SIMPLY WRITING – T’is the season to be querying, part 1

Michelle SomersSimply Writing tips Leave a Comment

I’m not certain there is a particular season for querying an editor or agent, but I thought this a fitting title given that Christmas has just been and gone, and who wouldn’t want a contract tied up with a pretty green, red and gold bow?

When submitting a manuscript to an editor or agent, there are so many things we have to not only remember, but get right. How should we structure our query? What must we include and what must we leave out? And what factors should we take into consideration as we word that wonderful yet critical covering letter?

What is a query letter?

This is an introduction or covering letter to your submission. Whether it be to an agent, editor, film producer or some other audience, there are certain points to bear in mind before you begin.

It’s a colossal list, but every one of the points below is essential.

Dos and Don’ts of the query

DO follow the submission guidelines.

DO research the agent or editor to ensure you’re targeting the right audience.

DO personalize your query – address the agent/editor by name and correctly (check spelling, title, etc.) If your query is the result of a request, mention this in your opening paragraph. If you’ve met them before or attended one of their workshops, you can mention this at the onset of your writer’s bio paragraph.

DO proofread your query letter. I’d also suggest getting a critique partner or two to take a look. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes will pick up what you’ve missed.

DO include all your contact information. When they decide to ask for a submission, you want them to be able to contact you, right?

DO include brief details of your author platform, particularly if you have a following for related podcasts, blogging or other such activities.

DO include all your social media platforms under your contact details. Make sure to include YouTube, your website, your blog, etc.

DO include relevant non-writing credentials. Note the word ‘relevant’. For example, if you’ve worked in the force or in forensics and your story features detectives and/or crime solving, this experience highlights your credibility and expertise in this area and should absolutely be mentioned.

DO be familiar with current books that the publishing house is releasing or that the agent is representing. This will ensure you know you are targeting the right people for your submission.

DON’T try and be creative or clever by using difficult-to-read, fancy fonts and text colours other than black.

DON’T send out blanket, generic query letters.

DON’T waffle or ramble – treat the query like any other piece of your writing. Make it sharp, succinct and straight to the point.

DON’T gush and tell the agent/editor how wonderful they are, how you value their time and understand how busy they are. Not only does this waste valuable space that could otherwise promote you and your book, but it wastes the reader’s ‘valuable’ time and will more-than-likely have them skimming your words.

DON’T tell them how wonderful you and your book are, compare it to the latest bestseller and state that your best friend’s second cousin’s mother is an author and she just LOVED your story.

DON’T include your age. This has no bearing on an agent/editor’s decision whether to accept or reject your submission. Just focus on your story and your relevant credentials.

DON’T include sample chapters in your query unless the agent/editor submission guidelines specifically request them.

DON’T apologise for being a newbie writer with a lack of experience or awards/recognition. You don’t want to down-sell yourself.

This is a pretty generous list of dos and don’ts, I know. What the above boils down to is be smart, be professional and be succinct. And showcase your writing acumen by crafting a sock-rocking query.

Structuring your query

Like any job application, there are certain critical elements that should be incorporated into a query. For the purposes of this book I’ve split these elements into five subheadings.

  1. Introduction

This section has two distinct parts:

  • The salutation – a personal address to the agent/editor you’re querying. Personal because you’ve done your research and are directing this query to a particular agent/editor. If this query is in response to a request, mention that here.
  • The book outline – this comprises a short sentence incorporating the title of your book, the word count and the genre.
  1. Book blurb

This is your opportunity to hook your reader and use the wonderful blurb you created for your book. If you haven’t done this, never fear, I plan to post on blurbs sometime in the not so distant future.

Just to clarify what your blurb should include:

  • Your central characters.
  • Their GMC – what do they want, why do they want it, what challenges or obstacles stand in their way of getting it?
  • What are the conflicts? The stakes? If they don’t achieve their goal, what is the worst thing that will happen? What must your character(s) sacrifice to get what they want?
  • A hook. You want to end on a hook, some question or dilemma that leaves the reader panting for more. The higher stakes that demonstrate you understand what makes an unputdownable story.
  1. Writer’s bio

This is your opportunity to detail any relevant qualifications and/or awards that will add weight to your submission. Note the word ‘relevant’. If you won your high school creative writing prize or are published in nonfiction with a book on the diversity of native flora in the Hebrides, this is not the place to mention it.

