Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Query Letters

I’m sorry to be late with my post today. It’s been one of those weeks when my brain is fried and all I really crave is sleep and perhaps a good vat of gooey ice cream beforehand. The other reason is I literally couldn’t not think of a thing to post. Not a thing! Ack! Yeah, actually, it’s been that kind of year so far. Distraction is BIG on my list these days. But forget my whining. I though I’d delve into that quagmire called ye old query letter and how to write a good one.

Ah the query letter. To say I hate writing query letters with the passion of a thousand suns would be to understate. Countless hours have gone into the process, draft after draft have suffered. And my very good writing buddies, namely Rachel, Jen, and Claire, have suffered too –as they were on the frontlines of such email as “what about this?” or “option A, B, or Z???” Yeah. Query writing sucks.

I will state that I am by no means an expert on query letters. Even now, if I reread my old letters I cringe. Some people have a natural talent for it, to be sure. Sherry Thomas comes to mind. You’d do well to read her advice. I, on the other hand, have to sweat my way through every one. A thousand suns, people.

BUT… I have written them and they have ultimately worked. So today I will share my advice on crafting one. Warning, this advice is not kind, nor is it extremely instructional. Look elsewhere for that. Here is a good start. What I will say is more in the way of approach and realization. In other words, if someone like me, who hates writing these letters can do it, so can you. :)

So here goes.

A query letter is simply a marketing tool. Yeah, I know, so obvious. We’ve heard this a thousand times before. True. I did too. And I gave that fact some vague attention. But somewhere along the way, it suddenly hit me that I wasn’t constructing my queries that way.

By marketing tool I mean that you are wooing your victim *cough* I mean target into buying what you’re selling. To do that you need to know your mark. This means research.

When beginning the query-go-round for West of the Moon, I started by researching all of my intended victims. (g) I skulked around agent blogs,, Publishers Marketplace, and QueryTracker. I learned who repped my genre, who their clients were, and, if possible, what they preferred when it came to queries. It might seem like a lot of work, but this approach works on many levels.

You have something to lead with when opening the query. Agents are people and people want to be wanted for themselves. Most agents love a personalized reason for you coming after them –heck, I know I would! But more importantly you can save both the agent and yourself time by weeding out who isn’t going to work for you. I can think of many agents I researched who repped my genre but worked with writers I whose books I did not like. Seems petty, but in truth, if my taste is so divergent with the agent’s taste chances are the agent isn’t going to like my work and I’m not going to mesh with them either. Time saved. Because you don’t want any agent, you want the right agent for you.

If you are looking for an agent then presumably your goal is to be a career author. Signing with an agent is a huge and significant step on the road to your career as a author, but it is still one step. One of many. And on that long road you want a good partner. The proper agent is a good partner. So yes, while you shouldn't give up at the first or the tenth "no", don't go out willey-nilley and pick the first person who says yes. It might sound nice to say "I have an agent". But the wrong agent IS 100 per cent WORSE than having no agent. So choose wisely.

Once, you’ve found a nice starter list of agents you want to stalk…erm…approach then it is time to really fine-tune your query. Okay, we all know that your letter needs to simply state plot. Nice and clear. Right? Hmm… the thing is it is easy to forget about marketing. So next: know your genre.

What is your book’s genre? WOTM is a dark Gothic romance. Well, that’s what I’m calling it, anyway. So the romance aspect has to come out. In short, the book description has to be worded in such a way that the agent will think this is going to be a good romance.

Here is the plot to MOON unadorned:

Lord Benjamin Archer was transformed and disfigured by a curse and forced to hide from society. Which he does without complaint until he falls in love with Miranda Ellis.

Miranda Ellis’s father tells her it is either marry Lord Archer or she live in the streets. But ultimately, she accepts his proposal because she sees it as a chance to escape, and a call to adventure. She soon grows to like Lord Archer, despite the fact that he wears a mask and is secretive. They grow closer until a sting of murdered noblemen sets the ton on its ear and have people pointing the finger at Lord Archer.

Miranda decides to investigate Archer to both prove his innocence and learn his secrets, while Archer strives to hide from Miranda what he his and find a way to stop the killer himself.

Okay, that was really dry. And not very sexy, or mysterious. I’m pretty sure if I had sent out a letter with that as the meat, I’d have struck out hard.

I’ve given the pertinent details of the story but it doesn’t sound like a romance, nor does it have any really zip (for lack of a better word.)

Here is the version with both my sense of voice (blue) and the romance angle (red) played up:

Pride and dark magic left Lord Benjamin Archer horribly transformed, forced to hide from society until he finds a way to undue his curse. A good plan, had he not done the impractical --fallen in love.

Miranda Ellis fears little, but is no fool. She knows accepting a marriage proposal from the enigmatic Lord Archer is tantamount to dancing with the devil. His strange masked appearance and foul temper have all of London wary. But the eyes behind the mask promise adventure, an escape from her father who has forced her into a life of crime. What she does not expect is Archer’s sharp wit, or the way his gaze melts her insides like hot tea to sugar. Suddenly her convenient husband has become quite tantalizing.

Then elderly noblemen start turning up butchered in the most gruesome of fashion, and the ton immediately suspect the oddly attired, thus sinister, Lord Archer. Such foul logic spurs Miranda to clear Archer’s name by investigating him, only to fall into a world of intrigue, clandestine societies, and an irate husband thwarting her at every turn. For Archer knows what Miranda cannot: to protect the woman he loves from an unstoppable killer, he must give in to the beastly nature he has fought so hard to keep within, even if it means losing his soul to it.

Every word of that summary is picked with the intent to entice, but those in blue and red are key words that both insert the "voice" of the book and play up the romance aspect. Is it a better version? I think so. But more importantly, did it serve it's purpose, which was to entice agents to read the book? Yes.

In short, while people can and do write books on crafting the perfect query, the main point you should come away with is that it is a marketing tool. Learn how to make your story look fresh and part of whatever genre you've written and you will have an effective letter.

But in the end there is one truth we all have to realize. Failure is not really the query letter’s fault.

Lots of people try blame their lack of getting an agent on a bad letter. In truth, and I think a lot of agents try to tell us this, only we don’t want to listen, if your book and premise is good and saleable (in the agent’s mind) then you will find representation. If your book is not good (and not saleable in agent’s mind) then you will NOT find representation. Ack! Like ripping off a bandage, isn’t it?

Yeah. That is one sucky fact, I know. But let’s think about this. I know many, many people who have sent out letters and gotten positive responses in the way of partial and full requests only to be tuned down once the agent read the book. OTOH, people with mediocre letters and excellent books have gone on to representation with greater ease. Why? You know. Because really it’s not about the letter, it’s about the book. So if, in the odd chance, you find yourself without a good bite, look over your work once more. Hey, we've all been there.


  1. Kristen, this is incredibly good advice. I've never seen query writing boiled down so succinctly and so well. I'm going to be very glad indeed that I have you for advice when I get to this stage!

  2. I hear ya Kristen. Great advice.

    I've got that pesky query letter under control finally. Now I'm looking the WIP over once more.

  3. Urg, I can't stand query letters. But having gotten 50 rejections to date with a letter that didn't change very much from one agent to the next, I guess it's time I took another crack it.

    Great advice, Kristen! Especially "insert the "voice" of the book and play up the romance aspect" - or in my case, the YA aspect. Or middle grade. Hmm, off to research tone and audience for such queries a bit more...

  4. Excellent, excellent advice, Kristen! You know who I'll be coming to when I'm tearing my hair out over writing my own query! (vbg)