6 tips on writing query letters/cover letters for fiction novels

A Bad Cover Letter / Query Letter

If you’ve been looking to traditionally publish a novel, chances are you have heard the terms “query letter,” and/or “cover letter.” In case you haven’t, though, these two things are what you will typically send to either an agent or publisher to introduce your novel. You may ask yourself, “Why send a letter talking about my novel when I can just send the whole manuscript?” Well, here’s the thing: Imagine your job is to read manuscripts and judge whether or not your company is going to publish said manuscripts. Which is more efficient:

Receive thousands of manuscripts and read them to completion.

or

Get thousands of short, one page synopses and judge from those.

If it were my job, I definitely would go with the one page synopsis, and that is what a query or cover letter is. I have also found, after following some agent twitter accounts, that agents/publishers feel that individuals who are unable to write a succinct, exciting cover/query letter, typically, aren’t able to write decent novels. I don’t know how true that is, but that is definitely worth thinking about when you go to write your query letter. This is your one chance, so don’t waste it. After lots of pow-wows with published authors, and my own research/experiences, here are six tips on writing query letters:

You don’t like form letters, neither do they.

It’s, apparently, rare to receive a cover letter that isn’t the run-of-the-mill, “Dear Editors of Really Cool Books Publishing Company, LLC;” Agents and publishers seem to have grown accustom to this and find that opening as a sure sign they are either receiving a copy-paste form letter, or the person sending it didn’t take an extra few seconds to see who the editors actually are. I highly recommend you do some research, and see if there are specific editors/agents/people you can reference in the letter.

Of course, sometimes this information isn’t readily available, but if it is, make sure you take a moment to seek it out. It will show that you are making an effort in your cover letter, and that probably means you made the extra effort in your novel, too. Plus, if you’ve ever received a rejection letter, it’s pretty annoying to get a standard, copy-paste rejection. It probably feels the same on the agent/publisher end when they get query letters.

Don’t go overboard with the creativity.

Yes, you’re an artist. Yes, you’re probably up against a ton of stiff competition. Even so, you don’t want to stand out in a bad way. There are some standards when it comes to query letter formatting: 12-point font, Arial or Times New Roman font, black text color, your contact information, single-spaced at the top of the page, agent/publisher contact information under that, also single-spaced, left justified text overall, one page, boom. That’s pretty standard, and there are reasons this is the standard. The font choices tend to be the easiest to read, black text is easier to read on white paper, etc. Your creativity should be focused on the content of your query letter, not on the format.

ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS read their guidelines first.

Do not. DO. NOT. ever assume a publisher is going to follow the same standard as the last fifty you queried. There are standard formats, but there will always be someone who has a preference. Don’t get tossed out because of something as insignificant as font size or style. Always assume this new publisher/agent is going to want something different. Even if all fifty want the same thing, don’t assume that until you’ve read their guidelines. I cannot emphasize this enough.

Read them. There is a reason they have them, and while you may think it is silly or insignificant, you will only be hurting yourself in the long run if you don’t follow them. Of course, if something seems unclear, contact the person/group you are querying. Most places do provide some kind of email/phone number for queries other than publication. It’s better to be safe than sorry, so call, email, tweet, whatever. Make sure you are meeting all of their requirements. It can only help your chances.

It’s actually good to have a pre-written cover letter ready.

This may seem a bit contradictory to my first tip, but hear me out. It’s one thing to have a template, it’s another to have something you just copy and paste and send out to every single publisher you come across. I highly recommend creating a template for yourself, so you have something to go off of when you write your cover letters. They say the hardest part is starting, so if you have something you have already started on, it should be much easier to get done, and get it done right. This piece of advice actually came from one of my professors who was teaching us how to write personal statements. I actually feel personal statements are a lot like query letters. Don’t know what a personal statement is? I got you:

Write it like a personal statement.

What is a personal statement? It’s a statement about you. Your who, what, when, where, and how, in a paragraph or a page. It’s like your elevator pitch, but longer. What is an elevator pitch? For the sake of publishing, it’s like seeing your dream agent in an elevator, and you only have until the next floor to let them know why they should take you on and help publish your novel. You want to show them you’re a competent author and that you can tell a story with skill and creativity.

Most personal statements are actually narrative-based, which fits right in with what a query letter is. You want to think of this as your personal statement into the publishing world. However, instead of being all about you, this is all about your novel. If you have a personal statement that you used to get into a job or an education program, pull it out and have a look. If you don’t have one, there is someone out there who does. Get one from a friend, read some online that were successful, and pretend that statement is about your book, as opposed to yourself.

Read other query letters, or read the back cover of some books.

There are loads of blogs out there from agents and publishers with successful and unsuccessful query letters (one of my faves is Query Shark). Check them out. Read what worked and what didn’t work. I would also recommend going to a book store, find whatever genre your novel fits in, and read some of the back covers or the inner-sleeves. You know those book descriptions on Goodreads? Read some of those, too.

