Fiction Query Letters: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

A query letter is probably the most difficult business letter you will ever write. In one page, you need to introduce yourself, introduce your manuscript in an engaging and interesting way, and tell the agent or editor how you heard about them and why your book might be a good fit for their list. It’s easy to see why every word should count. Keep in mind, I’m focusing on fiction here.

Today, I’m going to focus on the basics. Tomorrow, I’ll post some samples that will hopefully pull everything together.

The basics:
1. One page, 12 point type, 1″ margins, 20lb white paper. (Just regular paper–no linen, or resume stock. Stay away from colors, too.). Use block formatting—no indents, just a line between paragraphs.
2. Your contact info should be in a block in the upper left hand corner or on simple letterhead.
3. Address the editor or agent BY NAME. No “Dear Sir” or “To Whom It May Concern.”
4. Make sure to include important details like word count, stage of the manuscript(don’t start querying until you’re finished), and similar titles represented or acquired by the person you’re querying.
5. Include a brief bio: publishing credits, pertinent memberships (e.g. SCWW, RWA), and what you’re working on now.
6. Write a intriguing hook paragraph that lures the reader in and makes them want more. (Think about the blurbs on the back of a paperback—they make you want to buy it, right?)
7. If your dream agent or editor accepts e-queries, make sure to send your e-query only to one person at a time. No Bcc shortcuts.
8. Make sure to research each agent or editor you intend to query. Read ALL the submission guidelines—either on the Internet or in a book like WRITER’S MARKET.
9. Make sure your printer has plenty of ink and the letter is readable—no smears, or fading ink.
10. Include a tidbit of information that tells the person you’ve read the submission guidelines.

Now for the NEVER EVER EVER DO THIS SECTION OF THE BLOG.
1. Don’t overdo your bio. A few lines are sufficient. You don’t want to come across as egotistical, arrogant, or high-maintenance.
2. Never discuss pay rates. This is putting the cart before the proverbial horse.
3. Don’t address the agent or editor as “Dear Sir,” “To whom it may concern,” or by any other generic moniker. Take the time to know who you’re sending your query to.
4. Don’t list other agents, editors, or publishers who’ve rejected the work.
5. Don’t list copyright dates. Don’t even mention the word copyright. (Another blog for another day.)
6. Don’t use too much flattery and don’t beg.
7. Don’t include reviews by your mom, your critique group, or the family dog.
8. Don’t pester the you-know-what out of the recipient. Give them ample time (at least sixty days, maybe more depending on their submission guidelines) to respond. This means don’t call to make sure they got it, don’t call to see if they’ve read it. Just be patient.
9. Don’t send your query to people who are not looking for work in your genre or in general. If they’re not open to submissions, take them at their word.
10. Don’t include anything other than your letter, except a SASE, unless the guidelines specifically ask for something more like a synopsis or the first few pages.

Your query letter is likely the first introduction you will have to agents and editors who might be interested in your work. Don’t send a sloppy or unprofessional query letter. Even though a good query might take weeks to perfect, it’s worth it. It can make the difference in whether an editor or agent will even read your work. Take your time with your query letter.

Remember what your mom told you about FIRST IMPRESSIONS? It holds in publishing, too.

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