Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Nuts and Bolts of Formatting Your Query (and the shit that goes with it) Part 1: Query Letter Format.

I’m a little bit tardy posting this. I have the best excuse a writer can have — I was writing my ass off. I gutted (by which I mean deleted to start from scratch) a third of my manuscript. It took a over a month, but there is a new, much better third now in there. The past week has been a writing frenzy, and it’s been awesome. But that’s a story for another post (and one that will come quite shortly, possibly even today).

But, as promised, this series is about formatting your query (and the shit that goes with your query). To the extent I can put anything on paper without being a little bit of a smartass, I will. This needs to be a reference post that you can refer to conveniently. In fact, to make this as convenient as possible, I boiled the entire post into a simple chart:

Image

OK, the don’t be a smartass thing might not be working out as well as I’d hoped. But there’s a reason to joke around here. This shit is simple. So lets get to it.

A Quick Overview of the Types of Materials Requested.

  • Your query letter (obviously)
  • Pages (usually, and everyone asks for a different number of pages or chapters, so pay attention)
  • Synopsis (sometimes)
  • Outline (different from a synopsis and less often requested, more on this later)

That’s it. Until, that is, an agent requests your partial of full manuscript. Also, sometimes one of the items identified above, which was not requested in the agent’s submission guidelines, is also requested. For example, an outline is requested along with your manuscript. Plus, you need to send another letter (cover letter) with your requested materials. That one’s easy, though, once you know the basic query/business letter format.

The overwhelming majority of agents take submissions by e-mail, which is more convenient and easier for everybody. Some agents still require snail mail submissions, though, and an e-mail sub will be deleted — probably without ever being seen by a human. Because of that, I’ll run down the formatting requirements for each. Today, we’re starting with the delivery system for all of it.

Snail Mail Query Letter Format

A query letter should follow standard business letter formatting. That is because it’s a freaking business letter. If you don’t know what that means, Google it, because someone has probably dedicated an entire blog to the ins and outs of business letter formatting. It’s not rocket surgery, though.

Before going straight to the formatting thing, I want to reiterate one point: It’s a freaking business letter. Remember that. You are trying to establish a business relationship, not a friendship. You are not looking for someone to share your love for a book like it’s your child. You are looking for someone to place your book like it’s the most expensive prostitute on the planet. If there’s love involved, it’s mercenary love. Be professional.

In terms of format, it’s easiest to start with a snail mail letter, because it’s, well, a letter. It should look something like this:

Image

If you can’t read all the shit in the middle, don’t worry. It’s what every other post I’ve done about querying covers.

Just make sure to put (normally right justified) your name (your real, big-girl name, not a nickname or something stupid) address, phone number, and e-mail address (again, if you need to set up a gmail not to have a stupid e-mail, do, but don’t be SparklyUnicorn6@mylittlepony.org or freak_on_a_leash@whipme.net or anything). Then a blank line. Next, the Agent’s name, then agency name, street address, city state, zip. Hard return, centered date, Hard return, RE: TITLE OF YOUR BOOK (in all caps), and the salutation.

The salutation is “Mr. ________” or “Ms. __________,” and I’m serious about getting this right. I cannot count the number of times agents have said they’re tired of people calling them by the wrong gender. And I’m not talking about people named Pat here, either. If the agent’s name is Janet, it’s probably a woman. More to the point, if you honestly don’t know whether the person your querying is a man or a woman, you probably aren’t paying much attention to who you’re querying, period. Pay attention, know who you’re querying, and get it right.

As an aside, I queried an agent whose assistant responded on his behalf with a request for a manuscript. The assistant had a name that is usually a men’s name, but can also sometimes be a woman’s name. I scoured the interwebz for a picture of this person or something, and came up empty. My guess is s/he is in the witness protection program. Anyhow, in that situation, I defaulted to sending my requested materials to Dear [First Name] [Last Name].

Next, spell the name correctly. I’ll be honest here, there are agents out there with some pretty fucked up names. When in doubt, cut and paste from her website into your letter. Seriously.

Then comes the body of the text, i.e., the part every other post about querying has discussed in nauseating detail.

if you want, you can include a closing  salutation (“sincerely,”) above your name. No matter what, you need a line where you sign and your printed name. Then you sign on the line. Easy.

E-mail Query Letter Format

This is even easier:

1) Wait to type the agent’s name into the To: box until you have done everything else. It will keep you from accidentally sending it, which CAN HAPPEN. I just started a list of things to do by telling you not to do something. That’s because it’s really important that you DON’T DO THAT.

2) The subject line in the e-mail should be identical to the subject line in the snail mail version. RE: QUERY [TITLE]. The only time to putanything different in your subject line is if you do those contests and festivals and whatever on twitter or a blog. Sometimes you will receive specific instructions relating to that contest. Generally, those instructions relate to adding one or two words to the standard subject line.

You can skip your information (for now) and the agent’s address, etc., and get right to

Ms. Agent:

Here is the body of my query.

You don’t need the formal formatting and address because the date and stuff is built into e-mail.

3) BUT, (he says, with a bold, italicized, all-caps conjunction, because it’s that freaking important) You do need to include your full name, phone number and e-mail address at the bottom of the query (not the bottom of the whole package you send).

So, after 200-300 words of pure brilliance, the query letter portion of your submission should end with:

  • Your Name, which is not a douchey nickname
  • Your Phone Number (including area code and country code if you’re in Queriers Without Borders).
  • Your e-mail address (that involves your name and an ISP or reasonably good e-mail service and doesn’t make you look like an idiot).

For the query letter part, that’s it!

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