Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Query Letters

by Anna Jones Buttimore

Like Cheri (see yesterday's post), I have made a scary but exhilarating foray into the world of fantasy writing. My first attempt is pretty much complete, I'm pleased with it, and it's ready to go out to agents.

Despite having had four novels published before, this is new territory. I'm leaving the relative safety and friendliness of the LDS market and sending my precious manuscript out into the big wide cutthroat world of publishing. As I hawk it round the various austere and shrewdly unforgiving agents, I am discovering that the principal weapon in my armoury is not the brilliance of the manuscript itself, but the initial query letter.

It might be overstating the case, but the more advice I read and the more authors I hear from, the more it seems that it is the query letter that hooks the agent, not the first three chapters and synopsis, or whatever the agency requires in the way of unsolicited work.

Why is it that I can write a 120,000 word novel in a year, but it has taken me hours, even days, to write a four-paragraph letter? Possibly it's because of all the conflicting advice I've had:
  • Keep the query letter brief but include your CV, information about other books you've had published, a synopsis of your work, other successful books similar in style or story to yours, and reasons why your book is new, different and worthy of consideration.
    Short of writing the letter in an 8-point font, I don't think I can fit all that on one page.
  • Send the letter and manuscript in the post - very few agents accept email submissions - but include in the letter links to information about your previous work.
    Last time I checked, clicking on a printed link doesn't work. And if agents are twenty-first century enough to look up reviews of your previous books, why can't they accept email submissions?
  • Recognise that agents get many queries each week - make yours stand out. But send it in according to the criteria they give on their website or in The Writers' Handbook and don't be overly friendly or informal.
    If I am writing to them in the format they ask for - a one page formal covering letter plus the first fifty pages, surely what I am sending in is exactly the same as every other submission, and isn't going to stand out, short of writing my query letter on pink scented paper. Now there's an idea...
I have, I think, managed to resolve all these issues, used every ounce of my writing skill mixed with sweat and tears, and come up with a query letter which ticks all the boxes.

So whether or not the manuscript ever gets picked up, I think the query letter is definitely worthy of a Whitney.

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