The Evolution of a Query Letter

As I’ve said before, there are no real guidelines on how to write the perfect query letter that will land you a book deal. There is a lot of trial and error involved and a lot of other factors than just your query letter. There is the concept of your book, the length, the genre and if the agent likes the concept/genre and is willing to take a risk on the length or put effort into the project. I have gotten a lot of replies along the lines of “This isn’t for me, you deserve someone who is passionate about your work. Keep putting it in front of people and the right agent will come along.”

In fact, it may just be because you don’t know the right people, haven’t been to the right conference or didn’t go to the same high school as the agent. I went to a small private high school in upstate New York. Chances of finding an agent that went to that same high school are slim to none. I did go to a larger art university on the west coast, however, they don’t have a good writing program. So once again, not a very large chance.

Writing a query letter is a process and every agent is different on what they want in their query letter. Some agents are more specific on their websites than others. Some will even give examples of letters that sealed the deal. So, it’s best to be prepared and to look at the letters and analyze them.

It’s recommended by Janet Reid who writes Query Shark to keep your letter at 250 words or less. Agents get a lot of letters and 250 words (including the genre, word count and thank you for your time and consideration) is something that can be read in under a minute. It also shows the agent that you know how to be concise and are able to sum up your story in an interesting way.

I wrote my query letter for the Lone Prospect about 3 or 4 times. I first started off by reading through Writer’s Digest and trying to use successful letters I found there as a structure. I made a list of agents that represented authors I was inspired by and agencies that I liked the sound of their websites. I ended up with something like this:

Dear Agent,

As you represent Favorite Author and Favorite Author, two authors who I love to read. I was hoping we have similar tastes and you would be interested in my adult science fiction novel, the Lone Prospect.
The werewolf Gideon is a laid back but rash, mama’s boy with a big mouth. At twenty five, he’s been medically discharged from his beloved military career and is desperate to find a new place to belong. The pack he’s chosen to try to enter has what he needs but may be a criminal organization.

The Heaven’s Heathens happens to be a motorcycle club. Gideon joins without any idea of what he’s getting into and doesn’t ask enough questions. Overwhelmed and struggling with the idea that this feels like his only choice, he’s thrown straight into the life of a biker and security for hire. The President Brand puts him straight to work sending Gideon with a team to rescue a kidnapped doctor in the heart of Africa.

Complicating matters is the cute, female Vice President, Savannah, who happens to be Brand’s granddaughter and swiftly takes charge of Gideon’s life. Savannah grew up in the club and isn’t forthcoming with information. Opinionated and stubborn with a limited concept of boundaries, she’s not ready to trust a puppy like Gideon to do more than stay on her tail. Just when he’s coming to terms with the idea of being a biker, Savannah takes him on a mission to tail a rival gang and Gideon starts panicking that maybe this wasn’t the best idea after all.

This story is complete at about 174,000 words and is the first novel of a series. Set in a post global war future in the fictional city of Jasper, Colorado in the Black Hills, the Lone Prospect is similar to the tone of Favorite Author’s, Book Title, while having the action and urban feel of Favorite Author’s Book Series.

I have over fifteen years amateur writing experience. The last seven years I’ve had an overeducated amateur editor. She’s kept me from doing things that were too outrageous. I have a passion for writing. During college, I achieved an A in Narrative Storytelling and Bs in the classes for my major. This probably should have told me something. I have included the synopsis of the novel and the first five pages below.

Have a lovely day,
Ginny O.

At 400 words, I now look back at this letter and cringe. It reads and looks like it was written by a complete amateur. I’d lost myself and my writing style in trying to be someone I wasn’t. It’s stiff and not really funny. I was trying to appeal to an agent like pleasing a teacher and it shows in my writing. I forgot that I really needed to please myself. The letter contains a lot of what is in the industry called housekeeping, why I wrote that agent, my bio, comparable books, along with genre, word count and title of the book.

Some agents like this type of letter. This is the type of letter that appeals to egos and has the potential writer do a lot of work for the agent. And/or can reveal just how ignorant the writer actually is of what is selling and what isn’t by who or what books they compare themselves too. Or conversely, how arrogant the writer is. Saying you’re the next JK Rowling or the next GRR Martin will not gain you a lot of favors with agents, despite the fact their websites say they want the next GRR Martin.

On top of it, I wasn’t happy with this letter. It didn’t give me the proper feel of the book. I didn’t feel it represented me as a writer. It didn’t represent me as a person either. So, I started to do some digging, this time on my bookshelves. I sat in my car with a pile of X-Wing books in my lap, reading the back and analyzing how the summaries were written. And, I came up with this:

Rebels with a cause, the members of the Heaven’s Heathens motorcycle club regularly risk life and limb to rescue those in need, all to protect their greatest secret, that they’re all werewolves. Now a new member has petitioned to join the pack…

Heaven’s Heathens
The Lone Prospect

The Heaven’s Heathens are supposed to be a big bad motorcycle club, a brethren of tough as nails hard asses. Formed out of necessity after the Cascading War, the Heaven’s Heathens have the reputation of being the toughest sons of bitches in Colorado. Their membership filled with those that have little use for society’s rules and pay lip service to laws outside their own. Insular and hierarchal, a new member can throw off the entire group.

And they’re Gideon VonRothe’s last hope for a life that feels familiar or else he’s resigned to go back to the family farm. He doesn’t know anything about the Heathens, or motorcycle clubs. He doesn’t even own a motorcycle. An outsider, ex-military and unsuspecting sucker, Gideon is the latest victim of the Club’s brotherhood appeal.
Before the new prospect can change the rankings, Brand sends the ignorant Gideon on a rescue mission under the supervision of Savannah and her team. The routine snag and drag turns complicated when it turns out the client lied, and an attack on their home turf makes some believe that the new Prospect is involved. The Heathen’s have a responsibility to the man they rescued and their reputation is on the line. Is this a new beginning or the beginning of the end for the Heaven’s Heathens?

