Elements of a Query Letter

Hey people – I’m part of a query workshop at LTUE on Friday at 10 AM. I’m putting this post together primarily as reference material for that event, but it should be useful for anyone writing a query letter.

General Advice:

  • Try to keep it as close to 250-300 words as possible. Shorter = Better.
  • I like to use a lot of spacing. Short sentences. Short paragraphs.
  • Have a complete work to pitch if you are a debut author
  • Follow the damn submission guidelines
  • Prepare your favorite anxiety remedy. I like chocolate.
  • Check out:
  • See my query that worked HERE 

 

Here’s the basic structure I used for my query:

1st Paragraph: Intro, or the Personal Hook

  1. Personalize the Letter:
    1. Address it to the agent
    2. Have and mention the specific reason you are querying them
      1. Also, have a specific reason to query them
  2. Intro your work:
    1. Genre
    2. Title
    3. Status (Complete?)
    4. Length in word count

2nd/3rd Paragraphs: The Story Hook

  1. Intro your primary character(s)
    1. Use the same tone/style as your manuscript
  2. Intro the scene/setting
  3. Present the conflict/inciting incident
  4. Dramatic statement

4th Paragraph: Summarize the theme

5th Paragraph: Info about you/your work

  1. Compare your work to similar works, if you wish
  2. Is this your first work, or do you have other published works of note?
  3. Do you have some relevant qualification to be writing what you are? Mention it.
  4. I chose to also mention that I’m working on the next book in the series to signal that it is not a standalone novel

6th Paragraph: If attachments or inclusions are asked for in the agent’s/publisher’s guidelines, mention them here and ask to send a full MS.

Sign off w/ your personal info

 

Good luck! Go query, my friends.

 

-Scott

The Query That Worked

Hey.

I should have done this long since, but I thought I’d post (most of) the successful query letter that I sent to Matt last year. I know that when I was putting together the query for the book that I’ve worked so hard on, finding query letters that were successful (especially recent ones) was like finding a bag of cash lying in the street. A lot of cash.

So, here’s mine (below). I’ve generalized some parts, even though I only ever queried one agent. Keep in mind that I wrote this entire query specifically to target Matt, but if I’d had to move on to the other agents on my “A List”, I likely would have sent out versions of the same letter. I could (and am tempted to) go into detail about each piece of the query, but really I shouldn’t. I’m not the expert on it, I just happened to write one that worked. Visit queryshark and just google how to write a good query. You’ll find many examples and advice from agents. Some of them will contradict each other, but you should get a good feel for what you want to do.

Dear [Favorite Agent],

[Insert paragraph personalized for each specific agent. If you can’t put your reason for querying that individual into words, I wouldn’t bother querying them. For Matt, I mentioned that I met him at a convention and that I had done homework on his work with other authors and appreciated his work on their behalf.] Please consider my fantasy novel IRE, complete at 162,000 words:

Emrael Ire is a young man of many ambitions, despite being so poor that his boots are more hole than leather. He and his genius brother Ban work hard to build themselves a better life at the Citadel, a school that teaches Infusion crafting and military arts. Emrael may lack his brother’s ability with Infusion crafting, but that doesn’t stop him from finding a way to succeed as the most dangerous warrior in the school.

He is well on his way to earning the title of Master of War and the inevitable wealth it commands when the power hungry Lord Governor of a neighboring Province attacks the Citadel. Emrael narrowly escapes, but Ban and other Citadel students are captured and enslaved for their talent as Infusion crafters. A desperate struggle to rescue Ban turns into a conflict that threatens to tear Emrael’s world apart.

IRE is the tale of a man who will stop at nothing to protect his family and achieve his dreams, even when suspiciously coordinated disasters leave Emrael with no choice but to try to save his brother on his own – no matter the price.

IRE will appeal to lovers of fast-paced fantasy series like The Dresden Files and The First Law. It is the first novel for which I am seeking publication, and I am currently working on the next book in the series.

I have attached the first three chapters of my book per your submission guidelines. May I send you the full manuscript?

Thank you for your consideration.

