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How to Write a Query Letter:

Here is what a query letter for a novel should consist of:

1) A brief paragraph explaining why you have selected this particular agent as someone you want to represent you. Why did you decide to submit your query to this agent instead of hundreds of others? Make sure you have a significant reason. It could be something they've said in their blog, or on video, or the fact that they've sold a book that has similar qualities to yours. Mention this in the first sentence. It will set you apart from 90% of the competition.

2) A sentence with the title of your novel, its genre and your word total. Again, just knowing what category your book fits in shows an agent you've done some homework, and gives you an advantage.

Here are the typical categories:

Horror, Mystery/Crime, Paranormal, Inspirational (typically religious or New Age), Science Fiction, Fantasy, Thriller, Women's, Romance, General Fiction, Literary Fiction.

Say something like this:

"Lord of the Wings is science fiction and totals 75,000 words" or "Helen After Troy is a work of literary fiction totaling 80,000 words."

Some of these categories have sub-categories, like historic romance, paranormal romance, and, believe it or not, bonnet romance, which is a whole genre of romance novels about the Amish.

If you don't know where your book fits, your best bet is to go to your bookstore and find a clerk or two and ask them what category they think your book fits in.

3) A paragraph or two describing what you've written that sounds just like the back of a paperback novel.

Your summary should be so good that if you were in a bookstore, you couldn't leave the store without buying a copy. Go to Amazon.com and take a look at the back covers for The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd, When the Bough Breaks, by Jonathan Kellerman and Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner.

One of my favorite back cover descriptions is from Janet Evanovich's One for the Money.

Welcome to Trenton, NJ, home to wiseguys, average Joes, and Stephanie Plum, who sports a big attitude, and even bigger money problems (since losing her job as a lingerie buyer for a department store). Stephanie needs cash -- fast -- but times are tough. And soon she's forced to turn to the last resort of the truly desperate: family. Stephanie lands a gig at her sleazy cousin Vinny's bail bonding company. She's got no experience, but that doesn't matter. Neither does the fact that the bail jumper in question is local vice-cop Joe Morelli. From the time he first looked up her dress to the time he first got into her pants, to the time Steph hit him withe her father's Buick, M-o-r-e-l-l-i has spelled t-r-o-u-b-l-e, and now the guy is in hot water -- wanted for murder.

Abject poverty is a great motivator for learning new skills, but being trained in the school of hard knocks by people like psycho prizefighter Benito Ramirez isn't. Still, if Stephanie can nab Morelli is a week, she'll make a cool ten grand. All she has to do is become an expert bounty hunter overnight -- and keep herself from getting killed before she gets her man.

These are books I bought because I read the little description on the back. So did hundreds of thousands of other people. In Evanovich's and Kellerman's case, I bought a dozen of their follow-up books apiece. So use these descriptions as your model.

Leave off editorial comments that say how great the book is—like on the back of The Secret Life of Bees where it says "This is a remarkable novel about divine female power, a story that women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come."

(By the way, also skip any comments about how all your friends and colleagues love the book, how it's a certain bestseller, etc. You will look like a total amateur and it will speed your manuscript's flight into the nearest garbage can.)

Write a description of your book as good as the ones above, and many agents will read your sample with great interest.

4) Include a paragraph about what qualifies you as a writer, and if possible, anything that qualifies you to write this book in particular. Start with your writing credits. Include where you've been published, who you've studied with, what writing groups you've belonged to, and any writing coach you've worked with, if any of these groups or people have some prominence. And if you've got some experience related to the book—like your main character is the owner of a winery and you are also the owner of a winery—mention that. One last thing: If for some reason thousands of people know who you are, through your email list or your social network, you should certainly let the agents you write to know that. For example, even with a novel, I would mention the more than 40,000 people who subscribe to my AuthorSecrets e-zine.

Close your letter with: "Thanks for your consideration. I look forward to the possibility of working together."

One final note: Use standard stationery, and a simple font like 12 point Times New Roman. You want to appear professional. Don't try to send something unusual. You want your writing to stand out, not your packaging.

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