Query Letters

 

 

Yep, this is really the letter that landed a top New York agent oh so many years ago. It’s written in what used to be de rigueur for writers: Courier 12 – in this case, New Courier – with two spaces after punctuation, unjustified margins an in “business letter” format. With a few changes in the mechanics, it’s exactly how a query letter should read today.

Based on this letter, George Wieser took me on as a client and he and his associates went on to sell my manuscripts to more than a couple of big New York publishers. The actual book pitched here, Rites of War, went on to hit the USA Today bestseller list. Since then, I’ve had several agents, but getting signed on never came close to that first agent thrill.

Do cold query letters work? You bet they do. A number of bestselling authors got their first agents with cold query letters, Dale Brown and Steve Martini among them. Whether you email a query or go the old-fashioned route, it’s still a primary way of connecting with an agent or editor.

Now, one thing you must remember, and that’s the point of the query letter. The ONLY goal of a query letter is to get the editor to request the full manuscript. I don’t care if you’re querying a fiction or nonfiction manuscript or even an article – the ONLY goal is to get a request for the full manuscript. Don’t forget that.

When they follow this template, most decent writers have around an eighty percent request-for-manuscript rate. Most of them think that’s pretty good.

Now, obviously – if your writing is awful, it’s going to be tough to draft a strong query letter. Same thing with your concept or story or log line. If you’re getting rejections when you’re using this template, then you need to find someone who will tell you the truth about your work and how it measures up to current industry standards.

That kind of help is beyond the scope of this report, but if you need help, shoot me an email. I can usually tell within a couple of pages if that’s your problem.

So. On to the query letter that put me on the bestseller list!

 

 

Cyndy Mobley

XXX North Second Avenue

XXXXXXXXX, CA XXXXX

Wieser & Wieser

XXX XXXXXXXXXXXXX

New York, NY XXXXX

13 May 1995

Dear Mr. Wieser:

Marc Iverson suggested I contact you.  Marc and I are in the same Naval Reserve unit and he just finished reading a manuscript I’ve had in the works for a few years.  He gave me the “full Cleveland” on a previous draft and he says it’s now ready to see the light of day.

When the Russians activate still-functioning WWII mine fields around key Mediterranean choke points, the Commanding Officer of Mobile Inshore Undersea Warfare Unit 106, Lieutenant Commander Jerusha Bailey, must fight through a web of deception and betrayal in order to reach the one man who can prevent a war – the Russian submarine commander now stalking her ship.  Rites of War (95,000 words)is the story of a National Security Agency analyst thrust into the center a conflict at sea and the choices she must make and the promises she must break in order to prevent World War III.

I enlisted in the Navy when I was 18.  I’m currently the ASW officer in a Naval Reserve unit that provides expert wargaming for battle force commanders.  When not with my reserve unit, I’m practicing law in San Diego.

Can I shoot Rites of War over to you?  I’m enclosing an SASE or you can reach me at ***-***-****.

Thanks so much for your time!

Sincerely,

Cynthia Mobley

 

So, what do you think?

What a different world back then, yes? World War III was as “right there” as terrorist activity is now. The thriller world was still obsessed with Tom Clancy and The Hunt for Red October, so anything having to do with submarines and mines was exceptionally hot. Publishers were searching for a breakout female protagonist in the genre, so the idea of a female officer in the middle of combat was unique and very appealing. And throw in the National Security Agency – well, the story line hit al the right notes.

Would exactly the same story get the same results today?  Honestly, I’m not sure. The genre has changed and people are more worried about terrorist attacks than World War II. It would be harder to get the editor to suspend disbelief, but not impossible.

One funny thing about the final contract: while the publisher was frothing to have a female protagonist, marketing felt that having a female name as author would be a turn off. So the author name on the cover was CA Mobley, not Cyn Mobley.

One thing I’m sure about, though. This approach still works. I see it every year through the writing workshops I teach and in my own career.

Do you have to do it this way? Of course not. It’s your career. Sit in some agents’ and editors’ offices and watched them scan through their slush piles and you’ll know what they’re looking for.

This template is a place to start. It’s a structure. Use it when you’re tired of staring at a blank page and then when you know the rules, feel free to break them.

And be forewarned: after your first sale, everything changes. Then it’s a phone call and an email – no more cold call query letters!

Now that you’ve seen my query letter, let me show you the full template and the variations I’ve used.

 

The Bestseller Query Letter Template

Paragraph 1. The Opening:

Referral?  Tim Jacobs suggested I contact you.

Hook? Have you ever peed on a fire hydrant?

Interest? Congrats on the sale of Kumquat Heaven  to Warners.

Reminder? When we met at the Maui Writers Conference, you told me to drop dead.

Paragraph 2. The Story

a. Open with a log line OR a question.

When a giant shark devastates his community, police officer Kevin Bacon must overcome his fear of the water to protect the community he serves.

How far will a cop go to protect his family?

b. Then the story.

A Strange and Separate Journey (80,000 words) chronicles his search for peace and heavier firearms.  STORY, not plot.

Paragraph 3. The Author

Be interesting and sound easy to work with.

If you don’t think there’s anything interesting about you – YOU’RE WRONG.

Paragraph 4. Close

It’s complete OR I’ve attached chapters OR proposal.

Thanks

SASE or recycle

Looking forward to your response

 

NEVER SAY

Based on my life....

My family loves it....

But it really happened that way....

 

So. That's how you write a killer query letter. 

Next question: which agents to query?

Why not try the most current top ten?

 

 

 

 

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