 

Scott Drakeford

[Other personal info here]

Scottdrakeford.com

 

Finishing Books and Other Stuff I Like

I just finished my book… again. There will be plenty of tweaks to make still, but I’m starting to look forward to when my agent will submit the manuscript to publishers. It may still be quite a ways out depending on how we feel about the current state, and there’s no way to know how it will go. But here’s one author’s account of how the process went for him.

That type of contract would be a dream come true. It will allow me to make writing my primary pursuit sooner rather than later, and start pumping out books like crazy. I hear of authors like Sanderson and Larry Correia writing 2-3 books per year, and that sounds freaking awesome. I’m fairly certain that I can produce at or near that level if the finances are there to free up the time.

I’m doing what I love, obsessed with quality and success (ask my wife, apparently it gets old), willing to put in silly amounts of work, I signed with a great agent who not only knows the book business but is a great resource in improving the quality of my work, and most importantly: my wife is incredibly supportive. No matter what, I’ll make this work, and in five years I’ll have a solid writing career and several books “on the shelves”. The quality of the upcoming contract really just affects the number of books I’ll have on the shelves in five years, and how quickly I’ll be able to dedicate a large number of hours to writing all of the books that I’d like to write.

— Okay, now to ramble about some stuff I’ve enjoyed lately —

Speaking (or typing?) of Jay Kristoff, he’s an awesome person and everyone should check out his books and his blog – if you enjoy nerdy writing blogs. I received his latest book Illuminae as a Christmas gift (thanks Molly) and I’m really enjoying it so far. I’ll rate and review when I finish.

I feel extremely fortunate to have an awesome agent – Matt Bialer – who provides valuable feedback on my manuscript. I honestly don’t know what the “norm” is for agents, but he’s great. Assuming that one day aspiring authors read this, I’d highly recommend submitting to him. I hear his junior agent Lindsay Ribar is also awesome, but I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting/corresponding with her yet.

George R. R. Martin – So I’ve intended for quite a while to get actual reviews of his books up, but haven’t found the time. Wife, Baby, my book, work, and actually reading for fun (I’m still an addict) have all taken precedence. I’ll write an actual review someday, but for now let me just say that George is so damn good at what he does. All of his acclaim is very justified. I held off reading them for years because I figured that people only liked them because of the HBO series, and because he takes like 6 years to write each book and I can’t handle another multi-decade “wait for it…”marathon like the Wheel of Time ended up being. But I read the first book and was hooked. They are SUPER not family friendly, especially later books, but holy cow that old man can write. His world is believable and incredibly well thought out, his characters are “real” and unpredictable, and the storyline is somewhat predictable as an overarching plot, but everything in between is up for grabs. So if your soul can withstand a little (okay, a lot of) horrible language, check it out. ESPECIALLY if you watched the HBO series. I haven’t watched it but I guarantee the books are better. They are like the Bible for writers who want to learn how to handle a true epic fantasy series with tons of POV characters. Yeah yeah, I hear you bitching about how “nothing happened” and “all my favorite people died” and “the last two books weren’t as good”. Well, shut your mouth, because this crazy old man just did the literary equivalent of dunking over every other epic fantasy author ever, and sadly that includes Robert Jordan, as much as I still absolutely love the Wheel of Time. (Yeah, that’s right. I dare you to get that picture out of your head now. George RR Martin dunking on you. Flamed-out suspenders and goofy hat and all. And probably unholy amounts of belly sweat like this.) Even after killing everybody we cared about, YOU STILL KEPT READING, and you WILL buy the next book(s). He owned you/us. Pwned, even.

Phew, okay, breathe. Last, but certainly not least, Larry Correia. I saw him at Salt Lake Comic Con and thought he seemed like a pretty cool dude. And he pronounces his last name like “korea” and I’m pretty sure he knows he’s saying it wrong – it’s (Co – Hey – Uh) and you know it. Say your name right, LARRY! Own it, man. Anywho, that’s why I even remembered this guy. I’m not super connected with the fantasy world and still haven’t heard of a lot of great books/authors, but honestly I’ve been burned on a lot of books I’ve picked up that turned out to be really bad, though other people inexplicably like them. I won’t be specific about any of them, because that’s rude. Okay back on track. Long story short, Larry Corriea is an awesome writer, and the first book of his Monster Hunter International book is free on Kindle. Go get it. Now. Sure, his prose isn’t “refined” and he doesn’t “follow all of the rules” and his plot lines are “predictable”. But he is SO GOOD at building a good story, with great characters, and most of all – he KILLS at emotional and fast paced fun-readin’. And apparently this dude lives in my home state. I’m hoping to run into him and talk shop someday.

