Some queries are very short, and others are long indeed——novel outlines masquerading as letters. Consider the following suggestions as guidelines, not as ironclad laws:
1. Supply a short, vivid description of what the book is about: a desperate attempt to escape a narcotics bust, an unexpected journey that leads to romance and danger in 1930s China, an aging gunfighter’’s attempt to prove himself again in the Mexican Revolution. Explain what’’s at stake——this is crucial for most editors I’’ve dealt with. Example: in a genre western, what’’s at stake is a ranch, a family, a gunfighter’’s self-respect. In a historical western, what’’s at stake is the fate of an army, a nation, a people.
2. If not obvious from your plot outline, identify the audience your book is aimed at: hardcore space-opera fans, teenage girls, Regency-romance readers.
3. Be able to tell the editor what makes this novel different from others in the genre: a twist in the plot, a new angle on the hero, an unusual setting.
4. Your credentials may be helpful, if only as a dedicated and knowledgeable reader in the genre.
5. Display in your query some of the excitement and energy you want to bring to your story——show how and why this story matters to you, and it’’ll matter to your editor.
Ideally, your query letter ought to run to a page or a little more, organized something like this:
The Letter Itself:
First paragraph: Tell us what kind of novel you’’ve written, or are now writing. How long is it, when and where is it set? Describe the hero and heroine, and perhaps one or two other major characters. What’’s their predicament? How are they proposing to get out of it?
Second paragraph: Describe what happens in the middle of the novel——how your characters interact, what conflicts arise among them.
Third paragraph: The resolution of the novel——the climax and its outcome, and tying up loose ends.
Fourth paragraph:Why this story interests you, what your qualifications are for writing it, and some questions for the editor: If this story interests you, would you like the whole ms., or an outline and sample chapters? Do you have any specific ms. requirements I should be aware of? (If you’’ve read the submission guidelines on the publisher’’s Website, you won’’t need to ask such questions!)
Obviously this pattern will vary depending on the nature of the query: If you’’ve included an outline and sample chapter, the plot summary will be very brief or nonexistent, and the query will focus on your background and your questions for the editor. If the book is completed, the plot summary will be easier to supply than if you have only a rough idea of where the book is going.
The quality of writing in the query had better be first-rate, especially if you haven’’t included an elegantly written chapter or two. If your query is clumsy or riddled with English errors, the editor will be less than eager to see more of your prose.
Because the query requires little time to read and respond to, it can help you quickly identify potential markets and definite non-markets. But it can’’t pre-sell your novel; at best, it can only create a cautiously welcoming attitude in an editor.