In an earlier article, I talked about Literary Agents – the middle men that connect authors and publishers. And if you’ve done any amount of research on how to approach these mysterious characters, you’ll know that they generally want to receive three things from you; a query letter, a synopsis and part of your manuscript (they will specify exactly how much they want to see as part of their submission guidelines). Today I’m going to talk about the first of these three – the so-often overlooked query letter. Writing a manuscript and synopsis is exhausting enough so it can be tempting to just bash out any old thing when it comes to your query letter, but doing so can be a big mistake as this is the first thing an agent will read. If it’s no good, they may never make it to your beautifully polished manuscript and all of your efforts will be for nothing.
There are a few rules and techniques for producing this letter, but the most important and unchangeable one is this:
Keep It Short
Specifically, keep it within one page. Any longer than that and the agent may not even begin reading it in the first place. After all, if you can’t be concise in your letter, you probably aren’t concise in your manuscript either. A good way to keep your length in check is to use the three-paragraph rule.
In this model, the first paragraph introduces your book, giving the title, genre, word count, and one or two sentences introducing the premise and protagonist. If you are writing for children or young adults, you can also include the age-range. The second paragraph should introduce you. If you have been published before or if you have studied creative writing, mention it here. You can also mention some key details about yourself such as your age or location and anything that ties you to the story, showing that you are in a good position to tell it. For example, if your book is set in the Amazon and you spent ten years there studying fungi, you could bring this up. In the third paragraph, you should briefly conclude your letter. Thank the agent for their time and tell them that you have enclosed an addressed, stamped envelope for their reply. You could also specify if you are querying them exclusively, but this is not essential as most are happy for you to contact multiple agencies at once due to the amount of time it takes to get replies.
So now you know how to structure your letter, here are a few other points and techniques to consider;
Keep it Formal
You want to sound approachable, but remember that you are seeking a business relationship, so be careful with your tone. This point might sound obvious, but I recommend reading Slushpile Hell if you want to know more about what not to do in this respect.
Use the Agent’s Name
No “Dear Sir/Madam” or “To Whom it may concern”. It will just make them think that you have done no research into their agency. Either use “Dear Ms [Agent]”, “Dear Mr [Agent]” or just use their full name if you are unsure of the gender.
Particularly in the UK, being too pushy or taking a salesman attitude may damage your chances of getting through to an agent. They won’t want to work with someone who is already getting on their nerves.
Using all of these elements, you could come up with a letter something like this;
Dear Ms Agent,
Tales of a Grouchy Shoppkeeper follows Eugene Grillop; an overworked sales assistant from South Croydon. Eugene believes that his life will never change until he meets a customer who pushes him over the edge. My manuscript is a 90,000 word horror novel for which I am currently seeking an agent.
I am a 76 year old retiree from London. Having spent my last twenty years of employment working at Tescos, I feel that I am in a good position to tell Eugene’s story with an authentic and compelling voice. I have previously had my short stories published in the yearly anthology “Tales with Grandma”.
Many thanks for considering my manuscript and please feel free to contact me using the details above. I attach an SASE for your response.
OK, so that’s not the perfect letter, but it should give you a good idea of the length, tone and content you are aiming for. I wish you the best of luck with your query letter. Remember – it’s your first impression!