Guide to Getting Published: Preparing Your Novel's Query Letter

[Post dedicated to Yann Martel; see History Today below]

Here is the third part of the series, Guide to Getting Published. Once your fiction book is complete (you have prepared for publication) and you have chosen your literary agent, your most daunting task after writing comes to play—preparing your query letter. A query letter is a simple one-page pitch letter that tells the literary agent or editor about your novel and seeks representation or publication. It is a simple one-page affair, but a daunting task for writers.

Simple tasks daunt us more than complex ones; I take hours to prepare a 20-word Meta description and 5-word caption for my blog, and never get satisfied; I know the difficulty.

In this guide, I will discuss the ways to prepare good query letters for fiction; for non-fiction submissions, query preparation is slightly different, and we will consider it as a separate post [Update: Here is the newspaper freelancing query guidelines]

What is a Query Letter

A query letter is your doorway to publication, the single most important thing that may or may not interest your agent to consider your work. Once your novel is finished, you have to prepare and send a query letter to your prospective agent seeking representation. As I always said, do not even think about a query for an unfinished novel.

A query letter should be no more than one page long, usually. However, it is very much advisable to check the literary agent’s website, for guidelines of querying them. Most of the literary agents publish their specific instructions in their website.

The Elements of a Good Query Letter

A good query letter contains typically four paragraphs of text, besides your contact details and salutation. The parts are

1. The hook for your book
2. Synopsis
3. Your author bio, and
4. Conclusion of the letter

1. Hook

The hook is aptly a brief description of your work. This is no more than three sentences long. A very good hook will highly interest the agent to read further.

To write typical hooks, it is advisable to see the bestseller lists in The New York Times. They have wonderful hook paragraphs for each novel in the lists, which readily interest one to read further about the book and maybe even purchase it.

Typical New York Times hook sentence for Odd Hours by Dean Koontz:

Odd Thomas, who can communicate with the dead, confronts evil in a California coastal town.

Though this is a simple sentence, it has mystery, terror, and a way to inspire the curiosity. Such sentences are great hooks. It may look simple, but actually writing such hooks for books may prove to be really daunting.

When preparing your hook paragraph, include the novel’s word count and genre as well. Some agents specialize only in a particular genre.

2. Synopsis

A synopsis is a paragraph-long general overview of the novel. The ability to write a good 150-word synopsis for a 300-page novel comes as a result of experience. A synopsis can be effectively prepared with short sentences (please check out ways to make short powerful sentences). You can expand your synopsis to two or more paragraphs as well. It is, however, best expressed in one paragraph itself.

3. Author Bio

Now, it is time to put your author bio in place. This is very easy if you have built a brand for yourself by publishing some short fiction, poetry, nonfiction, etc. But for a new writer, who never published, this may be difficult. If you have publication credits, mention them; otherwise, it suffices mention your educational qualifications and general background. If your story has any bearing to your life or work, indicate it.

Just remember that all great writers had to write a query letter first, without any publishing credits to mention.

Do not apologize to the agent for not having any publication credits. A writer is judged (and aptly so) by his writing alone, and not by any other means; so, just carefully form great sentences—short, correct, and meaningful ones.

4. Requesting Representation

You should offer to send the finished manuscript of your novel in this part. (If you have no manuscript finished, just as I always said, don’t trouble yourself to a query letter at all.) Just mention politely that your manuscript is finished and you are willing to send it over for consideration. Also, request the agent to reply if they liked the story idea.

Mention it if you are at work any other project and hint representation for them as well. If your work is part of a series, state it clearly. Always seek representation for the first book in the series, and point out that it starts a series. You should not seek representation for any other part of the series. It doesn’t anyway make sense to publish the second part of a series before the first.

Query Letter Formatting

1. Addressing the Agent

The best way to address the agent is to know the agent’s name and gender upfront. Also, make sure you know the company name. Find out the correct agent name, designation, and gender before you prepare the query.

Address the agent in one of the following ways:

Attn. Ms. Ridgeway:
Dear Ms. Ridgeway:
Dear Catherine Ridgeway,


Any of these is acceptable. Always make sure you address him by the name. It is acceptable to send query addressed to a general editor if you absolutely couldn’t find the name and gender of the editor.

You should use your professional letterhead and plain business stationery to prepare query letter. Please find the Don’ts list for the things to avoid.

2. Formatting

Standard business letter formatting is most appropriate for queries. The text should be in 12 pt typeface. Typically, you may use Times New Roman font.

(The best font of submission of manuscript is monospaced (fixed-width) fonts like Courier, however many editors just don’t care it if they can read it well.)

The query should be left justified, and single-spaced. Use an empty line in between each paragraph, and do not indent paragraphs.

Query Letter Dos

Here are the dos of query letter preparation. You should not forget any of the points mentioned here.

* Do include your telephone number, complete mailing address, and email address.

* Do include a SASE.

* Do mention the title, genre, and word count of the book in the hook part of the query letter itself.

* Do proofread and correct your query to perfection.

Query Letter Don’ts

Here are what you should not do in a query letter. Some of them are funny, but the general idea is that you should avoid anything unprofessional in communication. When your hunch says it’s wrong, it probably is.

* Do not address the editor as ‘Dear Editor’, ‘Dear Sir’, etc., unless you have no other choice. By all means, try to find out the real name, designation, and gender of the editor before submitting your query letter.

* Do not praise your novel or the work you put in it unnecessarily. “A dazzling story of a young man from Iraq,” “wonderful business thriller,” etc., are highly unprofessional.

* Do not send query on brightly colored, perfumed, or caricatured papers in fancy envelops. Always use plain, white, high quality paper; use your letterhead, and laser-print the letter. Do not be flamboyant.

* Always remain formal, self-respecting, and polite, and never cross your limits. Do not use terms like “I am apologetic of not being published yet” or “I am very sorry that I have no publication credits, and I am counting on you for my first publication, Lol!”

* Do not address the editor in any unprofessional manner, such as “Hiya buddy,” “Yo Editor,” “Hi Sarah” etc.

* Do not keep mailing to know the status of your query, if you don’t get your reply. Editors and agents get thousands of queries every year, and they reply only if absolutely necessary. You can follow up, professionally, but once or twice with a time gap of about a month or two, no more than that.

* Do not send gifts to the agent.

* Do not praise the publishing company or agency too much. A small professional praise such as "I am sending this to you, as you are one of the most respected publishers in such-and-such genre" is acceptable.

* If you are sending your query letter as email, never attach the letter as a separate document. It is highly unprofessional to send mails with files attached.

* Do not include elaborate synopsis, sample chapters of your novel, or illustrations attached to your one-page query, unless the agency has specific instructions to submit that way.

A Sample Query

I fished around the Net to find a good sample query letter for you. Here I found one good; please check out:

Sample Query Letter

History Today

Today is the birthday of popular Booker prize winning Canadian writer, Yann Martel. His novel, Life of Pi is particularly interesting to me since its setting is in south India, Pondicherry. Happy Birthday, Yann!

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008

3 Opinions:

  1. An information laden post for writers. Thanks and keep posting.

    ReplyDelete
  2. An information laden post for writers. Thanks and keep posting.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I am siting down to write my query letter right now; funny how a year of wriitng is less daunting than a one page summary. Thanks a lot for the post, it's one of the best I found online.

    ReplyDelete

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