Writing a Pitch-Perfect Query Letter

Article by Shelley Adina

You’ve finished your manuscript. Now it’s time to send it out into the world. But before you stuff all four hundred pages in the mail or zap your entire file through Cyberspace, you need to take the first step: submit a query letter. Today multi-published, RITA® Award-winning author Shelley Adina is here to teach us a four-step process that makes the task seem (almost) easy.

I met Shelley at the 2008 Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. At lunch and dinner the publishing professionals were spread throughout the dining hall, one at each table, and we attendees could chose the one with whom we wanted to sit. I’d done my homework and scouted out every writer of romance on the staff roster, so at lunch the first day I entered the dining hall and made a beeline for Shelley’s table. Only one other person, a nice man, joined us, so I had Shelley practically to myself during an entire meal. She’s a sweet, generous person, and I learned a great deal from her that day. I’m honored she agreed to be my guest.

And now it’s your turn to benefit from her wisdom, so let me turn things over to her.

Thanks, Keli, for giving me this opportunity to be a guest on your blog. I’m Shelley Adina, the author of a six-book series called All About Us that launched the YA line at Hachette FaithWords in May this year. I’m celebrating the release of book two, The Fruit of My Lipstick, all month! LOL. Here’s a little about me: I wrote my first teen novel when I was 13. It was rejected by the literary publisher to whom I sent it, but he did say I knew how to tell a story. That was enough to keep me going through the rest of my adolescence, a career, a move to another country, a B.A. in Literature, an M.A. in Writing Popular Fiction, and countless manuscript pages. I’m a world traveler and a pop culture junkie with an incurable addiction to designer handbags. I write books about fun and faith–with a side of glamour. Between books, you’ll find me playing the piano or Celtic harp, watching movies, or making period costumes like my heroine in book three (a Regency ball gown in amethyst silk is up on my worktable next).

Writing a Pitch-Perfect Query Letter

Once you’ve completed your manuscript, gone out to a celebratory dinner, told all your writing friends, and bought a new handbag (oops, sorry, that was me) … it’s time to get down to the serious business of finding a home for your work. And unless you’ve wowed an editor or agent at a personal meeting (regional conferences are great for this), often the first step toward your goal of publication is writing a query letter.

The query is an art form. It’s an intro, a first look at you and your work. It may be the only time you get a busy professional’s attention—for a few seconds. So it has to do a lot of work in those seconds.

Here’s how you do it.

A query letter has four parts:
(1) The intro
(2) The story (i.e., the back-cover blurb)
(3) Your credentials
(4) Call to action

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, here’s the truth—it is! You’re going to talk about the two things you know more about than anyone else in the universe: yourself and your book. You already know everything that has to go into the query. All you need is some structure. So let’s get started.

(1) The Intro

Here’s where you jump right in and tell the agent or editor who you are and what you have to offer. If you’ve met the person or enjoyed a workshop they’ve presented, that’s a good way to start. If you read their blog, even better. And if you’re a fan of the books their house publishes and it’s been a lifelong dream to write for them, well, that’s good too. Just don’t gush. Write the query in your natural voice—which happens to reflect the voice of your manuscript. Your voice is your brand, so even a business letter should reflect it.

Editor’s Name (spelled correctly, with title, and yes, you can call their switchboard to fact check)
Contemporary House
New York, NY 10013

Dear Ms. Editor:

I’ve been a longtime reader of the big, five-hankie romances Contemporary House publishes, especially the recent Mothers in Jeopardy series. I have completed a 100,000-word manuscript entitled Grounds to Believe that I believe will be a good fit for your program.

Simple, easy to remember. This also shows you’ve done your research, read their guidelines, and know how long a book Contemporary House is looking for.

(2) The story

Here’s where you condense your 100,000-word manuscript into a short, grabby paragraph or two. I know—it’s like stuffing a galaxy into a black hole. But it has to be done. Agent Kristin Nelson has good advice for writing this part: Focus on the characters, the conflict, and the incident that gets the whole story rolling.

Julia McNeill has grown up in a strict, right-wing religious sect where she has been taught that the world is evil, everyone but her church is deceived, and the only safety is found inside the rigid boundaries of her community. She believes … until the children begin to die. After the third victim is found, local police call in state investigator Ross Malcolm, who works undercover to infiltrate cultic groups to find evidence of crime. Ross targets the unsuspecting Julia as his informant. He must unmask the evil living in this supposedly safe community and stop it before another child becomes a victim—and before his unexpected passion for Julia endangers them both.

Forbidden love, endangered children, a cop hero … what’s not to like? Okay, now that you’ve done the heavy lifting, the next paragraph is easy.

(3) Your credentials

Now you get to talk about … you! What were your credentials for writing your story? Are you an ER nurse and it’s set in a big-city hospital? Are you a marketing manager writing with a chick-lit flair? Do you have a math degree and your heroine teaches high-school algebra? Put that in this paragraph.

