Posted by: Kathy Temean | February 28, 2018

Successful Query Letter with Lots of Tips by Erin Beaty

Hi everyone!

Recently, when this blog featured my book, The Traitor’s Kiss, a few readers commented that they would love to know more about the querying and in particular the letter that got full manuscript requests. Since I am pretty darn proud of my final query letter, I am more than happy to share it and offer some advice in using my success to write your own butt-kicking query. Ready?

First, there is one rule you must obey above all: follow the agent/agency’s instructions.

Duh, right? But just doing that puts you ahead of 75% of their submissions. And this goes down to every little detail. They want a synopsis? Write it. They want you to apply through the agency’s website? Do it. Obey what to put in the subject line and how to attach your sample pages (and how many). Pay attention to what the agent represents, too. Few things are more annoying than “I’m querying you because I know you love genre X,” when it specifically says on their website that they don’t represent X. Really. It happens all the time.

Also: No fancy fonts. No rhetorical questions. No speaking in your character’s voice. Keep it simple and basic. I recommend starting with a statistical paragraph: title, genre (and category), length, and (if you can come up with something good) comparison titles.

Title: A good title will get attention. A bad or okay title will at least tell a little bit about the story, so you can’t really lose. Also, at least half of titles are changed in the publication process (notably mine). If you’ve got a gorgeous one, flaunt it. If not, don’t sweat it.

Genre/Category: I know your baby is so unique it deserves a shelf of its own, but Barnes & Noble has to put it somewhere, so decide where it would go. If you are blending genres, name two, three at the absolute maximum. Category refers to age- young adult, new adult, middle grade, adult, etc.

Length: Round to the nearest 1000, and stay within the standard range. There are exceptions to the rules, but you are not one of them, especially as a debut. The best resource on this is: http://www.litrejections.com/word-count/. An invisible line exists at 100,000 words, so try to get below that if you can. That being said, some stories need the space, so if you are sitting at 120,000 words after several revisions and in a genre that goes that high, fly that flag. However, if you are at 104,000 words…trim it down. Trust me. Getting under 100k is worth it.

Comparison Titles: Two ways to pick these, keeping in mind they are not necessary. One is “It will appeal to fans of A and B.” Or you can use it to describe the plot- “It’s X meets Y.” Mix it up a little with the qualities. “It has the romance of The Shining and the historical accuracy of Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” Don’t choose only what is mega popular at the moment. Only use three titles, characters, or qualities MAX. Two is better. There were three consistent comparisons from my beta readers, and I picked two.

Best described as Jane Eyre meets Mulan, THE MATCHMAKER’S APPRENTICE is a young adult adventure fantasy, complete at 99,000 words. I chose to query you because you are awesome.

A touch of personalization isn’t necessary, but many agents like it as a sign you did your research. “I chose to query you because you represent Writer McWriteface, and his book A Thousand Pages for 20 Bucks was my favorite read of 1996.”

Hopefully, after that paragraph the agent is thinking “this is a genre I love and represent, the manuscript is complete and within standard range, and…The Shining and Robin Hood? I need to know more.” You’ve made it past the second hurtle (the first was following directions). Now you need to pitch your book, also known as a piece of your fragile heart. But how do you describe the beauty and the complexity that is your plot in just 350 words?

You don’t. You do it in 200, and you don’t tell them everything. Distill it to its very essence and chop off the tail. Every story starts with a character in a situation, and one day something changes the status quo. Also, your main character wants something. That is your first paragraph.

Sixteen year old Sage Fowler is far too wild for a respectable marriage, but when the Matchmaker offers her a job, she jumps at the chance to escape her uncle. She turns out to be rather good at matching, especially when spying is involved.

Then what happens? Your character does things, goes places, and interacts with others. The key is to pick out the most important thread, the one that holds the whole plot together, and shine a spotlight on it. Give the first sign of conflict.

So when Sage and her employer set off for the kingdom’s high marriage conference, Sage travels among the selected brides, recording observations and information along the way. She befriends Ash Carter, a soldier from their ceremonial escort, and finds healing for the wounds left by her father’s death. When the escort’s commander discovers mysterious forces shadowing their group, he also realizes Sage is the key to understanding who their enemies are and what they want.

