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Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

Tara K. Harper, FAQ:
Query Letters

1.  How Did You Write Your First Successful Query Letter?

2.  General Advice
3.  How to Write Query Letters
4.  What Kind of Story Are You Trying to Sell?
5.  Is Your Topic Popular or Gaining Popularity in the Market?
6.  Is Your Work Similar to the Work of any Other Published Authors?
7.  What is Compelling or Interesting about this Story?
8.  Do You Have any Name-Recognition?
9.  What Are Your Qualifications for Writing Fiction?

10.  How Not to Write Query Letters

11.  Should You Include a Synopsis or Outline?
12.  How Long Should You Wait for a Response?

Additional resources for writers


1.  How Did You Write Your First Successful Query Letter?

Simple.  I got someone else to do it--or at least, to do the hard part of figuring out what a query letter should say and look like.

As I describe in the agents FAQ file, I was a science writer who wanted to continue being a science writer.  I had no goals of being a fiction writer.  I wrote fiction simply because it was something I did in my spare time.  Under pressure from a friend (Sandra Keen), I did go so far as to read a fiction-writer's guide, but that reference had no samples of queries.  The advice in that volume also seemed to consist of talk about building up a readership through short-fiction (which I didn't write) and about not giving up while your writing was being rejected for the first forty years.  That last bit of advice seemed like a warn-off from the industry in general--as though one should try getting published only if one had a lot of extra time to kill.  I can fit a lot of activities into my life, but that is mostly because I am efficient with my time (and yes, I don't sleep much, either).  This agenting process seemed inefficient in the extreme.  If I could not figure out how to do it quickly and efficiently, I would have to put it off until I could figure out just how to go about it without wasting time.  After all, if I was supposed to wait through 40 years of rejections, surely I could spend a year or two thinking up a better process, and then pare those 40 years down to something reasonable...

In the meantime, after my friend read my fourth completed science-fiction novel, she became tired of waiting for me to look for an agent myself.  She tried to convince me to write queries, but I just never seemed to have the time.  There was this deadline and that tournament and this surgery and that promotion and this trip and that family crisis...  You get the picture--I had other, more important things on my mind.

So Sandy went and registered for a class in query-letter writing.  She paid for the class, went to the class, learned everything there was to know about writing query letters.  Then she came back and started lecturing me on the art of writing queries.  About Day Five of Sandy's Private Lecture Series, I realized that she wasn't going to quit bending my ear until I did something about this whole fiction-writing mess.  (I think she might actually be more stubborn than I am.)  So I agreed to write some queries.

I used the guidelines she had learned in that class.  Something must have been right about the class she took--or in the way she passed on the information, because I received three offers from agents from my first batch of queries.  So, it is to Sandra Keen, to whom my first novel is dedicated, that I owe my beginnings as a professional fiction author.

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2.  General Advice
               [ Or, The All-Important To-Do's and To-Don'ts ]

What advice would I give to others who are trying to write queries?  I have heard many, many stories about query failures, even more stories about odd or offensive queries, and many rhetorical pleadings for proper query letters--all of these from agents, authors, and editors who have had to write or read queries over the years.  My automatic response to a question about a query is to say, "Be polite!"  My second response is to list seven points that address the basic and most common mistakes made in queries.

I'll address this advice to those who are querying agents, not publishers.  (If I was querying a publisher, not an agent, I would consider the points listed below the agent-query advice.)  The general advice is, for the most part, applicable to any business correspondence.  For a professional writer, good communication means understanding your audience, addressing the needs of your audience, and communicating your points effectively.

If you are querying an agent:

1. Fit the query to the agent.  If the agent says he handles horror but not SF, don't query him about SF.          
2. Make your points quickly and succinctly.  Don't flog a dead horse--if you do, it will only prove that you can't write well for a market (in this case, your agent).
3. Restrict yourself to one page, if possible; two if necessary.  More than that, and you should start thinking about taking an ax to your query.
4. Be professional.  Make sure your writing tone is confident and informative without being arrogant or obsequious.
5. Don't try to be witty unless you really are witty.  There's little that's worse than a flat joke--it just demonstrates that your readers will probably be as unimpressed as this prospective agent.
6. Don't try to tell the agent how much he will love your work.  It's up to him to decide how he feels about what he reads.
7. Proof your letter carefully!  Good grammar and spelling are extremely important in this first-impression query.  Remember, the agent will think this:  if you don't care enough about your writing to proofread your 1-page query letter, your 400-page manuscript will probably be in horrible (translation:  slushpile) shape.

