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.