Why are query letters so difficult?!

In the grand scheme of things, writing the novel is supposed to be the hard part.

Compared to writing my query letter, writing the novel felt normal. Easy. It took me just over two weeks of daily hacking at the keyboard (and, let’s be honest, more than a little bit of anguish) to get it right. I ended up running it by twice as many beta readers as my novel had.

But that’s okay.

You can take as long as you need, because this may be the most important letter you ever write.

You might need a few days to adjust your prose style. We novelists write mellifluous works of beautiful fiction, not snappy ad copy — but that’s what a query letter is. A query letter is you and your book, but chopped down into four paragraphs, polished like the top of the Chrysler Building, and dressed up for prom. Before beginning, it wouldn’t hurt to look up how people write modern marketing copy, or check the dust jackets of a few favorite novels for inspiration.

Novel query letters should be short, sweet and to the point — back cover copy with a personal twist. They need to hook the agent on your novel, introduce them to why you should be their newest client, and give them information they need to make that decision: the wordcount and some comparison titles.

If you can find a good place to fit it in, your query should also identify why you’d like to work with the agent. This will show them you’ve done your research and that you’re not just spamming their mailbox. Perhaps you admire a client of theirs, or you checked their #MSWL tag on Twitter. “I noticed you were looking for novels about zombie cats” is sufficient.

You might also mention somewhere in your query the book’s “comp titles.” Try to stick with titles, shows and movies that have been published within the last five years; the agent might have a different idea for pitching to editors, but most agents want to know that you’ve reading within your genre and keeping current.

When talking about yourself, most agents would like you to keep to your relevant writing history, but if you have an interaction or any “street cred” with your book or the genre in which it exists, feel free to mention it.

And then you need to do all of this in three to paragraphs. Whew.

Query letters don’t need to work on every agent out there — and, honestly, they shouldn’t. You’re looking for a business partner, and for that, you need to be picky. A good business partner needs to connect with your work in a way that would make them an effective advocate, one that you’ll have for years and years and years, and this is just the first step in that process. It’s an extremely objective process, and sometimes it hurts, but still — try not to take rejections personally.

Your business partner is out there!

Here is my final query letter in general form. It was modified to fit each agent’s wants and needs as stated in their bios. You’ll notice that the title I provided was not the title that is going to print.

Dear Ms. Agent,

Terminally-ill salvage pilot Ash Jackson may have lost everything in the war with the alien Vai, but she’ll be damned if she loses her future, too. Her plan: to beg, buy or lie her way to the cure she needs to stay with her new love Kate Keller, captain of the salvage ship that rescued her from the Bittersweet mining colony.

When the crew salvages a genocidal weapon from the ravaged starships above the dead world of Tribulation, Ash uncovers a conspiracy of corporate intrigue and betrayal that shatters her new family and threatens to turn her into a living weapon, disrupting the fragile peace between the rival corporations that own human space.

In Ash’s blood lies a secret to profit and position that could catapult any corporation that has it to unimaginable power — the secret why the Vai gave up after nearly winning the war. Turning it over for the cure for her illness would be so easy. But Ash knows she’s more than a corporate pawn. Knows she’s more than the victim they expect her to be. Uncovering the real reason behind the Vai conflict could cost Ash her future with Kate, as well as her life. For family, though, she’ll do anything.

TRIBULATION, a space opera adventure in the tradition of FIREFLY and LEVIATHAN WAKES, is complete at 106,000 words.

I am a graduate of Viable Paradise and will attend the Clarion Writers Workshop in San Diego this summer. I live in Baltimore, where I work as a film editor and once won a major industry award for shooting and editing a Klingon wedding video.

Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,
Karen Osborne

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Karen Osborne

KAREN OSBORNE is a writer, visual storyteller and violinist. Her short fiction appears in Escape Pod, Robot Dinosaurs, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny and Fireside. She is a member of the DC/MD-based Homespun Ceilidh Band, emcees the Charm City Spec reading series, and once won a major event filmmaking award for taping a Klingon wedding. Her debut novel, Architects of Memory, is forthcoming in 2020 from Tor Books.

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