Once you have followed the gentle suggestions in the How to Write a Novel post and done gone and written yourself a novel, (or if you've written a nonfiction book proposal), it is then time to see what the world thinks of it. The first step in this process if you are seeking traditional publication is to find an agent.
Please check out this post about how to find a literary agent, since a query letter is not the only way of going about it. But chances are you will at some point have to sit down and write one of these beastly missives. Here's how you do it.
What to Know Before You Start
A query letter is part business letter, part creative writing exercise, part introduction, part death defying leap through a flaming hoop. (Don't worry, you won't catch fire and die during the query process though it may feel precisely like that at times). In essence: it is a letter describing your project.
The first thing to know about writing query letters is that there are as many opinions out on the Internet about query letters as there are, well, opinions on the Internet. You will find lots of dos and don'ts and peeves and strategies and formulas. The important thing to remember about this is that everyone is wrong except for me. (Just kidding. The important thing to remember is that you will need to choose the ideas that work best for you).
As the immortal Douglas Adams said, don't panic! Write the best letter you can, be yourself, don't overthink it too much, don't sweat it if you realize the second after you sent it that you made a typo or accidentally called me Vicky. If an agent is going to get mad or reject you over something trivial like that they're probably not the type of person you'd want to work with anyway.
Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.
(For Further Reading):
Get the Big Stuff Right
Can You Query If You Are An Unpublished Novelist and Your Novel Isn't Finished?
The Common Sense and Decency Rule
Why It's So Important to Learn to Summarize Your Work
Research and Personalization
The second thing to do before you write the query is to research. This is because you need to do your darndest to:
1) Figure out which agents would be the right fit for your work - Three basic things to figure out: a) does the agent represent your genre, b) do they represent something too similar to your project, c) do they seem like they would be a good fit for you. The answers should be a) yes, b) no, c) yes.
2) Figure out the agent's submission procedure - Submission guidelines are like snowflakes: no two are alike. Also they melt. (Not really.) You will need to Google the agent and/or the agency in order to figure out where to send the query (it may be through the mail or via e-mail or via an online form) and what the agent wants included with the query. Follow these guidelines!
3) Include a personalized tidbit about the agent in the query to show you did your research - Personalize the query! Show the agent that you put in the time and have targeted them in your search. Mention an interview or a book they've represented or that they seem inordinately attached to the color orange.
4) Make sure they're reputable. - There are tons of scam artists out there, so do your research. No agent should charge you a fee upfront. Know your rights as an author.
How do you research all of this? Firstly via The Google, but there are also online resources such as AgentQuery, Query Tracker, the AAR database, the Absolute Write message boards, Publishers Marketplace, and many other links on the left side of this page, which I recommend perusing.
And please please please PLEASE familiarize yourself with Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors, which help authors sort out the legitimate agents from the scammers. Check out Absolute Write if you're unsure about someone.
If you can't find info about an agent but know they are legit, do the best you can personalizing, and send a basic query letter through the mail with a SASE. Attitudes toward e-mailed queries are changing somewhat, but chances are if you can't find an agent's e-mail address easily online it means they don't want to be found.
(For Further Reading):
Personalizing vs. Kissing Up
Hoops vs. Hints
Don't Get Caught Up In The Rush
Make an Agent's Life Easier
Don't Fake a Personalized Query
The Batch Querying Theory
Taking a Chance on a Young Agent
When In Doubt, Query Me
Writing the Darn Thing
Ah, the fun part. Only not really.
Once you have determined who you are querying, then it is time to write it. As I mentioned, there are tons and tons of ways of going about this, but you are in luck as I have a handy dandy mad lib to get you started. Just plug in the details of your novel into this formula and it will give you a basic query to start with. From there expand on it, personalize, and make it your own.
You are trying to accomplish two important tasks with the query:
1) You are trying to make the plot/subject of your book sound awesome
2) You are trying to show the agent that you write well
Especially for fiction I highly recommend that you try as much as possible to write the query so that it embodies the spirit of your project. If your book is funny, write a funny a query. If your book is written with beautiful lyrical prose, write your query accordingly. An agent is looking at your query to determine whether they want to read more and whether they think you can write professionally.
For nonfiction, it's very important to give a sense of your level of expertise, your platform, and how much publicity you could bring to bear in the promotion of your work.
Other things I would suggest:
- Don't go crazy with the formatting.
- Keep your query between 250-350 words.
- Keep the focus on the project you are querying about, even if you're a previously published author
- Be as specific as possible about plot details without overwhelming the agent with unnecessary detail (tricky balance, I know)
- Always include a sample of your work (5 pages is a good rule of thumb), even if the agent doesn't ask for it. No one is going to reject you for this, so this is the one place where I think it's permissible to break with submission guidelines. If you are e-mailing your query, be sure and paste this in the body of an e-mail. No attachments.
(For Further Reading):
Query Letter Mad Lib
Examples of Good Queries
The One Sentence, One Paragraph, and Two Paragraph Pitch
How to Format a Query Letter
Query Letter Subject Lines
The Secret Strength of Killer Queries: Specificity
Comparing Your Book to Other Books in the Query
The Importance of the Pitch
Things Agents Don't Need to Know
How and Whether to Mention Blurbs and Referrals
How and Whether to Mention Your Publishing Credits
How to Mention a Series in a Query
What Happens Next
After you've sent that bad boy off, you sit back and wait for the agent to consider it. And wait. And wait some more.
Here's what's happening on an agent's end: First we print out all the queries and stack them up. Then we spread them around the room until they're a few inches deep. Next we lie down, wave our arms and legs, and make query angels.
Actually it works kind of like this.
What you want is a request for a partial or a full manuscript, in which case your query has done its job and you have moved on to the next step. If you've sent out a dozen or so queries and haven't gotten so much as a nibble, there might be something wrong with your query and you may wish to tweak it a little and give it a second look.
Bear in mind that many/most agents have a no-response-means-no policy, so if you do not hear back after a couple of months you have your answer. It is not customary to follow-up if you haven't heard back on a query. I personally try to respond to all e-mailed queries within 24-48 hours unless I'm out of the office, so if you haven't heard from me in a couple of weeks please contact me again, mention that you didn't hear from me, and include your original query.
Also please remember that agents are positively besieged with queries - you have one query you are worrying about, we have 15,000 or more to answer in a year. Keep your cool, stay calm, and be professional throughout the process.
(For Further Reading):
The Query Deluge
How to Respond to a Request for a Partial
The Five Stages of Query Grief
All About Re-querying
Why Agents Aren't More Specific About What We're Looking For
Why I Can't Answer Follow-up Question After Queries or Provide Referrals
How to Understand a Rejection Letter
It's Not You, It's the Odds
Don't Forget That Every Writer Gets Rejected At Some Point
And that's it! Query letter writing doesn't have to be a horribly frightening experience. Just remember to be professional, do your research, and keep writing in the meantime. Don't forget the 10 Commandments of the Happy Writer.
If you need feedback on your query or if you have further questions, there is a Query Feedback section in the discussion forums, and I am always happy to answer your questions in the Ask Nathan thread.
Also, there are many great resources regarding query letters out on the Internet. Writer Beware actually had a great post yesterday, and I highly recommend Janet Reid's indispensable query critique blog Query Shark. Please also share your favorite links and resources in the comments section.