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Writing a Killer Query Letter

In the last several years there’s been a wonderful development of small, independent fantasy publishers who do not require an agent for submissions. It’s much easier to break in; however, the flip side is small to no advances, limited exposure, and marketing that is left up almost entirely to the author. To those who dream of bidding wars and six-figure advances, you’re going to need an agent. The NY biggies, for example Random House, Penguin and HarperCollins, don’t accept unagented submissions. And the ones who do (Tor, Daw, Baen), will toss your submission into the slush pile, where it likely will never reach an editor’s desk. The best way to snag an agent? A killer query letter.

I know if I were reading this article, my first question would be who the hell is this lady to give advice on writing a good query letter? So allow me to share my publishing history, and give you some reasons why you should trust me. If you’re still not convinced, no hard feelings. I have three published plays with Dramatic Play Publishing and two published novels with Champagne Books (the third is scheduled for later this year). And yes, I have an agent, Sharon Belcastro with the Belcastro Agency. While she is not stationed in New York, she has fantastic contacts, and my latest novel has been requested for full review by Random House, HarperCollins, St. Martins, Penguin, Little, Brown and Sourcebooks, among several others. So that makes her Number One in my book. And while it took me a few years to get an agent, I had over 50 requests for a full or partial manuscript from agents, all based on one thing: the query letter. The reasons for rejection after that came down to the manuscript itself. But if you want them to read your manuscript, you have to hook them first.

So let’s get to it! I asked my agent Sharon what the ideal query letter should contain. “One-to-two-sentence logline and a two-paragraph-max synopsis of the story. I hate queries where the description of the work is longer than the book itself. I lose interest after a couple of paragraphs. I like just enough to catch my attention and give me a good overall idea of the story. Query letters should also contain the genre, word count, and author bio even if unpublished. I like to know if they’ve had short stories published, placed in contests, written for journals, etc, although they don’t have to have such credentials for me to read a story that catches my interest. Short and sweet, with just enough to grab my attention.”

I’ve posted my own query letter below for my published novel Shadow Fox, which is how I partnered up with Sharon in the first place. To give credit where it is due, I borrowed the outline of the query letter in Stephen King’s On Writing, and tweaked it to better suit me. I found that it worked as well as he said it would. If you’re sending your query by email, which is generally recommended these days, you should still format it like a real letter.

My Letter for ‘Shadow Fox’

DATE

YOUR NAME
ADDRESS
STATE, ZIP
TELEPHONE NUMBER

Sharon Belcastro
Belcastro Agency

Dear Ms. Belcastro: (make sure you address it to a real person, not Sir/Madam)

I am a published writer, thirty-four years old, in search of an agent for my fantasy novel. I found your name on Publishers Marketplace, and as you represent fantasy I thought you might be interested in my submission. My publishing credits are as follows:

  • “The Money Dance,” Storyteller 2005, Spring 2005 ($150 plus copies)
  • “The Unicorn Thief,” Midnight Times, Summer 2005 (copies)
  • Sense and Sensibility (Full-Length Stage Adaptation), Dramatic Publishing, Winter 2005 ($500 advance, 50% royalties plus copies)

My story “The Money Dance” won second place in the annual short-story contest with the Society of Southwestern Authors, with whom I am also a professional member, and my stage adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is a full-length play for which I receive royalties twice a year. My historical-fiction novel In Byron’s Shadow also recently placed in the Top 100 (out of 5,000 entries) in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest. I am the author of seven novels, and for ten seasons my husband and I ran our own Shakespearean theatre company in Phoenix.

I am currently seeking representation for my dark-fantasy novel, Shadow Fox. The first volume of a completed trilogy, Shadow Fox is approximately 108,400 words long. The following is a brief description:

Jared Bruin doesn’t know who he is. He remembers nothing of his early childhood before the age of seven when he was abandoned in a park in St. Louis, left in an unfamiliar world that terrified him. He knows only that he is driven to learn everything he can about swordplay and sixteenth-century combat. Almost twenty years later, as he is battling a heroin addiction, suicidal tendencies and a violent affliction he doesn’t understand, he is hired to teach swordplay to an enigmatic woman with secrets of her own, who somehow provides a link to his past. Then a missing journal arrives that provides many answers to Jared’s past, and in it another world is revealed, one of a Goddess, prophecies, elves, a devastating love triangle, and a war in desperate need of a hero.

I would be happy to send you all or a portion of the manuscript if you are interested. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

YOUR NAME

If you don’t have any publications, don’t despair. As Sharon suggested above, discuss instead any writing groups you’re involved in, how long you have been writing, what inspired you to write this particular book.

Remember to proof your letter carefully; if an agent sees errors in the initial query, he or she probably won’t be willing to look at anything else. Try to stay professional and objective; don’t say that your book is going to be Oprah’s next pick. When I asked Sharon what her number one pet peeve is, she said, “An arrogant query letter. An author that thinks he/she has written the best book that has ever been written and I better not pass up this once-in-a-lifetime offer to represent. I won’t even give the courtesy of a “no-thank-you” response because they will come back and tell me that I must be crazy and have no idea what I’m doing.”

