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Basics of a Solid 3-Paragraph Query

Here are the tools you need to write a query letter that sets you apart from the pack. by Ann Rittenberg

Like many independent literary agencies, mine is small, with only two full-time people and one part-time person and no more than 50 active clients at any given time. Yet even we receive at least 50 query letters every week. Potentially, we could replace our entire client list—which has been nearly 20 years in the making—every week of the year. And at the end of each year, we’ve read, processed, answered, thrown away, cried over, winced at, yawned over or gotten excited about nearly 3,000 letters about as-yet-unpublished books. That number doesn’t include the e-mail queries—which we officially don’t accept, but which nevertheless come in at the rate of 20 or more a week.

Out of those 3,000 pleas, nearly 75 percent are about novels. And out of those, at least 90 percent are about first novels. That brings the number of queries about first novels to about 2,000 every year. And in a recent year, I accepted as a client one new novelist out of those 2,000. That’s not 2 percent, or 1 percent, or even one-half of a percent. That’s one-tenth of one-half of a percent.

Reading statistics like those must be thoroughly discouraging. Statistics are, after all, often discouraging: The number of people who apply to certain schools versus the number who get in is always a discouraging number. Our chances of winning a million-dollar-plus lottery are also discouraging, but many of us still buy tickets. So let’s look at those numbers another way: 80 percent of those query letters about first novels never should have been sent.

That’s right—a full 80 percent of the letters I read pitching first novels never should have been sent to me, or to any agent or editor. Either the writers were not ready to be published and their books were not ready to be agented, or they misdirected the query letter by writing to me about the kind of book I don’t represent.

So, if we subtract 80 percent from the 2,000 first-novel query letters I (and many of my colleagues) see every year, we come up with a grand total of 400. Four hundred letters a year is only about eight per week. I would happily read to their end eight letters a week about first novels. Yet if I still take on only one writer of those 400, I have taken on one-quarter of a percent of the writers who write to me about their first novels. It’s still a small percentage, but 1/400th is considerably better than 1/2000th. (Try reading that sentence out loud and you’ll see one reason why.)

So, with that in mind, let’s make sure you have the tools you need to write a query letter that sets you apart from the pack—a letter that should definitely be sent.

A good query letter, like the best writing, has urgency and clarity. It’s not dull, but it attends to the business
at hand without fuss. It is, of course, a sales pitch directed with passion, belief and enthusiasm to someone likely to buy the product being pitched. You’re trying to find a reader for your book. And because every editor and agent is first a reader, you’re going to write this letter to the reader who is most likely to want to read your book.

Let’s start with the basics. For instance, you’ve probably figured out that an effective query letter:

• doesn’t state the obvious—if it does, agents will think your book is all “telling,” no “showing.”
• is never longer than one page—if it is, agents will think your book is overwritten.
• is not about you—if it is, agents will think your book will be too navel-gazing to invite the reader in.
• never sounds generic—if it does, agents will think your book won’t have a unique or appealing voice.
• makes the book sound interesting—if it doesn’t, agents will know the book isn’t.

So what does a good query letter look like? Well, here’s a letter that got my attention:

Dear Ms. Rittenberg,
I am seeking representation. I have won a few awards for fiction and poetry. My novel, THE CLEARING [later titled A Certain Slant of Light], is a supernatural love story told from the point of view of a young woman who has been dead 130 years. She’s haunting a high school English teacher when one of the boys in his class sees her. No one has seen her since her death. When the two of them fall in love, the fact that he is in a body and she is not presents the first of their problems.

Please let me know if you would be interested in reading part or all of THE CLEARING. I have enclosed a SASE. Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you.

Although the author, Laura Whitcomb, began the letter by saying something that might not have been strictly necessary, she said it with admirable brevity. I didn’t have time to stop in the middle of the opening sentence. Before I knew it, I had read the whole letter and written the word yes at the bottom. (If you could see the pile of rejected query letters in my office every week, you would see how the no is always written at the top of the letters. That’s because I didn’t reach the end.) Laura’s letter wasn’t written with fireworks, but it didn’t need to be, because the story as she described it briefly needed no embellishment. And she had enough confidence in her story to let the description be.