I finished, typed it out for Becca and she went “the problem is the book isn’t really that actioney.”

And I went “Yeah, I had to write a new chapter. It fit pretty well between here and here. I think it made the book better.” It also made the book longer, but I digress. (4000 words longer.)

This isn’t really in any query letter format. It’s a summary. But I was finally getting somewhere. It was 265 words and represented the book a bit better. I was making a break through here. This summary based on summaries on the backs of books I actually read would hopefully make someone else want to read the book.

So, I went back to the web and looked again for query letters, because I knew it still didn’t feel right. Then I stumbled across Query Shark. And it was like coming home. Honestly, it was a relief to read through her archives and her recommendations. Janet Reid is a no nonsense, cut the bullshit, type of agent. I wish she accepted science fiction/fantasy. Her method is simple. 250 words or less and stick to the story. Don’t worry about the housekeeping until after you get to the story. Her method works really well for single person protagonist stories. Introduce the character, introduce the conflict. Who is this person and why do we care about the trouble they are in?

She doesn’t want to know why you chose her as an agent. She doesn’t want novel or author comparisons. She doesn’t even want to know if it is part of a series. And unless your background is directly related to what you’re writing about, she didn’t need to know that either. Her motto is: “There are no qualifications for writing a novel.”

I read the archive almost all in one go. It was late. I tried going to bed after I finished. And instead of sleeping, I ended up in my bed with a notebook and a pencil. I had some goals. 1: Find my voice and make it funny. 2: Cut out the extra stuff but genre, word count and completion. 3: Just thank you for your time and consideration.

It took three times scribbling in the dark before I came up with a letter I felt good about and I could actually sleep without my brain screaming at me. And after I typed it up, I had to remove my favorite line “whose idea of a good time involves a brawl and the words trigger happy lunatics” to make word count. I had this:

Dear Agent,

The Heaven’s Heathens is supposed to be a big bad, motorcycle club. Gideon Vonrothe doesn’t know anything about the Heathens or motorcycle clubs. He doesn’t even own a motorcycle. An outsider, ex-military, and unsuspecting sucker, Gideon is the latest victim of the Club’s brotherhood appeal. They’re his last hope for a life that feels familiar, or else he’s resigned to go back to the family farm.

Vice President Savannah Barker knows better. The Club is a bunch of party loving, thrill seeking, adrenaline junkies with noses for mischief. Her grandfather, Brand Barker — President of the Club, is the worst of the lot.

It’s the officers’ job to sit on the loose cannons so the rest of the world doesn’t find out that they’re more than a group that loves motorcycles and explosions. They’re werewolves. The Club is the pack and the pack is a family with siblings that squabble. To keep that squabbling to a minimum, they have an outlet — Heaven Has Mercy, private security for hire.

Within days of joining, Brand sends the ignorant Gideon on a rescue mission under the supervision of Savannah. She understands Brand’s unspoken message: this new puppy is hers to train and protect. She’s not about to go easy on him.

Soon the bets are flying on if Gideon has what it takes, and how long this lone prospect is going to last.

THE LONE PROSPECT is science fantasy novel, complete at 178,000 words. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Ginny O.

At last, I had a letter I felt at peace with. I did keep paragraphs to hand for a bio and comparable novels (It is an ensemble novel with humor similar to Aaron Allston’s X-Wing: Wraith Squadron novels and Robert Asprin’s Phule’s Company Series.) I used them if and only if the agents asked for them on their web pages.

I still didn’t get an agent and I sent this to lots of them. And I’m not sure if it was the letter or the length or the genre which is military science fantasy (yes, trying saying that three times fast) that inspired the rejections. The length of this novel is a big risk. I accept that. I tried to cut it in half and it didn’t work. The concept is a risk, werewolves riding floating motorcycles that rescue people from evil. That’s not something you can explain quickly. Werewolves are fantasy, floating motorcycles are science fiction, rescuing people, that’s adventure and military.

Another problem with this concept is that there isn’t a hugely defined main character. I have three of them that I define as main characters, Brand, the President, Savannah the VP and Gideon, the stand in for the reader, new guy prospect of the club. It’s hard to focus on just one of them in a query letter like this so instead of focusing on one, I tried to focus on the thrust of the book, the Club, the ensemble. That can also throw a lot of agents off. Agents and to some extent readers are used to single protagonist books though some of the largest best sellers in the past are ensemble pieces (and in fact right now the biggest franchises are ensemble pieces, MCU, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, X-Men, need I go on.)

The key point of this is don’t be afraid to write, rewrite and rewrite again your query letter until it is something that you as a writer are comfortable with and it represents you and your book. This wasn’t easy. It was frustrating and difficult because there seemed to be no right answer. I had to make my own right answer and find the style I liked, a style that represented me. (Thus, I am a no bullshit, don’t care about your qualifications just tell me a damn good story type of writer.) I was really happy with my third query letter and used a combination of it and the summary I’d written in the second stage for the back of the Lone Prospect. I stepped out of the querying process for personal reasons. But I learned a lot from it.

Agents who respond positively to your query letter by offering to represent you. The ones that get you are out there. They are hard to find. And you’ve got 250 words or so to catch their interest. Use them wisely.

Read First Three Chapters of The Lone Prospect For Free

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