Okay, you’ve got the manuscript finished. Not only completed but polished through a process of “peer review” and numerous re-writes. The ms. not only sits on your desk; the writing has been burnished and buffed by long labors to the point where the ms. gleams and glows on your desk. Now what?
First, don’t kid yourself. Have you really revised this into bulletproof condition? If so, you may now begin to try to sell the book. If it’s trade fiction (for a general or large audience) you need an agent. If it’s literary fiction you need an agent if you are heading to New York, Boston, San Francisco, or Los Angeles looking for a large publishing house. If it is a rather rarefied or regional literary fiction, or experimental, you may approach acquisition editors directly at small, literary, and university presses who publish fiction. You want a killer query letter.
The query letter tells the agent/ editor who you are, what you’ve got for her to read, and why it’s worth her time. The writing must be flawless, concise, energetic, and engaging, the voice and format utterly professional. If you don’t know how to set up a professional-looking business letter typographically, get help from someone who does.
In your fiction query letter (your calling card) you are “advertising” your “product” and your competence in very limited space to busy people. Get the person’s name and title; never write a “Dear Agent” or “Dear Editor” letter. Don’t waste time on what will become clearer in the synopsis. Your goal is to pique interest to see more. You need, therefore, a lead, supporting points, biographical information, and a concluding pitch.
Your lead is your hook. Avoid overly clever or cute hooks, gimmicks, or other contrived openings. You can be clever and smart and engaging; you sure as hell don’t want to be stuffy or boring. No bad jokes, clichés, unsubstantiated claims, or dictionary definitions. Don’t say a thing about how many others you’ve sent the letter to, or anything else that can be interpreted as negative. What’s the book’s idea or theme or topic? Open with a sentence that makes a connection to the agent (or editor)—someone referred you, you heard the person speak at a conference, he’s on your MFA or university board, whatever—and state what you have (e.g., “a 70,000 word novel about sex and the city for guys entitled It Man”).
Your supporting material tells what the book is about in a single (second) paragraph and in an interesting way that allows the editor to see its appeal to a particular (genre) or general reading public. Next, your biographical paragraph sells who you are as a competent writer: your degrees, who you’ve studied with and where, where you’ve published, what you’ve done with your life that might be related to the book topic, whatever makes sense. Here you are presenting your most important and relevant credentials.
Your pitch is the closing. Thank the reader for her consideration, refer to any enclosed supporting material (based on agency specific submission guidelines) and SASE for her convenience (unless this is an online submission), and give the last phrases a positive spin along the lines of “looking forward to hearing from you soon.”
All on one page! Beyond a first or second draft, these queries, like the synopsis, take a lot of time to write and revise. When you see approval or adoration in the eyes of those you’ve asked to read your tenth draft for help, you are probably getting close. Sample or model queries, I’ve found, often lead to bloodless imitations, so be careful. Be original.
See also Selling Your Novel: Creating a Compelling First Impression by Robert Begiebing.
A recipient of the Langum Prize for historical fiction, Robert J. Begiebing is the author of seven books, a play, and over thirty articles and stories. He is the founding director of the Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction, and Professor of English Emeritus, at Southern NH University.
The 20th anniversary edition of The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin, a novel set in 17th-century New England, is now available in paperback and e-book. Originally published the early 1990s, Mistress Coffin was a Main Selection in The Literary Guild, The Mystery Guild, and Doubleday Book Clubs, and is currently optioned for a film. It is available on Amazon here.
Visit his website at www.begiebing.com.
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