Thursday, April 17, 2008

Recipe for a Great Query Letter

Writers have to put a lot of work into their query letters. It makes sense to do so. Why spend months or even years working on a manuscript, then only allot an hour to write the letter that you hope will sell an agent or editor on your work? That would not make sense.

But even writers who work for days (or even weeks) on a query letter often aren’t sure what to include in the letter.

The secret to the perfect query letter is that there’s no secret. That’s because there isn’t a “One Way to Write a Query Letter.” There is, however, a recipe. But like any good chef, you change the ingredients so that the dish, or query, becomes your own.

First step in the recipe is to gather your tools. Use good quality paper, like 24 weight. Make it white (you can choose beige, but don’t go for odd colors like pink or blue or anything other than white or at most beige). Stick with black ink. Limit yourself to one page. Set your margins at one and a half inch (you can go out to one-inch, like on your manuscript if you need the space, but no more). Single-space. Avoid fancy fonts – go with Times New Roman or Courier New. You don’t have to, but it’s a good idea, to put your query on letterhead – you don’t have to spend money on having a stationery shop print some up; make your own on your computer.

Now for the ingredients – and this recipe only has four:

You can change the order on these, add some spices of your own, give it your own spin, but start with this lineup, then think about changing things, if you feel the need.

If you have any connection to the agent, put it upfront, first thing. If you’ve met at a conference, or even heard him/her speak, say so. Definitely say so if she told you to query or send a partial. If you have researched him/her and you see that you have something in common that is relevant to your book, say so. If one of his authors recommended that you contact him, definitely say so. If a big name author, although not one of hers, recommended you, say so. If your manuscript won a contest in which he was the judge, say so.

You get the idea. This opening paragraph is your way of saying LOOK, here’s a reason not to automatically throw my query in the trash pile.

Now it’s time to start talking about the book. Start with a hook, something to entice the agent to keep reading your letter. I suggest your logline -- that one or two sentence exciting summary that makes your book sound like one she’d want to read. Or, if you know the agent is a World War II buff, or a train enthusiast, etc. and your book is set during WWII or the plot hinges on the theft of a valuable model train, you can play up that angle in your hook. Hook the agent.

Now you move into a paragraph about your book – a summary of your 300 page manuscript into one paragraph. Easy,huh? Get books off your shelf at home and read the back covers. How do they describe the plot and characters? Notice they pull you in, make you want to read it. Now look at your book and write a cover blurb.

Here’s where you tell about yourself. What makes you the only person who could write this book or especially qualified to do so? You’re a police officer like the protagonist. This book takes place on a movie set and you’ve been an extra in twenty-eight movies. Do you have other books published under this name? Have they sold well? Have you been published in magazines or anthologies? Make sure they will recognize the names of the magazines or newspapers – if they don’t, they’re liable to google the title and you don’t want to get caught fibbing. Has your writing won major contests – don’t bother with the really small ones they won’t recognize. Do you already have a platform to sell your book? Mention that. You have to remember that you’re selling not just your book, but yourself.

Work on your query. Start putting the ingredients in the letter in that order – LOOK, HOOK, BOOK, COOK. There’s a good chance you’ll keep them in that order, but you can always mix things up a little, just don’t leave out any ingredient.

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