Monday, December 1, 2008

Seekerville Query Letter Workshop Part 1

What is a query letter?

Think of it as a marketing tool for you the writer and your unique product: your manuscript. Just as your manuscript must elicit emotion and hook the reader, so must your query letter. You have one page (single spaced) to hook, emote and introduce you and your unique voice.

One page.

And here's a random and delightful thought--did you know writing a really good query letter can confound the recipient? Apparently so. Check out this recent Stephen Barbara (Donald Maass Agency) article in Publisher's Weekly.

As with any other aspect of marketing there are varying opinions about how to write a query letter. The basics are similar, so use the style that speaks to you. Remember, as we share Seeker queries, that this workshop is not about borrowing a 'template query letter' and plugging in your story. Your query should be as unique as you and your manuscript.

The Parts of a Query Letter:

1. The hook: The one sentence pitch or logline. Often a "what if" scenario, it should be short and enticing.

2. The information: One or two sentences to convey the facts. Title of manuscript. Type of book (genre, setting etc). Word count. Status.

3. The blurb: The very short synopsis of your manuscript.

4. The bio: Your credentials as they apply to writing and this manuscript (paragraph).

5. The closing: Brief thank you and enclosures as applicable (one or two sentences).

Odds and Ends:

The order of presentation, specifically points one and two and three can be mixed per your individual style, or combined into one paragraph.

If the query is requested or you met the person you are writing to and need to convey this information, you may insert that succinctly where most appropriate.

The tone of your query should reflect the tone of your writing and your voice.

Since you only get one page it is very important to use only the most effective and evocative words. Every single word of your query should be evaluated for impact and necessity.

If you snail mail your query and expect a response or sent pages as requested in the guidelines, DO provide a SASE.

If you utilize a hook in your query is it can also be used as a one-on-one verbal pitch or segued into one. Also note, that while a hook may include the "what if" factor, a log line can include the high concept factor. High concept is a screen writing term whose components include: (Screenplay:Lifetips)

  • The concept can be told in a single sentence that helps you immediately imagine the entire movie.

  • The concept is unique in a significant way.

  • The concept appeals to a wide audience.
Examples of Parts of a Query Letter:

These examples have been begged or borrowed. You don't have to agree with the style. They were chosen for their variety.

1. The hook:

When a workaholic's wife abandons him and their young son, he must learn to be a single dad. (Kramer vs. Kramer) From Absolute Write.

An Epic tale of a 1940's New York Mafia family and their struggle to protect their empire, as the leadership switches from the father to his youngest son. (The Godfather) From The Writer's Store.

How did five people from a small Georgia town contract a rare, deadly disease?--Debby Guisti, Countdown to Death.

Venus Chau is a high-powered video game developer. Now she might be working for the man she’s always hated … but what if he’s no longer the man she thought she knew?--Camy Tang, Single Sashimi.

If there was one thing Josie Miller knew, it was the smell of a rich man. And whoever just walked into the diner smelled like Fort Knox.--Missy Tippens, Her Unlikely Family.

2. The information:

Thank you for taking time to chat with me at the RWA Conference, Wednesday luncheon. Per your request, I have enclosed the synopsis and three chapters of my 90,000 word completed contemporary romantic suspense, Dead Head.

Her Only Honor, is a 100,00 word completed a single title historical novel set in the 1620's.

I am seeking representation for my completed 100 000 word urban fantasy novel, Catcher in the Moon.

3. The blurb:

Sophie Edwards is doing just fine, until a strange-yet oddly familiar-man rides into her life, insisting on rescuing her and her four daughters. Can she find a way to love a headstrong mountain man? When Clay McClellan discovers his brother has been murdered, he's bent on finding the killers and seeing them properly hung. But first his Christian duty demands that he marry his sister-in-law. After all, Sophie needs someone to protect her - right? Faith and love help unruly wed newlyweds find common ground and a chance at love on the Texas frontier. --Mary Connealy, Petticoat Ranch.