But wait, you say. I’m a stay-at-home mom in Nebraska writing about a globetrotting, stiletto-wearing, single-mom spy! I do all my research on the net in my pajamas and would have to be forced into high heels at gunpoint! What then? Well, are you a member of RWA? Do you read five books a week while the kids are napping? Do you post reviews of those books on amazon? Uh-huh. See, you can put that kind of thing in this paragraph, too. What about those two contest wins your manuscript bagged last fall? Absolutely. In they go.

I spent eight years working for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, so my “insider knowledge” brings realistic investigative detail to the suspense of the story. I have an M.A. in fiction, and am published in short fiction. Grounds to Believe won the grand prize in the Lagniappe for Literacy national fiction contest, and also took first place in the San Francisco Area Romance Writers of America® “Heart to Heart” contest.

(4) Call to action

One more paragraph to go. In the final paragraph of your query, all you want is a graceful close and a call to action.

I’m convinced Grounds to Believe is a good fit for your program because, while Julia is a believer, she is blind to the real meaning of love. Her learning process is entwined with the romance as she comes to love the forbidden outsider who shows her what can be possible if she has the courage. I look forward to hearing from you, and hope you will be interested in reading the manuscript.

Okay, confession time: The sample query I’ve been using is a real one, except for the first paragraph. The editor responded in six days flat asking for the complete manuscript. She bought it eight weeks later. It went on to win the RITA Award for Best Inspirational Romance the year after it came out.

And it all began with four little paragraphs.

For another excellent example using this four-paragraph guide, check out one of the queries agent Kristin Nelson has posted on her blog, Pub Rants.

A good query letter is worth its weight in advance checks. All it takes is some thought, some structure, and an editor or agent who is looking for exactly what you have to offer. It could be the start of something big.

Leave a Comment for Shelley:

If you have questions for Shelley about crafting a great query letter, her books, or her journey to publication, I invite you to leave her a comment. Just want to say thanks for the article? That’s fine, too. Shelley will stop by from time to time on August 25 to reply.

If you don’t see a comment form below, please use the link by the post title.

All those leaving a comment on Monday, August 25 will be entered in a drawing for an autographed copy of it’s all about us, the first book in Shelley’s All About Us YA series.

If you don’t wish to participate, say so in your comment, and your request will be honored.

Congrats to Susan Mason, winner of it’s all about us.

Shelley’s Contact Info:

Author site: http://www.shelleyadina.com
Series site: http://www.allaboutusbooks.net

Shelley’s Recent Books:

it’s all about us
May 2008
isbn 0-446-17798-9

the fruit of my lipstick
August 2008
isbn 0-446-17797-0

be strong and curvaceous
January 2009
isbn 0-446-17799-7

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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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8 Responses to Writing a Pitch-Perfect Query Letter

  1. C.J. Redwine says:

    Great post and your books look like tons of fun!

  2. Susan Mason says:

    Hi Shelley,

    Great post on query letters! You summed it up so neatly and in a very user friendly way.

    And the book you used as an example sounded so familiar I had to look it up – and what do you know – You’re also Shelley Bates! I really enjoyed “Grounds to Believe” by the way.
    You probably don’t remember but Kim Howe gave me your name a year or so ago to talk to regarding a career in Inspirationals. You sent me a very gracious reply to my email which I very much appreciated.

    Congratulations on your switch to YA – the books look great. I’ll have to get them for my daughter.

    Thanks again for the advice.

    Sue Mason

  3. Thanks, C.J. and Susan!

    And Susan, yes, I do remember you :) And you’ve outed me, LOL! I hope your daughter enjoys the All About Us books. I’m sure having fun writing them :)

    Shelley

  4. I agree, your books look great! Thanks for the wonderful tips for writing a good query letter.

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Anne Barton says:

    Shelley,

    Seeing your actual query letter as an example was really helpful and interesting. Thanks for breaking the whole thing down for us! :)

    Anne

  6. Keli Gwyn says:

    Thanks to my fellow GH finalists for dropping by. You ladies are awesome!

    And now for the winner. Since CJ has all boys, Theresa’s kids are grown, and Anne’s daughter isn’t old enough to read YA, I picked Sue, who has a daughter just right for Shelley’s All About Me series.

    Congrats, Sue!

  7. Amy Nathan says:

    The query letter is more daunting to me than finishing my manuscript. THAT is something I know I can do. The letter? Well, not so much!

    Thanks for the tight advice…I always find it odd to have pages and pages of advice on how to write a kickin’ one-pager!
    :)

  8. Sue Mason says:

    Wow! That’s great. Thanks, Keli.

    Can’t wait to read it, too!

    Sue

Comments are closed.