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How to Write a Smashing Query Letter

05 Mar 2011 5:09 PM | Nutschell Anne Windsor (Administrator)

Last Saturday’s meetup was the biggest yet, with 19 people in attendance. We met at our usual meeting place – Borders, Torrance (thankfully not closing).

The usual round of introductions made it clear that our group was a diverse and varied one. While most of us where children’s book writers, there were also adult fiction writers in attendance. Our genres of interest ranged from non-fiction to fantasy to historical fiction and thrillers.

After a few announcements, where I plugged in upcoming events for our group, I asked my fellow scribblers to do something before we started our main discussion. I instructed them to pick three books that are similar to the books they are writing, or are trying to sell.

When everybody had returned to their seats with three books in hand, I began the discussion.

Most of my materials came from the following amazing ebooks:


Noah Lukeman’s HOW TO LAND AND KEEP A LITERARY AGENT can be downloaded here for $12.99 as a PDF file or for $9.99 on the Kindle Store.


Noah Lukeman’s HOW TO WRITE A GREAT QUERY LETTER is likewise FREE, and can be downloaded here.


Elana Johnson’s FROM QUERY TO THE CALL can be downloaded for FREE on her website.


All of these ebooks were amazing sources of information for writing a query letter. The tricky part was figuring out how to use the wealth of knowledge presented in their pages, and arranging them in a logical and comprehensive manner.

I took it upon myself to organize all the information in these ebooks, along with other information I’ve gleaned from my research on query letter.

In the first hour of our meeting, we discussed the following topics:

I. QUERY BASICS
(Based on Noah Lukeman’s HOW TO LAND AND KEEP A LITERARY AGENT)

A. What is a Query letter?
B. Who do you query? Publisher vs. Agent.

10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Query A Publisher Directly

10 Reasons Why You Need An Agent

When To Query A Publisher Directly


C. Steps To Take Before You Write A Query Letter


1. Research/ Make a list of 50 Target Agents

  • You must make a list of at least 50 agents which you wish to query
  • landing an agent is a numbers game
  • a person who mails out 200 resumes has a huge advantage over the person who  mails out 5. Same is true for landing an agent
  • Research is important. Make sure they represent your genre.

13 Factors To Consider When Evaluating An Agent

2. Gather more information about the agents on your list.Create your own database containing the following details:

  • Full name of agent
  • Mr/Mrs/Ms
  • Literary Agency information – name, address, website
  • Submission Guidelines
  • Email address/ physical address
  • What agent is looking for/ What genre he represents
  • List of clients he represents and their books
  • You can use the following programs to create your database

3. Prepare the common tools of querying

a. First 10-20 pages of your work

b. Synopsis

I gave everyone handouts on the above discussion, along with 26 FREE and 11 FEE based sources of resources for writers who wish to research literary agents, which Noah Lukeman outlined in his book HOW TO LAND AND KEEP A LITERARY AGENT.

Here’s a sample of what could be found in the handout:

26 FREE RESOURCES FOR WRITERS


1. www.publisherslunch.com

2– 4.www.publishersmarketplace.com (contains 3 resources)

5 – 8. www.publishersweekly.com (contains 4 resources)

9. Agency Websites

10. Search Engines

Noah Lukeman only outlined 24 free resources but I added two which I found on my own search:

25. www.querytracker.net

26. http://caseylmccormick.blogspot.com/ Literary Rambles by Casey McCormick

One of our members, Madison, also added a couple of websites, which she found useful in her own research.

11 FEE BASED RESOURCES FOR WRITERS

Aside from www.publishersmarketplace.com www.writersmarket.com and www.publishersweekly.com, www.agentresearch.com, Noah Lukeman also mentions other sources of information on agents, such as :

Books

Writers Digest Guide to Literary Agents

Writers Digest Writers Market

Jeff Herman’s Writer’s guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents

Literary Marketplace

Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market by Alice Pope

Magazines

Poets & Writers

The Writer

Writer’s Digest

Conferences/Seminars/Workshops

* The key in choosing a conference is finding out in advance which agents are attending, how many of them will be attending, and the ratio of agents to writers.