However, if you are a romance writer and you’ve won contests run by Romance Writers of Australia, New Zealand or America, this is very definitely relevant.

If you have personal knowledge of the agent/editor, for example if you follow them on social media, have met them in person or have attended one of their workshops, you can mention that here. Make sure you make this comment relevant and professional, and if it demonstrates that you understand the type of story/author they are looking for and why you fit the bill, even better.

If you are targeting a particular line, especially in relation to category romance, it might pay to mention the trope of your submission, particularly if the agent/editor has mentioned on their blog or website that they’re interested in acquiring that trope. This will help hook their interest and assist them in identifying whether your story fits the line you’re targeting. It also demonstrates you’ve done your homework.

In the case of an agent submission, if you have any standing requests with other agents/publishers, mention them here.

One thing you mustn’t do is wax lyrical on your life and history in this paragraph. The purpose of a query is to sell your book. You are incidental to that. So only include personal information if you’re confident it will strengthen your submission and not bore the editor to tears.

  1. Closing paragraph

Thank you for your time and consideration.

That’s really all you need. No need to say you’re looking forward to hearing from them or that you hope they like your story. Both statements are obvious, redundant and a waste of valuable space.

  1. Contact details

Don’t forget to provide your address, phone number and any other avenues of contact available to the agent/editor. As part of this signature section, list any and all social media platforms.

Bear in mind that there are other resources out there that suggest a different order to that prescribed above. For example, Query Shark – for whom I have a lot of respect and admiration – suggests you dive straight into the blurb and hook the reader with the story before you detail the name, word count and genre. In both her and my cases, the personal information goes last.

I don’t see any problem with this, unless of course the submission guidelines state otherwise. Providing your query contains the five essential sections above, whether the blurb is the first or second paragraph really shouldn’t matter, as long as both are succinct and to the point.

Formatting your query

Check the agent or editor’s submission guidelines before you format your query and hit ‘send’. One of the quickest ways of putting an agent or editor off-side is to ignore their instructions and format your query however you like.

If there are no specific instructions on formatting in the submission guidelines, use the settings below.

  • Your query should be formatted in standard letter format.
  • Black 12 point Courier or Times New Roman font – no fancy colours or scripts.
  • One-inch margins all around.
  • Single-spaced text with double spaces between paragraphs.
  • Left justified.
  • Date of query at the top, left-hand corner.
  • Attention <name of agent or editor> just below the date – include their title and postal address. If you’re unsure of these details, check their website or call their offices and ask.
  • After the closing paragraph, sign off using your real name and then, if relevant, add ‘writing as <your pen-name>’ beneath it. This is an official document, and as such you should use your legal name in the signature.
  • Only leave a space between the closing paragraph and your name for paper queries where you need to sign.
  • Provide a list of attachments beneath the signature line.
  • List your contact details, including website address and social media platforms.

And there it is: a brief ‘how to’ for crafting a rock-solid query letter to sell your story.

Don’t forget, once you’re done…

Check, double-check and triple-check your letter. Make sure it’s tight, to the point and targeted appropriately – an accurate reflection of your professionalism and understanding of the industry as a whole.

Your query is an agent/editor’s first encounter with you. It’s the handshake that can either make or break your chances at winning their interest. Do it right and turn the tables in your favour. 

And last of all, good luck!

Tune in next week when the entire blog will be filled with examples of queries 🙂

Sooo, as a thank you for reading and supporting this post, I have a special prize for this month’s winner. I’m offering one lucky commenter a half hour skype session to discuss anything writing related. It could be your query, your synopsis or 300 words from your current work in progress. Yes, you heard right. We get to chat, face-to-face – or computer screen to computer screen – and chat about whatever it is about your synopsis you’d like to discuss.

To enter the draw, please comment below and share the most surprising or useful thing you’ve learned since reading my Simply Writing blogs.

Any and all comments welcome! I love reading your feedback and input each month J and much as this blog isn’t set up for notifications, I always ALWAYS answer your comments. So make sure you pop back to check my replies 🙂

If you’d like extra chances to win, share links to this blog on any or all social media sites. Tag me so I know you’ve shared, and the more shares, the more times I’ll place your name in the draw.

A name will be drawn next week, on Monday 18th February, by 5pm DST and winners will be notified on the blog, so keep your eyes and ears peeled 🙂

Thanks so much for stopping by. Have a fabulous month, and I’ll see you all again in March.

Michelle xx


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