Alright, that’s enough for today.

-Scott

Agent Success – Matt Bialer

Mr. Matt Bialer from SJGA will be representing my first novel, IRE. I am elated to be working with him, as he’s the agent I’ve targeted from the very beginning.

An awkward 2 minute conversation back in 2013 was the turning point that led me here.

The story begins way back in 2012 when I got serious about writing my perfect book, and making it a bestselling novel/series. Being the obsessive optimist that I am, as I wrote I also researched the process of getting published. And if one wants to be published by a traditional publisher (the books you see at Barnes and Noble, for example), you need an agent. Preferably an agent who knows what they are doing.

I compiled a short A-list and a longer B-list of agents to query when ready. I have another post about general characteristics I looked for in an agent. And then in 2013, I found out that the World Fantasy Convention 2013 was going to be held in England, and a few of my A list agents were planning to attend. On a whim, I told my wife that it might be nice to go to the conference and visit her extended family in England. To my surprise, she agreed.

In October of 2013, Kailey and I arrived in Brighton, England after much lugging of luggage in “the tube” and a train. I was very much looking forward to meeting Mr. Bialer, but didn’t know how or when I’d have that opportunity because the conference didn’t have pitch sessions or many official opportunities to meet agents. Luckily, one of his clients (Patrick Rothfuss) happens to be a favorite author of mine, and was at the conference as well.

Kailey and I attended every event Rothfuss was involved in (and even ran into him on the street), and we got lucky. Matt was loitering about outside of Pat’s reading session with a few other people. I ambushed him. Though he surely had more important people to talk to, Matt was kind enough to talk to me for a moment, and he gave me his card when I asked if I needed to win the Writers of the Future contest (like Pat did) for him to be interested in representing the book I was writing.

At that point I thought I was a few months away from submitting to agents. Well, 18 months or so later, I did submit. I sent my book to Matt as an exclusive query because I was so set on him. To my surprise, he responded immediately, asking me to contact him again if I didn’t hear from him. Most agents, including Matt, have an 8-week period during which they’ll consider your work, and if they are interested, will contact you; if not, silence is to be interpreted as a ‘no’. So I waited approximately 8 weeks (a little longer, because my wife and I had a little girl during that period), and contacted him again. Matt allowed me to send my full manuscript at that point, and approximately 2 weeks later, he responded again.

I was just about to enter an important meeting at work when I saw his response saying that he wanted to represent my book. I don’t think I heard a single word in that meeting, because my mind was racing with excitement and ideas born from Matt’s analysis of my book.

This is a good spot to point out that Matt’s email was a solid indication that he is everything I have hoped. He gave me some insight that will prove to be very valuable and will make my novel a much more enjoyable read. And when I had a follow up call with him, I was further convinced that he is a person who not only knows his business, but will be great to work with.

And so it is that I will be working with Mr. Bialer.

It’s happening.

-Scott

Literary Agents and Why I Want One

At a very basic level, literary agents take a 15% cut of the amount their authors make in exchange for selling your book to a publisher. They should have the contacts to make that happen. Essentially, they are gate keepers for the publishers. But that’s not all! They’ll typically handle the funds coming from a publisher, negotiate contracts, and the good ones will even help you edit your book.

Whether to acquire a literary agent is a debate I’ve seen circling among writers on the interwebs for a few years now.

One side of the spectrum would seemingly give a precious body part just to have ANY agent. It seems to be a mark of validation for these people, a sign to themselves and others that they are legitimate writers. I get it. It can be hard to justify thousands of hours spent writing, especially to loved ones who have to put up with you sitting in front of a computer all the time. Having official representation (validation) would feel great.

