The Query Letter, Part 3: How to Write a Query Letter for a Novel

In this series, we have covered the “small things” for which an author would need to write a Query Letter. These are the query letters for the short story and the nonfiction article, which can and often does cover a multitude of subjects. With a little adaptation, the formats for these particular query letters can be adjusted to serve as introductions for a variety of minor writing projects. Together with a blog and a handful of social media sites, these tools will help to build a prospective author’s platform.

Today, we are finally moving on to “the big stuff”: writing a query letter for a complete novel. And yes, I will emphasize the term complete here. Most publishers do insist on being sent complete manuscripts, so it only behooves me to emphasize the same.

Writing a query letter for a half-finished novel is possible; however, it is not typically preferred. Unless the writer can assure the publisher that he can complete the work in a timely manner, it is likely that they will reject his manuscript for the simple reason that it is not finished. Some beginning writers, on signing a contract, would slow down and/or cease writing the novel they promised to deliver. You, personally, may not do this, and therefore you would feel that this demand from the publisher is unfair.

The fact is, though, that this rule is not in place to insult your personal honor or sense of worth. It is in place in many publishing houses because certain prospective writers – and some scammers – simply want the money, which a contract promises but does not deliver. Certain established publishing houses will send an advance to beginning authors after the contract has been signed, but they do not necessarily send these monies immediately.

Contrary to popular perceptions, an advance is not usually very large. It is a down payment made for services to be rendered by the author; the publisher absorbs the costs of editing, proofreading, the cover art, and/or interior art of the book on the writer’s behalf. In response they expect the writer to cooperate with them by accepting constructive criticism, helping to market the book, and/or writing the next novel in the series – if there is to be a series produced by the author.

If the author does not fulfill his end of the bargain, then he and the company will be up the proverbial creek without a paddle, as the company will have lost money and the author will have lost integrity, opportunity, and a career. A publisher’s insistence on prospective authors providing them with a completed manuscript is meant as much for the novelist’s protection as the company’s. Both have to survive in the marketplace, which is full of unknowns that may ensnare either or both of them. Entrepreneurs on each side of the industry have to be prepared for the worst even as they hope for the best. If the publisher insists on reading only a complete, if less-than-polished, manuscript then they and the writer have less to lose if they must lose – and a good deal to gain if everything goes smoothly. This goes for agents as well.

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So, before you even think about writing a query letter to a publisher or agent, you have to finish writing your novel. No excuses, no exchanges; write your game-changing story first. Edit it, polish it, have it beta read, then edit and polish some more. Only when that is done should you worry about finding a publisher and/or an agent to query.

Putting the cart before the horse means that you could end up writing a terrible query letter like this example from Writer’s Market*:

 

Jeremy Mansfield

Novels R Us Publishing

8787 Big Time Street

New York NY 00000

 

Dear Editor,

My novel has an amazing twist ending that could make it a worldwide phenomenon overnight while you are sleeping. It has spectacular special effects that will probably lead to a multi-million dollar movie deal that will also spawn action figures, lunch boxes, and several other crazy subsidiary rights. I mean, we’re talking big-time money here.

I’m not going to share the twist until I have a signed contract that authorizes me to a big bank account, because I don’t want to have my idea stolen and used to promote whatever new initiative “The Man” has in mind for media nowadays. Let it be known that you will be rewarded handsomely for taking a chance on me.

Did you know that George Lucas once took a chance on an actor named Harrison Ford by casting him as Han Solo in Star Wars? Look at how that panned out. Ford went on to become a big actor in the Indiana Jones series, The Fugitive, Blade Runner, and more. It’s obvious that you taking a risk on me could play out in the same dramatic way.

I realize that you’ve got to make money, and guess what? I want to make money too. So we’re on the same page, you and I. We both want to make money, and we’ll stop at nothing to do so.

If you want me to start work on this amazing novel with an incredible twist ending, just send a one-page contract agreeing to pay me a lot of money if we hit it big. No other obligations will apply. If it’s a bust, I won’t sue you for millions.

Sincerely,

 

Kenzel Pain

92 Bad Writer Road

Austin TX 00000

 

…..Well, that is pretty bad, isn’t it? The theoretical writer of this letter makes several horrible mistakes. First and foremost, he lists the editor’s name and address, then calls him “Editor” in the salutation. It is a small detail, but such details are important. Why? They are important because they convey respect.