Let’s break it down paragraph by paragraph, and see how all the pieces fit together.

The first paragraph of your query letter should skip the throat-clearing—or at least keep the opening pleasantries to a bare minimum—and get quickly to the one-line description. In that sentence you’ll give the title of the novel and insert the genre if appropriate. Here’s the first line of a letter I saw this year:

[Title] is a coming-of-age novel about two young women trying to survive their first year of college and find their own identities.

To tell you the truth, that sentence would have been enough to describe the book, but the author went on for four more sentences in an attempt to make the novel sound dramatic. If she had taken out those four additional sentences, she would have had a serviceable description of the novel. However, she probably also would have had to face the fact that her novel was not inherently dramatic enough to interest agents and editors in a competitive marketplace. It didn’t have a hook. Somewhere within herself, she knew this, and that’s why she added the four sentences.

Look again at Laura’s letter:

My novel, THE CLEARING, is a supernatural love story told from the point of view of a young woman who has been dead 130 years.

The genre, the title and the hook are in one sentence. Laura added a few more sentences to flesh out the basic idea, but she didn’t go on too long and, more important, she left the reader with a cliffhanger by saying:

When the two of them fall in love, the fact that he is in a body and she is not presents the first of their problems.

Your hook should be your novel’s distinguishing feature. A distinguishing feature can be something imaginative in the plot—the way Laura’s book was a love story featuring a heroine who’d been dead for 130 years—or it can be sheer good writing. It can be something unique about the book or about the way you describe the book. But if the one-liner doesn’t make anyone sit up and take notice, all the additional plot description in the world isn’t going to help.

Your letter should not describe your book at length, should not drag the reader all the way through the plot and should not give away the ending. A real mood-killer is to use an overworked notion like redemption or a clichéd description—such as, It’s about the human condition—when describing your book. Stick to the concrete. It’s easy to see why someone might think that a one-line description is the same thing as a summary, but it’s not.

In your second paragraph, give some brief and pertinent biographical information. Writing courses, publications and awards are good to mention. But more than a sentence summing up minor publications and writing study is not so good.

Remember—the immediate task of the query letter is to get an agent or editor interested in reading your novel. It’s not to showcase what an interesting, fabulous, credentialed or kooky person you are. That will come later, when your agent needs to sell you as well as your book. But for now, you need to come across as professional, serious, dedicated and confident.

Anything you say about yourself should somehow, briefly and brilliantly, make us think we want to read your book. All Laura said of herself was, “I have won a few awards for fiction and poetry.” Because she couldn’t claim to have won the Pulitzer, hadn’t invented nuclear fusion, wasn’t married to someone famous and, more to the point, had never published a book, there was no point in giving a long résumé of her achievements.

Many query writers insert a sentence beginning, “Although I am an unpublished writer …” Doing so simultaneously states the obvious (you’re writing about your first novel, after all) and dwells negatively on you—on what you haven’t done. Remember that the query letter is looking to the future. The future is when someone is going to read your novel, and your job is to convince us that we will be that future someone. Say no more than one or two things:

• I received my MFA from the Columbia Writing Program, where my novel was awarded the Prize for Singular Fabulousness.
• I’ve worked as a taxi driver and a mail carrier while writing and publishing short fiction in literary journals.

Your third paragraph should be the sign-off paragraph. Wrap up the letter with a word or two about having enclosed a SASE and looking forward to a response, and sign off. Don’t drag it out. Don’t give your vacation schedule with your spouse’s cell phone number. If you’ve used a letterhead with your address, e-mail address and telephone number, or inserted that information in a business-letter-appropriate fashion, anyone who wants to track you down will find you. Many agents nowadays don’t even need you to indicate that you’re making a multiple submission, because they assume you are. So stop talking, finish the letter with a complimentary closing and hit “Save.” Then prepare yourself for the next step: researching agents to find the right one for your book.

Excerpted from Your First Novel © 2006 by ANN RITTENBERG AND LAURA WHITCOMB, with permission from Writer’s Digest Books.

Don't let your manuscript suffer because your query letter isn't angled properly. Consider:
Guide To Query Letters

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