Sunday, September 15, 2013

Tools for Selling Your Novel: The Query Letter

Query letters are like the Gorgon of the writing world. Unpublished and experienced authors alike get all wobbly at the knees when they hear the words "query letter".

I understand the stress. The query is the thing that will (hopefully) entice an agent to look at your pages. The query is the bait around the sharp hook of your manuscript; that tasty morsel that makes the agent (or editor) say "I want more." It seems like an impossible task to write a one page anything that will accomplish that. Especially when you start thinking about all the other query letters the agent sees every day. Yours has to stand out, not just among a few letters but a few dozen or hundred!

First, take a deep breath. Writing a query letter is not an easy thing, but it's not as hard as most of us have been led to believe.

Second, one of the best ways to get an idea of how to put a query together is to look at some existing ones. Query Shark is a great place to see various queries - some that work and many that don't - dissected by a Real Life Agent in order to illustrate What Works and What Doesn't. If you want to take the time to join the Absolute Write Water Cooler they have a forum called "Query Letter Hell" that is for the revision and refinement of queries. (There are also a couple of threads about How to Write a Query Letter and Successful Query Letters, if you're still in the research phase of your query mission.)

I have a caveat here: I have not found the advice given on my early query attempts though QLH to be especially useful. But many people have found the feedback and insight there to be invaluable. So, it obviously works for some, but don't be distressed if it doesn't seem to be working for you.

I DID find it useful to look through the successful queries to see what sorts of things they said, how they structured their letters. (And really the answer there is: all sorts of things and many different ways.)

I also found it very useful to start with a logline and then expand that to produce the bulk of my query.

Here was my three sentence logline: Magic-handler Keira Fennel's search for her father intersects with shape-shifter Lowen McCrae's hunt for a murderer in the alleys of 1888 London. When they uncover a plot to construct a mechanical heart from stolen flesh, Keira's skill with gears and magic makes her the target of the otherworldly villain. She's forced to participate in the experiment or lose both Lowen and her father.

(And let me just stop to say that I've a short version of the query letter that uses just these three sentences + the genre/length of the book and my personal info/credits. Although there are agents who apparently dislike loglines, this shorter letter has produced the same percentage of initially positive results as the longer letter.) 

I expanded it to this: Nineteen-year-old magic-handler KEIRA FENNEL is painfully aware she has outgrown the magic school at Ballaghaddereen Abbey, but her father – absent in every way but his continued fear for her safety – is not ready to let her loose in Fey-shy Britain. When Keira learns Da is lost and injured, she seizes the opportunity to prove she no longer needs to be protected.

Her quest to find and rescue her father intersects with shape-shifter LOWEN MCCRAE's hunt for a serial murderer stalking the alleys of 1888 London. At first they are allies out of necessity, but a friendship soon forms and Lowen's search for the man who murdered his ex-wife becomes a mission to protect Keira. The bond is deepened when Keira reveals her Immortal second-nature in order to save Lowen and he accepts her strangeness without judgment.

As they uncover a conspiracy to construct a mechanical heart, the parts distilled from stolen flesh, Keira's skill with gears and magic makes her the target of the otherworldly MONSIEUR DEVEREAUX and his cohorts. Keira must choose between cooperating with Devereaux or losing both Lowen and her father.

Of course, the big question is always "But did it work?". I've had a 1 in 10 request rate off my queries. Which is at the low end of the spectrum but perfectly acceptable. (I know, I'd be giddy if I'd gotten a higher request rate on this, but I've had some really wonderful people ask to look at this so I'm satisfied.)

The longer version is great for querying folks who want only a query to start off with. If they ask for a synopsis as part of the query package, I've been using the short query letter. Because I'm a writer who likes to be succinct whenever possible. 

But whether I'm using the long version or the short version, both letters have the following: a summary of the book (with the intent of showing the uniquenesses of the plot), the basic info on the book (genre, word count, with series potential, complete), a paragraph about my writing credits, and a brief paragraph stating that I am querying multiple agents, I look forward to hearing back, and whether or not I've included sample pages, etc.

Why am I telling you all this in detail? 
Because writing a query letter is not easy, but it's not rocket science. In fact, that longer query letter was written in one thirty minute stint last fall. (After I'd spent a month working on the logline, of course.) It has remained virtually unchanged since then. 

So stop stressing. 
Write a logline (or nine) and find the heart of your story. 
Then write a query expanding the logline. 
Finally, go forth and query. 
Your agent is waiting.


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