Journey to a Bestseller: Writing Your Query Letter (Series #29)

Sorry I’m late this week guys. This post may be shorter than normal. We all know I’m lengthy, but it’s getting late. So here goes: I told you that we would talk about queries this week. I have already written a few posts on the subject. Post #4 is about what goes into submissions and why. Post #9 is about how to write a query, but I have a few things to add. You may want to read that post (#9) before you read this one. Then come back here.

So let’s dig in, shall we?

Your book is fully written, edited, and read by at least a few beta readers. If you felt like you needed an editor, you’ve already done that. Your manuscript is polished, and you now have a spreadsheet of all your agents, how to contact them, what they are looking for, and what they require for submissions. Now what?

There is a formula to my method, yes, however it requires intense, concise, planned creativity. Because your query has ultimately one goal: to hook the reader (agent). You’ve written a synopsis of your book because the agent called for one, so you think, I can just pare this down and put it in my query, right? No, no, no.

Think of it this way, imagine you just read an awesome book with a girl hero who saves a race of people from genocide by sword-fighting and magic, and there are dragons, and an ocean voyage (this is my book)… Now, you really want your friend to read this. So when she asks what it’s about, you don’t quote her a summary of the book’s order of events, do you? Of course not, you make it sound exciting and make her want to read it. You don’t tell her everything that happens, just enough to pique her interest.

In the same way, you want to tell us a little about your story, but you don’t have to say much regarding specific scenes. Rather, share the concepts with us, like you would with your friend. *Agents know keywords, too, so if you say this is a coming-of-age dystopian romance, they will know what that means. They do want to know your genre. I put it in the first paragraph of my query. I have an example below, don’t worry.

So let’s get the letter started. First of all, I group the agents that I am sending to by their submission guidelines. All the agents that want the first three chapters I do first. Submissions are generally accepted over email with zero attachments. Copy and paste. So if you have the same submission materials copied, you just have to paste for each one until you get to the agents who need one or two chapters. Then you delete some chapters from your submission, or copy/paste the correct ones from your manuscript.

Armed with your spreadsheet and your blurb, you open up your email, take out your list of agents needing three chapters–and your mind blanks. What do I write?! From here, you can divide the query letter into three parts: the intro, the info, and the bio. I talk about these in the post listed above.

The Intro: Here is where I put: how I learned about the agent, what they like that made me think they’d like my book, my genre, my word count, and my title. <That one in italics. Like this:

Dear Ms. Smith,

I read on your website that you enjoy coming-of-age tales with impulsive protagonists, and some friends-to-lovers romance. That makes me think you’d be a perfect fit for my 92,000 word (always round to the nearest thousand) YA fantasy romance, titled: The Key of F.

(Normally, if the book is one in a planned series, we say “The book is a standalone, with series potential.” But if you’ve written more of the books in the series, you might just say, “This is book one in The Freedom Fight Trilogy.” Use the name of your series, if you know it.)

That is all the intro you need. It’s concise, informative, and friendly.

The info: which is the blurb, comes next. Some people call it the summary, some call it a blurb, others mistakenly call it a synopsis, and other titles. It’s hard to find many people who use the same terminology. I was taught that it is a summary, and I agree with that, but I also use it as my Amazon description, and the description for most of my marketing/promotion sites, which most call a blurb…or a summary, or synopsis, sales copy, etc. So, call it what you want, but this is where you tell the agent what your story is about in a way that hooks them into needing to know more. It’s a tease, an ad. I just call it a blurb because I use it everywhere.

It takes practice to make up this part; it’s an art. You know that guy who voices movie trailers in a deep voice speaking about the “epic new series, taking over this fall?” It always starts out so dramatically. Make your submission with him in mind. Here’s what I wrote for the storyline I mentioned:

In the Industrial District of Algea, the history taught to the children is a lie. No one remembers the rule of Princess EFFAILYA, or what happened to her. They only remember she existed before the castle disappeared.

When FALE starts to receive visions that come true, she doesn’t know what to do about it. Then she uses her vision to save the life of a boxer (and her crush), and they find themselves being stalked by thugs.

The good news—she has the key they want.
The bad news—they want her too, dead or alive.

What was a race against time becomes a battle when evil henchmen attempt to abduct Fale and her key. She must discover the plans against her, learn her own powers, and keep from falling hopelessly in love with the biomechanical boxer trying to help her, as well as fight for her own life. Or is there more at stake than she could have imagined?