Those were written to sell the book to consumers. Your agent/publisher is your first consumer. You want them to think they can sell this book, so read some book descriptions in books that you love or that are successful in your genre. Take notes on what they are doing, and take that back to your own query letter. Sell your book.

There you have it, my six tips and tricks on writing query letters. What do you think? Was this useful? Have you written any query letters? Please feel free to share your own tips, tricks, and experiences. Comment below, and let me know.

Thanks for reading.

Lissy

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9 Things you need to know before you start to query.

The QueryShark badge

Not too long ago, I wrote a post on how to format a manuscript. Then, I wrote a post on things you need to know to traditionally publish.

Now it is time to learn how to actually go about getting published.

The number one thing you need to learn to land an agent or publishing deal is to query.

What is a query you might ask?

The simplest way I can think to explain it is to go to your bookshelf/book pile, pluck your favorite book off the top, and take a look at the back cover or the inside flap where the description of the book is.

This is essentially a query.

It is a brief description of your book that will entice readers (or agents, or publishers) to read pages. It is your marketing plan without actually saying, “Please, oh please, read me.”

Want to know how to write a back cover blurb? Click here to read my tips and tricks!

90% of what you need to put in a query is what you would want to put on the back of your book. Here is what you need to know before you start querying:

  1. READ THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES
    I can’t say this enough. There is an industry standard when it comes to querying, but that doesn’t mean every single agent will have the same exact guidelines. Like I’ve said before, the number one reason for rejection is not reading the guidelines and being auto-rejected because the agent feels you are wasting their time. If you couldn’t take the time to read the guidelines, how could you have taken the time to polish your manuscript? To polish the query you’re sending to them? Just do it. Those five minutes you spend reading guidelines could very well make the difference between a request for pages and a form rejection.
  2. YOU WILL BE QUERYING MORE AGENTS THAN PUBLISHING HOUSES
    That’s just how it is. Most publishers won’t take you on unless you are represented by an agent – someone who knows the business. They are the gatekeepers. So don’t be surprised when you go on the hunt for publishers and no one is taking unsolicited, unrepresented authors. It’s to protect them from the ever-growing slush pile agents are having to sift through. Plus, they don’t want to have any legal battles with an unrepresented author who may not understand certain contracts or conditions. It’s just the business.
  3. YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE PUBLISHING CREDITS
    You don’t. They’re nice, sure, but you don’t have to have them. Don’t make it out like it is a huge deal either. Just at the end of your query, before your closing, simply put (… this is my first novel.) Simple. You aren’t the focus in a query. Your manuscript is. Don’t get hung up on the finer details.
  4. EDIT YOUR QUERY AS MUCH AS YOU EDITED YOUR NOVEL
    A standard query should be one page long. No more. Granted, there are exceptions, but for the most part, you shouldn’t go past a page. You want to take your novel, strip it down to the bare, bare bones without giving away the ending and there is your query. It sounds easier than it actually is. You should have as many revisions of your query as you did your novel. If you haven’t even revised your novel, don’t write a query. Want tips on editing a query? Click here!
  5. DON’T QUERY UNTIL THE NOVEL IS DONE
    You’re querying for a deal. In exchange for this deal of representation, you provide a finished and polished novel.
  6. MOST QUERIES SHOULD BE IN THIRD PERSON
    Even if your novel is in first-person, most first person queries are seen as gimmicks. What is third person? He, she, it. He did this. She said this. It did such and such.
  7. FORMATTING (SOLELY FOR EMAILS. READ THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES FOR FURTHER INSTRUCTION. SHOULD BE PASTED IN THE BODY OF THE EMAIL)
    Dear Agent Name,Ashley Judd insertdramaticvoiceandstunningrevelationsoftriumphloveandacceptance, yatta yatta, blah, blah, blah.

    THE DRAMATIC VOICE AND STUNNING REVELATIONS is a horror novel complete at 45,000 words. It is my debut novel.

    Thank you for your time and consideration.

    Alyssa Hubbard

  8. DO NOT INCLUDE YOUR MANUSCRIPT, LINKS, OR ATTACHMENTS IF QUERYING BY EMAIL
    Certain spam filters hate links and attachments. Any and all queries, if requested by email, should be put into the body of the email. It shouldn’t be a wall of text. Make some white space. Don’t include anything that isn’t requested by the agent. Do not submit to an agent that just wants your full manuscript without prior query. That should be a red flag. A synopsis is fine, but only if it is in the guidelines.
  9. READ AS MANY QUERIES AS POSSIBLE
    The best way to learn how to write is to write and to read. The best way to learn to query is to read and write queries. My favorite query website is QueryShark. It’s a wonderful place to read bad queries, their revisions, and an actual agent’s feelings on queries. That blog is an extremely valuable tool that I visit quite often. You should, too.

How do you feel about these tips? Are you query ready? Have you queryed before? What has been your experience? Let me know, and comment below.

Thanks for reading.

-Lissy

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