While everyone has different opinions on what a query letter is and what it looks like, I will summarize what I do. The method I use is pretty common. Pretty boring. [But it works. Read post, my first query letter. This post applies to both editor and agent query letters. You will hear stuff about people sending pitches in pizza boxes. Or by way of singing telegram. I have to be clear. I’m not here to give you ideas on how to make yourself look bad. Getting creative with the delivery of your pitch doesn’t sell your book. Your work does. So if you know some guy who sent dancing elephants to an editor’s workplace to market his circus story and sold it, I say it was his book that resulted in the sale and not his elephants. From what I’ve heard, most editors and agents ABHOR nutty things like pachyderms in the office.
Now let’s get down to business as nothing could be more business-like than a query letter.
Here are the key points to remember:
- Keep it short (one page)
- Don’t embarrass yourself
I assume you know what business format looks like. If you don’t, think everything is left-justified. TYPED. Except for your signature. (If you need a visual, an example template for a query letter is included in the book version of my Crash Course.)
- Begin with your address (no name).
- The date written like September 1st, 2006
- The editor or agent’s name, title (if editor), company, and address
Now we get to the trickier stuff. I will cover each part of the query letter in more detail. But here’s an overview.
- Greeting – “Dear Ms. (Mr.) Last name:”
- Introduction – About two sentences that briefly describe why you’re writing to them.
- Pitch – One paragraph or a couple of short paragraphs about your book. Written like book jacket copy.
- Pitch Part II – A little bit more about your book that’s more informational than about the plot or characters, per se.
- Bio – A brief statement about you. Max two to three short sentences if you have something worth saying
- Closing – Housekeeping info like “This is a simultaneous submission.” and/or “Thank you for your time and consideration.”
- Sign-off – Sincerely, your name
- Enclosures – a listing of what you’re including in the submission in addition to your query letter, if anything.
- Don’t get too cutesy with this. Just “Dear Ms. (or Mr.) Last name COLON”. No first names, no nicknames. No misspellings. No Yo’s and How ya’ doins. And ALWAYS check the gender of the editor. Names like Sam, Robbie, Terry may lead you to think Woman or Man but you could be wrong about that. So don’t mess this one up.
Introduction (can be switched in sequence with Pitch and Pitch Part II)
- This is usually a couple of sentences that explain how you know the editor or agent and what you want to share with them…
- I attended the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles, and I wanted to thank you for your invitation to send picture book submissions your way. I have enclosed X for your review.
- Thank you for speaking at the X conference in April. You mentioned you’d like to see more humorous chapter book manuscripts. I have enclosed three chapters of MS TITLE for your review.
- I read your interview in BOOK TITLE. You mentioned you love working with teen chick-lit. I am writing to query your interest in my novel MS TITLE.
- I found your profile in Publisher’s Marketplace and noticed you represent many humorous middle-grade books. I thought my MS TITLE might suit you.
- You may reference specific books the editor has edited or an agent has represented if this is the reason you think there might be a connection…
- I’m writing to query your interest in my YA novel, X. I’ve read BOOK Y and Z and thought my novel might suite your tastes.
- BUT BE WARNED: Don’t just make up something. If you really feel the editor or agent will like your work by referencing other work – be clear about why you think this is the case. AND AVOID SAYING…”My book is just like FAMOUS MEGA-SELLING TITLE.” Even statements like “My book is a cross between A WRINKLE IN TIME and HARRY POTTER” can create the wrong impression. A statement like that is best left to the editor or agent to decide, not you.
- If the reason you’re writing to the editor or agent is because you’ve heard through the grapevine that they’re AWESOME because of X,Y, and Z…
- Don’t say that unless what you write about them is a) related to their work in a meaningful way and b) was obtained first-hand, like at a conference or through a publication the agent or editor knowingly put themselves in. If you say, “Word on the street is you’re the editor with the mostest–your skilz are MAD…” “Or I found your name in CWIM and Tanya, my good buddy says you love ’80s music and you hang out at Starbucks at 5AM, and OMG, I’m just like that, too!”. That’s going to sound pretty lame. And a bit stalker-ish. If you have nothing decent to go with, I would recommend you leave out the intro and start with your pitch.
- If everything you know about the agent or editor is all good but just SO generic…
- I would leave out the intro and start with the pitch. The pitch is the reason for the letter and if that’s all you’ve got, that is way more than half the battle.
- The pitch is the most important part of your letter. If you haven’t messed up the intro, this is where the editor or agent will really tune in. You’ll want to write something that…
- Entices (leaves the reader wanting more)
- Encapsulates the book
- Matches the tone of your book if possible
- The pitch is usually written in third person, present tense, no matter what person or tense the book is written in.
- When X-year-old MAIN CHARACTER does X, she had no idea Y WOULD HAPPEN. Now ANOTHER CHARACTER is out to Z. MAIN CHARACTER must find a way to thwart Z but her ADJECTIVE ANOTHER CHARACTER and ADJECTIVE ANOTHER CHARACTER aren’t going to make it easy for her. MAIN CHARACTER will have to learn X to find a way to Y and that might take some real Z.