The other side of the spectrum not only balks at giving up 15%, but does not see any value added by an agent (and usually they don’t see any value in establishing a relationship with a publisher in this era of Amazon e-publishing). I also understand where this camp is coming from. I’m very entrepreneurial by nature, and being able to control my own future has a lot of appeal.

However, I fall somewhere in the middle. I realize that my 15% will be well spent if I get the right agent. But I don’t want just any old agent. Some pretty standard criteria to look for are things like past sales in your genre and experience with publishing in general. The things that I am specifically looking for in an agent are:

  • Willingness and ability to help edit a book into elite shape
    • Ever read a book with more than 5 typos in the first chapter? I haven’t. You know why? Because they suck. I put them down and typically refuse to read anything from that author again. If an “author” can’t take the time to catch glaring grammatical errors, I know they won’t have put work into crafting engaging characters or story arcs. Editing is usually associated with publishers, but many of my favorite authors seem to have agents who also aid with editing. The typo example is only a small part of what a good agent should be able to help you catch. Story lines, characters, consistency, style, and flow should all be part of the deal. I look forward to working with a knowledgeable agent who can help my book be the best version of itself.
  •  Legal and financial expertise
    • These guys will be negotiating my contracts and handling all of my money. They had better have their shit together.
  •  Approachability/people skills
    • I have only met a few literary agents, most of them at the World Fantasy Convention 2013. Even with just a few days to meet and observe them, however, it quickly became clear that not all agents are created equal. I think the skill set of a good agent is a pretty diverse one, and that’s why certain successful ones are in such high demand. Some may excel at editing and the creative portion of the writing process, but not have the business acumen to secure great contracts. A serious author should demand both from an agent.
  • Selectivity
    • I want an agent who is extremely selective. These agents are likely to spend the time and effort on each of their authors necessary to make them a success. It’s a quality over quantity mindset, and that benefits the author as well as the agent.

I may write some future blog posts highlighting some of the literary agents I have found that seem to fit these criteria. They are some of the agents I’ll be querying relatively soon.

Book Progress…10 months Later. Revising/editing process, and so on.

Well. For the 20 or so of you who have read my previous posts and are reading this, I regret to inform you that didn’t meet my goal of having a manuscript sent to agents by the end of 2013.

I have a bunch of awesome excuses as to why, but the most relevant reason I use to defer accountability is that I didn’t stop Book 1 at 125,000 words. Draft 1 stopped at 170,000 words. Draft 1.5 is currently at 167,000 words after some editing.

That’s 670 pages in Word when using standard manuscript format. I don’t feel too bad about taking two years to write that much, time constraints considered. Remember complaining about a 20 page paper in college? Yeah. I win.

In fact, that’ s probably at least as long as most Dissertations…though to be fair, I did get to fabricate my entire novel. But let’s be honest, most crap coming out of Universities these days contains almost as much fiction as any fantasy novel. Cry-baby PhD candidates.

Anywho, revising a manuscript is a much more complicated process than I anticipated. I had talked myself into believing that I could just do one read-through, editing as I went, and I’d be good to go. But, the story keeps evolving, and now I have 3 or 4 pages of a bulleted list of edits to make. Before my read-through revision.

I’m loathe to even attempt a guess at when I’ll finally have my book into the hands of beta readers, much less when I’ll have sent queries out to my preferred literary agents. But, I can’t help myself, and ever the optimist, I’m going to set a goal of querying around the end of the year.

That means that most of the people who take the time to have read this far will likely read some form of my book this year, which is pretty cool.

Stories about World Fantasy Convention 2013 and ramblings about traditional vs. self publication to follow shortly.

-Scott

500 Pages (125,000 Words)

Well, “Life” happened, and my writing pace has slowed down considerably. Not so long ago, I had hoped to be done with not only the first draft of my manuscript by now, but with my preliminary edits as well. I had hoped to have the manuscript in the hands of a few trusted alpha readers.

Alas, several factors have thwarted my plans. First and most importantly, my story didn’t like being held to the 450-500 page limit I had so foolishly tried to impose on it. My manuscript currently sits at 500 pages even, and I’d be optimistic to guess that a final page count would be near 550. A more realistic (albeit likely still naïve) guess would be somewhere between 550-600 manuscript pages.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Readers that will be buying my book in the future will be getting more story for their money. The story is more fully developed and has some cool scenes that I hadn’t planned on including.

