Writing An Effective Fiction Query

By Maeve Maddox

I’d rather write a 60,000 word novel than a one-page query letter, but I know that a query letter is my chief tool for winning the attention of a literary agent.

Here are some things to consider when pitching your novel in a query letter.

Keep It Brief
One page is best. Two pages are acceptable unless the agent’s guidelines ask for one page. Then it had better be one page. Using 8-point type to fit more on a page is not an option. Use at a minimum 10-point type in a standard font such as Times or Times Roman. Bookman is good, but keep in mind that 10-point Bookman is larger than 10-point Times.

NOTE: Many editors and agents prefer manuscripts to be typed in 12-point Courier. That’s what I said, COURIER, the font that looks like old-fashioned typewriter type.

Keep it Professional
Some agents accept email submissions, but they will not accept attachments. That means everything you send must be dumped into an email. Unless the agent specifies email submissions only, I prefer to send my query packet the old-fashioned way so I can control the formatting and presentation.

Letterhead: With a computer you can make your own letterhead, but if you send a lot of queries, you might want to treat yourself to a professional print job on quality paper. Even if you make your own letterhead, use quality paper for the query you send, and not the cheap copy paper you use for drafts.

Content: In a query letter you have about five paragraphs with which to pitch your project. The agent doesn’t want to know how much your mother likes your book, or how many cats you have. The agent wants to know:

1. What the genre of your novel is, its title, its word length, and the gist of the story.

2. Why you are competent to have written it.

Observe my choice of tense here (to have written): if your project is a novel, don’t query an agent until the novel is as complete and as error-free as you can make it and has been critiqued by at least three competent fellow writers from your writers’ group. You don’t belong to a writers’ group? Why not?

3. Your writing background and experience. If you don’t have any published writing to mention, then include some other indication of your professionalism: writing conferences attended, writing courses taken. If you have absolutely zilch, remain silent on the subject. Your writing will have to speak for you.

3. How they can contact you if they are interested.
Believe it or not, some people send queries and even entire manuscripts to agents without including a return address.

Keep it on a Rational Plane
Avoid being either arrogant or subservient. Don’t announce that your novel is the next DaVinci Code or that you write better than Toni Morrison. On the other hand, don’t whine about how little you’ve had published, or how deeply, earnestly, eternally grateful you’ll be for the agent’s consideration.

After you have provided a brief synopsis of your project (paragraphs 1 and 2), an indication of your novel’s genre and length (paragraph 3), some information about yourself and your writing credentials (paragraph 4), close the letter with a final paragraph in which you thank the agent, offer to send your completed manuscript, and sign off. If you are sending queries to several agents, you may wish to tell the agent that your query is a simultaneous submission.

NOTE: Before writing your query, while writing your query, and after having written your query, study the agent’s submission guidelines. Make triple-sure that your query conforms to them, and that you have spelled the agent’s name correctly.

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9 Responses to “Writing An Effective Fiction Query”

  • Jeanette Cheezum

    I have found this to be very stimulating. I’m now using it as a reference.

  • Mari

    I might add another point to this entry:

    Include a query letter with your submission.

    Nothing much drives me up a wall more than to be reading through slush and run into a piece that has no query – it’s just an attachment to a blank e-mail. This does nothing to help my disposition.

  • George

    Include a self stamped and addressed post card with your submission. All they need do is put the post card in the mail if they want to see your stuff.

  • jpallen@q.com

    *courier* Interesting!

    I usually feel discouraged right off about having to write a query for my 60k novel, but your post makes me think I need to have an attitude revamp. So, it’s another thing to write…at least it’s not as long! 🙂

  • Bernadette

    Do you have a list of reputable agents, etc. that accept and do not swindle authors available anywhere? I’ve checked a couple websites, but I’m still a little leery since this is my first attempt and I’m not exactly independently wealthy if this goes bad 🙂

  • Maeve

    Bernadette,
    You might want to consult the Preditors and Editors site:

    http://anotherealm.com/prededitors/

  • Blaine

    Does anyone out there know of a website or a book with a lot of sample query letters?

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