The "orphan train" seemed like small-town spinster Adelaide Crum's last chance to know the simple joys of family life. So many lost children, every one of them dreaming only of a caring home—the home she longed to offer. And yet the narrow-minded town elders refused to entrust even the most desperate child to a woman alone….Newspaperman Charles Graves believed his heart was closed forever, but he swore to stand by this lovely, lonely woman who was fighting for the right to take some motherless child into her heart. And her gentle soul and unwavering faith made him wonder if even he could overcome the bitter lessons of the past, and somehow find the courage to love…. --Janet Dean, Courting Miss Adelaide.

Here's a hook and blurb:

On A Crash Course With Love

She was the woman of pararescue jumper Manny Pena's dreams. But he'd stuck his foot in his mouth the last time he met Celia Munoz. Now, grounded after a parachuting accident, he was desperate to make amends with the beautiful widow. But Celia wasn't having it. The last thing she needed was another man with a dangerous job—even if he had given his life to God. Yet
Manny's growing commitment to her and her troubled son began to convince her that perhaps she should take her own leap of faith. --Cheryl Wyatt, A Soldier's Family.

4. The bio:

"Like my protagonist, I spent years in advertising, marketing and market research. In my case, my experience covers more than two decades and includes work on three continents. I found it fascinating to translate those same communication and research skills to the courtroom through this story. And while I now live in San Francisco, I am a third generation Tucsonan, and have tried to bring the legends, the mystery and the magic of the desert Southwest I love to life in this work." --Louise Ure, Murderati.

" I am a member of my local RWA chapter and have won several RWA sponsored contests with this manuscript, including The Maggie, and The Great Expectations Contest. The inspiration for Avery's Song comes from my background as an Emergency Medical Technician and a Red Cross volunteer."

"I am the author of two best-selling novels of legal suspense, and additionally, work part-time as a para legal."

5. The closing:

Thanks very much for your time and consideration.

A self-addressed stamped envelope is enclosed for your convenience. I am also enclosing a synopsis which need not be returned. I look forward to hearing from you.

Thank you for time. May I send you a partial or the complete manuscript? I look forward to your response.
The completed manuscript is available upon request. A SASE is included for your convenience. Thank you for your generous time. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

This is a multiple submission. If you are interested in reading the entire manuscript, however, I will be happy to provide you an exclusive review for six weeks.


Join us tomorrow for Part 2- Seekerville Query Letter Workshop:

  • Query Letter Dos & Don'ts

  • Resources for more information on query letters
  • ORIGINAL Seeker query letters


Cathy S. said...

Thanks for demystifying the query letter. Can't wait to see what the original Seekerville queries you have for us tomorrow.

Tina M. Russo said...

Hey Cathy. Good morning.

I brought a couple dozen Love Muffins from Jacquie's Bakery. Help yourself.

Subbed any queries lately?

Glynna Kaye said...

Tina -- this looks GOOD. I plan to re-evaluate my query based on what I learn from the Seeker queries, guest questions, & responses! It's tricky getting all that info SQUASHED in there professionally and in a way that holds a reader's attention.

Janet Dean said...

Excellent succinct post, Tina! I tried to use what I call hot words in my query letters. By that I mean words that grab the editor's attention, and as you said, carry emotion.

After a few years of sending only a query, I took Jayne Ann Krentz's advice and sent the partial along too. She said editors rarely could resist reading a smidgeon. I never got in trouble for it, but I'll admit it unnerved me at first. I'm such a ruler follower.


Tina M. Russo said...

I like that. Hot words!

And that Jayne Ann Krentz chat haunts me too.

Julie Lessman said...

Oh man, Tina, I could have used this workshop the first time around -- I think my original queries gave Sominex a run for its money! And the article by Stephen Barbara -- what a hoot!

For me, both queries and synopses are a lot like Mexican food -- you definitely gotta have 'em, but aye chihuahua -- what indigestion!


Ann said...

Cool hands-on stuff.

I love you guys :-)

Cathy S. said...


