Marketing your novel: The Query Letter

Don’t spend two years writing the Great American Novel and two weeks marketing it. It’s time to look at your novel differently: it is no longer your little baby, your creation, your Precious. It is now a product. Treat it as such; this professional mindset might help a little, when you start getting rejections. Which you will.

Your query letter, in Hollywood parlance, is your “pitch.” Your foot in the door. Your thirty seconds of grabbing an agent’s attention, or less. An agent receives over a hundred query letters a week. She’s not reading those letters, she’s skimming them. And she’s a hell of a skilled skimmer: she can spot bad writing in a New York second, and when she does, she deletes the query. Because, if the writer writes a shitty letter? It’s a sure bet the novel is shitty too.

Break the query letter into five sections:

  1. The intro
  2. The pitch (the story itself—the “hook”)
  3. Story development
  4. A “Leave them wanting more” hook
  5. A quick thanks for her consideration

(If you have some publications, it’s good to mention them between # 4 and # 5)

Here’s an example of a query letter:

Ms. Athena Ilium
Ilium Literary Agency
78 ½ Spaulding Gray Avenue
New York, NY 10007

Dear Ms. Athena,

I am seeking representation for my novel, The Holy Spirit of My Uncle’s Cojones. Given your interest in U.S. Latino literature, I thought it might be a good fit for your list.

Seventeen year old Tony Villalobos, a Latino attending an all-white high school in the 1970’s, cuts his wrists. His Salvadoran mother considers a therapist; but she’s on a budget. She decides to send Tony to her brother, Jack Villalobos, a wild-ass, womanizing, reefer-smoking macho, for the summer. She figures that Jack’s ways just might make the boy want to live again.

Tony doesn’t want a damn thing to do with his uncle. As far as he’s concerned, Jack is an embarrassment, a Latino stereotype with his “’Ey sobrino, what’s fucking with your head, maaaan?” cholo voice.

But he’s stuck with Jack. On the first day they’re together, a low-time dealer named Gato Negro accuses Jack of stealing product. Jack and Tony jump into Jack’s 1967 Mustang. Jack kicks gravel behind them. “Where are we going?” Tony, petrified, asks. Jack says that Mexico’s nice this time of year.

The Holy Spirit of My Uncle’s Cojones is a dark comedy about a teenager who, without his Latino roots, is lost. His uncle, the “family embarrassment,” saves him, and reminds him who he is as a Salvadoran-American. Only Uncle Jack can pry out of Tony the real reason he tried to kill himself: something horrible happened to Tony at that all-white high school, an incident that drove him into desperation.

The novel is complete at 92,000 words. The manuscript is available upon request. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Marcos M. Villatoro

 

This letter clocks in at a little over 300 words. It’s one page long. Short. Pithy. It doesn’t tell the agent every single thing about the novel. The idea is to whet the agent’s appetite, hook her imagination, make her forget all those other query letters in the pile.

You have to stand out. But, don’t do cutesy things in order to grab her attention, or you’ll end up deleted. You stand out only by writing the best goddamned letter you can.

Before you write the letter, research the agent—what are her likes? Dislikes? Don’t call her to find out: a solid Google search of articles written about her, or by her, or news about her sales, will give you enough to go on.

You’ll want to know if she’s okay with simultaneous submissions—that, while sending this query letter to her, you’re also sending it to other agents. It makes sense to do this. Otherwise, you’re waiting for weeks, maybe months, to hear from one agent before sending it to another. They understand. It’s part of the business. If another agent asks for the manuscript, immediately send a note to the other agents, telling them so.

Send your letter out to six or seven agents, then wait. In the meantime, get back to writing.

If one of them asks for your novel, make sure the manuscript is in perfect format. It’s simple: Double-space, one-inch margins, pagination, 12-point font, with an easy, easy, easy font to read, such as CG Times or New Times Roman, maybe Georgia.

Your note that goes along with the manuscript is just that: a note. Short. Concise. A basic, “Thank you, here’s the novel, I look forward to your response.” (these days, unless they ask for a printed version sent through the mail, you’ll send your novel as an attachment). Don’t ask her when she’ll read it. Don’t ask her anything. You’ve done your job—you’ve gotten your manuscript on her desk! That’s a huge accomplishment. Go party. Go write another novel.

And, if she rejects it, you send it out again. And again, and again, and again. .

Rejections. That’s a whole subject unto itself. More on that later.

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