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anatomy of a query letter



*UPDATE: You may now download this article to your Kindle! *

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:

  1. Keep it short (one page)
  2. Error-free
  3. 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.

Greeting

  • 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...
  • Examples
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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...
    1. 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.
    2. 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...
  1. 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...
  1. 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.

Pitch

  • 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...
  1. Entices (leaves the reader wanting more)
  2. Encapsulates the book
  3. 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.
  • Example:
  1. 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.
  1. Word count
  2. Type of novel (if not already mentioned )--picture book, young adult, middle grade, etc.,
  3. Genre like fantasy, chick-lit, etc., (if not already mentioned)
  4. And other things that are notable like...written in verse, diary format, anthology, rhyming.
  • Examples
  1. 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.
  2. MS TITLE is a humorous, rhyming picture book written in 600 words.
  3. MS TITLE is a tale of intrigue and espionage written in a series of three-hundred haikus.

Bio

  • The bio is where you'll strut your stuff.
  1. You'll want to keep this short, to the point.
  2. 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.
  • Examples
    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.
    2. I have ghost-written for X series, and I also freelance for the Daily News.
    3. 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?
    4. 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.
    5. Remember: your pitch should be the focus of this letter, not your newbie-struggling-writer-ness.

Closing

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.

Examples

    1. This is a simultaneous submission. Thank you for your time and consideration. Sincerely, YOU
    2. This is an exclusive that expires on X date. Thank you for your time and consideration. Sincerely, YOU
    3. 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

Sign-off

  • 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.

Enclosures

The enclosure line lists what you’re including in the submission in addition to your query letter, if anything. Examples:

    1. If you’re only including a self-addressed stamped envelope, you might say…”Encl: SASE”
    2. If you’re sending an SASE and your full manuscript, you might say…”Encl: SASE, ms TITLE”
    3. 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.

Now go back to step seven – send out your work if you’re taking the crash course.

Or read posts,

Download this article to your Kindle!

Order WRITING FOR CHILDREN AND TEENS: A CRASH COURSE

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21 Comments »

Comment by Jerry D'Eliso
2007-02-21 21:21:55

This whole thing about queries is really good.
I learned much in a short time; you delivered what I needed. And so, Cynthea, I love you…no need to reply, just, thanks.

 
Comment by Cynthea
2007-02-26 09:59:45

Oh my, a profession of love! Thank you. I appreciate the praise.

 
Comment by Sonya
2007-05-29 12:09:58

Thanks! I was debating whether I should query an editor/agent for my children’s book and you’ve inspired me to forge ahead.

Comment by Cynthea
2007-05-31 14:53:57

I’m glad you found the article inspiring. Good luck with your query!

 
 
Comment by Fiona Griffin
2009-01-18 07:51:53

Hi,

I have to say, yet more great advice.

I do have one thing preying on my mind. From what I read to children I have contact with, one of my most popular does have a dancing elephant in it! I know editors take a different opinion.

I’m onto writing my 21st story and still debating in my mind whether I should continue writing. Many of the children I read to do seem to enjoy the interaction I write of especially when I tell this story. It is very physically descriptive. Many of my others take the same format. One favourite is a pig who creates a new kind of chocolate! (it doesn’t infringe on Charlie & the chocolate factory). I type it up and wrap it around my sweets. Very popular amongst adults who eat the chocolate and tell the story to their kids!

Should I submit them or forget it altogether? It won’t stop me writing, but I am a little disheartened at the moment. Sorry to dump it on you!

Thanks,
Fiona

Comment by Cynthea
2009-01-22 20:53:17

Hi Fiona, you have to keep honing your stories, and put stuff aside to come back to them later when you are ready. Everyone gets disheartened in this biz. You will feel recharged again when you hit upon a new idea for your work or start a new story altogether.

Also keep in mind, kids are not the people who acquire the books. While the general public may like your stories, you have to figure out what has appealed to publishers in the past. To do that, study the stuff that has been published recently and examine the style of writing, the length, the picturability, etc. and compare it to your own text. Sometimes it’s just a matter of structure or length or snappiness in the writing.

I find this often helps me when I’m wondering what I’m doing wrong.

Keep at it, Fiona!

 
 
Comment by Jean Earhart Subscribed to comments via email
2009-02-15 15:01:11

Hi Cynthea,

I’ve written a 750 word picture book that I feel is ready for submission. My question to you is this — A large part of the movement of the story takes place subtly (and not so subtly) in the background illustrations. As I am not an illustrator, I have added possible illustration notes after each page of text. Is this considered acceptable? If so, how do I format those notes?

Most sincerely,
Jean

Comment by Cynthea
2009-03-08 22:22:35

Hi Jean, if the notes are absolutely critical to the comprehension of the story, I have explained how to do illustration notes at the end of this article. Hope that helps!

http://www.writingforchildrenandteens.com/2007/08/30/264/q-i-am-writing-a-picture-book-should-i-include-art-specs-for-each-page/

 
 
Comment by Melodie Noel Subscribed to comments via email
2011-02-24 19:56:46

I started a blog a few days ago and it just hit me that I should aim higher. Thank you for providing this information!

 
Comment by Mel O'Dell Subscribed to comments via email
2011-07-13 23:12:59

Thanks for this article! However, I’m unsure if I should submit a coverletter with an unsolicited PB MS? Some advice I’ve read suggests that an author should always submit a CL because it is more professional. Cynthea, what’s your opinion?