However, “the powers that be” are supposedly looking for epic fantasy stories in the ballpark of 125,000 words or less, which translates into 500 pages or less of manuscript. I don’t blame them one bit for this guideline, either. They have very good reasons to ask for a smaller manuscript from a first time author, as longer books will generally need more work to become sale-able, meaning longer books as a general rule will net them less profit.

This will make it harder for me to convince a smart, business-minded agent that my book is one they want to represent. But the thing that matters most to me is that my book is the best it can be, and I believe that will speak much more strongly in my favor than “the right word count”.

The other “Real Life” factor that has slowed my writing is that I have recently found a new job. I am incredibly excited about the change, and as far as “jobs” that aren’t my dream job of being a career author go, it is probably as awesome as I’m going to find. But as many of you likely know, there is a considerable time and stress investment that comes with not only working full time but in finding a new, better job opportunity.

Here’s to chasing our dreams and to the struggles that happen in the background. I’m reinvesting myself in writing, and I promise I’ll have a book for you guys to read before too long. My new goal is to finish my first draft and preliminary edits by the time I go to the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton England at the end of October. I’ll also do my best to keep you updated more frequently.

-SD

Publishing Process for New Authors

I may have unintentionally deceived some of you with my previous blog entry. I do not currently have anything lined up as far as publishing goes. That process begins when you have not just a complete first draft, but a complete fourth or fifth draft, or however many drafts it takes to turn the manuscript into a polished, sellable book.

I’m currently on page 386 of my first draft, and I’m planning on wrapping things up around 450 pages…if the story wants to wrap up that soon, that is. My writing rarely turns out exactly as I think it will, but that’s the subject of another blog post.

It has taken me nearly seven months of writing evenings, weekends, and every spare minute I can to get to 386 pages. Yes, much of that time has been spent climbing the steep hill that was my learning curve at the outset of my writing career, but the point is that writing takes a lot of time. If I’m to be realistic, I probably won’t be done with my first draft for several weeks. My list of planned edits is rather large, so those will take at least another month or two, and will only be that fast because I’m a much better editor than writer.

All of this tedious information means that the process will begin here in a few months. I’m shooting for late September.

The first step in the process is querying a literary agent who represents your genre and is open to new clients. Many new authors don’t seem to care who their agent is as long as they are reportedly a real person. I, however, have my heart set on a select few agents (or agencies) who will remain nameless for now, because I want them all for myself. I’m probably setting myself up for disappointment since the statistical odds of securing a deal with any one agent sit around 3% (according to the blog of one of the agents I am stalking), but I’m going for them anyways.  I’ll update you when I submit my work to them.

When I’ve found a good agent to represent me, the second step in the publishing process will be to go through more rounds of editing based on my agent’s suggestions (a very important step, I feel). The agent then presents the book to publishers that she/he is familiar with, and hopefully before too long we will have signed a contract with a publisher that will be willing to not only print my book, but help me market it and get the word out that it’s awesome. Then the editor from the publishing house will help me through another few rounds of edits.

From what I have read/heard, that’s when the waiting happens. I’m not positive why there is such a long wait between finishing a final manuscript and the book hitting shelves, but “the Internet” says that there is, so it must be true. I plan to fill the interlude with awesome marketing to help my book sell, but most likely I’ll be writing the second book in my spare time, much like I wrote the first.

Oh and just to make sure you don’t get the wrong idea about what authors typically get paid, the interwebs also say that the average advance for a debut novel is somewhere around $5,000. If you do the math (and I did, I promise), I’ll be making about $1/hour if all I receive is the advance. I intend to sell WAY more than that, but selling the first book is far from having “made it” for most authors. I’ll be keeping my day job, for now.

And there you have it! That’s the summary of what I know about the publishing industry and my road to becoming a published author. I’m not sure why the prospect of doing all of this work just to receive $1/hr in compensation excites me, but it does. This is the first time that I’ve been one hundred percent invested and excited about something I’m producing, and I love it. I think you’re going to like it too. I can’t wait for you to read my books and tell me what you think.

Now back to the book. Work work.

-Scott