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[process] The query letter - Lakeshore — LiveJournal
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Jay Lake
Date: 2008-01-16 15:18
Subject: [process] The query letter
Security: Public
Location:Nuevo Rancho Lake
Mood:busy
Music:afternoon noises
Tags:process, writing
Reader CW emailed and asked me to talk about query letters. specficrider and I did an article for IROSF about that last spring, but site has been down for some time, so I'm going to boil the key points out here. specficrider should be considered co-author of this post for attribution purposes.

Also, I must offer a disclaimer. I've never actually written a successful query letter myself, and cannot remember if I've ever written an unsuccessful one. It would have been in the mid-1990s if I did. My process has been different — I first secured my agent relationship with arcaedia on the strength of my short fiction work (among my first words to her, ever: "I'm not ready for an agent"), and all my novels have sold either through her or through direct discussions with the publishers.

That being said, there's some key info that's worth keeping in mind if you write a query letter. First off, make a distinction between a query letter and a transmittal letter. The transmittal letter is another word for cover letter — it's what comes with the partial or full manuscript when that is sent to an agent or editor at their request. A transmittal letter is simple and businesslike. It reminds the recipient what you're sending and why, signs off politely and gets out of the way. More to the point, the transmittal letter is only indirectly a sales tool.

A query letter, on other hand, is first and foremost a sales tool. It needs to explain what you're offering and why your manuscript is interesting. It needs to pique the interest of the target audience and engage them. More to the point, it needs to not oversell, or focus on the wrong things. What goes into it?

Write to the right person.
There's no point in sending a letter to an agency or a publishing house if you're not going to address it to a specific agent or editor. Furthermore, be targeted — sending your hard science fiction novel to a romance agent doesn't make all that much sense.

Opening Sentence
The opening sentence is like the first moments of a blind date. They've opened the envelope (or email), they're glancing across the page, and those words hit their ears. You want to be professional, informative and interesting, without either pulling your punch or overwhelming your target. How you do that very much depends on your personal style, the style of your manuscript, and the approach you want to take. Just lead with what's strong and interesting, and don't tell them what to think.

Body
Be informative but economical with your letter body. Explain the book in a little more detail, tell them why it's exciting and different, and give them just enough to want more without overselling or overexplaining. Remember it's not about you. It's about your book. Don't sell yourself, sell the manuscript. The only exception would be if you have some very specific qualification that has an obvious and important relationship to how the book can be promoted and sold. Keep it direct, simple and engaging.

Closing
That's it. You're done. A simple sign-off and you're out of there.

What You Didn't Write
You didn't go into detail about yourself. You didn't explain why the book was going to be good. You didn't make comments to or about the editor or agent you were trying to address. It's so easy to begin overselling, to begin spinning, to spew across the page. Just like blabbing on that first date, easy but almost always deadly.

In short, make your pitch and let the work sell itself. As always, your mileage may vary.
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Brent Kellmer
User: skaldic
Date: 2008-01-16 23:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The IROSF site is inactive, but the archives are available. I think the article that you mean is this one (although it might only be accessible if you're logged in.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-16 23:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yah, but log-in function itself is down. I tried repeatedly to get into that article earlier today, and finally had to go into my personal archives.
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Brent Kellmer
User: skaldic
Date: 2008-01-16 23:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
ah -- I'm logged-in by default, so that's clearly why I was able to get in.
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ebenstone
User: ebenstone
Date: 2008-01-16 23:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks for the insight. This is part of the process that I am totally intimidated by!
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magicalbookworm
User: magicalbookworm
Date: 2008-01-17 00:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks for posting this. Writing a query letter is one of the hardest things to do. Something I need to work on too :)
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Peter Hollo
User: frogworth
Date: 2008-01-17 01:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
They've opened the envelope (or email), they're glancing across the page, and those words hit their ears.

Eyeballs in the Sky!
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-17 01:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Eyeballs in the sky keep on turning
"Don't know where I'll look tomorrow..."
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jimvanpelt: S&B
User: jimvanpelt
Date: 2008-01-17 01:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:S&B
Hi, Jay. Have you heard of any news about the fate of IROSF? It's been dark for some time now. How about Tangent?

Good post on query letters. I have written a couple and received invites to send manuscripts based on them (but not sold the book). They're pretty intimidating. Mike Resnick has a collection of query letters in I HAVE THIS NIFTY IDEA . . . NOW WHAT DO I DO WITH IT? through Wildside Press.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-17 04:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
IROSF is supposed be lit up again shortly. I don't know about Tangent Online, unfortunately.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-17 13:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well, I would read arcaedia, Miss Snark or some of the other agent blogs. That should help quite a bit.
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davejwilliams
User: davidjwilliams
Date: 2008-01-17 20:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
An awesome post. V. useful.

Folks should also note that even most *great* query-letters fall short of the mark. Agents/editors are just too overwhelmed with volume.

Best bet: look for back-doors. . . i.e., bypass query-letter stage entirely by meeting agents at cons and fast-talking them into reading MS material directly (difficult because agents get mobbed at cons)--or by writing incredible short stories (like Senor Lake) that make agents seek YOU out.
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Morgan: how did you get into NCIS?
User: subu
Date: 2008-01-18 21:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:how did you get into NCIS?
Hi there! I find this VERY useful. I was also wondering if I could add you? I found you through arcaedia. Any who, thanks! ^^
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Jay Lake: pissed-satan
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-18 22:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:pissed-satan
Sure thing! I'm glad it was useful.
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User: lucidneurotic
Date: 2008-01-21 22:33 (UTC)
Subject: Synopsis
Thank You! The query is difficult but I find the synopsis to be a nightmare. I wonder if you might have a blog in you about the dreaded two page synopsis? How can I explain my 55,000 word novel in a 2 page AND give away the ending? What are your synopsis rules?

Leia Stone
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-22 14:14 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Synopsis
Leia, try this one:

http://jaylake.livejournal.com/1172394.html

It might help.
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