*Make sure to put any character names in all capital letters when they are introduced. And try to use one to three or four character names total. If you have more than that, just use their title, like “her mother” threatened the school board, or “the teacher” was fired, or “the Queen” formed a plan…

That may not be the best blurb, but it’s what I’ve got right now and it’s selling. If sales begin to dip, I will probably change my blurb. It has been changed many times, looking for something that attracts readers and sells well. These few paragraphs are tantamount to your getting an agent. This is why, as a consultant, I helped people with their submission materials. You’ve got ONE shot at this with each agent you query. Make it count. If you realize later that your description was bad and you change it, you still can’t resend to the people who have already passed on it. So do it right the first time.

If you’re not sure about your blurb’s effectiveness, reach out to readers and/or other writers to ask for their opinions. On Facebook there are tons of writer pages, and on Twitter you can use hashtags like #writingcommunity or #writerslife, just put a hashtag in your post and start to type “writer” and you will see other suggestions pop up.

(Side note: The literary world is on Twitter. If you want to know about an agent, watch their Twitter feed. If you are terrified of Twitter, I wrote a post long ago that might help. It’s called: How to Twitter for Debut Authors. It can get you started anyway.)

The bio: The last section in your query letter is the bio. Now, don’t freak out. This one is basic. they want to know if: you have any experience that makes you credible to tell this story, maybe where the idea came from, your experience in writing, any comp books or authors, and something personal that might make them feel connected to you. If the agent said in their wishlist that they have a cat named Oscar, and you also have a pet named Oscar, mention it in there. It gives you something in common. It might make them remember your query.

If you take your summers in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains, and one day you found an ancient horseshoe next to a buckskin bag with petrified provisions, and that’s where you got your inspiration to write a book about the westward expansion, maybe you even wrote the book in your cabin, tell us that. It makes it interesting.

If you work in a children’s center for the unfortunate, and it made you think of a storyline in a dystopian future, or maybe you had a shot at a great prize and lost, but you wrote a book about someone who won, that attaches life to your story, makes you credible.

As for your experience in writing, definitely let the agent know here if you’ve already published any books, traditionally or self-pubbed. You don’t have to put that it’s your debut, that’s not important. If you started writing at age 9 and wrote your first story for the local newspaper at twelve, then began writing novels until you felt they were good enough, let them know. It makes them think, okay, they’re teachable, they have some experience, they’ve been published in the paper, they might have something here.

As far as comp books go, I wrote a post on that a few years ago called, What are Comp Titles and How do I Find Mine? It basically explains the term, why it’s used, and a few tips on how to find yours.

For my bio for The Key of F, I put:

THE KEY OF F will appeal to fans of Sarah J. Maas’ THRONE OF GLASS or S.J. West’s VANKARA and DRAGON ALLIANCE. The Key of F caters to an audience that wants the fantasy of stories like HARRY POTTER or TWILIGHT and the romance of GOSSIP GIRL or VAMPIRE DIARIES. I live in Olathe, Kansas with my husband and five children, and am writing full time. I am a published poet for Lodestar, Inklings and Read magazine, and my debut novel THE KEY OF F was a 2016 Ink & Insights Contest winner.  You are welcome to view my book’s Facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/JenniferHaskinAuthor. I am happy to send my complete manuscript for your review. Thank you for your time.

It’s fine to add a link if you already have a book posted. Or if you are writing about books you’ve previously had published, put their links as well, so the agent can see how well they are doing. It tells the agent if your writing is good by looking at your sales ranking and reading the reviews. If both stories sound very promising, but the published one has many unsavory reviews, they could have doubts about the one you are querying. If you do NOT disclose your other books and the agent decides to take you on before they find out, you could put yourself in a very precarious position there, as well.

See, to the agent, you are a sale, and to the publisher, you are an investment. The publishing house may have a hard time taking you on with a book already out there not making any sales. In their eyes, you’ve proven that you don’t have what it takes. Somewhere in there, you need to do some tweaking, but they are not convinced that any more people would buy your book if they published it. By not marketing and promoting for your success, the publisher thinks you won’t be involved once they sign with you. It’s just a good idea to be upfront. Even if it shoots you in the foot. It’s better now, than later, when your hopes are up and you think you’ve made it.

Make sure to sign with:

Thank you for your time and consideration,

~Jennifer Haskin

(*Well don’t put Jennifer Haskin, unless it’s your name. Lol.) That’s it for the query letter. Once you paste this into your email, find the 2-page synopsis you wrote and paste it directly after your query. I have a post called: Summaries and Synopses that talks about how to write your synopsis, if you need help.

And finally, after the synopsis, paste in your sample writing. Like I said, it’s easiest if you use this template now for all the agents needing three chapters.