I've recently subbed three agent queries which were rejected, all basically saying the genre is "hard to place at this time."

Since I knew a publisher working with the genre, I subbed directly to them last Monday with the proposal including three chapters and a synopsis (per the guidelines).

I have nonfiction magazine credits on the fiction theme so I'm hoping that helps. How much do you think they look at that?

And is it a mistake to sub anything this time of year?


Kimberli said...

Excellent stuff, Tina. Thanks for taking time to share this. I'll star it on Google Reader for future use (hopefully near future.)

Tina M. Russo said...

I put down any credits that are relevent to show I am a competent writer.

I also do not believe in the end of year clean the desk theory. If I did I would not sub from November to the middle of January and I refuse to do that.

Melanie Dickerson said...

I actually got my agent by sending her a cold query. She asked to see the ms. and the rest is history. So it is possible. I think it helps to be able to mention a few contest wins and finals in your query. ;-)

Missy Tippens said...

Thanks, Tina. I loved the article from PW!! LOL I can just see agents doing that drinking game. :)

Another great post!


lynnrush said...

Great post. Very helpful!

Mary Connealy said...

I also think, the query letter needs to catch the tone of the book.

IF it's a historical western, try, and I mean oh-so-mildly, to work that into the letter.
If it's a comedy, be funny SHORT by somehow bring the wit of the book into the query.
If it's suspenseful, make the letter reflect that. Heartwarming... again, catch that tone in the letter.
And mostly, fundamentally, for any chance of success TARGET the query.

Do NOT send a 90,000 word fantasy to Love Inspired.
Do NOT send a 150,000 women's fiction to Heartsong Cozy Mysteries.
This is a waste of your time, energy, printers ink and stamps and it is guaranteed failure that teaches you nothing about the quality of your work.
Do your research.

vince said...

Hi Tina:

Thanks for the very good ideas on the query letter. I’ve printed them out and can’t wait for tomorrow’s part II.

I do have a few creative ideas that might be a interest to writers.

Adopt the right POV. The query letter’s prime objective is not to sell your book but, rather, to solve the reader’s (editor’s, agent’s) problem. The reader needs great books to publish or represent. His or her livelihood depends on finding good material. In advertising we say, “When you fish, you use the bait the fish like to eat, not what you like to eat.” Think from the POV of the fish and a new creative set of ideas will begin to flow.

Reward the reader very quickly for reading your letter. Demonstrate how your book solves his or her problem. Don’t be constricted by a one page convention, however, make sure every word counts. In advertising we say, ‘the longer it is, the better it has to be.’


On a Post-It Note, handwrite something like, “Here’s the book you read query letters to discover”. (make the query two to three pages long – if two to three pages are indeed justified.)

Send photographs. Let’s say you are writing a Suspense romance that takes place in Machu Picchu, Peru and you have been there. Send the most interesting photos you have and be sure to type an informative caption on the back of each photo. (I was taught early on that the difference between a $50 article and a $500 article is the research. This is research the publisher benefits from but does not have to pay for.)

Send a one page sample that demonstrates your unique voice or writing style. (You don’t have to say what book it is from or if it is from any book.) Set the type so it looks like a Xeroxed page from a published book. The reader will look at this with greater interest and respect. (But the sample has to be really good. It helps if you are another Janet Evanovich.)

These are just a few ‘out of the box’ ideas from a nonfiction-writing marketing guy. I am sure you can come up with many more ideas. Think: “how can I make it easy for the reader to quickly understand that my book solves his or her problem?” This slight change in POV could make your query stand out from the bunch and produce a greater chance of receiving a request for the full manuscript.



Debby Giusti said...

Great post, Tina!!!

Query letters are so important . . . they're that "foot in the door" we always want.

Cathy, writing experiece tells editors you make deadlines and can write within a certain market's slant. They like knowing you understand the ropes.

May I add another important point? Ensure the editor you're writing is still at that publishing house. And spell her name correctly.

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Tina, this was one of THE best articles on Query letters that I've seen. I SO wish I'd had you helping me years ago when I was first submitting and learning what they were.

