Writing the Query Letter

I recently did a rather fun Q&A session over at Reddit (though the first question, “Is your book good?” had me stumped for a while.) Interestingly, the most upvoted question was not about drafting or editing or planning, but about the initial query letter to an agent.

It makes sense, I suppose, in that it is the most obvious and direct first hurdle to taking your writing forward professionally, and so the one that is worried about the most.

Below is the query letter I wrote that lead to me getting an agent. Some of the letter was later used to pitch to publishers, and has been used yet again by the publishers in their press releases, so something, evidently, went right. I’ve included a ‘director’s commentary’ in bold on some of the things to consider when writing it – be sure to drop me a line in the comments if you’ve got any further questions about writing a query letter.


To whom it may concern,

Agencies vary, but this one discouraged targeting your submission at one agent in particular, so I kept it general. Check their submission guidelines carefully, no need to mess up this early.

I have recently finished my first novel, and am now looking for representation for it. My project is a piece of historical fiction based on the writings of Herodotus, ‘The Father of History’. The book centres on the half historic, half mythic figure of Croesus, the last king of Lydia, whose rise and incredible fall from power shook the ancient world.

The first short paragraph should say why you are writing to them (first novel submission) and then briefly position the book i.e. what genre it is. I name dropped Herodotus here just in case the agent had read him (she hadn’t).

The story hinges on the king’s early encounter with Solon, a philosopher and statesman of Athens. At the height of his wealth and power, Croesus asks Solon who is the happiest man he has ever met. The king is shocked to not receive his own name in response, but Solon tells that it is only at the end of someone’s life that they can be judged as happy or not. Croesus dismisses him, but family tragedy and an ill fated war with the rising power of Persia conspire to ruin the once powerful king, and prove the old philosopher right. Reprieved from execution, he is taken into service by Cyrus, his conqueror. But can Croesus survive in the dangerous court of the Persian kings? And can he, a former king obsessed with wealth and happiness, find anything but suffering in the life of a slave?

The second paragraph should be a longer, blurb style plot outline. Don’t worry about dropping spoilers (I mention a fairly major midbook plotline in mine) the agent really doesn’t care about spoilers, but don’t go into laborious detail either. You want to give a sense of what the story will be, and what the hook will be, why it is exciting and why people will read it. That’s what those pretty cheesy rhetorical questions are doing at the end. They are cheesy, but they work. This is the paragraph that takes ages to get right.

The book has been through several drafts, and currently comes in at around 125,000 words. I have included a synopsis and the first three chapters of the book, which is currently (and tentatively) titled Eudaimonia, the ancient Greek word for happiness.

Give them a word count so they know what size they are dealing with. Letting them know that you’ve done a few drafts and given it some polish is a good idea, as it lets them know you aren’t a total punter. Man, that original title was terrible! Eudaimonia, what was I thinking? But at least I did say it was tentative, trying to give the impression that I was open to changes and would be good to work with.

I am recent graduate from the MA Writing at Warwick University, where I have also been doing some teaching this year. My writing tutor, Maureen Freely, recommended your agency to me. I have published novel extracts, short stories and poetry in various university anthologies, but have no other published work of note.

A brief, relevant biography is a good way to round things off. You want them to read the book in a favourable light, so start sounding like a viable author. ‘Recent graduate’ lets them know I’m young and sexy, the fact that I’ve done an MA Writing suggests I’ve been writing for a while and my writing isn’t entirely horrendous.

This is where you want to name drop if you can. This isn’t out of any hope of nepotism, it just shows someone professional is interested in your writing, which may tips their opinion slightly more in your favour, which is all you can hope for in the query letter. Any publication history (I had none) is useful to mention here.

If you’d like to see the rest of the novel, or if you have any other questions or queries about the project, please do not hesitate to contact me via telephone, email, or post.

Worth emphasising that you do have the rest of the novel ready to post – otherwise, you’re just wasting their time. 

Thank you for very much for your time.

Meeting the Editor

Your agent calls. She’s set up a meeting with the editor.

You may have met already when the deal was being negotiated, but this is the first time you’ve seen each other since the contract has been inked. The previous meeting may have been tense but understandable – you knew then what was at stake. Now you realise, suddenly and rather embarrassingly, that you have only the vaguest idea of how a manuscript becomes a published novel. This meeting is a step out into the unknown.

You’ll ask your agent something professional sounding about contracts or process, to buy time. Your pride will probably prevent you from actually asking the questions you want to, which are “What the hell am I supposed to do at this meeting?” and “Will you please come with me?”. You may try a more neutral “Will you be there?”, trying not to sound too pathetic, only to be politely, firmly rebuffed.

