Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Writing a Query Letter: A Moderate How-To

I have only written three query letters in my life. I've only sent one of them. It did catch an agent's eye, but be that as it may I am no expert on this strange and dark art. I still wonder if my letter was really all that great, or if it was just a whim of this agent to ask to read my story. All wondering aside, however, you have asked for a how-to and I'll do my best to oblige you by presenting the little I know.

A query letter is a strange beastie. Writing one can be torturous. But to be able to write a good letter is one of the basic requirements of the business-end of being an author. The idea of a query letter is that this is your one page--sometimes one paragraph--to capture your audience's attention. So there are four main points you want to keep in mind:

1.} Grab them, hook line and sinker from the start.

2.) A query letter must read like the back of a book.

3.) You want to give just enough information without giving it all.

4.) You want to use your voice.

Basically, your letter should start off addressing the agent/publisher, then move directly into your little spiel that ought to sound like those you read on the back of a book or movie. You want that one line that captures their interest and makes them finish reading. Of course you need to give the agent a little more insight into the main workings of the plot than you might give a reader, but you do want to have that mystery about your story that makes them want more.
The third point is that an agent relies on the query-letter to show him how your write. In a way this will be his judgement of you as a writer--based on how you presented your query.

It was fear of this that drove me to write my first query-letter from Basil Seasoning's perspective. It was a silly idea--and I thought a novel one--and the letter sounded great. Since A Mother For The Seasonings is written from Basil's perspective it definitely captured the voice of the thing and the spirit.
After some thought and input from Abigail and Jenny, however, I determined that presenting a query letter that way is just not really professional. Sure, it's fun. Sure some agents might like it. But it is really kind of silly and seems to take the easy route. Because it's easy to write as a character--you do it all the time. But it's harder--and the mark of a better writer--to be able to transfer that voice out of your character's personality and into a really important document.

I started with that letter from Basil, however, tweaked it till it was from my perspective, and re-read it. It was beginning to look good. Mama helped me go over the letter again, substituting words and reading it over and over to be sure it was coherent, intriguing, and kept the flavor of the book. That was the all-purpose query. Then I had to tailor it to fit the agent's specifications which included an author bio, marketability, and future ides for books! Here is what I came up with: (My comments for your benefit in bold)

Dear (Agent's Name Here),
       Proper Victorian children would never have attempted the scheme. But then…the Seasonings are not quite what you would call proper. (**at this point I'd be asking what scheme? Who are these people?**) If you asked the OLAF (Old Ladies Against Fun) they would snort and hold up their looking-glasses. “Proper—never! Rogues? Hooligans?—Rather.” (**I might be chuckling**)
Their father is just as impossible: a British Officer in East India ought to have a wife—especially one with five unruly children. But Herb Seasoning—a widower and an army captain—has little time to supervise the day-to-day antics of his clan, let alone go courting.(**aha! I think I see where this is headed**)
With the summer holidays fresh upon them, Basil, Rosemary, Angelica, Dill and little Fennel have ample time to search out a woman who is willing to marry their father and become an instant mother. Whether the children are interrupting a ceremony at a convent, wreaking havoc at Piccolotto, dashing through the Indian villages, or proposing to every woman in Cape Farsight, the Seasonings are never far from mischief. (**This would make me eager to hear the rest of their antics**)
They are a tenacious, hilarious set and aren’t easily cast down despite the dubious turnout of each attempt at securing a mother. Not for a moment do the Seasonings question the sanity of their plan. A mother is all they will ever want or need—or is it? Could there possibly be something even more important they are lacking? (**This is a fairly conventional, yet reliable way to draw the reader in**)
Fans of humorous and whimsical novels like Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children, Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins, and C.R. Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn will be sure to love the quaint sensation of classic childhood at a modern pace found in A Mother for the Seasonings. (**This is how I addressed the agent's question of marketability. I provided him the names of several novels mine resembles in voice and content.**)
I have spent my twenty years of life in a rambunctious, large family much like the Seasonings.  It’s said that the best style of learning is immersion. In this respect I’ve lived for two decades in the very climate that my characters come from which lends me the ability to write their stories with authenticity and insight. I have been writing for eight years and have actively honed my craft during the last several years, including being a member of the recently-disbanded Christian Young Adult Writers’ critique group alongside published authors like Jill Williamson and Stephanie Morrill. As a way to connect with the public and other authors I created a blog at www.inkpenauthoress.blogspot.com where I have collected a vibrant and active community of writers and readers. (**cue applause for yourselves here**)
Along with A Mother for the Seasonings, I have completed another book: The Scarlet Gypsy Song—a mid-grade “reality-meets-fairytale” novel. I am currently writing a mid-grade historical fiction/adventure novel (Scuppernong Days) and a general-fiction/inspirational romance set in the 1950’s. (Fly Away Home) (**I was happy to be able to list so many projects--the question kind of scared me at first.**)
A Mother for The Seasonings is approximately 53,000 words long. I thank you for your time and consideration and wish God’s blessings for you in your business. My contact information is as follows:

As you can see, the letter was nothing particularly splendid, but it stated the plot concisely, gave the agent an inkling of what characters he'd find and what they might be after, and generally kept the whimsical tone of the whole novel.