If you accidentally address your letter improperly, causing it to be sent to the wrong editor, or a new editor has taken the position and a note of this has not yet been made on the website, such errors are understandable. They do not indicate, on their face, a lack of respect; mistakes can and will happen. At the very least, the editor will send the letter on to the proper addressee if your note ended up on the wrong desk or in the wrong inbox. Or, if he realizes his name has not been put on the site yet, he will still read your letter while reminding the website host that the pertinent information needs to be corrected.

The second area where this fictional writer errs is by assuming that he can dictate the terms of the contract. He cannot do this – no author can. Not in the beginning stages of his career, certainly; at this time, his best bet is to find an agent or a copyright lawyer to help him parse out the legalistic language in the contract. Demanding a one-page contract from a publisher that only concerns itself with money is beyond foolish.

How to Write a Business Letter (with Pictures) - wikiHow

A contract between an author and a publisher is meant to do more than regulate the transfer of money between the two. That is and will always be one of the key factors in a publishing contract, but it is far from the only item these agreements cover. Contracts deal with the responsibilities the company and the writer will each have with respect to one another, which rights the company holds and which it cannot touch, how the company and the author go about their tasks regarding one another, what will be done in the event of the publisher’s closure, the author’s copyright infringement, and other important points.

Before one signs on the dotted line, it is necessary to read through the contract to make sure all parties are on the same page and that, in fact, the publisher is being as honest as the writer. That is why agents and copyright lawyers exist; their purpose is not only to find publishers interested in a writer’s work, but to make certain the writer is not hoodwinked. Or, if said author is betrayed, that he has some of the moral support and the backing needed to win a case in court.

This is why I do not fault the hypothetical query letter writer for being wary of having his work stolen. It has happened; a writer’s intellectual property can be stolen, copyrighted, and sold by someone for their own profit, and he will never see a dime of the earnings being made off of his idea and hard work. A quick Internet search will provide you with a list of high-profile cases based around this very problem, future authors, and you should be VERY CAREFUL when you share your writing with others – publishers, agents, editors, beta readers, and yes, blog followers.

Not everyone is out to get you, but not everyone is your friend, either. We all make mistakes in this business, it is true. But some are more costly than others, and these are the ones you will wish to avoid.

Always, always read the contracts you are offered, even if you have a lawyer or an agent you can turn to for help understanding the text. This is your craft, your career, and your life on the line. You may have to let the agent go some day, or your lawyer friend may move or pass away. Someday, the only one available to read and understand the contract may be you.

Learn to read the legalese in a publishing contract so that, when something is out of place, you can ask about it and have it clarified. Or negotiated to your benefit. If those options fail, then you can run away screaming from the iron fist hidden beneath the velvet glove. Reading a contract is not always the easiest task in the industry, to be sure, but it is vital nonetheless.

This being said, another error which this hypothetical writer makes is by hiding the “twist” ending, only to reveal he has not even written the book. Publishers cannot make an offer on a book that a) does not yet exist, and (b) is not summarized in a synopsis of at least three pages. In the first case, promising a contract for a book that has still unwritten is akin to buying that bridge which is always for sale in the desert in New Mexico. Without a tangible product to offer, the writer has no standing whatsoever with a publisher.

Everyone dreams of being a writer someday. But thinking about writing and actually writing are two very different things, just like thinking about building a house and settling down to build a house are vastly different enterprises. A man can dream up the most beautiful castle ever seen, but unless he goes out and puts the effort into giving his vision form, it is just a castle in the air. For it to be worth anything more than a good idea, he has to go out and work to make it so. Writing a book is no different.

Now, some would say that since this was not a requirement for nonfiction articles, it should be the same for fiction. First, allow me to remind you that the example of a good nonfiction query letter rested on facts: the fictional authors had access to the people they wished to interview for the publisher, they had the credentials to indicate that they could do this work well in a timely manner, and they were dealing with specific topics. Facts are immutable, unchangeable; a man can want the sun to rise in the west and set in the east, but wanting it will not make it happen. Wanting to interview Harrison Ford is great – but unless you can actually arrange a meeting with the man, it is not going to happen.

Fiction is far from immutable. In point of fact, it has to be mutable to a certain extent, just as the stone Michelangelo carved his David from had to be fairly adaptable. That is what editing and polishing do; they scrape off the excess, smooth the sharp edges, and allow the tale to flow into the reader’s mind with ease. To make a good story is to beat it, hammer it, and pound it into the desired shape. Otherwise, it will not make the impression on the audience which the author hopes to accomplish.