- Hahaha! Easy to understand, right? The best way to define a pitch is to study them and draw your own conclusions. Where can you find pitches? Your bookstore and library. Every book jacket is a pitch. Jackets have the same function as query letters-to sell the work, to entice…etc., If you read a lot of jackets, you can begin to boil it all down to a certain structure. A certain rhythm. Look at published books out there now. Find a jacket you think reads well and see if you can use it as a guide for creating your own pitch.
Pitch Part II
- This part of the letter covers important things that would probaby sound funny if you squeezed it into the Pitch.
- Word count
- Type of novel (if not already mentioned )–picture book, young adult, middle grade, etc.,
- Genre like fantasy, chick-lit, etc., (if not already mentioned)
- And other things that are notable like…written in verse, diary format, anthology, rhyming.
- MS TITLE is a 35,000-word middle-grade novel written for adventure-seekers who want to explore the awe-inspiring terrain of the Gobi Desert.
- MS TITLE is a humorous, rhyming picture book written in 600 words.
- MS TITLE is a tale of intrigue and espionage written in a series of three-hundred haikus.
- The bio is where you’ll strut your stuff.
- You’ll want to keep this short, to the point.
- The credits you list should be WRITING-related. Preferably children’s stuff but if you have had significant success in the adult market, it doesn’t hurt to list that if you follow #1.
- My first YA novel MS TITLE will be published by Random House, Fall 2007. I have also sold over X articles to Highlights, Wee-Ones, and Babybug.
- I have ghost-written for X series, and I also freelance for the Daily News.
- If you have nothing to strut about (writing-wise), you skip this part and move to the next item in the query letter. Yup. That’s it. You don’t need to say anything about how you’re a father of three, you’re a teacher, or you’re a librarian. (NOTE TO SELF: A lot of people who write for children are parents, teachers, and librarians. This won’t make you stand out). HOWEVER, if you are writing a book that’s about a group of kids who go to a deep-sea-diving camp and you’re a marine biologist, that’s relevant. Or if your book is set in a tiny Chinese village, the telling is rich with rural culture, and you happen to have grown up there, that might be relevant. If you write a book that involves a lot of physics because the character is some sort of mini-rocket scientist and YOU’RE a rocket scientist, then say that. If you’re writing easy-readers, and you’re a reading teacher well-versed in every freaking reading scale invented, that might be relevant. Got it?
- Finally, do not say you’re unpublished and therefore have no credits to your name, or you hope to sell something this year. Or that you’ve gotten only five form rejections and you’re very proud of the two personal rejections you’ve received so far.
- Remember: your pitch should be the focus of this letter, not your newbie-struggling-writer-ness.
The closing wraps up your letter quickly. It’s also your opportunity to state if your submission is exclusive or simultaneous. If you haven’t already, read post, exclusive submission or simultaneous submission.
- This is a simultaneous submission. Thank you for your time and consideration. Sincerely, YOU
- This is an exclusive that expires on X date. Thank you for your time and consideration. Sincerely, YOU
- NOTE: If you’re sending only a query letter, YOU DO NOT SAY ANYTHING ABOUT EXCLUSIVES OR SIMULTANEOUS. There is no such thing as a simultaneous submission when NO PART OF YOUR WORK is enclosed with the letter. Conversely, if you’re including your entire work, do note if the submission is simultaneous or exclusive. If you’re sending only part of a work (like three chapters), please don’t make the submission exclusive unless a) the guidelines require it or b) you’re doing it for reasons I discussed earlier. [Read post, exclusive submission or simultaneous submission->exclusive submission or simultaneous submission]. That’s the C Liu take on exclusive partial submissions
- Try not to get too fancy with this. The pitch is what should take front stage in this letter–not how cutesy your sign-off is.
- Choose simple endings like Sincerely.
- Sign your name in black ink. Not red. Not silver. Not sharpie. Not pencil. Not grape-scented. Just a regular pen. Why black? What about blue? This is C LIU obsessive tendency, okay? The black ink is my way of sticking to the idea that your PITCH should be what stands out. Not the color in which you signed your name. Most people won’t blink at black or blue though. So either one. Cynthea prefers black.
The enclosure line lists what you’re including in the submission in addition to your query letter, if anything. Examples:
- If you’re only including a self-addressed stamped envelope, you might say…”Encl: SASE”
- If you’re sending an SASE and your full manuscript, you might say…”Encl: SASE, ms TITLE”
- If you’re sending an SASE and three chapters and a synopsis, you might say “Encl: SASE, synopsis and three chapters from ms TITLE
One more point
Finally, if you’ve heard the editor or agent say exactly how they’d like to see a query letter, you forget what I’ve said here and LISTEN TO THE SOURCE. Usually, though, an editor or agent won’t get this nit-picky, so if there’s something that has been left unanswered, it won’t hurt to fall back to these suggestions to fill in the gaps.
You’ve made it! Know that query letters are often said to be one of the most difficult things you’ll ever write. (Synopses would probably be first in this department), but if you look at it like this: Just don’t embarrass yourself–you’ve already gone a long way to impress the editor or agent with your professionalism. Now you can only hope they like your book idea.
Or read posts,