Monday, April 21, 2008

On Query Letters

I often hear from writers that writing the letter to initially contact an agent – i.e., the so-called "query letter" – is the hardest part of this business. One comment – typical – from an author: "My query letter took about 3 months to get it into the shape I sent out. Frankly, even that query wasn't terrific."

This is something that I just don’t understand. If the book's the best it can be, if this book is a culmination of all you've learned and thought about and dreamed and wanted in a book, that's enough. The cover letter you write to agents is the logical outcome of the book itself, of your ability to sum it up concisely and well, and show the kind of passion you feel for it. If you can't write that kind of letter, if you aren't that passionate, ... well, obviously, maybe you need to write a new book that does make you feel that way.

If you, as a writer, can truly write, if you’ve really learned your craft so that writing is like breathing, the cover letter just comes out. It may not be as business-oriented as some agents (or editors) would like, but I also think that we agents and editors will cut people a lot of slack, if the writing and voice are there - we're all looking for that wonderful, glorious, fabulous writing – the kind of thing that will and does come out in the cover letter.

Or, just maybe, good writing comes out in the cover letter unless the author's too daunted and intimidated and disheartened by this truly weird process to let the writing flow out naturally. (This may especially true for fiction writers, since they tend to be more left-brain-oriented, while letter-writing seems to be more of a right-brained activity). The novelist Sandra Kring (not my client, by the way, but definitely read her books – including her latest, Thank You For All Things, which came out in October 2007) wrote once, "The type of writing a query requires is so far removed from the kind of writing a fiction writer does that, to me, it’s the equivalent of a dancer going to audition for the role of The Sugar Plum Fairy, and being made to stand perfectly still and DESCRIBE her movements, rather than simply being allowed to dance. Unless that dancer, then, is also a singer and has a way with words, that dancer may the most incredible Sugar Plum Fairy that troop will ever see, but the dance company will never know this."

I don’t disagree with Sandra, but I do think that query letters are creative. You need to keep that in mind. They're a creative, short, extremely condensed chunk of your book. They're not really "business" letters – unless you're writing a business book. As it is, I always think the best query letters are the ones that are written to me as if I’m already an acquaintance - not too familiar, but also not written in businessese or legalese.

The query letters that really grab my attention are letters that have the writer's own individual flair to them. Where I can hear the voice, where I can feel the mastery that the writer has over the language. That voice needs to be in there. I know that a lot of people will try to turn this kind of thing into a science (how much of a "pitch" there should be; what kind of "hook" is successful, and all that kind of nonsense); frankly I don't honestly care that much, and I sure don’t think about it when I rip open the envelope - all I want, when I read a cover letter, is to be sufficiently intrigued to turn to the next pages (assuming that the author's sent those next pages with the query). Generally that happens because something about the writing grabs me, right from the first sentence.

There are a lot of times when something else, other than the writing, will grab me - the author's platform, usually (but the box of chocolates never hurts, you know) (I'm KIDDING here - do NOT send gifts) (well, maybe one or two) (small ones), and then I'll turn the page anyway and take a look at that first page of the manuscript.

But I swear - I wish you could sit here and look at the pile of unsolicited material I get - and I do NOT want to spend my day (or my assistant's day) going through it. When I tear open that envelope, I want something to spark, ignite, burn on those pages inside. And, in most cases, what sparks is the writing. So if you can't write, and can't express yourself concisely, .... um ...

Sound Byte To Take Away From This Posting:

Query Letters should be:

  1. Concise (one page, max);
  2. Have, somewhere in them, a very brief paragraph that sums up the book in a sentence or two [and ideally that log-line should generate a “wow” response from your reader];
  3. Convey the author’s creativity, enthusiasm, and passion for the project;
  4. Have something about them that sets them apart from the mundane (usually that’s the premise or the author’s credentials, or both).

Let me give you an example. When the email query, below, crossed my desk, I responded within a couple of hours. I’ve put my comments in bold, and hope they don’t prove too distracting:

From: Garth Stein
To: Jeff Kleinman
Re: Query: “The Art of Racing in the Rain” Putting both the words “Query” and the title of the book on the subject line makes it clear why you’re writing – and it often keeps your email from falling into the spam folder.

Dear Mr. Kleinman: Address your letter to a single individual. The proper way of opening business correspondence is “Dear [Title] Last Name]:”. Be sure you spell the name right.

Saturday night I was participating in a fundraiser for the King County Library System out here in the Pacific Northwest, and I met your client, Layne Maheu. He spoke very highly of you and suggested that I contact you.... One of the best ways of starting out correspondence is figuring out your connection to the agent. It’s always best to have a referral, but if you don’t know a lot of writers, try to determine if the agent represents any authors you like. Similarly, find first novels you really love, and look in the acknowledgments section - it’s where most authors thank their agent.

I am a Seattle writer with two published novels. Cool – so the author has some kind of track record. Who’s the publisher, though? Was these both self-published novels, or were there reputable publishers involved? (I’ll read on, and hope I find out.) I have recently completed my third novel, "The Art of Racing in the Rain," and I find myself in a difficult situation: my new book is narrated by a dog, and my current agent ah-ha, so he had an agent. This seems more and more promising. told me that he cannot (or will not) sell it for that very reason. Thus, I am seeking new representation. This kind of approach can backfire, because we agents tend to be like sheep – what one doesn’t like, the rest of us are wary of, too (or, conversely, what one likes, we all like). But in this case getting in the “two published novels” early is definitely helpful. Also, there’s something in the “Thus” that, to me, spoke of the author’s determination not to give up just because one agent didn’t like it.

"The Art of Racing in the Rain" is the story of Denny Swift, a race car driver who faces profound obstacles in his life, and ultimately overcomes them by applying the same techniques that have made him successful on the track. His story is narrated by his "philosopher dog," Enzo, who, having a nearly human soul (and an obsession with opposable thumbs), believes he will return as a man in his next lifetime. Great log-line. Here’s the one-sentence description of the book – sums it up, gives us a feel for what we’re going to get. It’s short and gets the job done. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF YOUR LETTER.

My last novel, "How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets," won a 2006 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award, Ah, good, and the author’s winning awards. This is exactly the kind of thing agents (and editors) like to see. and since the award ceremony a year ago, I have given many readings, workshops, and lectures promoting the book Also good – the author’s not afraid of promoting the book himself.. When time has permitted, I've read the first chapter from "The Art of Racing in the Rain." Audience members have been universally enthusiastic and vocal in their response, and the first question asked is always: "When can I buy the book about the dog?" Also very positive. By now I’m salivating, wanting to see this.

I'm inserting, below, a short synopsis of "The Art of Racing in the Rain," and my biography. Great that he didn’t put either of these things directly into the letter, that he separated them out to allow the letter to be brief and to the point. Please let me know if the novel interests you; I would be happy to send you the manuscript. Simple, easy ending – doesn’t speak of desperation, or doubt, or anything other than polite willingness to help. And all the punctuation was in the right spot.


Garth Stein

That’s it. He’s done. Mission accomplished.

Of course, the manuscript itself has to deliver on its promise – but we’ll save that for another discussion sometime soon.

[Not to leave you dangling: Garth’s manuscript more than delivered on its promise. Harper is publishing it in the near future, May 2008, and you should run out immediately and get a copy. Here’s a link to his website,]