Unsolicited Query LettersQuery Letters - Part 1: Unsolicited

by Ann Harth

 

It's finished! Your novel is in its 'resting phase' behind the whirring white noise of your computer. It will wait patiently until you can convince an agent or editor of its brilliance.

This can be an exercise in frustration and plummeting self-esteem -- but it doesn't have to be. By following some basic guidelines, your novel can be introduced to the publishing world in a professional and positive manner.

Step 1

Research the market.

It sounds obvious. Of course you aren't going to send a middle-grade sci-fi novel to a publisher who specialises in adult romance and you'd be foolish to send a historical novel to an agent who only represents coffee table art books. You know you would be wasting everyone's time, including your own.

But let's take market research a step further. Let's assume you have found a list of companies who publish novels in your particular genre. What is their accepted word count? Have you checked their guidelines? Do they want the whole manuscript or do they want sample chapters and a synopsis? It's a good idea to study the most recently published titles for each company. This will give you a feel for their current preferences. If your novel is about a jillaroo who falls in love with a city boy, and the company has just released a book about a jackeroo who falls in love with a city girl, you may want to hold off on that particular submission.

After poring through marketing lists and manuals, you eventually find a publisher who looks like a perfect match for your novel. You read the guidelines and format your work accordingly. You beef up your CV and as your finger is poised over the print key…

…your world comes crashing down. You see those horrific, gut-wrenching words that can bring a hopeful author to her knees:

We are not accepting unsolicited submissions at this time.

Oooooof!

But wait! Resume breathing. Understand that this is not always a door that has been slammed, locked and barricaded with you on the wrong side. This is often merely a busy editor's way of cutting down on his workload without missing out on a single gem of literary genius such as yours.

This is when you will need a clever little device known as a query letter.

Step 2

Find your target.

Query letters are generally more successful when addressed to a specific person. Although some publishers' guidelines will request authors to address all queries to The Assistant or Fiction Editor, if they don't specify, it's a good idea to find the elusive name of that person who will read your query. Send a brief, polite email or ring the company requesting the name and correct spelling of the person who will read your query.

Step 3

Define your manuscript.

This step is possibly the most important. If you haven't done this already in the form of a synopsis, try to encapsulate the essence of your story in one page. Include the main characters, their changes and challenges, the story's conflict, obstacles and resolution.

Finished? Now condense this into one paragraph. Make sure that you keep the most crucial aspects of your manuscript.

Ready to go on? Condense this into one sentence, two at the most.

Example:

This is the humorous story of a woman's relationship with her family as she comes to terms with the fact that she is aging.

You should now have a clear and concise explanation of your book.

Step 4

Write your query letter.

You have about eight seconds and one page to attract the interest of an editor. Any longer than this and the eyes may start to glaze over.

Single-space your letter on white, good-quality paper. Make it look professional. Use a similar tone in your query to that in your manuscript, whether it's light-hearted, humorous or mysterious.

A. Heading.

Type your name and contact information in the top right corner of the page. Skip a line or two and type the contact name (correctly spelled), the company name and the address of the company. Skip a line and type the date (Remember to reverse the day and month if querying a US publisher).

B. The first sentence of a query letter is crucial.

I have found two methods that work well.

1. State your intentions. Tell the editor exactly what they can expect. Show them that you have done your research. Give word-count, state that the work is complete and mention genre and target audience. This way, they will know immediately that your manuscript is appropriate for their list.

Example:

It's Not Over Yet is a completed 64,000-word humorous novel aimed at woman in the prime of their lives.

2. Start with a question or your main character's problem. This is intended to hook an editor or agent enough to read on. After you have delivered the hook, you can move onto the first method.

Example:

Kelly Needles has three months to live. She plans to make the mostof it. What happens, after two and a half months, when she finds out the doctors were wrong?

It's Not Over Yet is a completed 64,000-word humorous novel aimed at women in the prime of their lives.

C. After you have hooked the editor/agent and have proven that your work is suitable for their list … lead on.

Take your concise, but riveting paragraph about your story and insert it here.

D. This is the part where you exude confidence.

Explain why you are qualified to write this book. It may be through personal experience, work experience, education or even access to specific experts that may give your work credibility. In two or three sentences, try to convince the editor/agent that you are exuberant and knowledgeable about your subject. This is the place where you can briefly mention any relevant published works.

E. Finally, ask for permission to send your entire manuscript or sample chapters.

Invite them to contact you if they need further information and sign off. Inform them that you are sending a SASE for their response and do so.

You will find a sample query letter below.
 

Lilleth Green
17 Summer Street
Plodding NSW 7654
Ph (02) 12 345678
Email: green@plodding.com



Janine Canasta
Books R Us Inc
6 Underwood St
Canberra ACT 2345

25 March 2005

Dear Ms Canasta,

Does the Lake Gretta Monster exist? Penelope Quid is sure of it.

Are You Out There? is a 23,000-word middle-grade mystery novel. It is an account of Penelope Quid's summer at her uncle's caravan in Gretta Junction. Penelope is determined to prove the existence of the elusive, legendary creature that is supposed to inhabit the depths of Gretta Lake.

After scuba diving lessons with a local boy, Penelope asks Jay to join her as she heads for the bottom of Gretta Lake to unravel the mystery behind the monster-sightings.

As a published children's author and experienced scuba diver instructor, I have specific knowledge of the skills necessary to embark on a diving expedition into deep freshwater. My hands-on experience lends an air of reality to the underwater scenes in this manuscript.

The Queensland Writer's Centre has recently informed me that you are accepting queries for middle-grade adventure novels. May I please send you the manuscript for Are You Out There?

Please feel free to contact me if you need further information. I have enclosed a SASE for your response.

Thank you,
Sincerely,





Lilleth Green

Send off your query. Soon, you may receive a letter from this editor mentioning words like 'intriguing' or 'interesting' and inviting you to send your work. You will dig your manuscript out from the depths of your computer, check it over one last time, print it, package it as 'requested material' and drop it into the mailbox.

You manuscript is now solicited.

Next month: Part Two: Querying Magazines

© copyright Ann Harth

 

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