Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Writing a Great Query Letter and Book Proposal

A good book proposal is like handing an agent a perfect rosebud. It smells wonderful, it hints of much more. It's meant to entice, stimulate, and promise. Your goal with your book proposal is the same. You only want one thing: Get the agent asking for the whole manuscript.

Book proposals have two elements: (1) a great query letter and (2) the proposal packet.

Great Query Letters
A query letter is sent first, by itself, before you send the proposal. Queries are one-page, single-spaced documents that sell the concept of your book in exciting language. Many agents now accept emailed query letters, but check their web site guidelines.

Query letters are not easy to write. Plan to take some time with yours. One agent I know receives two hundred query letters each week. Often there are only a few minutes to spare to read yours.

A query letter has three parts: (1) sales pitch for your book, (2) a short bio, and (3) why you are approaching this agent. For the sales pitch, I start by crafting a short sentence that describes my book--what is it about. Expand that sentence to two or three dynamite paragraphs. Then add what gives you the credentials to write this book, your writing experience or life experience. This makes up the body of your query letter.

It's essential to add one sentence from your research of the agent’s work: tell her why you want to work with her, specifically. Mention a book she represented that you liked.

Some writers wonder: Why not work into it gradually, maybe beginning with a sentence like “I love your agency and would love it if you represented my book”? If you’re the agent who gets two hundred query letters a day, imagine reading the “I love” sentence two hundred times a day. The letter would go straight into the round file. It’s essential to make that first sentence engaging, even electrifying—and about your book. You worked long and hard on that premise statement; now use it.

The goal is obvious. You want the agent (or agent’s assistant who screens query letters) to read on. In Making the Perfect Pitch (edited by Katherine Sands), you can read some dynamite query letter openers, such as:

“I am a Vietnamese American man, a witness to the fall of Saigon, a prisoner of war, an escapee, a first-generation immigrant, and an eternal refugee.”
--from Catfish & Mandala by Andrew X. Pham (memoir)
“When all the kids around him were coming of age, Robin MacKenzie was coming undone.”
--from The World of Normal Boys by K.M. Soehnlein (novel)

The Proposal Packet
Out of twenty agents queried, you may get a few who want to see your proposal packet. This packet contains a synopsis that gives the substance of your book, a chapter outline, platform (marketing niche) information if your book is nonfiction, and sample chapters, or the “partial.”
Proposal packets must contain your very best work. One publisher I spoke with said their editors read the first two pages only—and if the editor isn't grabbed immediately, the proposal is rejected. So polish carefully.

Read these two bibles to proposal crafting: How to Write a Book Proposal, by Michael Larson, and Write the Perfect Book Proposal, by Jeff Hermann. Although geared toward nonfiction writers, there’s great information in these. Larson’s book is a classic, reprinted often. Hermann’s book is unique because it gives ten proposals that actually sold. You can read the packets and see what’s in them—and how fine-tuned the language must be to capture an agent’s attention.

Fiction and Memoir Proposal Packets contain:
cover letter (your query letter can be reshaped)
bio (one page)
chapter outline (one to two pages, with two brief sentences about each chapter)
synopsis (one-page overview of the plot and meaning of your story)
sample chapters (usually two, or between fifty and one hundred pages)

Nonfiction Proposal Packets contain: All the above plus:
platform plan and marketing analysis (how you’ll help sell your book)
competitive titles (six to eight books in your field, published recently, and why yours is unique)

Writing the Synopsis
There's much differing opinion on this part of the proposal. Some agents like to read three or four pages, with detailed information. Most, in my experience, prefer a well-crafted and focused one pager. Start with your expanded premise statement from your query letter. Use that to design your synopsis. Then go through the book's outline, chapter by chapter, and pick the major points--either plot points for fiction or memoir or theory and application for nonfiction. I choose five or six, write a paragraph on each, then edit it like crazy. You want really, really captivating language here.

Synopses should give an agent confidence that you can tell your story in a way that keeps a reader engaged through the last page. Don't give away the entire story--you want to be sure this proposal packet leads the agent to ask for more. You want to deliver the complete manuscript next.

More questions? Post them here and I'll try to answer next week.