My fellow SF Novelist Joshua Palmatier, the mastermind behind the Plot Synopsis Project, asked whether it would be helpful to aspiring writers if published authors would post their query letters and comment on the query process overall. A bunch of us said “Hell, yeah!”
And so what follows below is the actual query letter that I sent out when I sought an agent for HELL’S BELLES. My comments follow after. At the end of this post are links to the other SF Novelists taking part in the Query Project. Note that some authors participating actually never had to send out a query letter to get their book(s) published; in those cases, the authors talk about their path to representation and publication.
ACTUAL AGENT QUERY FOR HELL’S BELLES:
Jezebel’s not your average exotic dancer. For one thing, she’s a four-thousand-year-old succubus. For another, she’s on the run from Hell (which is a bitch to do in high heels). Hiding on the mortal coil as a human doesn’t protect her from muggers, lactose intolerance — or having feelings for Paul, a man haunted by his past. Demons are closing in, which is enough to make Jezebel shiver in her G-string. But it’s her love for Paul that’s going to have deadly consequences. (Humans, she laments, really should come with instruction manuals.)
Filled with humor, action, and warmth-inducing love scenes (Jezebel’s not a succubus anymore, but she’s not dead), Hell’s Belles will appeal to fans of Katie MacAlister and Laurell K. Hamilton. This 80,000-word novel has something for everyone: irreverence, wit, magic, sex, strippers, Good and Evil, a soundtrack, and a touch of controversy.
I’m the science fiction and fantasy editor for Wild Child Publishing. My published work appeared in Byzarium, Wild Child, Peridot Books, and Tenebres; my fiction has been accepted for upcoming issues of Farthing, From the Asylum, and Ruthie’s Club.
Tempted by Hell’s Belles? If so, contact me by e-mail at EMAIL, by postal mail via the enclosed S.A.S.E, or by phone at PHONE NUMBER. Sample chapters, the complete manuscript, and a brief synopsis are available. (G-strings and Shields Against Evil not included.)
Jacqueline H. Kessler
I sent out this letter to the 30 agents whom I’d identified as Tier 1 agents that represented fantasy. I wound up getting 11 requests for the full manuscript (and one phone call from an agent telling me that she only does exclusives but should I not get an offer she would be happy to read the manuscript exclusively). And that led to 5 offers of representation. I picked my agent, and a week later, HELL’S BELLES sold to Kensington on a pre-empt.
So yeah, the query worked.
Here’s the big thing authors must know about queries: if you are seeking representation (and I highly recommend that you do), you absolutely must learn how to write a bang-up query letter. Must. Business writing is a hell of a lot different than creative writing. Completely different skill set. If you’re not familiar with how to write an engaging query letter, it can be a real headache. But you must learn how to do it. Must.
The sole purpose of a query letter is to hook the agent’s interest enough to have him or her request a partial. That’s it. You have to remember that good agents are swamped with requests (not to mention with client work), so their time is at a premium. Don’t waste the agent’s time in a blizzard of words that don’t mean anything.
I’m a firm believer in keeping a query short and in the tone of the novel. The three things the query must include are (1) the novel hook — which is not a plot summary; (2) the factual information about the book; and (3) your contact information. Optional: your writing credits, if applicable.
Why not a summary? Again, keep in mind the agent’s limited time. Even the best summaries tend to be long — and while some of us made it through college with the help of Cliff’s Notes, even good summaries tend not to be as engaging as the actual novel. Remember, the point of the query is to HOOK the agent’s interest.
To that point, the very first thing I recommend you do is come up with a one-sentence summary of your novel, the “so what,” if you will, of the book. From there, you can build your query.
The one-sentence hook for HELL’S BELLES, for example is:
HELL’S BELLES is the story of a succubus who runs away from Hell, hides on Earth as an exotic dancer, and learns the hard way about love.
So keeping this in mind, I wrote the first paragraph of the query. I touch on the important things that I felt would make the query (and the book) stand out: the heroine is a demon; the heroine ran away from Hell; the heroine falls for a human man; the heroine must avoid the demons hunting her; the heroine’s love for the human man will have dire consequences. And I made sure to keep the tone of the query similar to the tone of the book: humorous. It’s not as dark as the novel, but that’s OK — I needed an agent who was eager to read humorous magical chick-lit (which is what I thought HELL’S BELLES was).