You realise, with a certain sadness, that you won’t be working with the agent on this book any more. Her job has been done, and it is only proper that she hands over to the editor, but she’s been a part of your creative landscape for so long that it is painful to have her leave it. You console yourself with the thought of working with her on the next book, and ready yourself to meet your new creative partner in crime.

You will dither over what to wear, so save yourself some time and just wear jeans and a blazer, like every other aspiring writer who thinks they invented smart casual. No, don’t put on a tie. Of course you’re much too early to the publisher’s office, like you are for an interview. It’s an association that instantly makes you twice as nervous, as you go for a few half hearted victory laps around the block to kill some time.

You’re in the office for just a moment, wandering around like a lost intern, before being whisked back out again to the nearest pub. You sit down with no small amount of trepidation. The relationship with the agent will have gotten so comfortably familiar that you’ve forgotten what it’s like to sit down with a stranger to talk about your work, how alarmingly intimate it feels to have them handling a portion of your brain and wondering what changes to make. When someone has read your book, it feels as though they know everything about you, and you know nothing about them, and the imbalance can be unsettling.

Luckily, there is going to be plenty to drink. Publishing is an engine that runs on gossip and is lubricated by expense accounted drinks, and, as you will fortunately discover, these drinks are distributed on a strict hierarchy that favours the writer. Agents buy for editors, and editors buy for authors. In fact, everyone buys for authors, because they have no money and always look like they need a drink. So just focus on getting the first pint or three down, and everything will go smoothly from there. Mind you, make sure you keep your drinks simple. Lager is good, gin and tonic even better. Straight whisky is a little posy, stout and bitter probably harmful to your exciting young writer image. Cocktails are right out.

You’ll spend about 90% of the time gossiping about other writers and listening to publishing scandal stories (don’t worry, they’re good stories) and 10% of your time actually talking about your book. Great affection will be expressed towards your work that you’ll pretend to bat away, mentally storing every word up to feast on later. Editorial changes will be mentioned vaguely, but you’re no stranger to changes by now, and so you can nod and smile and deal with them when they come through. You’ll get vague hints about timetables, what will happen when, but little concrete information, everything clouded in conditionals. Perhaps it is better this way. You aren’t quite ready for the dream to be made solid yet.

The whole thing rapidly becomes friendly, and reassuringly irreverent. You may have imagined your tender brainchild being brutalised at the hands of some corporate assassin, but you’ve got be daft to be in the book trade, it’s no place for a businessman these days. They’re just as mad as you are, you realise, a whole industry built out of slightly crazy people who are in love with books, lurching from one catastrophe to the next, somehow staying in business. You’re going to be at home here.

Afterwards, as you weave your way home, pleasantly drunk, you’ll reflect on the meeting. Something happened, but you aren’t really sure what. You imagine that there will be dozens of lunchtime chats and boozy afternoons like this where nothing seems to happen, and yet all the time your book is ricocheting from one meeting to another, slouching towards publication, waiting to be born.


The Phoney War

So, at last, it has happened. The ambition of every aspiring writer. You have a book deal.

Even if you’ve tried to be sensible, you’ve dreamed of this moment for almost as long as you’ve been writing. The moment when you will be transformed, in the single stroke of a pen, from just another wannabe to being a contender, a published author.

And when it happens, at first you won’t believe it. You’ll check your phone log, to confirm that you have not just had a particularly vivid hallucination. Yes, your agent did call you that morning. No, you are not going mad.

The first moments are joyful and intense. There will be tears, and there may also be shouting, swearing, gleeful hand rubbing, and perhaps bad dancing depending on the content of your character.

After you’re done dancing around the flat and calling everyone you know, there is the perhaps inevitable anticlimax. The days that follow can take on the character of the phoney war. The contracts haven’t even been signed yet. There is no more money in your bank account – not yet at least, and even when it comes, it’ll come in bits and pieces. You’re still going to the same job, assuming you haven’t quit it in a bridge burning act of foolishness.

Nothing has changed, and it won’t for a while. It takes a year for a book to come out, and though the metaphor is overused, perhaps this moment is like seeing the blue line on a pregnancy test. A life changing event that is all future and no present. For weeks and months, you’ll be waiting for your new life to start.

Nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed. The world is a different one to the one you were in a few hours before. The future remains uncertain, but it is a different breed of uncertainty to the one you’ve grown used to. Before, you wondered if you’d ever see your work in print, when and if and how it would come to pass, whether or not you were one of the many who would never make it, how long you’d be willing to try before giving it all up. Now you’ve had an upgrade in uncertainty – will the cover look horrible? Will it get a cutting review? Will it get any reviews? Will anyone even read it? But these are pleasurable things to worry about, especially if you keep your head and realise you are lucky to be worrying about them at all.

