How Not To Write A Query Letter - by Liz Carter

I took part in the very motivating NaNoWriMo back in November, alongside a few other wonderful ACW members - it was wonderful seeing the lines creep up on those daily graphs, and to be able to cheer one another on. I'd recommend you have a go this year - I'll be doing it again. As a result of this, I wrote a thing. Well, a novel, to be precise, of around 100,000 words, and I'm getting it ready for submission. As I've been deep in research about synopses, first chapters and, most of all, covering letters, I thought I'd share some of my findings with you - and some of the things I've learned are not a good idea. These guidelines would apply in fiction or non fiction, but this is more about fiction in general terms - I'm working on a non fiction book as well, but the proposal stage is quite different.

To start us off, then, here's a letter to an agent:

Dear Agent,

You are going to get RICH because of my first novel, a 400,000 word thriller/space opera/historical romance hybrid, for young adults but also for everyone. I've sent you the whole novel because I know you'll be transfixed from the first page and won't be able to help yourself (but please be discrete about it and don't tell anyone I don't want anyone stealing my story OK?) - So anyway, I've made it in a different font that's bigger so it's easier for you, because I know how much you have to read!!!

Here's the plot in a nutshell: there's this guy called Dave and another guy called Darren, and they have a friend called Mark, and all of them are from the year 1575, and basically to cut a long story short they manage to time travel to the future and end up on Mars where they meet this girl called Louise and her friend who is called Clare, and another friend called Jenny, and together they basically go on an epic adventure through space, an adventure involving black holes, aliens, Storm Troopers and - my favourite part - the discovery of a new planet!! You can see why it's so good. 

It will sit alongside books by JK Rowling, Stephen King and JRR Tolkien, and be devoured by fans of all of those - in fact, they will wonder why they ever liked them so much!!

I can't wait to work with you - on that note, how much will I get paid for an advance? And how much will you take? If it's more than 5%, don't bother replying lol.


Mr U.V. Gottobejoking

Where shall we start? Let's go through the issues, and then I'll give some ideas about what we actually should write in a submission letter :)

  • The first issue is with the very first line. If a writer writes Dear Agent, or Dear Publisher, the agent/publisher in question probably won't bother to read further, as the writer didn't bother to find out their name, and they have around 100 submissions a week to get through. Address it personally, and then take some time to research that agent or publisher, and tell them why you're submitting to them - start off by showing you have done your homework, and actually care about who they are.
  • I know I don't have to tell you this, but never tell the agent that you're going to achieve success and money for them. Apparently, there's a significant percentage of writers who do exactly this - and their manuscripts go straight in the bin.
  • Try to keep your manuscript length to one that is normal for the genre. Big name authors might get away with 400,000 words, but in general it would be an immediate 'don't bother' sign for the agent. Similarly, the inability to define your genre would throw up a red flag - agents like to see that you have thought about where your book would belong in the market, and which genre fits it best. Opposing genres are even worse...
  • Never send anything but what that agent or publisher ask for, specifically, on their website. Most ask for three chapters and a synopsis, so, however amazing your book is, don't be tempted to send the whole thing 'just in case.' Some publishers have differing guidelines to the norm, so do look deep into their website and follow them to the letter. This includes sending the work in the font they ask for and the spacing they ask for. I was reading an agent's website and she said that a good 10% of submissions ignored formatting guidelines, choosing to send their work in Comic Sans 14pt or similar!
  • Spelling and grammar - need I say more?
  • When describing your book in a covering letter, be short, sweet and enticing. A rambling string of sentences introducing a load of characters is not a good idea (and, in this case, nor is the use of names that are discordant with their time period, and many other aspects of the plot described...)
  • It's a good idea to show that you've thought about authors your readers might think your book sits alongside, but don't list authors in clashing genres, or say anything about how your work is comparable, or better ('The new JK Rowling'? Nope.)
  • Never say anything about money, or what you expect from the agent.
  • Finally, sign off with a formal ending - 'cheers' won't cut it.
Having listed the pitfalls to avoid, let's think about what we should include in a query letter. After much research, I think it should probably look something like this:

Dear <Name of Agent/Publisher>,

One sentence about why you are submitting to them - maybe they represent an author in your genre, or you've met them at a festival and were impressed by their talk, or you have enjoyed several of the books on their list, namely.... because....

A sentence politely inviting them to take a look at your novel, the word count and exact genre.

An elevator pitch for the book: this is a short sentence or 'tweet' that should be compelling and inviting, bringing the agent into the core of the book and enticing them to read further. The book I'm reading at the moment, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, has this as its tag line/elevator pitch: Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?

This should then be followed by a blurb for your novel, expanding a little on the pitch but without going into any great detail - that's for the synopsis. Bring out the heart of the story, and make it sing - you want the agent to be excited about reading your chapters.

You could then include a line about books or authors you think that your book might be similar to. Rather than saying 'My book is the new Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine' say 'I think that my book would appeal to readers of Gail Honeyman'.

Then include a short bio - don't give a full CV with exactly what you've done all your life, just give a few details that relate to your writing, particularly to this book. Mention any awards, wins and other books you've written. I've thought long and hard about this one in terms of submitting to agents for the secular market, wondering how much detail to give about the writing I've done up until now, which is pretty much all for the Christian market. I've come to the conclusion that I should mention my books and other writing credits, and which market they were written for, but without going into detail (I think this should apply anyway) - but I'd be really interested to see what others think here. 

Finally, mention that you have sent the chapters and synopsis they require, and that you look forward to hearing from them, before signing off with a formal signature - I use Yours Sincerely, but others may prefer Yours, or Many Thanks, or something else - what do people think? I'm aware this is such a tiny detail, but it does seem that these tiny details matter a whole lot, because agents are looking for any reason not to spend time reading your submission, so it's up to you to give them the best reason possible to keep looking.

I'm sure I've missed some things, and would love to hear your thoughts on submission letters, what works, what doesn't work, and what mistakes you've made in the past (I certainly have!)

As a final thought, when you press send on the submission, try and forget about it and concentrate on something else. It's likely it'll be weeks or even months before you hear anything, and it can be excruciating as you wait, hovering by that inbox. This is the time to pick up a new project, or an unfinished one, or something else entirely. And, most of all, it's a time to give the whole thing over to God and ask for his guidance and blessing, and for his comfort and direction when rejections come along, always remembering that your calling to write is a gift from him, and that your words are never wasted, because you are following the creativity he has placed on your soul.

I hope that's been a little helpful today, and look forward to hearing your thoughts and experiences.

Liz Carter is an author and poet. Her latest book, Treasure in Dark Places, is a compilation of short stories and poems written through her experiences of pain and shielding through 2020. She's working on a novel and another non fiction Christian living book, and you can find her website here.

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