At this point I’ve mentioned six specific characters (Sage Fowler, her uncle, her dead father, the matchmaker, Ash Carter, the escort commander) and several group characters (brides, ceremonial escort, enemies), but it feels like less because I’ve named only two. It’s much easier to keep track of characters and their roles if you don’t attach names. The commander is actually just as important in the story as Sage and Ash, but had I called him Captain Quinn, the next time he was mentioned, the reader would have to pause ever so briefly to remember who that was. The matchmaker goes unnamed for the same reason.

If you’ve read The Traitor’s Kiss, you know I’ve completely left out two very important characters (Clare and Charlie), the actual antagonist (who is known to the reader and gets a POV), the whole misunderstanding of Sage and Ash’s first meeting, why the matchmaker and his commander allow them to associate, the parts where the commander thinks she is an enemy spy, and how exactly Sage becomes critical to the commander. A savvy reader might deduce the last bit based on what Sage has been doing, but I don’t need to say it.

The reader knows where Sage is going, what she is doing, who she’s met, and how he’s kind of rocked her world. The potential is laid for romance. But there is danger! And somehow Sage is critical in defeating it!

Now comes the hook. Tell the reader what is at stake and unveil the biggest obstacle. Leave them desperate for details and resolution.

Cut off and outnumbered, Sage and Ash become the commander’s most valuable assets in preparing for the first battle of a bloody civil war. But Ash is not what he seems, and as a treasonous trap closes around them, Sage learns the one she has come to trust the most has been lying to her the whole time.

Holy crap! The country is falling apart, and she’s fallen in love with a guy who might be a double agent! What does this mean to the coming battle? What does this do to Sage? Don’t you want to know?

I’m not telling. You have to request the manuscript to find out.

Lastly, the bio. Pick relevant and interesting things. Say if you’ve been published or won awards and what writing organizations you are involved with. If you’re a total noob with no cred and no connections, simply say “I live in the Yukon with my four hamsters. This is my first work of fiction.” Short and sweet.

Then thank the agent and sign off. I had highlighted areas in my template for whatever would be specific to that agent.

Thus, the final product was 279 words long, plus personalization and address. The pitch itself was 177.

Be brief. Be clear. Be interesting.

Be picked out of the slush.

Name

Agency

Best described as Jane Eyre meets Mulan, THE MATCHMAKER’S APPRENTICE is a young adult adventure fantasy, complete at 99,000 words. I chose to query you because you are awesome.

Sixteen year old Sage Fowler is far too wild for a respectable marriage, but when the Matchmaker offers her a job, she jumps at the chance to escape her uncle. She turns out to be rather good at matching, especially when spying is involved.

So when Sage and her employer set off for the kingdom’s high marriage conference, Sage travels among the selected brides, recording observations and information along the way. She befriends Ash Carter, a soldier from their ceremonial escort, and finds healing for the wounds left by her father’s death. When the escort’s commander discovers mysterious forces shadowing their group, he also realizes Sage is the key to understanding who their enemies are and what they want.

Cut off and outnumbered, Sage and Ash become the commander’s most valuable assets in preparing for the first battle of a bloody civil war. But Ash is not what he seems, and as a treasonous trap closes around them, Sage learns the one she has come to trust the most has been lying to her the whole time.

I graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering, was a weapons officer on a combat destroyer, and was a lead instructor at the Center for Naval Leadership. My published writing thus far has been non-fiction and academic. This is my first work of fiction.

Per your submission guidelines, I’ve pasted stuff you want below. I hope to hear from you soon.

Thank you for your time,

Erin Beaty

Erin’s picture – not included in Query Letter.

Thank you Erin for sharing this with us. I really enjoyed reading it.

In case you missed Erin’s Book Journey, here is the link. You still have a few days to leave a comment, retweet, facebook, or blog on the book giveaway post to get in the running to win a copy of TRAITOR’S KISS.

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. This is so very helpful. Mind if I reblog it?

    Like

  2. Great post! Thank you, Kathy and Erin. (and great photo, Erin!) I tweeted it out so hopefully it will help others!

    Like

  3. Thank you, Kathy & Erin, for sharing this great query letter & your tips for query writing.

    Like

  4. fabulous info!

    Like

  5. Thank you so much for this very clear helpful advice! I need it just at this moment.

    Like

  6. I love info like this! Thanks for sharing, ladies 😀

    Like


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