Query Letters

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Taking my queue from (I seem to be doing that a lot lately–taking queues, that is, not necessarily from Di), I figured I'd post one of my query letters just in case someone finds it useful in their own hunt for an agent or editor. I'll post a few comments per paragraph as well.

BTW, just as a gauge, I've had pretty good luck with this query. About 1 out of 5 agents/editors who received this asked to see more, and believe me, that's not such a bad ratio.

Dear [AGENT'S NAME],

I am a published author seeking representation for my recently completed novel, The Tears of Tendali, a story about a boy who has one chance to save his goddess, Tendali, an act that might be easy if he didn’t have to murder his own sister to do it.

I think mentioning that you're a published author is pretty important. I added that to my basic query early on and have kept if there ever since. I realize that my credits below cover some of the same ground, but this business is about impressions, and the faster you make one, the better off you'll be. Also here in the opening paragraph is my hook, my one-liner for the novel that describes the high concept in a single sentence (two at the most). A hook that provides punch is really, really important. Many agents and editors will stop reading if the opening salvo is too weak. I spend a lot of time on my hooks to try to make them as snappy and wow-y as I can.

Terrük and his sister, Iyelle, attempt to steal a vial of Tendali’s fabled tears on the goddess’s holiest day, but are caught in the act. The High Priestess sees in them a potential unseen in generations, and so, despite their crimes, grants them new lives in the service of the goddess. The High Priestess feels obligated to do this, for even children may help to stem the tide. Tendali has been failing for generations, and her brother god, Kalthusula, has unleashed a plague upon their city-state. In their efforts to help, Terrük and Iyelle discover that Tendali will perish unless something is done to help her. As the plague worsens and their kingdom plunges into political chaos with its neighbors, Terrük discovers the key to saving Tendali: she must be reborn, must descend into a mortal form. But he is horrified to learn that Iyelle is the vessel Tendali has chosen. It then falls to Terrük to decide between the goddess and Iyelle.

Paragraph two is a deeper dive into the novel. Be very careful about how much page space you give this. Five or six sentences is plenty. The point is to make every word pack a punch. I think it's important to get into this paragraph the following: protagonist(s), conflict (which often includes the antagonist(s)), and stakes. Some people will put the resolution here, too, but I generally give only a hint as to how things will end to get the editor to read more, either the synopsis or the ms itself (if included).

Many parallels can be drawn between The Tears of Tendali and George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series: political scope, subtle but powerful magic, and characters who must face the consequences of their actions. However, in contrast to Martin’s stunning work, I believe Tears will appeal to readers that want a more personal relationship with their protagonists.

I think it's good to give some sort of feel for the marketing of this book. Some people will use a simple, snappy comparison like “Bridges of Madison County meets The Terminator” to convey the feel of the novel. I don't tend to do that as I feel too shoehorned with those comparisons, plus I don't feel (the example used here aside) like I'm particularly good at them. And to me they feel a little over the top, more apropos for comedies or thrillers. I like to instead compare my novel to one (or two or three) established works so that the editor can get a good feel of where the story might be shelved. Be careful not to compare yourself too closely to (or worse, place yourself above) the greats. I took a bold step in comparing Tears to George Martin's work, but I took a step back so it didn't seem like I was saying it was the next big thing (which can be a turnoff).

My most recent credits include “Flotsam” (Writers of the Future 20, Aug, 2004), “In the Eyes of the Empress’s Cat” (Intergalactic Medicine Show, Feb, 2006), and “Chasing Humanity” (DAW Books’ Man vs. Machine anthology, forthcoming in 2007). I have attended several 1-week writing workshops and will be attending Clarion East this summer.

Credits. If you have 'em, put 'em here. If you don't, just move on to the close. I wouldn't suggest putting more than three or four, and some people merely list the venues where their work has appeared. I like putting the story title and issue where my stories have been published in case the editor feels like looking it up, or in the rare chance that she's actually read it.

Please find enclosed in the body of this email the first ten pages of Tears. Upon request, I will send you all or any part of the manuscript. I look forward to hearing from you soon, and I thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Bradley P. Beaulieu

And finally, the close. Wrap things up quickly. This particular agent wanted ten pages included. RESEARCH to find out what EVERY AGENT likes to have for their first communication from prospective clients. Some will simply toss your submission if it doesn't match what they say they want on their websites. (Some will toss it anyway, but that's out of your control.) If they don't advertise what they're looking for (and many don't), then I prefer to send the query, a short synopsis (5 pages max), and a SASE. Some people will send a sample chapter or ten pages. I prefer not to do that since it feels presumptuous and because so many agents advertise that they'd like only a query and synopsis. Just use your best judgment and take note of the acceptances, rejections, and no-comms (the dreaded agent that doesn't even bother to send back a “Sorry, better luck next time” letter). If you're getting too many rejections, then clearly you have to change things up.

One more thing. A friend of mine said that he sent out a whole slew of queries and got very few requests for more material. He then sent out another batch, changing only one thing: he added a logo to the top of his query letter in the letterhead. He said that bumped his request ratio up, not amazingly but enough that it was clearly a difference maker. It's not going to change an editor's mind if they don't like what they see, but it does, I think, lend a sense of professionalism to the query letter. I added one of a small quill in the upper left of my query along with my writing business name (Quillings Literary Services) and placed my name and address in the upper right. It works for me. May not work for you. But it's something to consider.