If you are querying a pubisher:

1. Follow all the steps for addressing an agent.          
2. Include an outline of your manuscript on a separate page (or two pages), OR, include a more detailed synopsis on a separate page.  I would still include the 1-2 paragraph book description in the initial query.  Doing both allows the publisher to determine, at a glance, what kind of work you do and whether or not that house would be interested in your story.  If the publisher does become interested, he can move on to the more detailed synopsis or outline.
3. Make sure to point out that the manuscript is completed.
4. Do not include a sample chapter unless the publisher specifically requests such a sample chapter be attached to a query.  If you are going to send a sample chapter, make sure your work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office before you mail anything to a publisher.  Your work will be registered with the copyright office as soon as it is received, even if you don't get the official notification of that receipt until later.  (Your publisher will later reregister your work in your name, if the manuscript is accepted for publication.

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3.  How to Write Query Letters

Before you can write your query letter, you need to know some things about your work and yourself.  First, you'll need to know how to describe your story in one or two paragraphs.  You will want to be able to touch on the important points, identify any new/interesting technology, and introduce the characters and areas without putting in too many unknown terms.  You will have to give the agent reason to believe that  1) you are a good enough writer to write a saleable story, and  2) you have enough self-discipline or dedication to complete the manuscript so it can be sold in the first place.

Do all query letters follow the format recommended here? Of course not.  Queries are as varied as the people who write them.  But I do think good query letters answer these questions:

     4. What kind of story are you trying to sell?
     5. Is your topic popular or gaining populatiry in the market?
     6. Is your work similiar to the work of any other published authors?
     7. What is compelling or interesting about this story?
     8. Do you have any name-recognition?
     9. What are your qualifications for writing fiction?

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4.  What Kind of Story Are You Trying to Sell?

What kind of story is it?  If it's science-fiction, what category is it:  hard-SF?  cyberpunk?  SF-adventure?  space-opera? miliary SF?...   There are many publishing houses which handle science-fiction, but some really like hack-em-slash-em-big-booms-in-space stuff.  Some houses seem to handle more space-opera, some handle SF with a more scientifically technical theme, etc..  Immediately upon opening your letter, a prospective agent will want to know the genre for which you've written and how your story will fit into that genre.

For example, if you have written a cyberpunk science-fiction story, in the first paragraph of your letter, you could include a statement like this:  "Readers who enjoy cyberpunk-suspense in a near-future setting will also enjoy this story."  That statement gives a prospective agent an idea of where he can try to sell your work.

Almost all stories fit into an existing category of fiction (or nonfiction).  If your story truly doesn't fit into any category, you may or may not want to address that immediately in your query.  Such a story may be hard to sell, thus putting you and your agent in a difficult position.  For such a novel, there will be no existing readership to address, so not only will your name and the book be new, but an entire market must be developed.  It took Northwest author, Jean Auel, years (and something like 42 rejections) to sell her first novel, Clan of the Cave Bear.  Partly this was because, although the story is considered romantic, there was no prehistory-romance category already in place.  No one knew how the book would fit into the market or what kind of (or how many) readers would buy it.  Since then, an entire category of fiction has developed.  Now, you can go to any bookstand and see titles like Daughter of the Forest, The Animal Wife, Reindeer Moon, and so on.

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5.  Is Your Topic Popular or Gaining Popularity in the Market?

This is more difficult.  The entertainment market is notoriously fickle.  What is popular this month may be disdained the next.  And, even if you sell a story with a popular idea, it can take two to six years to get that story on the retail shelves--even if it sells quickly to the publisher.

However, if readers love dragon stories, and you've written a dragon story, you have a better chance of selling that story than if the current market hated dragons.  If refugee memoirs are "in," and look like they will be "in" for a while, your leaving-your-country manuscript may be just what an agent is looking for.

Unless the ideas in your manuscript are particularly timely or far-sighted, don't talk specifically about markets and topics in your manuscript.  The book description should give the agent all the information he needs to determine what kind of ideas you have.

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6.  Is Your Work Similar to the Work of any Other Published Authors?

Something that can help you attract an agent is a similarity in style to another, popular author.  I'm not saying you should write like other authors--you should, of course, develop your own style.  However, in some cases, your own style may be reminiscent of or similar to the style of another published author.  Even if you write in a genre other than that of the published author, being able to make a comparison will give an agent some idea of which editors enjoy that style of writing.  For example, perhaps you can say that readers who love Mary Higgens Clark will enjoy your work.  If the agent is interested in the market for readers of M.H. Clark, he might be interested in you too. Some examples:

Example 1:  If your SF/fantasy has a beauty of prose but is technically detailed, perhaps you could say:  "This book combines the emotional depth of prose similar to the achievements of Orson Scott Card with the technical detail of work such as that seen from Greg Bear."

