On writing a query letter

[This is actually an idea by author Josh Palmatier. What happens is this: a number of authors are putting up an example of a successful query letter, i.e. one that either got them an agent or an editor. In other words, they post a query that succeeded. In addition, the writer might also post a discussion about how they write queries or whatever they feel might help other aspiring writers with writing their own queries.
At the end of this post there is a link to all the other blog posts on queries posted by all of the other writers.]

My advice on writing a query letter:
If you ignore instructions, you are doomed from the start.

The first thing to do before writing a query letter is to see what a particular publisher or agent wants. And nowadays that’s usually easy – you look at their website. Can you send them an email? Do they want the first three chapters with the query letter or do they want the query first?

Don’t send a two page query letter if they ask for one page. Don’t send it as an email attachment if they ask you not to. Or maybe they are a publisher who doesn’t want a query from anyone but an agent? Then don’t waste your time sending one. Different countries have different ways of doing things too; don’t expect to use the same letter to appeal to an American agent and a British agent…

Back in the days when I started querying, in the late 1980s, finding the prerequisite information was harder. There was no internet. I used the UK Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, ran a finger down the columns of agents to the first one that said they were looking at fantasy, and sent off a query letter.

The letter below was more or less it (and you are going to tear your hair out in frustration knowing that anyone could get anywhere with something like this – but back in those days quite frankly there wasn’t as much competition. You know what? – When you had to type an MS, fewer people actually ever finished a book…) :

Dear (agent’s name)

Please find enclosed the first three chapters of a completed a fantasy novel of 90,000 words, entitled* Blaze Halfbreed. I hope you will consider reading the whole novel with a view to representation.

I am an Australian teacher presently living in Vienna, Austria. My only previously published work has been non-fiction articles for nature and travel magazines.

Thank you for your consideration.

Yours sincerely,

* Some purists insist that you can’t use entitled in this context. They are wrong. Entitled not only means what is due to you, but also the designation, or title.

Yep, that was it. I suspect this kind of query letter will not get you far today. The book, btw, became somewhat longer after agent and editorial advice, and was changed from a standalone to the first book of a trilogy. It was eventually published as The Aware, Book One of The Isles of Glory. My agent was the first person to ever read it, other than myself.

Nowadays it pays to add some kind of a hook to get the agent or editor interested in reading those three chapters – but I would still keep the rest of the letter short and pithy. At this point in your relationship, an agent or editor is not interested in the fact that you work as a trapeze artist or an ambulance driver (unless of course you’ve written a book about a cowardly trapeze artist or a traumatised ambulance driver). I included the bit about the non-fiction publications merely to show that I can write professionally enough to be published. No details, because I doubt the agent would have been familiar with the magazines involved. If I’d written for a well-known international magazine, then I would have added “including Playboy” or whatever.

If you want to know how to write a query letter with a hook, then look at the archives of Pub Rants or Miss Snark. In the end, though, it will be your book that gets you an agent or a publisher, not your query letter. And it is better to expend your energies in writing that irresistible first chapter than agonising too much over a letter. One good sentence or a short paragraph that tells the reader enough about the book to intrigue should be sufficient. Don’t try to summarise the story!

Something like this might have done the trick for “Blaze Halfbreed”: When you can’t legally stay in one place for more than three days because you lack citizenship, you have to be special to earn a living – or indeed to stay alive. Fortunately Blaze is special. She not only wields a large sword, she can physically see what few people can: magic.

And here is the list of other authors who will be posting their own query letters sometime today – and theirs will probably be much more up-to-date and relevant to today’s situation than mine.

Paul Crilley
Chris Dolley
Diana Pharaoh Francis
Gregory Frost
Simon Haynes
Jacqueline Kessler
John Levitt
Joshua Palmatier
Janni Lee Simner
Maria V. Snyder
Jennifer Stevenson
Edward Willett
David J. Williams


On writing a query letter — 6 Comments

  1. I am going to make sure a neighbour sees this blog Glenda. She has written the first book of a trilogy and is busy trying to sell it. It sounds a fascinating story, and she is talking to someone in England at the moment so maybe she has found her outlet, but just in case.

  2. Giggle. Maybe both you and I should go see the guy who appears on TV with women who are embarrassed about their figures and ends up with them posing nude on billboards. Mind you, most of these women are a tad younger than you and I. You probably don’t see the programme in Malaysia but you might catch it in the US.

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