Ninja Writers Academy: Writing a Query Letter

Ninja Writer Academy is a weekly series. Every Saturday morning, I post a lesson here. You can do the work, then come share it on our Facebook group. I’ll be on Facebook on Sunday for Office Hours so we can discuss the lesson, or anything else writing related. If you’d like to join the Academy and get an email on Saturday with a link to the lesson, plus notification when Office Hours start, Click Here.

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The Sell Your Story Assignment

ninja-writers-academy-the-sell-your-story-assignment

We’ve been talking about query letters some in the Ninja Writers Facebook group, so I thought it might be fun to carry that through to this week’s Academy post.

A query letter is a sales tool. It’s a one page sales letter that introduces you and your story to an agent or publisher, with the goal of enticing them to request the manuscript.

That is the query’s only goal: to encourage an agent or editor to request your manuscript.

Your query letter is successful if some of the people you send it to send you back a note that says something like: this sounds intriguing, go ahead and send me the manuscript as a word document.

If you send out your query and no agents or editors request the manuscript the problem is with your letter, not your story.

My personal strategy is to send the query out to ten people. If I get one request, then I send it out more widely. Publishing is very, very subjective and a ten percent request rate means you have a successful query.

A query letter basically follows this guideline:

A short introduction

The very first paragraph of the query tells the person receiving it why you’re sending it to them. Maybe you saw them post a manuscript wishlist on Twitter. Maybe you saw on their website that they represent science fiction. Maybe they represent an author you like. For sure you’re seeking representation or a publisher.

If you have something that will make your story or you more attractive to an agent or editor, front load it in your letter. Agents and editors are human. They might not read your whole letter. The first paragraph is important.

An introduction to the story

In a paragraph or maybe two, introduce your main characters and their situation. This is tricky, but these paragraphs should reflect the tone of your story. If your story is humorous, the description should be funny. If your story is dark, this description should be as well. If you’ve met the agent or publisher somewhere (a conference maybe), then this is where you remind them of that.

A more technical introduction to the story

Here’s where you let the agent or editor know the genre of your book, the word count, and maybe give them a comparison title or two.

A little about you

The next paragraph is where you can talk yourself up. This is a professional letter, though. Think about what you’d tell a prospective employer about you. Probably not that you live in Reno with your family and a dog. Give work experience if it’s relevant. That means, tell them you’re a lawyer if you’re writing a legal thriller or a teacher if you’re writing picture books. They don’t need to know you’re a nurse if you’re not writing anything with a medical bent.

This is the paragraph where you’ll put any writing credits you might have. If you’ve been published anywhere professionally, list that. Don’t list your church bulletin or family newsletter. If you’ve been published on a major blog, I think it’s okay to list that. If you have a degree related to writing or what you’re writing about, list that. If you have a degree in accounting and you’re writing a romance novel, don’t talk about your education.

If you have any sort of platform or fan base, make sure to include that.

Sign off

In the last paragraph, just thank the recipient for their time and attention and ask for what you want: may I send you my manuscript?

That’s it. I know it’s easier said than done! I think the key is to remember that your query letter is a sales tool. It doesn’t have to be perfectly written, but it should be free of obvious mistakes like typos or poor grammar. You should never, ever do a mass mailing to a whole list of agents or editors in one fell swoop. Address the letter to one person. Spell their name right. Get their gender right.

There are a few things that can happen after you send the letter out.

You might get no answer at all. It’s common these days for agents and editors to have a ‘no reply means no’ policy. If you don’t hear from them for 90 days or so, they have passed. You’ll never hear from them unless they want to read your manuscript.

You might get a form rejection. There is a double standard in publishing that you just have to live with. You can’t send a ‘dear agent’ letter and expect it to work, but you will likely collect a whole stack of ‘dear author’ replies. These are copy and paste rejections with nothing personal in them at all. They’ll sound something like: Dear author, thanks for thinking of me, but your story doesn’t fit my needs right now. Good luck!

You might get a helpful rejection. Believe it or not, these are good. They mean that the agent or editor read your query letter and maybe a few sample pages, and while they don’t want to represent you, they saw something worth commenting on. Maybe a little note about why the story doesn’t work for them. Maybe some encouragement about how you’re not quite there, but please keep writing. Maybe an offer to read your next query when you’ve read something else.

