Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Dreaded Query Letter

The following is adapted from a handout I put together for a recent writing workshop. I thought folks might get some use out of it, so I figured I'd post it here.

Query letters probably cause authors more angst than any other piece of writing (save, possibly, synopses), and yet they’re a necessity for anyone who wants to land an agent. Now, I can’t claim any special expertise in the realm of query letters, but I’ve had two agents in my career, both of whom I approached via blind query (meaning no client reference or invitation to submit.)

The fact is, you don’t need a long list of publishing credits to woo an agent. You just need a decent one-paragraph “elevator pitch” for your book, some manners, and common sense enough to follow the agent’s stated guidelines. Below is a version of the query I used to land my current agent, the insanely awesome and talented David Gernert. Is it any good? I couldn’t say. But I can tell you it worked.

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To [agent’s name; DO NOT MASS EMAIL and for Cthulhu’s sake double-check your spelling]:

[If you’re approaching the agent because you’re a fan of a client of theirs, feel free to open with a sentence saying so. It’s not expected/required, though, so don’t lie. Heck, even if it were expected/required, you still shouldn't lie.] I'm seeking representation for my mainstream thriller, THE KILLING KIND, complete at 80,000 words.

THE KILLING KIND is the story of Michael Hendricks. Once a covert operative for a false-flag unit of the US military, Hendricks was presumed dead after a mission in Afghanistan went sideways. Now he makes his living as a hitman entrepreneur of sorts who only hits other hitmen. For ten times the price on your head, he'll make sure whoever's coming to kill you winds up in the ground instead. Not a bad way for a guy with his skill-set to make a living – but an even better way to make himself a target.

[If you’ve got prior relevant publishing credits or expertise relevant to your book, say so here. “My short fiction has appeared in such publications as…” or “As a former Navy Seal…” will do just fine. But if you have no prior credits and/or your background is irrelevant, skip this paragraph entirely. It’s better to be brief than boring.]

I've included [whatever their submission guidelines ask for, and NOTHING ELSE]. I'd be delighted to send along more, should you prove interested.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,
Chris F. Holm
[website URL, Twitter handle, phone number, etc.]

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So there you have it. Short, polite, and to the point. If you’d like to learn more about crafting a quality query, I recommend checking out agent Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog, on which she invites fledgling writers to submit their query letters for critique; it's an invaluable resource, and gives authors a rare glimpse into how agents think about submissions.