There is only one tangible change to your life in the present tense. It is small but pleasurable, and it is the warm, loving relief of those around you.

To your surprise, you realise they were holding their breath as much as you were, had almost as much at stake as you did. Because they could see how much you wanted it, and so they wanted it to. They knew the saddening and diminishing effect that failure would have on you, because they’d seen it before on the last thing you tried to write.

When you’re writing a book, it feels like the loneliest thing in the world. A long, difficult, entirely unsupported act of faith and madness. And yet as soon as it is taken on by a publisher, you realise just how many people you have depended on to help you write it. The tutor who told you ‘You’ve got it’, the friends who let you talk their ears off about your crazy little dream, the parents who supported you all the way through.

When you dream of that book deal, you dream of an instant and everlasting validation of your ambition, an advance that will buy you a house, the girl or boy of your dreams suddenly falling madly in love with you. These are things you do not get. What you do get instead is a sense of gratitude to all the people who you were leaning on without even realising it. And like any surprise gift, it is a feeling that is both unexpected, and quite wonderful.


The Numbers Game

What are the odds that I will get published?

This is the question that runs over and over in the head of any writer. Self publishing and e-readers may have given an alternative to the old dictatorship, offering a comforting certainty that someone, somewhere, might pay money to read your work. Even so, when most writers dream, they still dream of contracts, agents, and advances.

They want to know what their chances are, and sensibly so. Writing a novel involves wagering several years of time, a certain sum of money, and a not inconsiderable quantity of pride and sanity on an uncertain outcome. If you’re going to gamble, it pays to know the odds.

To keep myself sane in the two and a half years or so that I’ve been working on my novel, I’ve kept a percentage figure running in my head. It’s not unlike the Doomsday clock that scientists maintain to give a sense of how close we are to total annihilation. Almost entirely arbitrary, but enough to give some semblance of perspective.

It began at something less than 1%. Perhaps one in a hundred novels that are started are ever finished, and of those that are finished, maybe one in a thousand are taken on and published. I’m plucking these numbers from nothing, but I’d be surprised if the statistics are better than this. You can’t write a novel without hope, but you can’t be a mad dreamer either. So I placed my chances at less than 1%, and began to write it anyway.

After a year and half had passed, when I’d finished a couple of drafts, had very strong feedback from tutors and readers whose opinion I trusted, looked back on it and liked it myself, I felt generous. I raised my odds of publication to 30%. I felt like I’d earned the right to dream a little.

I got my first rejection from an agent – a flat no off the first three chapters – and knocked 5% off. Then I got a request for the rest of the book from another agent, and stuck the 5% back on again. Perhaps I even put another 3% on there, just for kicks, to make it a one in three chance.

After the first meeting with the agent, there was a delicious moment, when, for the very first time, I allowed myself to believe the odds were in my favour. 55%? Perhaps even 60%. Not past halfway by much, but when you’ve been labouring in the face of improbability for so long, even a slender advantage feels good.

Another six months, another three drafts, and the agent felt we were ready to submit to publishers. I got a little rash. After all, surely the agent wouldn’t have worked this long on a project without being damn confident it would sell? I fixed it at 80% in my head. It’d take some pretty rotten luck to fail at this point.

The rejections began. Some were positive and reassuring, others were dismissive and alarming. Through this time, I became a little obsessive about attending to the percentage. The thought of having miscalculated filled me with alarm. I could deal with rejection and failure, but I didn’t want to be surprised by it.

After one more rejection, I began to believe that I had been mistaken. That the odds had never been that good, that they had always remained against me. I convinced myself that it wasn’t going to happen, and accepted it. I went home, and began, with no small amount of sadness, to start the next book.  I’d gotten close, at least, I told myself. Maybe next time. Maybe the next book would be the one.

Then, at last, it happened.

A maybe became a probably, and then a definitely, within the sudden space of the first two days of the London Book Fair. The deal was done. I had a publisher.

I still can’t allow myself to believe fully. Not until I hold the hardback in my hand will I finally retire my percentage gauge. It now stands in my head at around 99%. Barring some last minute disaster, a publishing house collapsing or some such thing, it seems likely that the novel will see the light of day, hopefully in Spring 2013. The percentage will reach three figures for a moment, then vanish entirely.

Of course, the end of one game of numbers simply means that another is due to begin. Having worked on the retail side of the book trade, I know that it is a brutal world for the debut author. What are the odds that I will get a good review, that I will win a prize, that I will sell more than a hundred copies, that I will write another publishable book?

The numbers wind back down to single figures, and it is time to start playing again.