The author blog of C. J. Ivory

Tinkerer with words. Dresser-Upper. Adorer of Steampunk and VictoriaNoir fiction. Occasional Lawgineer.

April 9, 2011

The Dreaded Query Letter - Part One

A little while ago, I wrote a post about completing your first novel, where I attempted to give a useable outline of how to get the damned thing finished. If you missed it, here’s the linkie.

I also – rather rashly – ended with a promise to give an overview of query letters. 

Well, a few things have come up (including a huge-ass earthquake, and completing the first draft of my new novel) – but now I’m back on track! Onward, Fiction Soldiers! Part One is below...

What is a query letter?

The query letter is a short letter that lets the agent know the substance and content of your book. In relatively few words, it should sell the agent on the concept, your writing, and the marketability of the novel.

In addition, the query letter is to an author what a gammy heel was to Achilles: it will definitely slow you down, and may just kill you.

OK, I exaggerate. But query letters are the bane of all sane authors, and here’s why: they are the literary equivalent of a CV for your book – if, that is, your CV had to include naked photos of you, and all your worst secrets.

Your beautiful novel - without a decent query letter, no one will ever read it

So, why do we have query letters?

If a first-time author wants to be published by most commercial publishers, she will need an agent. Most commercial publishers have a slush pile as high as an elephant’s eye, and they tend to use “Does this author have an agent?” as a quality filter. (It is by no means a perfect filter, since many fine authors don’t have an agent, but nevertheless, that is how the situation stands for many big publishers.)

So we have the publisher who won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts from a new author, unless that author has an agent. Naturally, this puts a premium on getting an agent.

The problem is that there isn’t an agent for every book written.  And obviously, agents can’t read every 300-page manuscript from every aspiring writer. Therefore they have to have their own filter: the query letter. 

What happens if the agent likes my query letter?

In that case the agent will request a “partial” which is usually the first 50 pages/first three chapters (or similar). If the agent reads and likes the partial, she will request a “full”, which is – you  guessed it – the full manuscript.

If she likes the full, and thinks she can sell your book, she may offer you representation. Which would be, of course, fabulous. 

The trouble for the first-time author is that the agent is wading through dozens, if not hundreds, query letters every day. And the odds of success are pretty bleak – the likelihood of a first-time author getting an agent is about 2%. 

OK, so I know the odds – how to I beat them?

I like your attitude, Invisible Question Man! The first step to beating the odds is to construct the best query letter you can. It must be professional (without being dull), clever (without being gimmicky), witty (without being pretentious), exciting (without being melodramatic), fast-paced (without losing the reader), and complex (without being opaque).

Easy, right? My following posts will discuss of the Dos and Donts of the Query Letter, as well as an anatomical dissection of a (made-up) example.


Lauracea said...

Oh the trauma of it all. I've been through it all - but it came out alright in the end. Hang on in there all would-be published authors and do what Charlotte suggests: get the best query letter going. (Sigh) it's more difficult than writing the novel, IMO :)

DearHelenHartman said...

Even many years and books in I HATE the query and synopsis process even more than before, because of all those voices who turned things down over the strangest things. BUT things like your blog are a BIG tool that can help you over some of the query bumps because it's a place for an agent to get to know you - yours is a great 'calling card'!

Anonymous said...

The best advice I got about querying was from my friend (an actor, Thelma Farmer) who said 'it has to be show biz). Write it as if you are writing the blurb on the back of the dust jacket. Would it make you pick up the book and want to read more? That's really the test. Great blog, Miss Charlotte!

Charlotte Jane Ivory said...

That is good advice, Peggy! We only get one chance to make a first impression, and we need to get the agent *excited* about our novel. not always easy in 250 words..!

Charlotte Jane Ivory said...

Helen and Lauracea, I agree. Querying is a really tough process: you're suddenly the most self-conscious you've been in years :)