A fellow writer asked my advice today about composing query letters, and being as susceptible to flattery as anyone else (she says she likes my writing), I am obliging her.
Most important is what not to include in a query letter, and at the top of that list is: refrain from mentioning how much your family and friends like the story. An agent is only interested in her own opinion and does not care what your mother and best friend think. Mentioning them is the mark of an amateur. Unless, of course, you are a friend of Kevin Costner and have just written Dances with Wolves and Kevin wants to make a movie about your story and needs a published book to show his backers. Then definitely put that in your query letter. (Interestingly, despite that endorsement of Dances With Wolves, the book was published as a short-run paperback because the publishers thought it was an historical romance with limited appeal.)
The second most important thing to leave off is anything that is self-evident. I cringe when I think of the first letters I sent out. “I am an unpublished writer,” began one. “I am looking for an agent,” began another. Both of those statements fall under the category of “duh.” Of course I am unpublished, otherwise I would be leading with a list of my published works. And of course I am looking for an agent. Why else would I be writing a query letter?
So how do you write a query letter? Lead with a hook. Something that will make the agent read further, something that will tell her you are not like the thousands of others who are clamoring for her time and attention. Be sure to include the number of pages, the genre, the title, and a description.
My best query letter for More Deaths Than One began: The painting is of a pond with no ripples, surrounded by forest. Very serene. As he studies the painting, however, disquiet begins to creep over him, and he can almost feel the monstrous thing that lives in the slime deep down at the bottom of the pool. “I was trying to paint what’s in here,” Bob says, tapping his chest with a fist. Then he gestures to the painting. “I don’t know how that happened.”
This letter caught the attention of an agent, though he was never able to find a publisher for it .
My advice? Spend as much time perfecting your query letter as you do perfecting your book. It’s the only way to show that you are ready to be a professional writer.