Yesterday I drove up to Annapolis to give my writing workshop on “Finding an Agent” at Anne Arundel Community College. The last hour of the short workshop is devoted to writing a first draft of a query letter for the student’s current work-in-progress.
At the upcoming Balticon, Victoria and I have volunteered to conduct a free workshop on “Finding an Agent” and we’ll be running this query letter exercise there, commenting on what the students write.
So let me speak today of writing that all-important query letter. There are two kinds of query letters that work, basically. One kind, the kind I teach, is a good, workmanlike business letter, and it does the job. It’s short, to the point, written in dynamic, specific language, with NO errors of any kind — no typos, punctuation, spelling, grammatical, etc. All kiss of death, my friends! Query letters must be letter-perfect!
The other kind of query letter is weird, quirky, but so irresistable and creative that it will capture the attention of an agent even though it’s far outside the “accepted” model. This kind of query letter springs from true talent and writing genius, and really can’t be taught. I’ve seen some of them, and they leave me in awe — and they immediately captured the interest of the agent(s) they were sent to. However, since they can’t be classified or taught, I’m going to concentrate today on the first type of query letter.
My suggested “template” for a query letter runs like this:’
1. First paragraph: you introduce your project, give the title, the number of words, and make sure the agent understands that it’s a completed, polished book. If you can quickly compare the book to something the agent would recognize, or give a one-line description that’s bound to capture the agent’s attention, it would go here.
(An example of a one-line description that actually sold a book to an editor while I was waiting in line to get into a restaurant at a World S.F. Convention was when Harriet Macdougal asked me what I was currently working on, and I replied, “Well, Andre and I are writing Witch World: The Next Generation.” Harriet promptly told me to send it to her as soon as we finished, which I did. She bought it.)
2. Second paragraph: here’s where I tell my students to get creative. Here’s where you give the agent a “snapshot” of your book by providing a couple of “sound bites” about it.
Michael Cassutt first described sound bites to me, and I’ll never forget the example he used. He would tell his screenwriting students this wonderful sound bite for an apocryphal television show: “Bongo and the Pontiff. She’s a chimp. He’s the Pope. Together, they solve murders.”
I never forgot it — and that’s the POINT of a sound bite. It’s not a synopsis. It’s a “snapshot” of a book, meant to stick in the agent’s or editor’s head, to interest them in project so much they’ll want to read it — hell, they’ll DEMAND to read it! I haven’t written very many sound bites in my life (my agent handles this stuff now) but retroactively, I came up with one for my first book, Yesterday’s Son: “Mr. Spock finds his son Zar living in a lonely ice age on doomed Sarpeidon, and is grimly determined to do his duty by the young man. Zar has always longed for a father, someone he could love and be close to. When the two must work together to stop a Romulan takeover of the Guardian of Forever, conflict is inevitable — and far from logical.”
That’s a sound bite. A brief encapsulation of the heart of the novel. Not a synopsis, not a summary. Just a snapshot, designed to intrigue, to spark interest in reading.
3. The third paragraph should contain a summary of your credentials for writing the book. If you don’t have any, then don’t try to manufacture some, it looks really lame. Credentials fall into three categories:
a. Best and foremost, writing credentials. You sold your writing somewhere. Cite the venue, and give the title of the article, short story, or book. If you didn’t receive any payment for the writing, chances are you shouldn’t mention it. Things like letters to the editor published in your local paper don’t count. A receipe in a parish cookbook doesn’t count. If you had a letter ON THE SAME SUBJECT AS THE BOOK YOU’RE TRYING TO SELL published in some really prestigious venue, say The Wall Street Journal, that MIGHT be something to mention.
b. The other two categories of “credentials” you can mention would be lifetime experience, and/or academic degrees — IF THEY RELATE TO THE SUBJECT OF YOUR BOOK. There’s no point in mentioning that you have a degree in quantum physics if you’ve written a humorous fluffy unicorn story. Or a romance novel set in the Miami drug culture. Lifetime experience, ditto. If you have written a detective novel, and you can truthfully state that you’ve been a homicide detective for 10 years, that’s definitely worth a mention. If you have a PhD in quantum physics, and your novel explores the “true nature” of dark matter, or something like that, you should definitely mention it in the third paragraph. Mentioning your age, marital status, number of children, grandchildren, whether you have bunions, or gout, is NOT relevant, so don’t include it.
4. This last paragraph is simply your comment that you’re working on a new novel (well, you SHOULD be!, if you’re not, START ONE!) and a thank you to the agent for considering your query. You can mention that it’s available for review either as chapters and synopsis, or as a full ms. Tell them you hope to hear from them at their earliest convenience. Typical business style.
Then you write “Sincerely,” and sign your name. Don’t forget your business-letter-sized SASE. I’ve noted that Miss Snark says it’s not a bad idea to include just the first five pages of your ms. with the query, on the grounds that most agents are curious creatures, and will glance at them.
Hope this little summary has been helpful.
-Ann C. Crispin
Author: STORMS OF DESTINY/HarperEos