Writing The Query Letter

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Despite the instant success of Lauren Weisberger’s roman a clef, The Devil Wears Prada, for most debut authors, pitching a novel to agents and editors is the most difficult step to getting published. If you can’t pique the interest of either of those gatekeepers, you’re going to become disheartened perhaps without knowing why. You might have the most potentially marketable book since To Kill A Mockingbird, but if you can’t write a query letter your manuscript is likely to yellow with age. Negative or non-responses to query letters are why some writers give up and self-publish. Self-publishing is an entirely different process that is not without its own pitfalls, and is costly and the subject of another article.

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Hopefully, you have done your homework and you’re ready to write your letter. You know exactly to whom you are writing, and precisely what kinds of books he or she deals with. In the case of fiction, sending a thoroughly modern spy novel to someone who specializes in the 10th century building of Europe’s cathedrals, or to someone who is no longer with the company, is tantamount to shooting yourself in the foot?no, the head. It’s worth a call to insure the editor or agent is still there. For non-fiction, the rules are specifically different and require an outline.

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I find it helpful to think of the query letter in four parts. The first paragraph (part one) should simply introduce your book and why you are writing to the recipient. For example you could write: “I’ve recently completed a XXX (identify the type of book) of approximately XXX words, tentatively entitled (italicize) for which I am seeking representation (or an editor).”

Part two is the hard component. Here, in a couple of paragraphs, you have to summarize the entire book. Think of it as being like the blurbs on book jackets, with one difference. In cover blurbs, the outcome is deliberately left hanging to tantalize the reader into buying the book. In the blurb as written for the query letter, you have to give an indication of how the book ends. Don’t be mysterious. Here, the agent or editor wants to know (a) you can write sentences that hang together, (b) you have a plot that will draw the reader in, and (c) you have a satisfying ending.

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Make a point of identifying the primary protagonist of the book in the first sentence of the blurb by naming the character. Traditionally the blurb is written in present tense. You are saying (without saying it), “In the book, this happens and this happens and then this happens.”

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Part three should explain what qualifies you to write this book. Describe your writing credits, as well as any other pertinent experience. For instance, if the story is set in the world of national or international tennis and you’ve played on the circuit, that’s pertinent. It means that you know what you’re talking about. Here you get a chance to be more personal, but not too cute.

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Part four spells out what you will do i.e., “If you think you might be interested in representing XXX (title, italicized), I would be happy to send you a synopsis and either a partial or complete manuscript. I’m looking forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.” Yada-yada.

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If the recipient wants to see more, he or she will probably ask you to submit the first 3-5 chapters along with a synopsis. The synopsis is vital not only in condensing the story, but in showcasing your characters. Be sure you have completed your synopsis before you send out the query letter. They may respond to you via email. I’ll talk about the synopsis in another article.

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A writer/editor, I work with one client at a time, beginner or pro, for a cost effective solution to your writing and editing needs. Visit me at http://www.susanscharfman.com

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