Like I said, I've never done this before. I may have broken all the rules of Query Letters (if there are such rules) but the one piece of advice I found is this: Match your letter to your book. If you've written a sweeping, dramatic tale your letter shouldn't take on a quaint tone. If you've written a humorous book you shouldn't be cut and dry. Think about the essence of your book and build off of that. What sort of language matches the feel of your writing? I can tell you that my query letter for Fly Away Home won't be the same as A Mother for the Seasonings. It will be blunter, less childish. It might move at a less hectic pace. But for the Seasonings I knew I needed to present them as the hurly-burly set they are.
When you go to write your letter ask yourself how your characters would explain their story. I would even go as far as to say it might just be a good idea to write the letter from your protagonist's perspective from the very start. Immediately edit it so that there is an omniscient voice, but you will have got into the swing of the thing and you'll find it much easier to state your point and intrigue the recipient of your letter.

I hope this has helped any of you that are looking at writing a query letter. Just write naturally, get the opinion of several friends and/or family members, and get ready to do revisions. Don't be disheartened if you get turned down. (I'm still waiting to hear back from the agent) It's a grand and glorious adventure, and if a several agents in a row don't bite for your query-letter the worst you can do is go back to the drawing board and add a little more pizazz.


Carmel Elizabeth said...

I love this! You made me laugh. :D

I have yet to write a query letter, but the prospect is frightening. And I'm nowhere near that with Winter Wings, so I guess I don't have to worry. ;)

Kirsten Fichter said...

Thanks for the how-to, Rachel!! I'm honored that you took the time to think about my suggestion. :)

By the way... LOVED. YOUR. LETTER. I never really thought of query letters in any other form except with fear and trembling, but the way you present it here seems more real and, in a weird way, doable. I'll have to admit that matching the style of your letter to the style of your story never occurred to me, but it makes sense! From reading your letter, I know what to expect (to a degree) in A Mother For the Seasonings, but you left just enough untold that I want to read the rest of the story so I could find out what happened and how it happened!

I love how you started out right away with the story. It really grabbed my attention because it was so pleasantly and oddly different than the dull monotony of the usual business letter.

Did I mention that I'm a huge fan of E. Nesbit? And Eight Cousins? And... oh, you get the idea. ;)

Three cheers for the Inkpen Authoress!!! I hope you don't mind that all of your readers are just about excited as you about this! Can't wait to hear more!!

Rachel Hope said...

Query letters are something that, two years ago I had not heard of. Don't ask me how I thought books got published I probably couldn't answer you.
the word anole scares me, and I really haven't seen of let alone tried to write one. Now, maybe they aren't so scary, probably because you described it as a letter. I'm not afraid of a letter, that would be silly :) I'm so happy you included your letter, often people describe them but rarely have i seen anyone give an example. Thanks for being so open with us peoples who are following in the time trodden path of becoming a published author. By the way, A mother for the seasonings sounds splendid. Did the thought of a big publisher reading your manuscript scare you at all ?
Blessings ~ Rachel Hope

Rachel Heffington said...

Bree, I laughed too. :)

Kiri-Liz, I am so glad you are just as excited as me! That is what makes you such a lovely set of followers. A follower who never participates if just rather dull. And you are a Nesbit fan too? <3 Three cheers for Phyllis "who meant extremely well." :)

Rachel, isn't it funny how just putting a new term to something can make it seem less intimidating? I ought to name all daunting tasks something as pleasant as a "letter." ;) Honestly, the thought of an agent reading my book isn't that intimidating. Because I have a stubborn streak that tells me "This *is* good though they mightn't like it. I like it." That streak can carry me through a lot. But the funny thing is, I go to pieces when I have to sit in a room hearing my reading read aloud by a family member! Go figure!

Elizabeth said...

Hee,hee. That was a funny letter. I hope he liked it!

Emily Chapman said...

The letter was lovely, Rachel! And your advice was very helpful as well!!

Ack, I love 'Eight Cousins' and 'The Railway Children'! :) 'Caddie Woodlawn' ain't half bad either. ;)

Julia said...

"the letter was nothing particularly splendid" - A bald-faced lie if I ever saw one!

That WAS a splendid letter, Rachel Heffington! :D I absolutely adore how you wrote it in the style of your book. No WONDER the agent wanted to see more, he'd probably never seen anything so charming in his life!

I am inspired! :D

Thanks, Sweetie! :D


Rachel Heffington said...

Aw, Jewels. <3 You're sweet. I'm glad I was able to help inspire someone with my {very limited} experience.

Dakota Densmore said...

Loved your letter! :D And, more encouragement for when you're feeling rejected: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had to send his first Sherlock Holmes book to somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 publishers before one accepted the story! :O And you know how huge THAT franchise is. ;) So don't give up! :D