Writing a fiction manuscript is a long, hard road—and it only gets harder once you’ve finished! Then comes the editing, the re-working, the sending out of your newborn piece to those all-important “first readers,” more editing, more re-working, crying yourself to sleep, editing, editing, editing, promising the Dark Ones dominion over the post-human world if only they’ll let you be done already, editing, crying, and maybe a nap.
Assuming you’ve cut and prodded your manuscript to within an inch of its life, the next logical step is submitting it for publication. Maybe you’re planning on sending it to a literary agent, or maybe you’d like to apply directly to a publishing house. Either way, there’s one thing you’ll probably need: a query letter.
Most agents and publishers are so inundated with manuscripts that they have stopped accepting unsolicited work, so you need to ask permission to submit. A query letter is the industry-standard way of asking permission. Because it’s so important, and because so many people are in need of genuine guidance on this topic, I’ll set the sarcasm aside for this post.
…well, I’ll try anyway.
Step One: The Heading
Depending on your age, you may never have written a formal letter with a proper heading before. Heck, most letters these days, my own included, start with something like Hey bbz! or Yo, sup! or I humbly come before His Satanic Majesty to beg forgiveness. None of these are appropriate ways to launch a query.
Ideally, you want to include the date, the name of the person whom you are querying, their place of business, and the name of your novel (in all caps or italics). There’s a right way and a wrong way to execute this.
The Right Way
5 May 2014
Ms. Gloria Brooks
Mega Rad Media Group
Re: LOVE IN THE TIME OF ECZEMA
The Wrong Way
5 May 2014
Lady Jade Butterface
mega RAD media grp
Get the person’s name right, and tack a “Mr.” or “Ms.” on the beginning. This is the easiest part of the entire letter. Whiffing it will bring nothing short of humiliations galore.
Step Two: The Hook
If you’ve ever had a high school teacher harp endlessly on the importance of catching the reader’s attention at the beginning of a piece, then you know what a hook is.
(Note: If you are picturing that thing Batman uses to swing between buildings, please stop. That is a grappling hook. We are not talking about grappling hooks. PLEASE DO NOT ATTACK AGENTS WITH GRAPPLING HOOKS.)
Different writers have different ways of approaching a hook. Some like to start with a cold-open of sorts: Imagine you’re locked in a laundromat, and all the washing machines come to life and there are leprechauns!
Others—if they’ve been lucky enough to meet the person they’re querying—like to mention that fact: We recently met at the Anti-Marmite Convention. In the midst of your heated scree against Marmite and all the irreparable harm it has caused you, you happened to mention that you work in the publishing industry.
If you haven’t met the agent or publisher in person, don’t despair! I find it useful to read up on the person I’m querying and use what I learn in my hook: I read in Publishers’ Marketplace that you are interested in high-concept middle grade pre-Raphaelite post-modern humanist crime procedurals. Subsequently, I read [insert names of books the person has represented or published], which I enjoyed very much.
Let’s take a look at the right way and the wrong way to do a hook.
The Right Way
Dear Ms. Brooks,
A few weeks ago, we met at the 11th Annual Greater Des Moines Area Writers’ Conference. I spoke to you about my novel, LOVE IN THE TIME OF ECZEMA, which I have recently completed. Previously, you represented Rob McRobert’s debut novel, ONE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGITUDE, a work that I love and that is thematically similar to mine. Based on this similarity, I thought you might be interested in taking a look at my manuscript.
The Wrong Way
do you think about foot? have you ever seen the foot in the place the foot is not belonging? i have writing book about foot, name of book is FOOT. please read and RT