6 Thoughts on Sending Query Letters

Today I wrote up a query letter as a proposal for This Broken Earth, and sent it to about 40 different literary agents to test the waters about the book and hopefully get one of those fish to bite.  I neglected to realize that most of them would be out for the holidays, and so have already received about seven or eight automated messages informing me of this and for me to “try back later”…and I will.

Writing query letters isn’t really that hard.  Sure, you can go buy so-and-so’s book for $29.95, written by an industry leader or some-such, but really there are only six things you need to know about writing these e-mails, and this info is for free, baby:

  1. The tag line – A brief tag line or attention grabber that sells the main theme of your book
  2. How is your book like other books that sell? – List three or four current best selling books that your book is most like and why yours is somehow not a copy of them.  How well do you think your book will do (realistically) and why according to the current market?  DO YOUR RESEARCH.
  3. A synopsis – Give a brief write-up of character bios and plot lines, working in the main theme of your book so that at a glance the literary agent can see what your book looks like in a nutshell.
  4. A Sample – I have uploaded part 1 of This Broken Earth to Smashwords for free download.  All I did was include a hyperlink in my e-mail.  DO NOT SEND ATTACHMENTS.  If you do send an attachment, their automatic e-mail machines will chew up your proposal and spit it out into the trash, never to be read.  Smashwords is a good dumping ground for your text, even if it is only the first four or five chapters.
  5. Your Successes – This is where you vent about anything you have published, your college creds, your writers group, your blog, any podcasts you do, how big your audience is, your indie sales figures, reviews of your work (in hypertext links), etc.  If you don’t have any of this, good luck getting them to give you the time of day.  It’s a glass ceiling, and it’s really thick.
  6. Read Their Guidelines (The only one of these not in the letter…just do this) – If the agency’s website says that they don’t accept children’s science fiction set in the multiverse of Woo and that is what you have written, then don’t send them a query letter.  You are wasting your time.  Feel them out first.  I sent only to agencies that represent Christian authors who just happen to handle science fiction.  I did my homework.

Here is my sample letter that I wrote to the agency.  It is confident in tone, to the point, and as short as I could write it.

Dear [Agent’s Name]:

The world has ended…sort of.  Wandering through the apocalypse are a band of people simply trying to survive; but their lives, like our own, have a greater destiny not immediately visible to the mortal eye.

This Broken Earth is a 120,000 word post-apocalyptic science fiction adventure novel that is the Left Behind series without the pre-tribulation rapture and the mindless pages of back and forth dialogue, choosing instead to fill each page with dire conflict.  It is influenced by The Book of Eli, The Screwtape Letters, The Postman and has a more global Christian perspective.  It is told in a unique narrative style in which each chapter is the first person perspective of varying characters in the novel, both heroes and villains, just as William Faulkner wrote his famous novel As I Lay Dying.  Through this narrative style, the dramatic irony is heightened to a level that is often lost on other narratives, and the reader is held in suspense after reading a villain’s chapter, hearing of how he plans to overthrow and murder the group trying to survive, waiting for that inevitable shoe to drop.

It is mainly the story of a young adult nobody named Clayton Delroy, a former bag boy forced to live in the wilds of what was the United States, who finds Christ by reading a bible he discovers in a burned out homestead, and who is accompanied by a being named Howard who it is revealed through subtle clues to be his guardian angel.  Along the way he meets Gabe, a mysterious drifter who tells him of his destiny on an abandoned highway in the summer heat, a destiny to go to Jerusalem.  Clayton laughs it off, deciding instead to try to make it to New Orleans because he has heard that there is food and shelter there…and safety from the many horrors of a post world war three world.

Along the way he gathers various cohorts and malcontents.  Amy, a girl Clayton finds still living in her house three years after the world went sour, a sorority house former cheerleader with one year of pre-med achieved, before school was cancelled forever, becomes Clayton’s immediate foil.  Amy spends the novel pursuing love in this broken world, only to find that the true love she had was with her all along.  Jacob, a former preacher who has seen the error of his ways, repents of his embrace of the lies of American Christianity with its “seeker church” mentality and worldly influences, is now a prophet of the highest order, and God uses him to work incredible miracles when needed most, and he has a host of angels to aide him with weapons at the ready.  Ethan, a former used car salesman who steals the uniform from a dead soldier and impersonates that soldier throughout most of the novel, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, fooling our heroes and becoming an enemy to be sure, but still used by God to thwart the enemy’s purposes.  Gideon, the estranged son of a Navy SEAL lost in the war, abandoned and orphaned, who has been surviving by his wits and the skills his father abusively taught him, joins the group reluctantly, but becomes one of the most important pieces in the downfall of a monstrous leader rising in the east.

