I got nothing.
Okay, I know it's terrifying. After all, your query letter is often your one and only chance to woo an editor or agent into reading your work. If your query letter is not as beautiful as---if not more beautiful than---the Mona Lisa, your masterpiece will be overlooked. Right?
Being a freelance and acquiring editor means that I have seen a great variety in query packages. The standard submission includes a query letter, a short synopsis, and either the first ten pages or the first three chapters of your manuscript. Sounds simple, right? Wrong.
Authors spend a great deal of time perfecting their manuscript's first three chapters. At some point during their writing process they've probably employed their friends, writers' group partners, and beta readers to dissect their work. Then, once said opinions are received, the author will return to his workspace like Odysseus returning to Ithaca, and begin working ceaselessly, often repeating the process over and over until his magnum opus is complete.
And that's all well and good (and necessary, of course), but three chapters, no matter how outstanding, do not a submission make.
Queries are where the author gets to make his first impression on an editor or agent on a tidy, single spaced page set in standard 12 point font. The query must sum up the manuscript, name the story's genre, identify its word count, introduce the author, and be entertaining all at the same time.
Oh, and the query letter must also be completely error free.
I know what you're thinking---why, if the query letter will not be included in the final product, does it have to be so pristine? The answer is simple: If you have not bothered to clean up your query, how will we (the editor or agent) know that you (the author) will be willing and able to clean up your manuscript in a timely and effective manner? If your letter is the written equivalent of a 1972 slasher flick, how much confidence will we have in your ability to compose a coherent sentence independently? How will you manage to write a blog or do interviews to promote your book without looking like a dunce? How will you fare in public speaking situations?
Assessing a query letter for technical and grammatical accuracy is kind of like assessing a pop quiz before the final exam. It's not the be-all end-all, but a well-written and well-edited letter does tell us a whole lot about you as an author and the level of your ability and work ethic.
Now for the dirty stuff ...
This is the query letter I wrote and ultimately found success with for my literary fantasy novelette, The Oddity (available for purchase HERE *cough*):
Imagine my name here
My phone number
My e-mail address
Dear Mr. Anderson,
It’s gloomy in the witch’s card-reading shack, but gloomier still in Fisk’s terrified gut. He doesn’t have long to live. Truly, this is a desperate act---looking to the witch for guidance---but what can he do? The Emperor has demanded his head, and the Emperor always gets what he wants. Fisk has an idea, a possibly disastrous idea, but if it’s successful and he manages to create an army of Oddities for the Emperor’s dwindling reserves, it might be enough to buy his freedom.
Based on the Tarot, The Oddity is a piece of dark literary fantasy fiction complete at 16,000 words. Although an independent story, The Oddity is the companion to a full-length novel manuscript I am currently working on.
To date, my short fiction has appeared in such literary magazines as Shadows Express, Fiction and Verse, Infernal Ink, Dark Edifice, Underneath the Juniper Tree, and Thrills, Kills & Chaos. I have had four poems published in various poetry compilations, and I was commissioned by Enter Skies Entertainment to pen the narrative portion of Fearless Fantasy, an online roleplaying game that released in July of this year. I am a graduate of Ryerson University's copy, substantive, and stylistic editing courses, am a member in good standing of the Editors' Association of Canada, and am an acquisitions and copy editor at BookFish Books LLC.
Thank you for your time. May I send you The Oddity?
That's it. Three paragraphs.
Let's break it down.
First of all, the personal information at the top is no longer as essential as it once was since most submitting nowadays is done electronically, but still, you want the editor or agent to be able to reach you in whichever method they choose. This information also serves as a letterhead, reminds the person of your name, and makes additional information easy for them to find.
Next, for the love of all that is sacred and holy, be sure to spell the editor or agent's name correctly (r-e-s-p-e-c-t). If possible, personalize the address line. This shows that you've done your homework by looking into that particular publishing house, and that you think your work might genuinely match their list. If, after an honest search, you cannot find the acquisition editor's name, use the name of the company in its place. "Dear BookFish Books," is better than "Dear Editor," which is impersonal and does little to show your genuine interest in the company.
Next, some people recommend laying out the pertinent information right there in the first paragraph, and you should definitely do so if that is stipulated in the house's submission guidelines. However, it is my personal preference to get into the interesting stuff first---the story sum up. Here, you should include a hook, a hint of the tone of the book, and of course a brief summary. You should not include the story's resolution in your sum up paragraph. Leave your reader asking questions---make it so that they HAVE to read the synopsis to find the answers (we will get into synopsis writing in another post). Show the flavour of your "voice" if you can---you do not have to be stiff and formal in your query despite it being a professional letter, though obviously, don't go too far in the opposite direction either.
You only need to mention the most important thread of your story in your query letter. If anyone has read my book (HAVE YOU!!!) they will know that Fisk's story is only half of the plot, the other half is about a young girl who has a big decision to make. I chose only to mention Fisk's story in my sum up paragraph though, because his is the one on which the rest of the plot hangs. Yes, it was difficult and painful not to mention the other character, but important.
Next, I included the pertinent information---genre, word count, the fact that it is a complete manuscript and that it has series potential. Do not forget to include this stuff. To do so would be Very Bad.
The bio paragraph is a bit tricky. As you can see, at this point in my writing career I had the space to include the poems and the name of the roleplaying game's producer. Since then, my bio paragraph has grown some and, to keep this paragraph manageable, I have cut that portion. You will need to do the same if you have a lengthy list of publications---only mention the most important or most prestigious.
If you have worked in the field about which you've written, you should include something about that here. If you've some wonderful education that is somehow related to your manuscript, you should include something about that here. If you are an active member of a writers' group or if you are a conference or workshop frequenter (especially if you've met the editor or agent in person), you should include something about that here. If you've won an award for your writing, you should include something about that here. If you are the member of an organization that relates to writing, you should mention something about that here. Do NOT include the fact that your mom really likes your story. Do NOT include a list of the online forums you like to visit (even if they're writing related. This is because anyone can visit these forums and they do not make you unique, unfortunately). If you have nothing to include in this paragraph, join a writers' group or register for a conference or a local workshop to begin building your author biography paragraph, and then simply mention that this is your first manuscript and move on to the next portion.
Do not say things like, "as you will see, my work is really funny" or "I am a gifted writer who has been honing my craft since the day of my birth" because that just sounds haughty and snobbish. Let the editor decide if you're funny. If you are gifted and were born the literary equivalent to Mozart, that will be obvious in your words. Everyone's tastes are different---not everyone will agree with you. And besides, Mozart was, like, the awesomest.
Finally, do not forget to close out your letter with a "call to action." In my letter, I simply thanked the editor for his time and asked if I could forward on my manuscript. To the point. You may wish to phrase this differently, but it is always a good idea to invite more dialogue with the editor or agent---you definitely want to hear from them again. This is your chance to invite that conversation and show your high level of professionalism.
Good grief this is a long post!
Query letters are important, and they're difficult to write. If you have any questions or would like to put your own attempt up on the butcher's block, I invite you to do so. My letter is not perfect---I invite you to discuss it. What errors did I make? What could I have done differently? If you were the editor who had received my letter, what do you wish I'd included? What should I have left out?
While writing your query, choose every word carefully, and when you're done, run your spell checker and have someone else read it (preferably someone with a better than average grasp of the English language). Get a great hook in there, and you're well on your way. Query letter writing is an agony even Stephen King had to partake in in his early days. You are in good company with this struggle.