I first posted this on September 10th, 2011:
Many people in the literary blogosphere have posted about what to put in a good query letter. Here's what I've learned:
- It's not a book report, so don't just summarize the plot. Think about writing jacket copy, the description on the back that makes browsers buy books in bookstores. Write something that makes people go, "Ooh--I'd like to read that."
- Keep the bio short (about 1-2 sentences), especially for fiction manuscripts. Only elaborate if your life experiences are relevant to the subject, e.g., if your book's about life in the military, mention that you were in the military.
- Tailor your submissions to the specific agent or publisher. If they ask for the first five pages, send the first five pages. If they only accept e-queries, don't send them paper. Make sure that you write the agent's actual last name, and call them Mr. or Ms. (and try to pick the right one). Only submit queries to people who represent books in your genre, or you're just wasting everyone's time.
- Include the basic information about your work, such as genre and word count.
- Don't query a work of fiction until the manuscript is complete AND has been through several revisions.
So, those are some of the basics, and most agents and publishers seem to agree with them. Now, I'll give you my own opinion. Keep in mind that I'm not an agent, but this is what I did with Minder, and I had a great response rate from this query format.
OPENINGS - Start with a hook. Think about your book and what is most compelling about it... or most compelling about the opening or the premise. DON'T start with a rhetorical question.
Dear Ms. Agent,
Sixteen-year-old Maddie Dunn doesn't know how Del and his two friends died. She just knows that she killed them.
SETTING AND PLOT - Give a basic overview of where this takes place and what the conflict is.
*BTW, this contains minor spoilers for Minder. Skip over the blue section if you want to be surprised. *
When you query, don't worry about giving spoilers to agents. Agents usually hate it more when someone gets cutesy and says, "...and if you want to know what happens next, you'll need to read the manuscript." Try to put as much of your narrative voice as you can into these sentences, since they'll give the agent his/her first impression of your style. However, keep them in third-person, simple-past tense, even if your story is told in first-person.
Ganzfield is a training facility full of people like her; they're called G-positives. It's not exactly a nurturing place; the top clique uses mind-control to humiliate the low-status geeks, and Maddie doesn't know yet where she fits in the pecking order.
Trevor can move things with his mind, but that isn't what draws Maddie to him. He slays the personal demons that haunt her dreams, and the two of them connect on a magical level. When someone kidnaps him, she'll do whatever it takes to get him back.
BIO - Keep it short and sweet. If you've previously published something relevant to your current project and/or won any awards for your writing, include that info here--but don't pad this with irrelevant info. So, if you're pitching a fiction manuscript, mention any published novels or short stories. Don't mention the letter to the editor that your local paper printed, being editor-in-chief on your High School yearbook, or your Master's thesis. Don't include info about your family, your current job, your cat, etc., unless they directly relate to the topic of your book.
I attended Yale and Rutgers Universities, earning three psychology degrees. I drew on this background to create a realistic scenario for G-positives and for the effects of their abilities.
CONCLUSION - Give the genre, word count, etc. If you have a personal connection to the agent, this is a good place to mention it, e.g., "I read your blog," "We met at the BackSpace Conference," "If you ever want to see your guinea pig alive again," --whatever your connection may be.
MINDER is a YA paranormal romantic thriller with strong elements of violence and sensuality. It is complete at 70,000 words. Please let me know if you want to see more.
REMEMBER TO INCLUDE YOUR NAME AND CONTACT INFO!
I first posted this a year ago, but I wanted to give the information again because... THE QUERY CONTEST STARTS TOMORROW! In the words of David Letterman, "Call the neighbors and wake the kids." Free query critiques! Please spread the word throughout the blogosphere; the more entries we have, the better--we'll have more examples to show what works... and what makes editors and agents cringe.