The reader will be taken on a wild ride, slipping through the greasy fingers of vile militia men, trying to find food in a city overrun by abandoned pets left to starve and turn rabid, and ultimately arrive at a city that seems to be a paradise, but in reality is the den of an ultimate and ancient evil that is bent on the utter destruction of all of God’s creation.

Even though this novel is set in a world loosely based on biblical prophesies and the events described in Revelation and Daniel, it is merely a backdrop for an underlying theme of faith.  What would you do if your life was threatened?  Would you turn your back on our faith?  What does your faith mean to you, and how willing are you to follow Christ through any situation.  This Broken Earth presents the plan of salvation through various organic situations that permeate the novel naturally and without losing the flow of the narrative.  There are Muslim characters who find Christ through the Koran, Chinese Christians who make a pilgrimage to Masada to wait out the end, and atheists who discover the truth in the Word of God.  These scenes are realistic, and often taken from real life experiences I have witnessed with friends in the faith.

I believe that now is the right time for this novel to be traditionally published.  The market is ripe for this kind of novel because of the successes of The Hunger Games, World War Z, After: The Shock and several other post-apocalyptic or dystopian novels.  Post-apocalyptic literature is making a resurgence, especially in the secular market, so I believe This Broken Earth could make a considerable breakthrough into that market as well as in the Christian book stores like Mardel and Zondervan.  I have published Book 1 of the novel on Smashwords for free and it has been downloaded over 600 times since August 1st.  It has also garnered 83 paid downloads from Amazon and Nook and all of that from an author who has only advertised for the book on my blog and through Facebook.  The people who have read this book, and I shall say they are a diverse group, have loved it and couldn’t put it down.  If you do not believe me, then read the reviews.  I don’t pay for them.  I’m a high school English teacher for crying out loud.

A few things about me: I am a high school English teacher who has taught writing for 15 years, have an English degree with a minor in creative writing from Oklahoma Baptist University, and have written as a hobby since age 15 and pursued it professionally since 2009.  At age 15, I wrote entered the Avon Flare Novel Competition.  The novel was a severe rough draft (I was only 15) and I received a letter that I was one of 20 novels singled out for the winner.  That day I learned the important lesson of revision.  I self published a novel The Transgression Box in 2009, a science fiction allegory/satire of American Christianity that sold well over 150 copies including digital editions and continues to sell.  I maintain a blog about writing and indie-publishing entitled “Writing Is Hard Work” with over 1200 email subscribers in only a year and it is growing by the day.  I belong to a local writing group backed by the Oklahoma Association of Writers.  I have a notebook full of ideas for original novels set to the market and tailored to reach a crossover audience for Christ.

Whether you decide to download and read This Broken Earth or not or to send a rejection notice my way, I want you to know that I am going to publish this novel through CreateSpace on January 17th regardless, booking conventions and bookstores for book signings.  I will spend the money that I have saved to support this project because I believe in the work.  I have worked very hard to produce this novel (18 months), and I will not be stopped by the glass ceiling that is this industry.  I know you are busy, I know that you are weary of weeding through all of the stacks and stacks of proposals and e-mails, looking for that one novelist who will be your next best seller, but give this one a chance.  You will not be sorry after reading it.  You will want more.  God has given me a talent and a mission to reach people across the street from the Christian book store and I dare not be humble about that.  If that means I will have to do it myself, then so be it, but it would be grand if you could help this mission go to launch phase.

Sincerely, and with His blessings:

Roger Colby

Good luck, kids.  I’ll post back here with results if I get any, and probably post a whole gamut of rejection letters.  That will be a fun post.

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5 thoughts on “6 Thoughts on Sending Query Letters

  1. The only thing I would deeply consider doing differently would be culling out the synopsis material out into a separate document, to keep the query letter proper down to a few paragraphs. The sheer weight of queries agents can receive these days means many really want the essence of the novel put out there in a few sentences, an “elevator pitch” description that lets them immediately determine whether your project *could be* a good fit for them.

    As I understand it, once they decide it *might* work, they look at the supporting material (synopsis and/or sample pages) to see if they want to invest the time reading a larger sample or the full manuscript. In any case, a lot of places are query-only (no pages, no synopsis) these days, and everyone seems to prefer short, short queries.

    The agents who blog about queries discuss all this and more at length, especially Janet Reid at http://queryshark.blogspot.com/. I highly recommend to all who are getting to that point in the process to peruse it and similar discussions.

    Good luck!

      • Which only goes to show the one rule that matters is that rules can get tossed out the window in a heartbeat, under the right circumstances. 🙂 Some agents admit they don’t always follow their own guidelines…but that’s the way to bet.

        Best of luck and a Happy New Year!

  2. Roger, please let us know what happens. Did your query work? I’m not telling you anything that you don’t already know when I point out that this query letter breaks numerous “rules,” starting with length.

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