Now, I can apply this to any future query or even cover letters I write to industry professionals.

THANK YOU for putting things in a concise, clear progressive manner and for going into detail about what each component part is and means. The examples were great.


Arianna said...

Wow, this was really helpful. I've heard about the query letters of course, but I never fully understood it. Now I know! ;) I don't know if I'll ever try to get published or not, but if I do, I'll know how to write a query letter now ;) Thanks, Tina!

Tina M. Russo said...


You have some great non fiction ideas..but I have read that those ideas would tend to get a negative response in the romantic fiction community.

Any others care to join in on your reaction to Vince's thoughts?

Melanie Dickerson said...

I've heard editors get really irritated when you send them things they haven't asked for, and if you make your query more than one page long, that's another pet peeve.

Jessica said...

Actually, when I first read Vince's comment I thought he was being sarcastic (joking).
Sorry Vince :-)
I admit to knowing NOTHING about the non-fiction market.
However, I'm a fanatic about reading agent blogs, editor interviews, and publishing professional's websites.
While Vince's ideas are definitely creative and very cool :-), I think they'd be a huge turn-off for a fiction editor/agent.
This is just what I've read, but like Tina, I've heard that ideas such as those are unprofessional and annoying to the fiction professional community.
And I'm not saying the ideas aree bad. So I hope this comment doesn't offend Vince. I really think there's a big difference between how you'd approach fiction marketing. And my opinion is based on every single blog, article and website I've read.
So, there's my two cents.

Jessica said...

Oh, so I just clicked over to Vince's blog and it's actually a real estate website.
I think I see where you're coming from Vince.
My husband is a realtor and I see all sorts of creative marketing in real estate.
But fiction is different. :-)

Kimberli said...

I agree with Jessica. From every blog article I've read and info I've heard at conference workshops, etc, an author's submission should match the criteria listed in the agency's guidelines, or what the agent/editor requested. As I understand it, this is especially important for the unpublished writer.

I assume those clever marketing techniques be listed in the marketing plan?

Cara Slaughter said...

Wonderful blog, Tina! I've never written a query letter (I should get on the ball, shouldn't I?), so your information is really helpful.

Conni said...

Hi, Seekers: This info was so helpful and timely. Thank you so much for the constant sharing and inspiration on this website. It is a blessing.

Avily Jerome said...

Thanks for this!

Querying is so hard to do! I never know if what I'm saying sounds good or if it only sounds good to me, or if it will attract anyones attention.

Thanks again for the pointers!

Pam Hillman said...

Oh, great stuff, Tina.

In different workshops, I've heard editors and agents say, over and over again, to send them exactly what they ask for. And I always tried to do that.

Even though putting a sticky note or a copy that looks like a xerox of a page out of a published book would be eye-catching, most editors I've heard say they've seen it all and aren't the least bit influenced by extras.

I know there are exceptions, and someone with a flair for cute details might be able to pull it off, but like Janet, I'm a rule follower, so I would never risk it.

But that's just me.

Tina M. Russo said...

It's such a fine line between a bad girl and a good girl, lol.

Thanks for stopping by folks. Looking forward to your thoughts tomorrow!!

Camy Tang said...

Good job, Tina. I like how you broke everything down.

Audra Harders said...

Sorry for being so late today, but I could by pass how-tos on query letters!

Great advice, Tina. I love how you broke down the parts of a letter, reminding us of the importance of each. Even after all these years of writing, when you actually put on paper all the elements that need to squeeze into a successful query letter, it's quite daunting. Especially when someone has (and uses) way more words than the average human being was alloted : )

Thanks for the tips, today and so looking forward to tomorrow!

Sandra Leesmith said...

Tina, Great job on breaking down the query letter.
Thanks to the person requesting this info in our survey. Queries are sooooo important as Debby said, "our foot in the door".

Mary you are so right on about researching your market and targeting your editors and publishers. I've heard so many editors list one of their pet peeves as manuscripts sent that don't come close to what they publish. Their time is so precious they won't have a fond place in their heart for that person.

