opinions may vary. Have you seen a different point of view that isn't represented here? Have I misinterpreted a source? Let me know, preferably with a citation, and I'll incorporate it.

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