You might get a request. This is the goal! If an agent is intrigued by your query letter, they’ll send a note asking you to forward them either your full manuscript or some part of it. It’s pretty common to get a request for the first 50 pages or first three chapters of your book.

Next week I’ll write about what happens after you’ve sent out your requested manuscripts.

Formatting

You are almost always going to send your queries electronically, through email. There are very few agents or publishers who prefer snail mail these days.

Start your letter with the name of the agent and the agency name.

Address the letter to ‘Dear Mr. Agent’ or ‘Dear Ms. Agent.’ If you’re unsure of the gender of the agent, it’s worth doing a little research to find out.

End your letter with something professional. I use ‘sincerely.’ Under your name, list your address, phone number, and email address. You want to make sure that the person you’re contacting has lots of ways to reach you.

Good form

There are a few rules to querying.

You want to make sure that you’re sending your query to someone who either represents or publishes what you’ve written. If your story is science fiction, it’s a waste of your time and theirs to send your query to someone who has taken the time to write on their website that they aren’t interested in reading science fiction.

Don’t be gimmicky. No emoticons. No funky fonts. No pictures. Do not send attachments if they aren’t asked for in submission guidelines. Don’t send a blank email with only attachments.

Do your research before you send out the query. I use www.querytracker.net to manage my queries. It allows you to search agents and publishers based on genre (along with other criteria.) Each agent or publisher has a page on Query Tracker that lists a link to their website. Their website will have a tab or link for their submission guidelines. Read these carefully. They’ll tell you what they want to see.

Some agents and publishers only want the one page letter. Others want you to include a short synopsis and/or a few pages of the manuscript, pasted under the letter. There are some who want you to include either a partial or full manuscript and/or synopsis as attachments.

Follow those guidelines closely.

My Turn

I’m in the process of querying agents right now. I’ve decided that my letter is good: I sent out the first round of letters about a week ago and had two requests the next morning. I sent it out more widely and I’ve had seven requests for the full or partial manuscript so far. I consider this a successful query. If I don’t get an offer of representation, it won’t be because I didn’t write a good query letter. It will be because there’s a problem in my manuscript.

Here’s my query:

Mary Jones
ABC Agency

Dear Ms. Jones,

(If I have some reason for targeting Ms. Jones, I’ll include it here as a first line.) I am seeking representation for my speculative novel 37-B. My books VIRAL NATION and REBEL NATION were published by Berkley Books in 2013 and 2014. I would love the opportunity to work with you.

When a man trapped forever in the body of a boy meets a girl who is addicted to trying to do the one thing that immortality has made impossible, the world is changed.

Jackson Pruitt was fifteen when he accidentally invented immortality and ruined the whole world. He thought he was doing a good thing, eradicating death. When he sneezed the sneeze that changed everything, he expected to wind up in the Ivy League, on Saturday Night Live, and in history books.

Instead, he is stuck forever in his prepubescent body doing never-ending penance as a nurse taking care of the people who didn’t even know they were his victims.

Immortality didn’t magically make everyone the picture of youth and good health. It just made them live and live and live. Even sick people who should have been allowed the dignity of death. Even old people who had already lost everyone they loved. Even unborn babies. Everyone.

A unique coming-of-age story that turns immortality tropes upside down, 37-B is complete at 56,000 words. My novel will appeal to readers of Andrew Smith’s GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE and Margaret Atwood’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE.

In addition to my published novels, I have worked as a journalist in rural Nevada and at both major Las Vegas newspapers. I’m working toward an MFA at Sierra Nevada College and I teach writing courses via my online school, Ninja Writers, which is 10,000 members strong.

(If I’ve included some additional material like a synopsis or pages, I’ll state that here.) May I send you the manuscript? Thank you so much for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Shaunta Grimes
My address
My phone number
My email address

Your Turn

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

If you’re working on a query letter, come share it on Facebook.  It can help to get feedback from other writers.

Come by Facebook and share your scene, both ways. Office hours are at 5 p.m. PST tomorrow (Sunday.) See you there!

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link.

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