Which brings up another point. Please, please, please refrain from sending a nasty reply in response to a rejection. You are going to get rejections, and it’s better if you get used to the idea. There’s a chance you may end up writing another book that an agent you’ve already queried might be interested in. Don’t burn any bridges. In fact, if you get a rejection that contains something positive, i.e., “Your writing is very good, but I’m afraid this isn’t for me,” you would do well to send a quick thank-you email acknowledging they’ve taken the time to write something beyond a form letter. A lot of agents don’t even bother to respond at all. Just make sure you put “Thank you” in the subject line, so they know it’s safe to open it. Many agents admit to deleting any responses to their rejections, as more often than not, they are nasty retorts.

One last bit of advice. Even if you are doing a mass email to several agents, make sure you do just a little research. Visit their websites to determine exactly what their submission guidelines are, and what they’re looking for. While most of them want just a query letter initially, some agents also want the first three chapters. Some want 50 pages. Some are looking for paranormal romance, but absolutely no vampires. If you ignore these parameters, they are probably going to ignore you also. If you can’t find any requirements, then send them a query letter by itself. It helps also if you identify where you found the agent, and why they would be a good match for your book.

In my experience, the best place to find agents is http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/. This is free; you do not need to sign up for a membership. On the left-side menu, select search members. From there, click on agents. Now you can select your genre, and it will bring up the appropriate agents. Many of them list their guidelines on their marketplace page; however, I suggest that you still visit individual websites for an agent’s most current needs. There are many free databases you can use to find an agent, but do not ever pay an agent fees. There are a lot of charlatans out there, and in this email universe, there is absolutely no legitimate reason for them to be taking money from you. They will be making 15-20% of your royalties, and that’s enough.

I asked Sharon if she is looking for new clients, and she is. She receives on average 60 query letters a week, but does ask only about 1% for the full manuscript. Her agency is currently looking for all types of good women’s fantasy: contemporary/urban, historical, mythical with sexy, strong female protagonists that are unique to what is out there. They would really love to see some more humorous, quirky fantasy/sci-fi. There are more specific guidelines and a contact email at http://www.belcastroagency.com/.

I wish you luck out there, and even though it’s a terrible cliché, don’t give up. In sending out queries for several manuscripts, often hitting up the same agents more than once for a different project, I received easily over 300 rejections over the course of many years before I signed with an agent. If you know this is what you are meant to do, then you must not stop until someone says yes. Just be polite, professional and brief, and while you’re waiting, keep honing your craft. While I was waiting, I wrote six more novels. And looking back, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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13 Comments

  1. Overlord says:

    Absolutely wonderful! I love the fact you even posted your letter for Shadow Fox *sigh* I can’t wait to get my story/stories finished and begin the ‘LOOK AT ME!’ process! :D

    Thanks Ashley – a star as always! :)

  2. Autumn2May says:

    Great advice and thanks for the links! I’m dreading starting the query process. It seems like writing a query is harder then writing the actual book! :)

  3. Thanks Ashley, I’ve studied query letters before, and even read Stephen King’s offering, but you manage to couch this in terms that are both encouraging and realistic. Great article.

    Though 300 rejections has got to give you skin that would bounce arrows.

  4. Thanks Ashley,
    What great advice. Your personal experience shows how it can be done. Takes determination and always honing our skills but with the right query letter and a good story to sell, it can be done.
    BTW Shadow Fox sounds awesome. :)
    Rejection is always hard to take, even when it comes with “Your writing is very good, but I’m afraid this isn’t for me.”
    Don’t do what I did once, and send the query off without the ms excerpt attached. :( So you have to be computer literate, email savvy as well as write a good story.

  5. Thank you for this great article. I was sending out a letter based on Noah Lukeman’s How to Write a Query Letter. I have been writing for 15 years and have been avoiding agents over the years because of a scam artist I entertained with my money early on. Was only sending manuscripts to the three publishers I could send to unsolicited (Tor, Daw and Baen). Had actually gotten multiple two page rejections on one novel from two publishers stating that it was a wonderful novel with great characters and settings, a page turner, and not for their market. Sent four different manuscripts out to 53 agents each and maybe a fourth of them asked for further materials. Again got replies like good this or that, and you are a good writer, but not for our list. I have gone ahead and self published those novels while still trying to agent some newer things. I think this next go around I will try your letter, which, by the way, goes against most of what Lukeman recommends, but to me looks like a fresh approach that might suit my style much better. Especially the longer book description.

  6. susan spitale precht says:

    Thanks for this post. I am in query hell because writing copy is not really a joy to me and I have been sitting on a completed fantasy novel for many years because the art of such copy eludes me. Plus, everyone has a different take on what needs to be said. One agent’s site asks for 3-5 sentences that encompass the first 50 pages. I guess they want to see if your plot hits the ground running.

  7. peter mcclafferty says:

    thanxz for a lot of great insight. You are where i’d like to get to with “A Haunting of a Different Kind.”

  8. Thanks for this great post. I’m glad I randomly typed “how to write a killer query letter” into Google today! My biggest challenge is trying to write a brief summary or even logline of the book because I want to cover every little detail. Your brief summary of Shadow Fox has given me a new place to start.

  9. Thank you for posting this, Ashley! I’ve looked all over for advise on query letters, and this is the first time that I’ve actually thought “Yes, this makes a lot of sense”. IMO, query letters really should function like cover letters! I’m in the process of revamping my own, and I’m quite enthusiastic about this new version! Thank you!

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