I've always heard the shorter, the better. One page max unless they ask for more.

Thanks again Tina

Missy Tippens said...

Cara said she's never done a query letter. And now that I think about it, I guess I've never sent off an offical query after all. What I've done is write a cover letter that's basically exactly like a query letter. I use all the same format, mainly as a reminder to the ed/ag of where I met them and what the story is about (a refresher if I've pitched to them). It also tells them a little about me, since even if they've requested my work, they probably don't know anything about me.

So I've written the equivalent of a query but sent as a cover letter with submissions. So Tina's query sections/paragraphs can be a mulit-purpose tool.


vince said...

Good Morning:

Thanks for your comments. My experience is in marketing and non-fiction writing and I know my ideas may not always transfer very well to fiction. Certainly, if every author did what I suggested, it would be annoying to the reader. Since I want to know where my ideas do not apply, I particularly welcome comments that don’t agree with my observations.

Coincidentally, in today’s Rachelle Gardner “Rants and Ramblings” agent blog, she is talking about query letters and how they are becoming less useful because so much effort is spent on making the letters perfect. She has seen too many ‘perfect’ query letters where the author’s writing was not very good. To quote her: “This is your deal, it's your shot at impressing me, and so I want it to be yours. Truthfully, I've taken on clients based on terrific queries, average queries, or no query at all.” She acknowledges that a poor query might even hide a book she’d “kill for”. (This reminds me of the current state of professionally written job resumes where every applicant seems to be perfect)

This gets to my main point: the reader is trying to do two things (1) weed out the non-prospects as fast as possible and (2) try to find the book she’d ‘kill for’ – even if it is hidden by a poorly written query letter. So help the reader do those things. If photos will help do this, then photos are a good idea but if photos will not further this objective, then they are not a good idea. (In my mind I see ten dramatic photos of the Irish coast and castles with captions on the back saying things like ‘this is where E falls from the cliff’ and this is ‘where R climbs the walls’. Photo captions have an 80% readership in ads – second only to the headline.)

Think form the POV of the reader of your letter. This seems obvious but it is not. Furniture manufactures love their products. They want the copywriter to talk all about product features like the double off-set coils, the custom outline quilting, and the twice-tempered heavy gauge steel springs. They want these product points mentioned in the ad because they know they have manufactured a superior product. However, the customer does not care about product points. The customer wants to solve a problem and wants the benefits of solving that problem. It is a cliché with sales managers that customers don’t want ¼” drill bits, they want ¼’ holes.” Actually they want the benefits they get from the 1/4'” holes. The good copywriter or salesman must always think from the POV of the customer and think in terms of the benefits (and even the benefits of the benefits) that the product provides.

For example, the superior product features (double offset coils) of this mattress provide for a better night’s sleep and when you sleep better you feel better and enjoy a more healthful and rewarding life.

Any product point must be explained as a benefit to the customer – often as a solution to a current problem. The customer has worn out bedding that is hurting her back. The agent wants a profitable new client and the editor wants a best selling author.

For an author: the book is her product. She is the manufacturer. She is proud of her book’s superior features. That’s fine but the reader wants to know, how does he or she benefit from those features.

Given what I said here, I believe, that it is possible to go ‘outside the box’ and do things that present your book from the POV of the reader as ‘just what he or she is looking for’ – a solution or partial solution to the problem of finding new authors or best selling books.

Again, coincidentally, in today Seeker blog, example 1, is exactly what I am talking about here. It starts off talking about the market for the book which is music to the ears of the agent or publisher. Right off, if I were a publisher, I would think: “You’re talking my language, you understand what you are doing, you know your market, now show me your work.” I think example 1 is ideal.

Thanks again for your comments,


Tina M. Russo said...

Vince I really appreciate that it isn't necessary for everyone to agree with you on everything.

And your outside the box thinking IS exactly what gets a person noticed.

Thanks for your contributions which are always generous :)