This is why publishers need summaries – preferably ones which are short, sweet, and full of pertinent details. They need to know how much time and energy they will have to invest in the book to make it readable and, therefore, profitable. How profitable it will be depends on several factors, a number of which are outside the publisher’s control. What they can control is the amount of risk they take on a given manuscript, which is why rejections ought not to be taken personally. One publisher may not be ready to work on your grimdark fantasy with mechanical combat suits because it has not been done before, while another might see it as the game-changing bargain of the decade. It’s like playing darts in the hope of landing in the center ring: you keep trying, and the more you try, the closer you get to your goal.

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We will cover summaries another day. For now, let us turn to the good example of a fiction book query, also from Writer’s Market:

 

Jeremy Mansfield

Novels R Us Publishing

8787 Big Time Street

New York NY 00000

 

Dear Mr. Mansfield,

My 62,000-word novel, The Cat Walk, is a psychologically complex thriller in the same mold as James Patterson’s Alex Cross novels, but with a touch of the supernatural a la Stephanie Meyer.

Rebecca Frank is at the top of the modeling world, posing for magazines in exotic locales all over the world and living life to its fullest. Despite all her success, she feels something is missing from her life. Then she runs into Marcus Hunt, a wealthy bachelor with cold blue eyes and an ambiguous past.

Within 24 hours of meeting Marcus, Rebecca’s understanding of the world turns upside down, and she finds herself fighting for her life and the love of a man who may not have the ability to return her the favor.

Filled with demons, serial killers, trolls, maniacal clowns and more, The Cat Walk follows Rebecca through a gauntlet of trouble and turmoil, leading up to a final climactic realization that may lead to her own unraveling.

The Cat Walk should fit in well with your other titles, such as Bone Dead and Carry Me Home, though it is a unique story. Your website mentioned supernatural suspense as a current interest, so I hope this is a good match.

My short fiction has appeared in many mystery magazines, including a prize-winning story in The Mysterious Oregon Quarterly. This novel is the first in a series that I’m working on (already halfway through the second).

As stated in your guidelines, I’ve included the first 30 pages. Thank you for considering The Cat Walk.

 

Sincerely,

Merry Plentiful

54 Willow Road

East Lansing, MI 00000

Merry865423@email.com

 

That was a much smoother, more intriguing read, wasn’t it? As in the example for the short story query letter, this hypothetical writer stated her word count, gave the editor an idea of what to expect in her story, summarized it neatly enough to whet his interest, while noting that she read the publisher’s guidelines and adhered to them. She spends the whole letter describing her story, comparing it to others already in the publisher’s repertoire, and adds her credentials to the mix as well. Although she does not need to mention that she is halfway through the second book, this shows that she is serious about turning her story into a series. So not only does she have the nerve to finish one book, she has the strength to follow it up with a second.

All in all her letter is professional, clean, and respectful. Even if the editor must ultimately turn down her application, he will remember her and be able to vouch for her to another publisher. Should she return with a new proposal, it is likely he will read it ahead of several others in the slush pile, meaning she has a better chance of being accepted the second time around.

Working on a series of inter-related novels does not necessarily improve one’s chances of being accepted by a publishing house. A good query letter is no guarantee of that, though it will certainly make the way forward a little easier. It certainly does not hurt to add that nugget of information, especially if one can back it up with fact (such as the note that the fictional writer is already halfway through writing the sequel to The Cat Walk).

Vintage Letter Writing Image! - The Graphics Fairy

Once again, if you have no credentials to speak of, do not mention them. Let your writing and your story speak for itself. If it works, it works. If they reject you – do not return to the drawing board just yet. Test the waters, send your manuscript on to other publishers. Maybe there is one out there who will accept your story while you write your next piece.

So write well, write often, and always show respect. In the end, those skills are what will take you the farthest in this career, as well as in life. It may not get you results when you want them, but it will be a beneficial policy in the long run.

Take care – and keep writing!

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna and Uranus. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue. Her most recent piece is available in Planetary Anthology: Sol. Order them today!

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through it, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer. Looking for more tips of the trade? Then check out The Keys to Prolific Creativity by David V. Stewart. Are you having trouble cranking out your next big story? If so, this book has most of the advice you seek – and then some! Written with all creative types in mind, this book is sure to give you the edge the next time you set out to wrestle with your latest creative project. Don’t wait, pick it up today!

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