It’s never easy to sum up your full-length novel in a paragraph or two and, if you’re anything like me, you feel like your strength lies in writing, not marketing. But that’s how you have to look at a query letter: a marketing campaign for your book.
Literary agents are busy. And they’re not just saying that to keep people off their backs. The really are busy. A typical week can bring in up to a thousand unsolicited query letters.
Your letter might only get a few seconds before getting tossed into the trash.
So in order to make sure your query letter can get past the first stage of rejection, it should include these three basic elements:
- A proper greeting. This might be obvious, but you should address your query to a specific agent. They hate reading “form letters” just as much as you do, so a generic “Dear Agent” is likely to land your letter in the trash before anyone reads the opening sentence.
- A Short Summary. Okay, here is the hard part. This is where you pitch your novel in one or two paragraphs. The best way to do this is to start by asking yourself: What is my book about? Answer that as precisely as possible. Now try to make it a little more catchy. Not cute: Just catchy. Try your best to use this pitch as an example of your novel’s “voice.”
- Highlight your relative credentials. Agents want authors who know what they’re doing. If you’ve got a bunch of short stories published, list the most prestigious markets. If you’ve got 200,000 Facebook fans, mention it. A built-in audience is a great asset to bring to a query letter.
So that’s what you should include, but what about the things you should not include?
I’d say start by avoiding doing these three things in a query letter:
- Any irrelevant details about yourself. If your day job isn’t related to the book you’re pitching, don’t mention it. Likewise, the literary agent cares about your book. Not where you live, how long you’ve been writing, or how many cats you have.
- Anything about your writing process. What’s important is what the book is about, not how long it took to write, how many other agents have rejected it, or how great your friends think it is.
- Any kind of disparaging comments about yourself or your book. You might think this comes across as witty or humorous, but all it does it turn off the reader. Agents want a confident, competent writer, not one who appears unsure of their work or talent.
So to sum things up, if you think that the whole process of querying is hard and sometimes annoying work, then know that I’m with you. It’s a frustrating and seemingly random process. Take it from me, I’ve been at this for a while now.
What’s important is that you don’t give up, you continue to tweak your query as you learn more, and you target agents that seem like the right fit.
In the end, I wish you luck with the query process and hope that these notes can help you out a bit.
What advice would you like to share about your experience with query letters?