By: Dan Lawton
I'm sure you've heard about this, right? It's every writer's nightmare, but it's inevitable, unavoidable, painstakingly stressful. The cursor blinks on your screen, the page a crisp white, the cooling fan humming gently next to your wrist. Your brain doesn't know where to start.
It's the blank page.
But I'm not talking about that blank page—the one that does have two words at the top, usually in the center, maybe capitalized: Chapter One. No, not that blank page. The query letter—that's what I'm talking about here, and it's brutal. You've spent four, six, maybe twelve months or more writing, editing, and polishing your manuscript, and you're finally ready to send it out into the world. Exciting, right? Or petrifying. Depends on how you look at it—is your glass half-full, or half-empty? For me, I'm usually a glass half-full type of guy, so it's an exciting time. But how do you even do that? How do you send your book out? To whom do you send it to? Let's assume you've already figured that out, okay? If you haven't, check out QueryTracker.net. I'll get into it more in another post.
So, what is it, exactly? The query letter. It's a lot of things, actually:
1) It's your book proposal. It's your elevator pitch. It's a one page document that you send to literary agents and/or publishers to try to sell your book. It's a 300 word summary of your 80,000, 90,000, maybe 100,000 word novel. What makes your book interesting? What's the hook? Why will people want to read it? Why should they care? You have 300 words—go!
2) It's a plot summary. You've spent 400 pages telling a story, now you must shrink that to two, maybe three paragraphs. No big deal, right? Have three plot twists? You don't have enough words to share that. Have a group of unique characters, each with their own in depth personality and quirks and background experiences? You don't have enough words to share that, either. Have a deep, moving, thought-provoking literary theme present throughout the pages in your book? Sorry, not enough words. 300 words isn't much. Think of it this way: this post is over 350 already. Yikes. Double spaced, you can get somewhere between 200 and 220, maybe 230 words on a page. So, you have one page (single spaced) to describe 400 pages of your work. But it's even less than that, really. Here's why:
3) It's also your writer's resume. Have you had anything published in the past? Won an award? Have a MFA? Relevant work experience? This has to go in the query letter too. Keep it short.
4) Why did you reach out to this particular agent or publisher? Do they represent or publish someone you admire? Do they represent the type of projects you've written? Tell them.
5) What is your book similar to? What are some comparative titles in the marketplace? What makes it different from those? Share that.
And remember, you have 300 words, give or take. The shorter the better, I've found. Agents and publishers receive hundreds of query letters a week, thousands a year, so yours has to stand out. Their attention spans are short—wouldn't yours be too if fifty people tried to sell you something today?
How do you do it? How to you get a literary agent or a publisher to pay attention to you? How do you get them to read your entire query letter without deleting the email (most, if not all querying is done via email, now—writers used to have to physically mail them all out)? Or better, how do you get them to want to read your manuscript? How do you get them to want to actually work with you? Those are questions for another day. This is about the basics of a query letter—those are not basic questions. This is the first step—write a good query letter. You won't even be considered without one. This is the general structure of a query letter:
[Literary Agent's Name]
[Agency City, State Zip]
¶ In the opening paragraph, share the details of your book—title, word count, genre. You can also include comparative titles, here. Keep this limited to 1-2 sentences.
¶ What's your elevator pitch, your one-liner, your hook? Put it here. It should be one sentence.
¶¶¶ Use the next two or three paragraphs to describe your book—a quick synopsis; an introduction of the protagonist, maybe the antagonist; explain the dilemma and the odds (what are the circumstances—plot—and what are the character(s) up against. This is the meat of your query letter, and without question, the most important part. This is what will either turn an agent or publisher on, or turn them off, when it comes to your manuscript.
¶ Use this paragraph to talk about your writing credentials—who you are, why you wrote the book, what your writing background is. Keep this short, as well. 2-3 sentences.
¶ Conclusion. Tell the agent or publisher why you chose to submit to them. Also in this paragraph, it's a good idea to reiterate that your manuscript is complete and available, should they want to read it (DO NOT send out query letters for fiction projects until the manuscript is done—non-fiction is different, though). Also mention if you've included any materials with your email—a synopsis, for example, or sample pages—but don't do that unless you're requested to in the agent/publisher's submission guidelines. Look at their website to find out what they want you to send to them—some want just the query letter, others want a synopsis too, and some want sample pages (5, 10, 50, maybe 100). Send them exactly what they asked for, nothing more.
Signature line(s), which include your name and all relevant contact details.
That's it. That's a query letter. Keep it to one page, if you can. Any longer is too long. Use this format to pitch your book to literary agents and/or publishers. I signed with a publisher using this format for one book, and then with a literary agent for another book. It worked for me.
In future posts, I'll delve into this further, and other aspects of the writing world as well—writing, editing, querying, self-publishing vs traditional, royalties and advances, what literary agents do, etc.
Writers—stay tuned! And get working on that query letter.