Writing A Query Letter. Or Seven.

When I first thought I might try to get published, I didn’t really know how to go about it. To be honest, after all I have since learned and experienced, I can’t really remember what I thought. I think I had a vague idea that I would send out my whole novel, and some cheerful coffee-sipping editor would immediately become hooked, read all day, and send an offer immediately. Ha, so naïve.
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Once I did some research, I quickly discovered I knew nothing about the process. I was like the writer’s version of Jon Snow (sorry, he’s pretty much what I think of when I hear any variation of the phrase ‘know nothing’ now. Apparently Game of Thrones has permeated my consciousness in ways I hadn’t realized before now). Luckily, there are a ton of resources to help aspiring writers learn how to infiltrate the confusing and intricate world of publishing. I started out by going to the library and getting copies of Writer’s Market: Where and How to Sell What You Write and the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents. Both of these have new versions every year, and I think you might be able to subscribe online too.

I wanted to go the traditional route to getting published, and it turned out that this meant I would need a literary agent, as most of the big publishing houses do not read unsolicited manuscripts. I liked the idea of having an agent anyway; someone who understood the contract side of things and met with editors and everything sounded very helpful and encouraging.

The first thing you need for the agent search is a query letter, a one page letter that describing your manuscript, similar to the back cover of a book, and any writing credentials. My query letter for Red Sky went through five revisions before I settled on the final one, which I’ll post in a bit. Every agent has slightly different specifications for what they want in a query package, so sometimes I would also have to include a sample of the story – anywhere from three pages to three chapters – and a synopsis. (By the way, writing a brief but complete synopsis of your book is not fun, and I found it to be the most difficult part. Maybe I’ll do a post about synopses later).

There are some wonderful resources for query letter help, including Query Shark, AbsoluteWrite, and Querytracker.com. The latter is great, because not only can you use it to track how many agents you have queried, there are also forums, including one dedicated to writers helping each other out by critiquing query letters. I learned more from reading other people’s queries and seeing what worked than I did from just hearing advice on my own. There are lots of writer and agent blog posts out there too that offer great advice, too.

Writing a query letter is great writing practise, I think, even for a writer who isn’t seriously considering getting published. To summarize your story in an intriguing way, without giving away the ending, while conveying the tone of the book, somehow making the central characters stand out, and keep it to one page forces some thrifty word usage. It’s probably worth mentioning here that the query letter for Red Sky was not the first I wrote, and the query I wrote for a previous manuscript went through more than five incarnations. Probably like thirteen.

Through all of this, the best query writing advice I learned came from Slushpile Hell. Essentially, don’t be like any of the egotistical or incompetent people that get poked fun at on this site.

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Here is my final query letter, the one that lead to signing an agreement with my agent. More on that process soon!

Dear Ms. Pestritto,

Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach has a good reason for everything he does. When he takes amateur pirate Stede Bonnet under his wing, it’s to take advantage of the fool, not to mentor him. The same principle follows for his thoughts of turning honest. Despite what his crewmen might say if they knew, he isn’t turning soft. Blackbeard knows what he wants.

He wants the comfortable retirement that his friend Sam Bellamy, recently perished in a sea-wreck, never had. Though he never before saw himself as a marrying man, he wants Eleanor Lewis, the girl whose fiery attitude doesn’t match her demure beauty. And dear God, he needs to be rid of inept Stede Bonnet before he drives him mad.

When King George I issues a pardon for all pirates who gives up their thieving ways within a year, Blackbeard sees his chance to accomplish it all. All he needs to do is pretend to repent for his years of piracy, and the future could be quite comfortable indeed.

Blackbeard has made many enemies over the years, though, men who are not prepared to forgive him just because of a king’s pardon. Despite all his cunning, Blackbeard finds himself locked in a ruthless battle where his only options are victory or death, because he sure as hell isn’t going to be taken alive.

RED SKY IN THE MORNING is a work of historical fiction, complete at 99,100 words. I first became interested in writing about Blackbeard while skimming through a book about pirates and discovering that, despite his fierce reputation, he was less vicious than many of them, and charming enough to forge political alliances.

From 2008 to 2011, I wrote on a volunteer basis for the books section of Press+1, an online entertainment magazine. I have an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Communications Studies.

Following your submission guidelines, I have included the first three chapters in the body of the email. Thank you for considering RED SKY IN THE MORNING.

Cordially,

Meghan Masterson

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9 thoughts on “Writing A Query Letter. Or Seven.

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