Comment by cynthea
2011-07-13 23:42:11

If you are sending an unsolicited pb ms, include a letter. That’s my vote. Sending an unsolicited ms without a letter of some sort is a bit odd and um … naked. There is key info being communicated in that letter (see above) that many editors would like to know.

 
 
Comment by Lisa Subscribed to comments via email
2011-07-19 17:53:47

Hi Cynthea,
Thank you for the information, which I am finding invaluable. I would like to know is a query the same as a coverletter? Also, I see on this and other writing websites that editors seem to be the one to target but I get conflicting information about that, namely that you cannot even approach an editor without having an agent. From what I understand the agent will then approach editors/publishers on your behalf. I have written a picture book and have been querying agents. I apologize if this info is elsewhere on your site. I came straight to this page first!
Thanks,
Lisa

Comment by cynthea
2011-07-20 10:43:15

It depends upon whom you talk to. There is no standard language that everyone goes by. Often agents will say cover letter when they mean query or vice versa. Instead, focus on what you’re trying to achieve with your communication. If an editor has requested a full or partial manuscript from a query letter you’ve sent(as defined by this web site), your response should include what they requested with only “cover” letter (see anatomy of a cover letter article, as defined by this web site) instead of the same query letter again.

If it’s the first contact with an editor or agent, often a letter (whether you call it a cover or a query) that contains a pitch of some sort is what you send (on my web site, I call this type of letter a “query letter.” Most people do call letters with pitches in them query letters, but not always. Don’t get stuck on the terminology. Just do what makes sense, given the context.

Hope that answers your questions. Good luck!

 
 
Comment by Jeffrey Subscribed to comments via email
2011-07-20 10:33:03

Dear Cynthea,

I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your advice to so many of us who are trying to become authors. If I may, I have a question or two that you may or may not have come upon in the past. I am disabled, I cannot travel far, and I cannot drive anymore. Will this hurt my chances of being a successful author? I cannot attend workshops, or conventions. Until such time that medical technology advances and it will, I am temporarily permitted to travel in very small areas. Because of my situation I don’t have the funds available to self-publish or use any service other than agents who do not charge unless they are able to sell my manuscripts and receive their commissions. Do you have any advice?

with much gratitude,

Jeffrey

Comment by cynthea
2011-07-20 10:52:57

Disability has no impact on your ability to become a successful author. It’s always always always, the quality of your story (and whether publishers want to buy that story) that matters. You could be paralyzed from the neck down and it wouldn’t matter. Have only one finger to type and it wouldn’t matter. Be unable to speak, hear or see, and it wouldn’t matter.

So long as you can get a great story out of your brain and onto paper, and they want to buy that great story. Well… that’s all you need.

Also, don’t feel tempted to explain yourself or disability to others when pitching your story if it has no bearing on the story itself. Your disability does not matter. Unless of course, you have written about disability and you want to say you are disabled yourself and therefore can write on this subject from personal experience. Perhaps, that is one case where you might make the exception, but even then, that’s a personal choice for you to make.

Take heart. You can be just as successful as the next author – without the ability to speak, travel, etc. Mark my words. I know plenty of authors who do very little or nothing at all in these areas, and do quite well for themselves. It’s the stories that count!

Cynthea

 
 
Comment by Karen Sawyer Subscribed to comments via email
2011-07-26 14:15:15

Thank you for your very informative site. I have a question about a query I sent four months ago. I have never heard a word back and I am wondering if it is okay to contact them again. I know that is done sometimes when a manuscript is sent. Thank you for your time.

Karen

 
Comment by Megan Becker Subscribed to comments via email
2011-10-15 02:17:56

Hi Cynthea,

I have a set of PB manuscripts I want to query together. Should I spend a different pararaph pitching each one in my query, or should I not go about it that way? How do I format this?

Megan

 
Comment by Trish Subscribed to comments via email
2012-07-25 11:44:35

Hi Cynthea,

I write children’s songs. I working in preschools.(Been at it for 20 years). I’ve self published a children’s CD sold on CD Baby. I believe these tunes can be easily adapted to picture books. Can you advise the best way to query about interest to publishers? Thanks for your advice in advance. Trish

 
Comment by cynthea
2012-07-25 11:49:29

In general, you should only include one picture book per query at a time, unless the editor has indicated to you directly (via a conference or online) that multiple submissions are acceptable.

 
Comment by cynthea
2012-07-25 11:53:26

Your best bet would be to write your song as a children’s book manuscript (put the words in manuscript format) and revise it so it suit the picture book format well. Without having seen the words, it’s hard for me to know if the songs themselves would indeed be well-suited for a picture book format, but before you approach a publisher, put the work in manuscript form, read up everything you can about rhyming picture books (if your songs rhyme), writing picture books, etc. Read picture books that are song-based. Like Wheels on the Bus, etc, and be prepared to revise your song to develop a stronger picture book if the current text falls short.

Hope that answers your question!

All best,
Cynthea

 
Comment by Trish Subscribed to comments via email
2012-07-30 12:28:45

Thank you VERY MUCH! Your comments are awesome and right on the mark. Great way to narrow down how I am going to proceed. Do you recommend I find an Agent or would you recommend I query a publisher who already has published books that are song based like “The Wheels On The Bus”. In my mind I actually see the book being a picture book/CD where both elements (music and words) are presented together. Since in the world of preschools where I operate, they stress how preschool kids are”multiple intelligence” learners, I would enjoy creating a book with both – however, I don’t know if that would be narrowing down the possibilities of interested publishers because there might be too many “moving parts” to create it…. I don’t know. It’s fun to dream!

Again, thank you. This has been very exciting to pursue!

Trish

 
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