HOW TO WRITE A KILLER QUERY LETTER
You would think that my experience and background as a middle-school English teacher gives me the upper hand in writing query letters. But let’s face it. We’re talking about the publishing business—a beast all of its own entity. I know. It could be so blasted confusing. Every author and their uncle have a blog about writing killer query letters. But, like one of my characters, Blanche Bankhead would say, “What a lot of them don’t tell you, darling, is that there’s more than one way to make a heart skip a beat.” In this case, we’re discussing how to get a literary agent excited.
When you don’t really know for sure which blog to follow, who do you trust?
Some of you have already done exactly as they’ve instructed—or at least you thought you have, and still have more rejection letters than you’ve had urges to resist taking one LAST scoop of ice cream from that jug of Chunky Monkey. I know. Been there, done that. I’ve blissfully burped myself to sleep many nights whispering to myself that I may not have written a killer query letter that day but I sure as hell murdered that pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
Look, there’s good news and there’s bad news to this whole query letter process. Well, let me throw in a ‘just because’ realization: Just because you make some killer cookies does not mean your going to find a wonderful husband (Sounds like Blanche is in my head again). There are many parts of this big old machine called publication that is an extremely gut-wrenching process. That’s the bad news.
Now for the good news … you CAN write a killer query letter. Many pre-published authors have found their literary agent by writing a great introduction to their manuscripts. It’s a process, like in anything else, a PROCESS. Speaking of baking cookies, remember the first time, you did it without asking your parents how? Remember when you knew how to do it by heart without so much as lifting a thought to come out with the most delicious, melt in your hand cookies…or beef Wellington…or tequilas—you get the picture? That’s what writing queries is all about: a process.
There are many must see blogs out there to help your process like Nathan Bransford or Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog. Marla Miller has an incredible workshop called Marketing the Muse and was instrumental in helping me improve my query letter. What good is a good query letter without a strong, hooky premise? David Morrell has a wonderful book to help you out with your process, as well as, Steven King’s book, On Writing (the last 200 hundred pages are priceless), Christopher Vogler’s book on structure (another must-read, must-study), and if you do Science Fiction, Speculative or Fantasy, David Gerrold’s book Worlds of Wonder is a must read. I would hate to discourage you but I think David Gerrold said it best when he said until you’ve written at least ten books or so, it’s all practice. If you manage to ‘trick’ a publisher to publish your novel, still consider it practice.
My point is simple; writing a good query letter also boils down to your story. For example, part of having a great novel is having a great first line (and a great first page … first act … climax … last page, etc.). In a short story called Vision Out of the Corner of My Eye by Luisa Valenzuela, her first line is:
It’s true, he put his hand on my butt and I was about to scream bloody murder when the bus passed by a church and he crossed himself.
Wow. Talk about making a reader want to keep turning the pages. I remember when I wrote my first manuscript and personally handed it to an agent after I spent a weekend at LOSCON paying for her dinner and going room to room with vodka and juice in our cups and spillage on our shirts. I thought I was sure to be offered a contract because I was such a cool party-partner. Not. I wasn’t ready. Now, I’m on my third manuscript called The Crayola Man and my premise is much more interesting, my plot and characters are much better and now I have a platform to stand on. I even have a great critique group to bounce my ideas off of and get instant feedback while I’m shopping my second manuscript, a paranormal romance called If Thoughts Could Kill.
I’ve also learned that part of writing a killer query letter has to do with building your platform. If you haven’t been published in magazines or you haven’t won prestigious writing contests, you can STILL have a great platform. How? The internet. Having presence on the internet through a blog or website is a must-have these days. Hint, hint. That’s why I started my blog recently.
Years ago, at the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society meeting, a young man spoke on the panel about his first book. He said he started by creating a presence on the internet. I went to Borders yesterday and saw his book showcased all over the place. I went to his website last night and saw praises from Charlaine Harris about his blog and then I got it. First, out of his pure passion for the movie Twilight, he developed a fan blog called Twilightguy. Day-by-day, he wrote from his perspective on each chapter he read until he had well over 8 million hits and a strong readership. Well, blow me down Olive. No wonder he had a fan base that made top literary agent’s mouth water. He had a fantastic blog and a Youtube account to go with it.
Now, I’m not saying go out there and build a blog based on the latest Paranormal Romance trend, but once a literary agent reads your letter then goes to your blog or website and sees that you have the passion to promote yourself and have a readership, then you’re on your way to having most of the components needed to being offered a contact and getting published. (Mind you, they get thousands of letters so don’t assume they’re going to go to your blog unless you’ve mentioned that your blog just reached 8 million hits).
Rules of a killer query letter.
1) Keep it short and sweet. One page, the longest.
2) Get the literary agent’s attention right away. Some do this by using the first line of their manuscript.
3) 1st paragraph should include hook, premise protagonist and inciting incident or what’s at stake. 2nd and maybe 3rd paragraph, plot details (not too detailed). 4th paragraph, your platform or a short bio and end with a courteous note that you are seeking representation.
-state the genre, audience and (arguably) the word count. However, always refer to their submission guidelines to be sure. Don’t send a horror query to someone who only wants non-fiction. Do your due diligence. Check out Guide to Literary Agents or Jeff Herman’s Guide…
-have your contact information, including your email address (this is a great chance to also list your blog but do not ask them to go there or click it, just list it)
-be courteous, never use adjectives to describe yourself or your novel
-never, ever use negative language or sound like you don’t believe in yourself, that is a major turn-off and the opposite of that also applies (do not sound like you’re God’s gift to the world, even if you truly are).
So you see, it’s not all about the query letter, but more about the fire it sparks up about your book and your career in writing. I believe it comes down to a platform. If you build, they will come.
Must have resources:
William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style
The 2017 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law is now available in both print and electronic forms. The spiral-bound style manual is an essential handbook for all writers, editors, students and public relations specialists.
Christopher Vogler: The Writer’s Journey http://craftywriters.club/reading/christopher-vogler-the-writers-journey.pdf
http://www.agentquery.com/ : Agent Query has been recognized by Writer's Digest June 2008 Issue as one of the Best Websites for Writers. Fourth Year in a Row!
I’d like to hear about your horror stories or dreams come true. We can all learn from each other.