Monday, February 20, 2017

Query Letters: One Solid Approach

By: J.T. Evans

Query letters are a vital piece of the publishing world. It's rare to land an agent without a solid query, and once you get that agent, he or she has to query publishers on your behalf. Query letters are the introduction to a piece of work, you the author, and any comparable titles already on the marketplace. 

Source: Pixabay
Query letters are so important. Pikes Peak Writers has shifted some of its focus to representing this fact. Our fiction writing contest, The Zebulon, has a query letter round. We've also replaced the typical pitch session with a Query One-on-One session where you can get feedback on your query letter, and, hopefully, make the initial contact with an agent or editor that will lead to the path of publication.

There are numerous approaches to query letters that are taught in classes, workshops, and seminars. No single approach is "the one true way" to composing a query letter. There are a variety of designs to presenting your work, but my favorite structure was taught to me a few years back by Pam Howell while we hung out at Pikes Peak WritersConference.

Her favorite style of query letters involves three parts, with an optional introductory paragraph if you've personally interacted with the agent somewhere. The three parts are: hook, book, cook. Let's dive into those sections in more detail.

Hook

What will hook the reader, agent, or editor into your story? Do your best to avoid questions, especially hypothetical ones. Stick to interesting statements and facts about your story. Be concise and hit the high points here because all you have is three to five sentences. I also make sure to lead this paragraph with the genre, word count, and target market (young adult, middle grade, adult, etc.). This lead-in information sets the stage and allows the agent to know what to expect out of the rest of the query letter. I conclude this paragraph with comparisons between my novel and one or two other titles already on the market. Aim high, but don't claim to be "the next [insert famous author here]."

Book

This is where you talk about the core plot and characters. Stick to your main protagonist (or two if there is a split point of view). Don't delve into the details in this area. That's what your synopsis is for. Keep this paragraph (again, three to five sentences) focused on the tale you're telling. This is probably the most difficult portion to write because condensing your 100,000 word novel into a paragraph is rough. It can be done, though. If you need help, look at the back cover copy of several of your favorite novels. Practice writing some back cover copy for your own story. This will naturally lead to content you can use here.

Cook

This is where you get to talk about yourself! Make all content here pertinent to your writing and the novel. Don't include winning the third-grade spelling bee or any non-critical details. You also want to list up to your last three publication credits. If you're not published yet, just leave that out. There's no need to state, "I currently have no publication credits."

Miscellaneous Bits

I include the first and last name of the agent I'm querying in the salutation. This prevents me from using "Ms." with the name "Pat" and it turns out "Pat" is a man. It's the safe road to go. I also go to their web site and use copy/paste to snag their name from their own content. This keeps me from misspelling a name, and there are some tricky last names out there.

I always include, "I look forward to your reply, and thank you for your time in reading the submission," as a closing statement.

Just below that I put something along the lines of "The synopsis and first XXX chapters of the novel are below my contact information." This reiterates the fact that I am able to follow instructions, and that I have checked their submission guidelines on their web site.

The next thing is my contact information. I make sure they have every available means of contacting me listed. This includes my physical address, phone number, email address, and my Facebook and Twitter accounts. If they want to get back in touch with a "yes," I don't want a communication failure to turn it into a "no."

Once that's done, I copy/paste the requested materials into the body of the email and send it off! Please make sure to read the agent's query letter guidelines and only include material they want with the query letter. If they don't specify additional content, only send the query letter.

Query Letter for Griffin's Feather

Here's my query letter for my novel that will be coming out later in 2017:

Dear [AGENT NAME HERE]:

GRIFFIN'S FEATHER is an adult urban fantasy novel standing at 62,200 words. This is the first novel in what I plan to be a series. It is about an immortal Roman Centurion working as a bounty hunter for the Ancients. The deities and powerful entities of the distant past use the protagonist, Marcus, as an agent to do their bidding. When bartering for payment, he asks for copies of his missing father's journals. Marcus Barber, as he is known today, uses his abilities of dogged determination, two millennia of experience, and a few close friends to finish his jobs. While working for a pack of egotistical Ancients who treat Marcus more like shared property than a person, he searches for his still-living father. Griffin's Feather would appeal to people who enjoyed Kevin Hearne's The Iron Druid Chronicles or the invocation of mythology found in Neil Gaiman's American Gods.

Marcus must rescue Freyja's Daughter from a cult of Ereshkigal in San Antonio, Texas as he recovers Nemesis's lost Griffin, frees a captured Pixie on behalf of Cailleach, handles a "mundane" private investigation for a mortal client, and chases down clues as to where his father's next steps might lead. During the course of his adventures, bullets fly, Barghests attack, a demi-goddess invades his mind, and he assaults a drug dealer's stronghold at the Griffon's side. His immortal soul will be lost to the Ancients if he fails in any of these tasks.
I am the current president of the Pikes Peak Writers and received the 2014 Pikes Peak Writers Volunteer of the Year award. I was the president of the Colorado Springs Fiction Writers Group from 2009 until 2013 and have been active in the Colorado Springs writing community since 2006. My publication credits include stories in "An Uncommon Collection," "Phobias: A Collection of True Stories," and "Carnival of the Damned."

I look forward to your reply and thank you for your time in reading the submission.
The synopsis and first [XXX PAGES/CHAPTERS] of the novel are below my contact information.

Sincerely,
J.T. Evans
Contact Information:
Cell Phone: 719-REDACTED
Email: REDACTED
Website: http://jtevans.net/
Twitter: @jtevans
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jtevans.writer
Address: REDACTED

===========

[ADDITIONAL MATERIAL GOES HERE]

J.T. Evans writes fantasy novels. He also dabbles with science fiction and horror short stories. He is the president of Pikes Peak Writers. When not writing, he secures computers at the Day Job, homebrews great beers, spends time with his family, and plays way too many card/board/role-playing games.