Just make sure that with every letter sent, you personalize two things. 1] The agent’s name MUST be correct. Take time to do this right. 2] And what they were looking for on their wishlist. Back in the intro I said, “I read on your website that you enjoy coming of age tales with impulsive protagonists, and some friends-to-lovers romance.” This tells the agent that I’ve been to their site for my information and what parts of the book they’ll love.

But if you went to Manuscript Wishlist and the agent said they liked sword and sorcery and romantic suspense among other things, those also apply to my book, so instead I would put, “I noticed on Manuscript Wishlist that you enjoy sword and sorcery stories with romantic suspense. I think you’d enjoy my 92,000 word YA fantasy romance, titled The Key of F, the first book in the Freedom Fight Trilogy.

*Note: If you say it is in a planned trilogy or series, they will most likely ask you for an outline or synopsis of the other books. Unless you have these ready, or can quickly create them, just put that it’s “a standalone with series potential.” If you create one page synopses for the other books, save them and now you have your one-page synopsis for that book when it comes time to query it later.

Finally, address the email to the agent you are submitting to and in the subject line, unless the agent specifies something different, I put:

Query: Haskin/YA fantasy romance

This helps them locate your email, know who you are, the title, and the genre. They appreciate this, and you have the peace of mind, knowing that it won’t be one to get lost. In theory, lol. If they specify what they want in the subject line, put that. Do not deviate. When agents give you rules, it’s because they want it that way, but it’s also a test to see who’s paying attention and who knows how to follow the rules. If you don’t do what they ask, you are tying one arm behind your back. They’re not going to pass solely on your inability to follow directions in the subject line. At least I don’t think so. It’s really their prerogative though, so I can’t be sure. Why chance it? Start out on their good side.

If they ask for submissions through their contact form, or submittable, or through Query Manager, you are going to do the same thing. In those forms, there are often places for your query, your synopsis, and your sample chapters, so take what you’ve written for all the other agents and copy/paste into the form. So many people freeze at a form and just start filling in info with no form or sentences, they think they’re filling out info, not a query.

But that IS your query. So make a good one, and use it everywhere. When you get a Bookbub account or any other author website, it will ask for the description of your book. So use the three-ish paragraphs you used in your query because you want to hook the reader just as much as you wanted to hook the agent. And when you learn a little more, practiced your writing skills and have written a book or two, go back to that query blurb and make it better.

If you get an agent, with any luck, they’ll stick with you and publish whatever you write. But you still have to send them something like a query to tell them about it and see if they’re interested. Sometimes the first book’s agent relationship crumbles and they have to move on. They will need to query their next book to new agents, unless they are going to self-publish, but then you’ll have to write the blurb for the Amazon description anyway.

*Tip: You cannot query for the second book in a series. If you lost your agent on book one, you are pretty much stuck self-publishing the rest of the series, and writing something new to query agents with. It’s frustrating, but publishers will not take on a book out of order–they want to own the whole series, or not at all. It wouldn’t behoove them to have all but book one in the series. And if book one didn’t perform well, there’s nothing your publisher or current agent could do to fix things, because it’s not their book. And if book one doesn’t do well, there’s not a great chance of success for the series. Most people start with the first book. Keep this in mind if you want an agent for a series.

That’s it. Click “Send” and exhale. Then copy/paste the letter in a new email and go to the next person on your list. This part goes pretty quickly, it’s getting all the info into your spreadsheet that takes up the time. Sending can all be done in part of a day. It’s a little nerve-wracking, and you have to pay attention not to address the wrong person, or forget their wishlist items. But you can do it.

YOU CAN DO IT. I know you can. And if you want a contract with a Top 5 house or imprint, it’s necessary to gain an agent through a query letter. Otherwise, if you don’t care about a big house and just want to be traditionally published, go to a small publishing house, but be VERY careful about knowing ALL the facts before accepting. If you want a small publisher, you do not need an agent. A few say that you do, but I know several of them will still take an author submission if the book is good enough.

Don’t worry about not knowing what to do if you sign yourself to a small publisher. As long as they have the normal, standard, non-negotiable contract, there’s nothing to do but sign, and help with marketing, and receive a quarterly paycheck.

Needless to say, if you are going to self-publish, you don’t need to know how to write a query letter, but you still need to be able to write a great blurb, and a good bio, so most of this still applies to you. If you have any questions, please ask. I will do my best to help. And if you email consulting.haskin@gmail.com and put “Query help” in the subject line, I am happy to help give an opinion on your query. I do go in order, so send in early, if you can.

Have a super day, and Keep Writing!

~jenn

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