The query letter is usually the first thing that is seen by an editor, and unless the query is polished and stands out above the rest of the slush pile, it may be the only thing seen before your letter is tossed to the “rejected” stack after the first paragraph. The opening of your letter sets the stage, and brings about the editor’s attention and makes them actually want to read your letter.
Think of yourself as a salesmen, or a director for T.V. commercials when writing your query letter. You have between 20 and 30 seconds to impress the viewers, to make them want to get up and drive to the nearest drive-through window, or pick up this year’s “hottest looks for hair.” In your case, you want to make the editor request your submission packet (if you already haven’t sent it along with your letter) and want to read your manuscript. Honestly, 30 seconds may even be stretching it a bit. That number is probably closer to 20. It doesn’t seem like a long time, does it? Well, it’s not, but when an editor receives a rubber-banded stack of submissions every morning to “wade” through, many times 20-30 seconds is really all the time they can commit to each new letter before moving on.
Except, that is, when you grab their attention. Then they will have all the time necessary to read, reread, and check the envelope your letter came in to see if you left any other goodies for them.
So, how do you sell your work in 20 seconds or less? It’s not easy, but it is very possible. Again, think of yourself as a commercial writer. What is it about your book that stands out? What great event happens that everyone will want to read about? One way to do this is to think of the last few books you’ve read yourself. Remember the blurb on the back cover? How short and concise it was, yet gripping enough to make you buy/borrow it? That is what you are striving for. That is what I mean by hook.
Here’s an example of a query I’d received years ago and still remember to this day to give you an idea of how to write a hook, and how to transition it between the intro line and the body.
I killed a man today. My first.
It wasn’t hard, really. It was harder to get the blood out from under my fingernails. Though it seemed I always had that problem – trouble with the simple things that normal people didn’t have to give a second thought to. It wasn’t my fault that I was the only one in my family’s generation that had inherited the werewolf gene. Hell, we’d all thought it had stopped with Grandma Jane. I scrubbed harder at the stains in my shirt. I was going to be late for school. Well, it wasn’t as if I had to worry about school anymore. Now that I’d turned furry this last moon, my parents were shipping me off to Virginia for a month’s training at the Pack headquarters. Dad said it was for the best. Mom said she didn’t want me to eat any of her bridge buddies.
Yeah, the shirt was ruined.
Not only was this a real hook, but it also gave an idea of the author’s voice and tone of the book as well. Without reading the synopsis or the rest of the letter, it’s also easy to assume that the story is told from the first person, and that the main character is a teen with “major issues,” and is about werewolves. So here the author has accomplished several different feats in one 14 sentence paragraph, and kicked off their writing career.
After your introduction, ideally you would go straight into a brief summary or hook for your novel. By brief I mean no longer than 8-12 sentences. Again, this is ideal and sometimes you may need to go a little longer, but you should strive to be as concise as possible. Please take note that I said summary or hook – not synopsis. Many people get confused at this point, and write too much of the wrong stuff in their query. New writers tend to use the blank space in their letter to write out the basic beginning, middle, and end of their story, just in a very condensed version. This is not what editors want. We can skim the synopsis page if we want to know what happens to the main character’s great aunt. The query letter is meant to grab the editor’s attention and make them request the synopsis and first three chapters, not to try and squeeze all of your information in a one page please-you-need-to-read-my-book-and-it’s-good-my-mom-said-so-and-i-write-good paragraph.
About the book
After the intro body paragraph, you should include a brief paragraph just talking about the book. Give its length, the genre, the title of the work, the name of the main character, and why people would want to read it. Remember, just talk about the book in this paragraph.
This is your paragraph to tell about yourself. Keep it brief, especially if you do not have a lot of writing credits. List whatever relevant experience (teaching, tutoring, working on a Hollywood set, published novels/poetry/articles) or education (college, degree, online courses, workshops) that you think to help add credibility to you on a particular subject or as a writer, period.
- List your credentials
- List previous publications
- Talk about your background in writing (if relevant)
- Explain why you would be an excellent choice for the editor/publisher
- Say “I have been writing for 15 years but have yet to be published.”
- Say “I have been writing for years, but get get my pleasure out of the writing process because publication has not been an issue until lately.”
- Say “Please publish my story. No other publisher I’ve sent it to will.”
- Say “I don’t take criticism well, and take a deep pride in my work and will stand strong on not changing anything. I proofread everything, and I know it’s fine…”
- List your high school English courses
- Talk about any personal habits or daily activities to try to connect with the reviewer
- Tell us your dog’s name (unless writing a story on dogs)
Think of this as a job interview, where the interviewer asks you to list the three most relevant things to the position you are applying for. In your case, a coveted slot for the upcoming publishing lineup.