You have a novel written. It is fantastic. The characterisation is spot on; the plot takes you from one electrifying scene to the next; you've even worked out how to employ Robert McKee's advice on creating a gap between expectation and result. This will sell! However, many publishers are only interested in work submitted to them by an agent. So you buy a copy of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, browse the agents who accept submissions from unpublished writers, narrow it down to those who work in your genre, and start to put together a query letter.
The query letter is more important than you think. It is the agent's first view of the way you use words, their first impression of you. A badly-written one might lead to the agent not even bothering to look at your work.
You will find general advice on writing them in many places, including the aforementioned Yearbook, so I won't repeat that. However there is a really useful and interesting source of advice which I do want to mention - Query Shark.
Janet Reid is a literary agent and in her Query Shark blog writers are invited to pitch their novels to 'the shark'. In return she gives honest, biting feedback on which letters would tempt her to read on, and which wouldn't. In fact, she recommends writers read all the numbered queries on her blog before submitting any work to her for real, to make sure they don't make any basic mistakes.
The good news is that you don't need to submit a query letter to Query Shark, you can benefit from just reading the feedback on the many (over 200!) that have been nibbled or ripped apart on the site. You will learn a lot from Janet's comments, and those posted by blog readers below each post. And some are hilariously funny. In many cases the query sender submits revisions, and it is interesting to see the improvements with each attempt based on the feedback. Therefore, if you are approaching the point when you might submit a novel to agents, working your way through at least some of this blog could be invaluable.
One note - at first it is a bit confusing when you get to the blog, since it is not clear where all these submitted queries are. The best way to navigate is to scroll down to the Blog Archive widget on the right, then expand the years and months. Every query has a number following a hash. April 2008 is the first proper query with comments, and you can then work forwards in time from #1 to #221.
Example, showing how to find the
queries in the Blog Archive widget
queries in the Blog Archive widget
Some tips I have picked up from Query Shark
"DON'T EVER START an email query with the address of the person you're sending to. It just wastes space."
"Never say 'should you be interested'. It's bad salesmanship. Always assume yes. Always. It's just a way of looking at the world, not even a tactic, but you need to be a half full glass kind of person to be in publishing."
"'I look forward to hearing from you soon' is one of those phrases I personally loathe. It doesn't matter, I just don't like the idea of you telling me when to answer my query letters. Yes, I'm being a bitch, but I'm ok with that."
"You're going to waste a LOT of time if you only query one agent at a time. No one expects exclusive queries. Some agents want exclusives if they are reading the entire ms, but exclusive queries..nope."
Some examples of queries that were severely bitten by the shark
"This sounds like a masters thesis or some pretentious literary review."
"fiction novel is a phrase that draws an instant rejection. I'd stop reading here if I'd made it past paragraph three."
"We're on the third draft and it's not the query form that's causing you problems, it's your writing. This is still getting a form letter rejection."
"Dear Madam, (err, no. Dear Ms Reid, Dear Janet, Dear Sweetums, but no, not ever Dear Madam)"
"Right away I know you could cut 25,000 words from the novel because you can cut a lot from your first two lines of the query letter. I'm not averse to long ass novels, but they still have to be taut and muscular writing. This is not taut writing."
"With all due respect, don't ever include that you've been writing novels since you were ten. That's not a publishing credit. It screams amateur."
"This sentence reminds me of the surrealist joke: "Knock knock!" "Mustard." All the words are in English, I recognize and understand the meaning of each one. I just don't understand the meaning of the sentence. I know what it says. I have no clue what it means. I honestly don't even know where to start."
"What you've got here is all set up. There's no antagonist. There's no plot."
"I'm sorry, I find every single one of these characters repellent. I don't want to read about them, I want to Purell my computer screen."
"The purpose of a query letter is to entice an agent to read on. This is a packing list instead of a of a word picture of the contents of the box, or a list of ingredients for a cake rather than a taste of the cake itself."
Occasionally a writer will win first time
"The heck with critiquing this. Send pages at once."
"Send pages at once. Do not pause to sleep or eat."
"This generates an immediate request for pages. Yes, it's not perfect, but it's vivid, fun and it's clear the writer has a sense of joie de vivre. Of course I want to read it."