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WRITING THE NOVEL QUERY LETTERBy Moira Allen, author of The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals (Allworth Press, August 2001) and Writing.com: Creative Internet Strategies to Advance Your Writing Career and owner of Writing-World.com, a site for writers with more than 200 articles and 500 links, plus a free biweekly newsletter.
This is an excerpt from Moira's The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches, and Proposals (August 2001).
There is no specific "formula" for a winning novel query. Some writers like to start off with a dramatic hook: "What if a nuclear explosion leveled New York, and you were one of a handful of survivors?" Others prefer a more straightforward approach: "I am seeking representation for my 75,000-word mystery novel, Death Dines Out..." Whatever your approach, however, a book query often addresses many of the same questions as a periodical query, including:
1) Your reason for choosing this agent or publisher. Make sure the recipient of your proposal knows that you selected them with care. If you chose a publisher based on certain book titles, or an agent based on authors that agent already represents, say so. This will demonstrate that you've done some market research--which is the mark of a professional. But don't "suck up" by telling a publisher how much you love their books, or that you've named your first-born child after the lead character in their most popular series.
2) The basics about your book. Make sure your query specifies the type of book you've written (e.g., its genre), its length (word count), and a working title. If you're writing in a genre that has several subcategories (e.g., "cozy" mystery, "paranormal" romance), be sure to specific the appropriate category. Be sure that your book actually fits the publisher's guidelines: If the publisher only handles hard-boiled detective novels, don't bother submitting a "cozy" mystery. If your book defies categorization, do your best to categorize it anyway: being able to "place" a book within a particular genre is a key selling point. You may wish to describe your book as "a cozy mystery with romantic elements," but don't try to pitch "a genre-busting blend of mystery, romance, time travel, and technothriller." If an agent can't determine how to best market the book you've written, s/he will be much less interested in reviewing it.
As mentioned above, your book should be completed--and you should indicate this in your query. But what if your book is part of a series? There's no hard-and-fast rule about this one; some editors and agents like the idea that you have more than one book to offer (presuming they like the first one), while others prefer to take a "wait and see" approach before offering to handle more than one book.
3) A brief synopsis. Your query letter should include a short overview of the book's plot and major themes. Don't attempt to summarize your entire novel in two paragraphs; this is a "pitch," not an outline. Consider approaching this section as if you were writing the copy for the back cover of your published book: What elements would be most likely to attract a reader's attention? These might include:
- The primary characters. In your query letter, you'll only have space to introduce two, or at most three, major players in your novel--usually the key protagonists and, possibly, the antagonist. Here's how Lynn Flewelling introduces her protagonists in her query for Luck in the Shadows (see Chapter 15): Seregil is an experienced spy for hire with a murky past and noble connections; Alec is the talented but unworldly boy he rescues and takes on as apprentice.
- The basic plot. Most stories answer a "what if" question: "What if an exiled Russian countess falls in love with a rugged American frontiersman?" "What if a nuclear blast destroys New York in 2050, leaving only a handful of survivors?" "What if a local busybody is murdered, and the key suspect is the detective's own father?" Identify the basic "what if" question that drives your plot. (Remember that "plot" isn't just the sequence of events that occurs in your novel; it's the reason for those events.)
- The setting. Where and when does your story occur? How important is that setting to the story? If your setting is essential to the plot--e.g., your protagonists are exploring a strange planet that confronts them with a series of perils and obstacles--say so. If, however, your setting is merely "background," don't spend to much space describing it. Remember, too, that many settings can be conveyed in a few words: If your story takes place in a medieval fantasy universe, you won't have to explain that this world includes castles and serfs and bad plumbing.
- The primary source of conflict. What are the key obstacles your characters face? Where does the conflict come from? With whom (or with what) do your characters struggle? Is the conflict primarily internal or external? Is it with another character, with society, or with the forces of nature? Focus on the conflict that is central to the plot as a whole--e.g., your aristocratic heroine's struggle to escape the duties of her position so that she can be with the man she loves--rather than specific details, such as the arguments she has with her family and friends.
- The theme. Does your story have an underlying message? What is it "about," beyond the actual plot? What issues does it explore or reveal? What questions does it raise? Don't confuse "theme" with preachiness; your novel doesn't have to be a sermon to raise intriguing questions or ideas in the mind of the reader.
4) The market (readership) for your book. Who would be most likely to buy your novel? Try to define a specific audience. No novel will appeal to "everyone," and the writer who thinks otherwise will only appear naive.
A good way to describe the potential market for your book is to mention comparable titles or authors. You might suggest, for example, that your book is likely to appeal to "fans of mystery writers such as P.D. James or Patricia Cornwall." Never suggest, however, that your book is just like that of another author, or is "just as good as" some other popular title. You don't want to give the impression that you're trying to imitate, or compete with, what's already on the market. Your book should stand on its own merits.
Should you link your book to a trend? Only if it is an enduring trend with a long-standing, established audience. For example, there may never be a shortage of fantasy novels about dragons--but the interest in fantasy novels about vampires tends to wax and wane. Be especially cautious about linking your book to hot new trends; you can be sure that publishers have already been flooded with Harry Potter knockoffs. Remember that your book isn't likely to appear on the market for at least two years after acceptance--by which time today's hot trends may be yesterday's cold news.
5) Your credentials. If you have relevant credentials, list them. If, for example, you have sold several short stories to reputable markets within your genre, list those credits. Don't, however, list "sales" to low-paying or non-paying markets, or Internet sites where you can post your own work and call yourself "published." Mention any experience or expertise you have that relates to your novel--for example, mention your degree in history if your novel has a historical element. If your novel is set in Greece and you spent three years in that country, say so.
Sadly, nonfiction writing credentials rarely carry much weight in the fiction community. They are worth a brief mention, simply because they demonstrate that you can write professionally--but they won't sell your story. Even if you've been writing nonfiction for years, your novel will still be treated as the work of a "new" author.
Never discuss (or apologize for) your lack of credentials. Never mention, for example, that this is the first thing you've ever written, or that you've never been published before, or that you have no relevant background. If these happen to be true, say nothing.