Example: 2 agents for 500 writers vs. 10 agents for 200 writers

* Downside is that conferences can be expensive. Attend if you have the money to spare.

Examples of good conferences for children’s book writers:

Big Sur Writing Workshop by Andrea Brown Literary Agency

SCBWI Summer/Winter Conference

SCBWI Agents Day

SCBWI Writing Retreat

PART II of our workshop covered the formula for writing query letter based on Noah Lukeman’s Three Paragraph Rule, gleaned from his ebook  HOW TO WRITE A GREAT QUERY LETTER.

Noah Lukeman’s THREE PARAGRAPH RULE states that a query letter should fit on one page, and should consist of only three paragraphs.

A. The first Paragraph is the introduction, in which writers should make a personal connection with the agent.

Examples of introductory sentences are:

“ I am writing to you because your client, John Smith, recommended I do so”

“I saw you speak at the SCBWI-LA Summer Conference last August, and I liked what you said about the importance of research in historical fiction.”

”I am writing to you because you represented TITLE by AUTHOR, and I feel my book is similar.”

Noah Lukeman, being a literary agent himself, says that a way to grab an agent’s attention is by making the letter about the agent, and not about yourself.  Referencing a title he has represented accomplishes this, and also shows the agent that we have researched him well before we even approached him.

B. The second paragraph is the Plot Paragraph. This paragraph should be limited to three sentences and should offer a short description of the plot and nothing else.

Noah Lukeman outlines common mistakes to avoid when writing a plot paragraph, as well as 4 positive traits to have in a plot paragraph. Using his book as a guide, we discussed these topics:

3 Common Mistakes to Avoid in your Plot Paragraph


1. Don’t exceed one paragraph

2. Don’t name names

3. Don’t mention subplots

4 Positive Traits to Have in Your Plot Paragraph

1. Specifics

2. Time Period

3. Location

4. Comparison


C. The Third paragraph is the author bio.


4 Common Mistakes to Avoid in Your Author Bio

1. Don’t list minor credits

2. Don’t include irrelevant information

3. Don’t be overly personal

4. Don’t forget the visuals


8 Positive Elements to Include in your Author Bio

1. Publication Credits

2. Track Record

3. Subsidiary Rights

4. Strong Industry Connections

5. Awards, Grants, Fellowships or other laurels

6. Writing-related education or prestigious residencies

7. Potential endorsements

8. Insider knowledge


PART III of our Workshop focused on the PLOT PARAGRAPH, which is actually the most important paragraph in a query letter.

Before we discussed this however, I asked everyone to read the back cover/blurb of the three books they had picked out. I gave them a few minutes to study the blurbs.

When they were done, I asked them what they noticed about the back cover. A lot of people suggested answers. I explained that book blurbs accomplish one thing: They sell the book. They make the browsing reader want to buy the book and take it home.

I had asked them to pick out three books most similar to their own for several reasons:

1. I wanted them to realize that in the same way that the goal of the book’s back cover blurb is to sell the book,  the goal of a query letter is simply to SELL THEIR STORY.

2. I wanted them to understand that there are in fact, several books out there similar to what they were writing. This might give them an idea of which agents to approach for their own book.

3. I also wanted them to get an inkling of the elements that make up a successful plot paragraph. They could study the blurbs and apply what they have learned to their own query letters.

After this BOOK BLURB EXERCISE, we proceeded to part three of our workshop.

In this part of our workshop, we discussed two techniques or guidelines for punching up our plot paragraph.

A. The first one, is derived from agent Mary Kole’s article on how to write query letters. In this article, she listed several questions which serve as guidelines for writing the plot paragraph:

  • WHO is your character?
  • WHAT is the strange thing going on in their life that throws them off their equilibrium and launches the story?
  • WHAT (or who) do they want most in the world?
  • WHO (or what) is the main character’s ally?
  • WHO (or what) is in the way of them getting what they want most in the world (their obstacle)?
  • WHAT is at stake if they don’t get what they want?

