In other words, sorry for dropping off the face of the earth as I have been doing. I've been an irresponsible writer, I fear. Probably because I'm frustrated with my current project. Also, work picked up. But enough excuses, it's time to be productive.
So Cathi asked me a while ago about maybe seeing one of my query letters to get an idea about how that works. Unfortunately, I'm kind of in agreement with Anne's assessment that if you just copy someone's query letter it's not going to be what you need. So I shall create my Handy Guideline of What to Do to Write a Query (the condensed version). I will be borrowing heavily from Anne's blogs but also adding some of my own personal opinions.
I wish querying were easy - heavens knows, I'm the worst querier ever. The logistics I've got down, but the actual practical aspect of getting that letter out and in circulation? Complete failure. The fact is that each letter is going to require research, and if you want it to be successful you might should spend some time on that research. There are a couple of ways to find agents to query. I am a fan of the internet search. There are several sites online that keep databases on literary agents, including such pertinent information as the agent's name, website, and whether or not they are taking submissions (as well as, if you're lucky, submissions requirements, though you should defer to the website on this). Once you get those, you can begin the second level of research (checking out the website, for example) and look for other authors that this agent has represented. Often those authors will have blogs or websites of their own in which they make mention of their agent.
The more espoused method is of course to look at the agents of your favorite authors, or the authors whose style that of your own work most closely resembles. I think this is a wonderful idea, but do suggest you follow the necessary steps to discover if this agent is still taking submissions, in your genre or otherwise.
Now, beyond knowing who to submit to, this glut of information gives you a chance to make a connection with the agent, which is what this whole thing is about. Your first paragraph, after all, should contain two major elements: your hook, or the single sentence that provides a tantalizing glimpse at what your story is about; and something to connect you with the agent - after all, you want to show that you've done your research.
2. The Meat.
Now, once you've done your research and condensed that into something intriguing and professional (remember, professional is your most favorite adjective of these two, though you need both) you follow with what is essentially an oh-so-brief sales pitch for your manuscript. This, I believe, was the main preoccupation of Cathi in her comment. Of course, the problem with this is that what this paragraph looks like is essentially going to depend on your book. The important thing to take away from this is that you're not summarizing. Far from it: the purpose of this segment is much like that of your hook. In other words, you are attempting to showcase your novel. Anne advises that you should use at least one sentence that contains good imagery, something that will stick with the reader. I think of this as giving the reader something solid to stand on in the floating vagueries that this paragraph, no matter how you strive, will inevitably contain. After all, how are you supposed to successfully describe a 90,000 word book within the confines of a single, tiny paragraph?
It's important to note that this is probably the spot in your letter with which you can be the most creative. After all, you know your work better than anyone. For The Last Disciple, for example, I used a descriptive sentence to provide a sense of the alieness my character felt at being forced to make her new home in a city landscape, which unveiled a key element of the plot while providing the reader with the echo of an emotional connection.
One way you could practice this is by looking at some of your favorite books. For example, many of you have read Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, which I wrote about last post. Distill this book. What is the key turning point, the moment when exposition because rising action? If, like me, you see this as the moment in which Briar finds her son missing and follows him into the ruins of the abandoned Seattle, your short paragraph about this book might focus on that point as the central image the paragraph is built around. Before that, there would be a few brief sentences introducing Briar and her son as characters, and afterwords there would be a sort of teaser sentence. Unfortunately, since I'm at work and my muse is on vacation, I will not be crafting this example for you. I trust that you can use the description as a reference, however.
3. Closing Up
Alright, wrapping up quickly now. If you've made it this far kudos.
You have your lead-in, telling why you picked the agent. You have your hook, which makes them want to read more. You have, somewhere in there, the
title, word count, and genre of your book, so they know how to place it. And of course, you have your brief pitch in which you let the book speak for itself. Now what?
The final paragraph contains the things that may help you to get published, such as: Have you been published before? Do you have any prior experience that might make you stand out from other writers? What about your book, how is it different? Anything (reasonable) that makes you stand out should be thrown in here, along with contact information and large amounts of copious thanks for taking the time to read the letter - you worked hard on it after all, you should thank the reader who makes it to the end for recognizing that.
And that's all, folks!