Example 2:  If your work has the detail and depth of David Poyer's novels (military action/suspense), then you could give your agent a good idea of market placement with a statement like this: " Readers who like the realistic, gritty detail of military life in the style of David Poyer will also enjoy this book."

There are two things of which to be careful here. The first is attaching yourself to an already saturated market. If there is no more room for books similar to Anne Rice's vampire work, then saying that your work is similar to that work can mean a quick ticket to the slush pile.  (Of course, as my publisher says, there's always room for another good book.)   If the market is saturated by a single author's extensive number of releases, you're going to have to come up with a very good reason why the agent should try to sell a publisher on yet another unknown who writes in the same style as the author(s) already saturating the market.

The second thing of which to be careful is attaching yourself to an author who writes in the same genre but whose style really isn't at all like yours, or whose style is so varied that your statement of similarity is ineffective.  For example, Piers Anthony (SF/Fantasy author) writes books that are dark (such as Chthon), but also writes very light, fascetious stories (such as the Xanth series).  To say simply that you write in the style of Piers Anthony can be misleading.  Better to say that readers who enjoy Piers Anthony's darker, more serious work will enjoy your novel.  Or that readers who enjoy Piers Anthony's Xanth series will enjoy your new novel.

Think of it this way:  You're not really trying to attach yourself to someone else's coattails.  What you're trying to do is give a prospective agent an idea of the style in which you write.  Mentioning an already known writing style that is similar to yours can give an agent an idea of what kind of readers will like your work.  That then tells him whether or not he has the contacts to be able to work effectively to place your manuscript.  The more specific the information you can give a prospective agent, the better he can determine whether or not he is able to or will be interested in representing you.

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7.  What is Compelling or Interesting about this Story?

Include a synopsis of your story - why is it compelling, poignant, exciting, terrifying, whatever.  Don't tell your agent why he will love the poignancy or excitement of the story.  Just tell him about the story.  Let him make his own judgement about how he reacts to your work once he sees it.

One way to write the synopsis is as though you were writing a blurb for the back cover of your book.  For one thing, this helps keep the description short.  For another, it concentrates the plot into a few major points.  If you can't figure out how to describe your story in one or two paragraphs, you may need to take a closer look at what you're trying to say in the book.

Another point to keep in mind when writing a synopsis:  keep new terms and names to a minimum.  In most genres, new terminology won't be a problem. However, in SF/Fantasy, it is important to make sure you do not introduce more than two or three new terms, including character names (unless they are already common names). Otherwise, there are too many items floating around without any context.

Some people advise including a blow-by-blow plot description with your query.  If you really feel you must include an outline, sure, try it; but I think it's premature at this stage.  It's an editor, not a prospective agent, who will want detailed description of your book.  Remember, the agent is looking at your work for only three things:

  1. Is there a market for this kind of story?
  2. Do I know a publisher/editor who is interested in trying new authors who have written this kind of story?
  3. Do I think this story is written well enough to sell?

He doesn't need an outline to tell him these things.  He needs a quick summary of how your work answers those questions.  (Of course, he'll probably forgive you for including that four-page outline if it's really that fantastic.)  Later, when he has agreed to represent you, then he will want details--and a copy of the manuscript, of course.

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8.  Do You Have any Name-Recognition?

If you have built name-recognition for your novel-length fiction through the publishing of short stories, you are in good shape.  It will be important for you to point out that you have a solid history of readership.  For example, perhaps, in two years, you have had nine short stories published in professional magazines, and one story published in an anthology.  In that case, you should include a statement like this:

"In the past two years, I've had nine short stories published in professional magazines, such as Asimov's and Omni. In 1996, one of my stories, XXX-title, was included in the XX Anthology as one of the featured stories."

Such a statement tells the agent that your work was either popular enough or interesting enough to be included in top-of-the-field magazines, and that you have developed a readership within two years.  That will be useful information in getting a publisher to look at your book-length fiction.

If you are bringing name-recognition in from another field, you might mention that also.  This is not necessarily a strong selling-point, but it can help.  If your name-recognition is not in the genre in which you are now writing, mention the name-recognition last.

