My fellow DAW author Joshua Palmetier has taken it upon himself to coordinate something called The Query Project. He’s asked a number of published authors to post, on September 12, one of their actual query letters that led to them getting a publisher or agent, and comment on the art of writing queries in general.
I’m happy to take part, and at the end of this post, you’ll find a list of all the other authors who are also taking part. I suspect a lot of us will have some of the same things to say, but there may be some surprises in there, too. If you’re an aspiring author and agonizing over the writing of a query letter, which is, after all, your foot in the door of the publishing business and the thing makes that all-important first impression on the gatekeepers to the promised land of publication, you’ll want to check out what everyone has to say.
First, the sample. This is the query I wrote to John Helfers, the editor at Five Star Science Fiction and Fantasy, regarding my SF novel Lost in Translation. It was accompanied by a synopsis and the first three chapters, and led to a request to see the whole manuscript…which Five Star bought. Lost in Translation was then picked up by DAW for a mass market paperback release; on the strength of that contract I obtained my agent, Ethan Ellenberg, and now, of course, I’ve had another novel published by DAW, Marseguro, and its sequel, Terra Insegura, will be out next May.
It all started with this query…
John Helfers, Editor
Five Star Science Fiction and Fantasy
(I won’t give the address, because it may not be current)
Dear Mr. Helfers,
In the far future, humanity has been assimilated (more or less) into an interstellar Commonwealth of races. The only way these disparate races can conduct business is via members of the Guild of Translators: natural empaths who link minds with members of other races with the help of an artificial symbiotic life form that shares each Translator’s body. Humanity joined the Commonwealth when the Commonwealth stepped in to end a war between humans and the bat-like S’sinn. That war started when humans killed (not knowing they were sentient) the flightmates of a young S’sinn named Jarrikk; that war also took the lives of the parents of a human child named Kathryn Bircher. Though the war ended, the tensions still simmer, and now, years later, ambitious people in both races are working to bring them to a boil. Kathryn and Jarrikk have both become Translators, and though each has ample reason to hate the other’s kind, they find themselves the only ones who can prevent a war that could destroy the Commonwealth and kill millions of sentient beings.
That’s the basis of my 90,000-word adult science fiction novel Lost in Translation, from which I’ve enclosed the prologue and first three chapters, along with a synopsis
Lost in Translation is my first adult SF novel, but I’m the author of four published young adult novels and numerous non-fiction works. My novels to date are Soulworm and The Dark Unicorn, both fantasy novels published by Royal Fireworks Press, Andy Nebula: Interstellar Rock Star, a science fiction novel published by Roussan Publishers, and Spirit Singer, a fantasy novel published by Awe-Struck E-Books/Earthling Press. Soulworm was short-listed for a Saskatchewan Book Award as best first novel, The Dark Unicorn was short-listed for a Saskatchewan Book Award as best children’s novel, and Andy Nebula was named to the Our Choice list of the Canadian Children’s Book Centre and short-listed for a Manitoba Young Readers’ Choice Award. Spirit Singer won the Regina Book Award at last year’s Saskatchewan Book Awards gala for best book by a Regina author, based on the quality of the writing, and has also won an EPPIE award for best e-published young adult novel and been nominated for a Dream Realm Award for best e-published SF YA novel.
My non-fiction includes several books for children, mostly on science and health topics, published by Enslow Publishers, Raintree Steck/Vaughn, and Rosen Publishers, and numerous computer books, published mainly by John Wiley & Sons. (A complete list of my published book is posted on my Web site, at www.edwardwillett.com).
I’m a member of SF Canada (the association of professional science fiction writers in Canada), the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, and The Writers Union of Canada.
I hope you enjoy this synopsis and sample of Lost in Translation. I look forward to your response, and will of course be happy to send you the complete manuscript upon request.
Thank you for your time.
My comments: in my queries, I’ve always tended to leap right in with a description of the book I’m trying to sell, hoping that that one-paragraph synopsis/teaser will hook the editor or agent’s interest enough to move on to the second paragraph, where I provide the salient information that the book is an adult science fiction novel of 90,000 words (which also establishes that the book is complete…I’ve actually finished it!). This is also where I establish exactly what I’m sending with the query: a synopsis, sample chapters, or the whole darn thing.
Read the publisher’s manuscript submission requirements and send them ONLY what they want! If they want to see a query letter only to start, don’t send them anything else. They’ll ask for more if they’re interested. Send them too much and you’re both wasting your time and postage (if you’re using snail mail, which you probably still are for most publishers) and immediately indicating that you have’t done your homework.
(Oh, and speaking of homework, try to make sure you’ve got the correct name for the correct editor for the kind of book you’re proposing, and you’ve spelled that name correctly in the address and salutation…UNLESS, again, the manuscript submission guidelines tell you to simply address it to “Submission Editor,” in which case, do what it says, for the reasons I’ve already elucidated.)
After this introduction to the book, I put in my credits. By the time this query went out, I’d had several books published, both young adult publishers from smaller presses and non-fiction from a variety of publishers. Since this was a fiction proposal I listed my novels but described my non-fiction more generally, and made sure to point the editor to my complete online resume. I’d also won some awards, or made award shortlists, and I included that. Looking back at this letter now, I’d probably shorten all that and just list the ones I won: this reads to me now, a few years later, as though I’m trying too hard. (On the other hand, it woked!) If you don’t have any credits, don’t make them up. Publishers actually WANT hot new writers, so it’s not necessarily going to work against you. Again, I think I overdid it in this query by my current standards.
I mentioned some salient professional associations, then closed very politely and formally. A query letter is also a hint to a publisher as to what kind of writer you’d be to work with. Business-like beats quirky, at least at this stage!
There you have it: a query that actually worked. If it hadn’t, you probably wouldn’t be reading this, because DAW would never have published me and I’d never have met Joshua.
I hope that’s helpful!
And if not, well, maybe you’ll have more luck with one of these other fine folks taking part in The Query Project: