by Sandi Layne
Is the hardest thing about publishing writing a query letter that gets you in the door? Both an art and a science, the creation of the perfect query letter is not impossible. It just takes creative thought and the true understanding that every word counts.
Let’s assume you’ve already researched what varieties of books the agent represents or the publisher publishes, and that you know your work will fit.
First: Read the Directions
It may seem simple but, after talking to people who read query letters and judge a writer by their presentation, I have learned that this is not something everyone does.
Whether you are submitting to an agent or a publisher, you will find there are rules to the submission process. Read these rules carefully. Follow them to the letter. Don’t think that throwing in “extras” will earn you any points. It won’t. One of the things a professional does as they read the query is see how well the author responds to direction. From an editorial standpoint, at least, this is a huge deal. An author that can’t be bothered to follow the simplest of rules for the submission of a query is not one they are likely going to want to work with in the long run.
And please, whatever you do, don’t submit the same query letter repeatedly to the same agent or publisher. If they rejected your work the first time, this kind of repetition will not help.
Second: Think Hard
The query letter has one aim: Getting you, the author, favorably noticed so that your words will be read by someone with authority to make decisions about representation or publication. To do this, the letter has to be amazing, because the agent and/or editor might encounter hundreds of these letters every month.
But don’t dread this letter. It’s basically a four-part production.
Introduce yourself, introduce your qualifications for writing whatever it is you’re writing, then tease the reader about your book. (Note: If you’re writing fiction, never ever send this query letter until your work is in its final, most outstanding form. It should never be a work in progress when you’re querying an agent or publisher.) Finally, wrap it up by saying why people will read/buy your work and share what kind of readership you might already have (a blog, podcast audience, ezine readers).
Before you freak out about how to make it dazzling, just get the parts written. Really, it’s less stressful.
Third: Make It Amazing in One Page or Less
This is perhaps the hardest part of creating a query letter that opens doors. We are often conditioned to play down our accomplishments, our best attributes. But in a query letter, you have to accent them. Make them shine. Scintillate. Effervesce, even. Each word counts because you have one page to make this work. Agents and editors are busy people and they only have time to devote to one page upon this initial introduction. How many words might that be? Shoot for five hundred or less.
I can hear you now: “What?”
Yep. Four hundred is even better. Four hundred well-chosen words can do wonders. Trust me.
Go back to the draft you’ve written. You should have the pieces all jotted down. Read each sentence and do your best to make it zing. Use powerful adjectives. Cut out extraneous explanations. Check to see that all the highlights have been, well, highlighted. Then whittle it down to make it fit into one well-written page, including the salutation and the closing. Make sure, while doing this, that you have met all the criteria requested by the party to whom you are writing.
Fourth: Get a Second Opinion
This is hard, but you should be prepared to be open to people in this way. Send your letter to someone whose opinion you respect, who supports you in this creative endeavor, and who has a thorough grasp of basic grammar concepts. Ask them for feedback.
Then, rewrite your letter. Read it out loud to yourself. When you are surprised by your own awesomeness, then it’s time to send the query.
Finally: Keep Track of Where They Go
Once you send that introduction into the world, keep a copy of it (hardcopy as well as digital). You can tailor a new one to suit a new recipient. Keep a spreadsheet or journal or something about where you sent the query, perhaps which “version” you used, and when the query was sent. You do not want to badger anyone even by accident, so careful record-keeping can keep you from a gaffe of the most innocent nature.
Then, breathe. You might get rejected. You might be asked to send three chapters, fifty pages, an entire manuscript… But know that you’ve presented yourself in the best way possible. The rest is out of your hands.
Sandi Layne is the author of historical and inspirational fiction. She has wowed an editor or two with her queries as well as been rejected with tiny slips of paper that said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” She’s still smiling. She invites you to visit her website at http://sandyquill.com and is also to be found on twitter @sandyquill.