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9.  What Are Your Qualifications for Writing Fiction?

Everyone has one good story in them--that's what the old adage says.  But that doesn't mean everyone is qualified to write that one, good story.  In general, I would put my professional qualifications last in a query letter.  In fiction, they are the least likely to sell the manuscript, when compared to the type of story, the current market demand, and how similar your work is to others.  For example, if you write action-suspense novels, and you have experience in many action sports or events, you might include a line like this:  "The author's personal experience in scuba diving, shooting, and racing has helped to bring both excitement and realistic suspense to the action in this novel."

If I did include my qualifications (which, yes, I did in my query letter), I would not use more than a single paragraph to describe them. If you have other published work, you might include a listing of those titles on an attached sheet, but I wouldn't include them in the body of the letter unless those titles were well-known. Remember that you want your basic query letter to be short and easy to read. Putting a long list of other titles or a writing resume in an attachment allows the agent the choice of reading additional details without missing anything important.

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10. How Not to Write Query Letters and Responses

Here's the actual text of part of a letter received from a wannabe-writer who had just had his manuscript refused:  "YOU F---ING  LIAR, STAY OUT OF MY LIFE."  This wannabe was furious that the mailing address was available to the public.  He figured that, if any address was available, all manuscripts sent to that address must be accepted for publication.  In his world-view, rejection was not only not possible, but some sort of blaspheme against God and Man.

For shock value, that was an effective letter.  As far as getting published goes, this person just got blacklisted.  If you think editors won't remember you when you are rude, you're mistaken.  There are too many decent writers who will behave professionally--or at least somewhat courteously to the editor's face, for an editor to waste time on an intentionally offensive idiot.  If the idiot is that difficult to work with when he wants something (for an agent or editor to read the manuscript), imagine how horrid he will be when contracts are being negotiated, when changes are requested, and during any other normal business or publicity activities.

Regardless of how disappointed, humiliated, or otherwise unhappy you are about having your work rejected, do not take it out on the agent, editor or publisher.  If you want other professionals to respect you--in any field, you must create and maintain a reputation for behaving in a professional manner.  Curses, gratuitous insults, angry sarcasm--these things might be overlooked in a junior-high student, but not in a professional.  If you must, write out how you feel, but then burn that paper.  Get it out of your system before trying to communicate again with the agent or editor.  Don't sacrifice your future for a chance to prove how crass, immature, or offensive you really are.

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11.  Should You Include a Synopsis or Outline?

No, not unless your initial information about the agent (such as the agency description in the writer's guide) indicates that he wants a synopsis or outline submitted along with the query.

The query letter is just that--a query about whether the agent is interested in representing a client who has written a work in a particular field, genre, or category.  If the agent is interested in your work, he will tell you what he wants from you.  For example, he will let you know whether he prefers the information about your work in an outline, as a synopsis, as sample chapters, or as the entire novel.  

If you feel you must include an outline with your query, make sure the outline is on a separate page (or pages) from the one-page query letter.  This allows the agent to read the entire query at a glance, and determine after that whether he wants to read on to the outline.

If you want to act professionally, then send the agent what he wants to receive--not what you want to show off.  He wants only the information he needs in order to 1) determine whether or not he wants to represent your work, and 2) sell the book to an editor/publisher.

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12.  How Long Should You Wait for a Response from an Agent?

I'm tempted to say, "As long as it takes."  

In general, agents say that they respond within three months to queries.  However, remember that agents, like editors, are deluged with queries and manuscripts.  It is not uncommon to see responses after six or even nine months.  Some agents never respond to a query.

Should you follow up your query with a phone call?   I'd say no.  Follow up with another letter, and make sure the second letter is polite.  Don't make accusations about the agent not bothering to respond, throwing out your query, etc.  Instead, simply say something like this:  "This is a follow-up query regarding my completed manuscript, Diseases of Little-Known Nematodes.  My previous query was sent to you on XX date, and I have not yet received a reply from you regarding the possibility of your agenting the manuscript."  Then continue with the query as if it was a standard query letter, including the blurb, the brief description of why this novel is interesting, and so on.  Most legitimate agents respond as soon as they can--they don't like piled-up paperwork any more than the rest of us.

If two queries have not elicited a response, it's time to make the phone call or try a different agent.  However, if you make a phone call, make sure you continue to be courteous.  Treat the call as if it is your first contact with the agent.  The reality is that this call is your first contact.  Be professional , be polite.  You still have a chance to make an impression, and you want to make sure it's a good one.


Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.


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