Here’s mine from February 2001 to literary agent Juri Gabriel in London.
Dear Juri Gabriel,
I enclose a synopsis, SAE and the first three chapters of my book NOUS SOMMES ANGLAIS, an unfortunately true account of our first eight months in France.
I realise there will be inevitable comparisons with A Year in Provence but one glimpse at the synopsis should tell you that this is something very different - more like Gerald Durrell invites Miss Marple for eight months in the Pyrenees. And it's all true. We have the police records to prove it.
I believe this to be a very marketable proposition as it contains three of the most enduring ingredients for a good read: other peoples' misfortunes, animals behaving badly and a real life whodunit.
Throw in an exotic location, an ageing ‘boy’ detective, an eighty year-old sidekick, a puppy who is half greyhound and half crocodile, and you have Nous Sommes Anglais.
As for myself, I freelanced for many years in the computer industry – analysing, designing and managing mainframe computer projects all over the UK - until I made enough money to buy a farm and concentrate on my writing. I've been short-listed twice for the Ian St. James Awards and won the Del Rey editors’ choice award twice. My first book, SHIFT, was taken on by a literary agent in 1994 and Harper Collins were interested in publishing it. However, they had problems classifying it and dropped out; then my agent changed jobs and found she could no longer represent me. This all happened as I was moving to France.
I am now writing full-time again and once more looking for an agent.
I also have enough material for a sequel to Nous Sommes Anglais.
Now the commentary:
First, read the submission guidelines. Each agent/publisher has their own requirements. Stick to them. I have several query letters for each book in the same way that I have several synopses. It’s part of the ‘fun’ of being a writer.
Second, be professional. The agent/publisher is looking for a person they can work with.
Third, professional doesn’t mean boring. Agents/publishers receive hundreds of queries per day. Why should they pick yours? My advice to make your query stand out is to imagine how you’d pitch your novel to a stranger in less than x words (where x is around 100 depending on the submission guidelines, and the stranger is looking at their watch and ready to move on to the next prospective author)
This is the difficult bit. Many people when writing queries or synopses start off with the novel then try to condense it. Wrong. That’s the way to write a boring infodump of all the salient facts. Start with one sentence that describes your book - e.g. A Year in Provence with Gerald Durrell and Miss Marple – and expand from there. And try to reflect the style of your book. If you’re writing comedy, be amusing. If you’re writing mystery, highlight that mystery. The query letter is a pitch to make the agent/publisher want to read more.
Fourth, pitch yourself. What makes you a person to take a risk on? This is where you mention your credentials. If you don’t have any writing credentials, don’t worry. I’ve successfully pitched to agents without any short story sales. Unless you have an amazing short story track record, agents are far more interested in the novel you’re pitching. The important bit is to come across as professional and confident, someone who’s serious about their writing and ready to make a career out of it.
Fifth, tell them what they are getting. I always begin with a paragraph that mentions the title of the book, its genre and usually its length as well.
Sixth, there’s more than one way to write a query. What works with one agent might fall flat with another and vice versa. Plus agents have differing requirements, they might not be actively looking for novels in your subgenre or they might be having a bad day. So don’t throw away a query letter if it fails with one agent. If it fails with several agents that’s another matter.
Other authors participating
Diana Pharaoh Francis
Janni Lee Simner
Maria V. Snyder
David J. Williams