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Query Letters

September 18, 2010

I’ve had an opportunity the last week to study a wide variety of query letters. I’ll tell you a deep, dark secret. Almost nobody can describe a book adequately in a couple of paragraphs. So if the process of writing a query letter is freaking you out because you can’t seem to get your book across on a single page, I can tell you that you aren’t alone. In fact, you are safely located in the middle of a vast majority.

Because most query letters are rendered slightly strange by the need to pack too much information into a small space, my own philosophy of handling query letters is straightforward. Here’s the bar you need to get over to write a successful query for me:

1. Write in English and keep the typos to a minimum. (You’d think that would be apparent, but it isn’t always.) I make enough typos that I have a sneaking sympathy for mistake makers, so the odd typo isn’t an automatic disqualification. But a clean letter is better.

2. Tell me who you are, and what you want me to represent. If we have met or have mutual friends, tell me here.

3. Include the specifics.
I have (insert number here) completed manuscripts.
The book is a (insert genre here, specify fiction or nonfiction) with a word count of
(Insert number here).

4. The story is about (insert description here).

5. List your previous publishing credits and any important facts about your credentials as a writer of this book.

6. Sign off.

7. Include information to facilitate contact (name, address, phone number, email address, website address,and anything else you think might be useful).

See how simple?

I’m pretty sure that kind of letter would work with any agent, but I know for a fact it works for me.

If the material is in a genre where I have good contacts, and the letter is crisp and clear, and there aren’t any clankers in there (A YA novel about Nietzsche of 475,372 words, for example. Though that’s so weird, I might just ask to see it out of morbid curiosity.), I’ll ask to see the material, because I KNOW that most people have trouble describing their book in a short letter.

Once manuscripts aren’t dropping from the sky like raindrops in a hurricane, I should be able to get back to all queries and submissions really fast, because I read so fast. Right now, I’ve been blessed with a glut of good things, so manuscript submissions are going to take a while.

But I’m very fast responding to queries. You know now what kind of letter works for me. So knock yourselves out.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. David Larson permalink
    September 18, 2010 9:16 pm

    That typo on #2 was intentional, wasn’t it?

    • Denise Little permalink*
      September 18, 2010 10:29 pm

      Nope. Told you I’m bad about typos.

      Thanks for the catch.

  2. jvv permalink
    September 18, 2010 10:49 pm

    When I write a query letter, I always imagine that I’m writing the description that will go on the back of my book. How can I make my book as appetizing as possible to get the person at the shelf to buy it? I finnaly realize how important a query letter is because it shows the agent whether or not he or she will be able to pitch the book to potential publishers in a short compelling way. When I first started writing my book, I never realized I’d have to become a salesman.

  3. September 19, 2010 4:42 pm

    Very informative entry! Queries are such a challenge to write, and you hit the nail on the head, I think – it’s because we’re trying to whittle a 400-page manuscript into one paragraph.

    And I agree with jvv – great way to look at it. I do the same thing, envisioning my query description of the book as a blurb inside the sleeve, to (hopefully!) entice the reader. It took me a long time to realize it, but yep, we’re salesmen (and women) when it comes to trying to get published…

  4. September 19, 2010 8:14 pm

    Thanks for letting us know what you look for in a query letter!

  5. September 20, 2010 9:14 pm

    This made me smile. Thank you.

  6. September 26, 2010 3:58 pm

    Ms. Little, I have a manuscript I’d like to send a query for, but I don’t see your e-mail address listed. Please let me know where I can send it.

  7. Sandy permalink
    October 26, 2010 9:13 pm

    This query info is so helpful, Ms. Little. I struggle so much with trying put forth enough info without crossing over into tmi (too much information)

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