B. Elana Johnson’s ebook FROM QUERY TO THE CALL was an amazing source of information for writing the plot summary, and most of part III of our workshop on Plot Paragraph was taken from her brilliant work.

Her technique consists of four elements that need to be included in the plot paragraph:

a.   The Hook

Your hook should:

1. Sum up the novel in one sentence

2. Propel the reader to read the whole letter with interest

b. The Setup

In the setup, you have a few goals:

1. Provide a few details about who your main character is. You've hooked the agent to find out more about your main character, so give them what they want.

2. World-building information if pertinent. For fantasy and science fiction, a little taste of the world would go in the setup section of the query. For mystery, horror, thriller or other genres, including the setting here wouldn't be a bad idea.

3. The catalyst that moves the main character into the conflict. In each of the examples below (which are numbered to go with their hooks from the first part of this section), I’m going to expound on what each sentence brings to the table as far as setup. The same as in writing, what you include in the letter should have a purpose for being there.

c. The Conflict

So you've hooked and setup your query letter. Now to the part that everyone wants to readundefinedthe conflict. Every novel needs it. In fact, the more conflict, the better. In the query letter, you want to highlight the main conflict, not every single one in every single chapter. You can't even do that in the synopsis, so don't try.

Main conflict [meyn kon-flikt]: The central thing that prevents the character from getting what they want. If you didn't setup what the character wants in the setup, you can do it during the conflict. In the examples section, I’ve included the hook and the setup so you don’t have to go back and find them.

d. The Consequence

The final element you need in your query letter is the consequence. What will happen if the MC doesn't solve the problem? Doesn't get what they want? Will evil forces achieve world domination? Will her brother die? Is it a race against time across Antarctica to find the long lost jewel of the Nile? What's the consequence?

Elana Johnson also gives us several examples for each stage/ element of the plot paragraph:

This sample is taken from her own query letter:

Example:

1. Hook: In a world where Thinkers brainwash the population and Rules are not meant to be broken, fifteen-year-old Violet Schoenfeld does a hell of a job shattering them to pieces.

Setup: After committing her eighth lame ass crime (walking in the park after dark with a boy, gasp!), Vi is taken to the Green, a group of Thinkers who control the Goodgrounds. She’s found unrehabilitatable (yeah, she doesn’t think it’s a word either) and exiled to the Badlands. Good thing sexy Bad boy Jag Barque will be going too.

Conflict: Dodging Greenies and hovercopters, dealing with absent-father issues, and coming to terms with feelings for an ex-boyfriendundefinedand Jag as a possible new oneundefinedleave Vi little time for much else. (she’s got problems. Lots of them.) Which is too damn bad, because she’s more important than she realizes. (Whoa. She’s important? How so?) Vi’s main conflict is that she doesn’t know who and/or what she is. How important she is. But everyone else does. And it’s not something she’s going to

like…. This is all established in a mere 42 words.

The final blurb/plot paragraph which includes the 4th element of Consequence looks like this:

In a world where Thinkers brainwash the population and Rules are not meant to be broken, fifteen-year-old Violet Schoenfeld does a hell of a job shattering them to pieces. When secrets about her “dead” sister and not-so-missing father hit the fan, Vi must make a choice: control or be controlled.

Elana Johnson also posted links to several successful query letters, which I copied and gave as handouts to my members. I also printed copies of Elana’s free worksheets, along with a worksheet on creating a logline, which I had compiled.

In PART IV of our workshop, we discussed other things to keep in mind when writing a query letter,such as the 7 common mistakes of query letters, The 4 musts of submitting queries, 3 things not to do when submitting queries, Email queries and of course, formatting basics of a query letter.

Throughout the workshop, members asked questions, and gave their own suggestions and tips based on their own experiences.

All in all, the workshop was a smashing success. Everyone left with more handouts and worksheets than they bargained for, and an eagerness to apply what they had learned.


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