The second paragraph gives the facts: the book is 80,000 words, has humor, action, and sex, and is targeted at the readers of bestselling authors Katie MacAlister and Laurell K. Hamilton. This bit’s important: by saying who the target audience is — and comparing that audience to those of bestselling authors in my genre — I’m telling the agent that my book is marketable. Given how marketing has a seat at the acquisitions table, this is vital. The word count is equally important: you’re not only telling the agent that the book is complete, you’re also demonstrating that you know the right length of novels in your genre.
Speaking of genre, that’s something I chose not to mention in my query: the genre of the novel. I’d been aiming for a magical chick-lit feeling, but I firmly believed the book would be shelved in the Fantasy section of the bookstore. Turns out, it was marketed as paranormal romance and wound up shelved in the Romance section. But my point here is I didn’t get hung up on “chick-lit feeling with strong fantasy and romantic elements, with a little horror, and very dark humor throughout, with a splash of experimentalism.” All an agent needs is a reason to reject a query; don’t give him or her that reason by making yourself appear unmarketable. While we all know our books are not formula genre books, for the purposes of the query, if you can’t pinpoint one genre (and please, DON’T say it’s cross-genre), then simply don’t mention the genre at all. Really, that’s OK.
The third paragraph is all about me — and specifically, my publishing history. It doesn’t say that I haven’t published a novel before; why would I emphasize a negative? It does list the magazines that published my short fiction and nonfiction, and it mentions that I was (at that time), a science fiction and fantasy editor for an online magazine. If you don’t have publishing credits or other writing credits, skip this paragraph. Seriously. Agents offer representation to previously unpublished authors all the time. (Why do you think they get so many queries?)
The concluding paragraph tells the agent exactly what I’m offering — sample chapters (in other words, a partial), the full manuscript (code for “this novel is complete”), and the synopsis. Yes, the synopsis. Granted, not all agents want or require a synopsis…but enough of them do that I highly recommend you have a synopsis ready to go when you query agents. For more on the synopsis and the evils it entails, check out the previous Plot Synopsis Project.
Okay, your query letter is ready to go. Now what? Simple: homework time. You need to come up with a targeted list of agents to query. Do not, I repeat, do not do a shotgun approach to queries; that wastes the agent’s time and your time. And for all that is holy, do NOT do a mass email for your query and put all of the recipients in the TO field. (Yes, I’ve seen this happen before. Seriously. DON’T DO IT.)
The first thing you should do is go to AgentQuery.com and perform a specific search for agents in your genre. Once you have a list of, say, 40 agents, then the real work begins. Go to those agents’ websites. Find out who those agents represent, and what sales they’ve scored lately (a good tool for that is Publishers Marketplace). Make sure these agents haven’t been flagged by any of the watchdog organizations (Writer Beware; Beware and Background Check; Preditors and Editors). Now you should have a list of anywhere from 10 – 30 agents.
Next: send out the query. Be sure to follow any specific guidelines that the agents have on their websites. If they say they don’t want sample chapters with the query, DON’T SEND SAMPLE CHAPTERS. If they do want the first 5 pages, INCLUDE THE FIRST 5 PAGES — not 10, not 3, but 5. If you have a prologue, start with the prologue, not chapter 1. Some agents specify that they answer only email queries; others say they only do snail-mail queries. Again, give the agent what the agent wants.
Once the queries are out there, forget about them. Start working on your next story, and try not to check your email every five minutes or waylay the postal carrier to see if you spot your own SASE. You might hear something within a day. You might hear something within two months. And, unfortunately, you might not hear anything at all. A good rule of thumb is for every rejection you get, send out the query to another agent. If one agent at an agency rejects the query, you probably shouldn’t try another agent at that agency; move on to a different agency.
At another point, I’ll post about what happens when an agent makes an offer — because even though you’ll want to say YES!!! immediately, you shouldn’t. But I’ll cover that another time.
Here’s the list of authors participating in the Query Project, for their takes on the query process.
Diana Pharaoh Francis
Janni Lee Simner
Maria V. Snyder
David J. Williams