A comment about my post about the query letter spam I received suggested I make a few comments about what a good query letter might look like. Now, since I'm not an editor or an agent, I only have direct experience with two successful query letters. Both my own. I figured I'd put them here, along with a few comments about what you should bear in mind when crafting a query. Like the bad query, my editorial comments are in italics.
The query letter for Forests of the Night, my first novel.
Dear Jane Butler:
I am a engineering student who has had a deep and intense interest in science fiction (the literary genre, not the Hollywood version) for close to sixteen years. In that time, I developed a mental list of books I wanted to read, but nobody had written. I have recently completed writing one of those books, my first novel.
[SWANN: This isn't great, but when you introduce yourself you want to let the agent know of relevant details and qualifications. Any publications with a reputable publisher, any awards, and anything directly relevant to the book (i.e. if you're selling a police procedural, and you're a cop. The book is military SF and you served in Iraq.)]
The story, entitled Forests of the Night, is a hardboiled detective story taking place in a gritty urban metropolis. It is 2053 a.d. and tigers stalk this urban jungle. Literal, genetically-engineered tigers-- as well as jaguars, dogs, rats, foxes. . . These sapient beasts, collectively called moreaus (from Wells' doctor of the same name), are the fastest growing minority in the United States. The US, while banning domestic genetic engineering, is one of few countries to allow moreaus rights approaching citizenship. There is an unending stream of refugees-- second-class citizenship is preferable to slavery.
[SWANN: If this is your first book, most of the query is an attempt to pitch that book. If I was trying to re-write this letter, I'd probably shorten the synopsis by a few paragraphs. Brevity is important in getting people to read. A query isn't an outline, it is more like a back cover blurb.]
Moreaus live apart from humans in segregated Moreytowns. Mixing with the pinks (moreys use the term "pink" for humans, it refers to hairlessness as opposed to race) is frowned upon, and can lead to violence. The moreaus live in a world of fear, poverty, and paranoia.
[SWANN: This is a paragraph that I would cut now. The essential points are made in the first paragraph.]
But, they have it better than the franks.
The franks (from Frankenstein) were produced by the few countries-- Israel, South Africa and Japan, to name three-- to defy the United Nations ban on human genetic experimentation. Franks are rare in the States, and are only let across the border by the INS if there is a pressing reason. Franks have no explicit rights.
[SWANN: Again, if I was re-writing this query, this would be cut. While the details are essential to the novel, they are NOT essential to pitching the novel. The first paragraph of description is all that we need to convey about the setting. ]
Nohar Rajastahn is a private investigator. He's also a moreau, descended from warriors genetically engineered for the Indian special forces. He was born in America to a member of a battle-company that deserted the Afghan front of the Pan-Asian war. He carries the modified genes of Panthera Tigris and is, in essence, an intelligent bipedal tiger. He makes a subsistence living in Cleveland's Moreytown as the only licensed morey private investigator in the city. He specializes in missing persons and surveillance. There's one rule he's never broken-- don't get mixed up with pink business.
[SWANN: This is a keeper paragraph, because it conveys the second essential piece of information you need to convey, the main character. Here, because it is SF in a unusual setting, Nohar gets a lot of ink. A protagonist in a less unfamiliar role/setting wouldn't need so much description.]
A pasty-skinned, blubbery, bad-smelling frank pays Nohar ten-thousand dollars to break this rule. The frank wants to know who was behind the assassination of a human named Daryl Johnson, the campaign manager for a reactionary, right-wing, anti-morey congressman named Joseph Binder. Binder is running for the Senate and is apparently pressuring the police to drop the investigation. Nohar takes the case against his better judgement.
[SWANN: This is too much of a plot synopsis. You want to convey the overall nature of the plot. (is it about the character evolving, finding the killer, escaping the Nazis) but you don't want to get bogged down in too much detail.]
Once Nohar is ensnared in Johnson's death, what starts out as simple legwork becomes steadily more dangerous. The finance chairman of the Binder campaign blows himself up, nearly taking Nohar with him. Nohar consistently runs afoul of Zipperhead, a local street-gang made up of Honduran ratboys. The DEA becomes convinced that he is involved in the drug trade. He finds that he is hunting down an international contract assassin, an Afghani canine named Hassan Sabah. And he discovers that Johnson's assassination is only a small part of a vast nation-wide conspiracy.
[SWANN: Again, the future Swann would cut all of this plot synopsis.]
The investigation complicates his personal life. He is trapped into babysitting a female gang member, a smart-mouthed rabbit named Angel. He also finds himself falling into an inconvenient romantic relationship with Johnson's executive assistant, a human woman named Stephie Weir, who makes things worse by being attracted to him. (I don't tap-dance around it. They end up in bed with each other.)
[SWANN: This would probably stay as it does more of giving a sense of the overall plot without bogging down in specifics.]
I started this novel about the same time I joined a local Cleveland writer's workshop. (Membership includes Jay Sullivan, Geoff Landis, Mary Turzillo, and others too numerous to mention.) The response to the rough draft was universally positive, and I believe the final draft is much the better for the group's comments.
[SWANN: Here you'd add any other relevant info, if someone recommended the agent to you, why you're querying this particular person. In this case it's the fact I ran this novel through a workshop with some published writers in it.]
The novel in its finished form is about 80,000 words long. It is currently being proofread, and I will be able to send a polished copy by November 13th. Please let me know if you would be interested in reading it as a possible candidate for representation.
[SWANN: Always let them know that you have a complete manuscript done, and when you can send it.]
The (much better) query letter for Wolfbreed, novel #18, 19 or 20, depending on how you count and when it will be published.
Dear Ms Wood:
My name is Steven Swiniarski, and I have been publishing novels with DAW books under the name S. Andrew Swann for the past fifteen years. The seventeen books I’ve written to date encompass several genres including fantasy, horror, contemporary thriller, and science fiction. They also include a Prometheus award nominee and an Ursa Major award finalist, as well as books that have seen print in Japan and Russia. I was originally represented by Jane Butler, but I have not had any representation since she retired several years ago. I am currently seeking an agent who can help me bring my new work to a larger marketplace, and who can also productively represent subsidiary and foreign rights for my seventeen book backlist.
[SWANN: Because at this point in my career I was selling myself as a writer as much or more so than my book, I front-loaded the query with a lot of my credits. If you're on your first novel you may want to move publishing credits and awards that aren't directly relevant to the novel to after the synopsis.]
My newest work, Wolfbreed, is a historical dark fantasy. During the mid-thirteenth century, as the Teutonic Order leads a northern crusade against the last remnants of European paganism, a young woman named Lilly escapes one of the Order’s castles, leaving sixteen soldiers dead and dismembered in her wake, unraveling a sequence of dark secrets, only the first of which is the fact that she is not human.
As a child, Uldolf was scarred physically and mentally by a bloody episode of the Order’s crusade. When he finds Lilly in the woods, naked and disoriented, his only thought is to protect her. As she recovers on his family’s farm, she grows to love Uldolf, a feeling he gradually reciprocates. But something lives inside Lilly; something whose violent history is bound to the Teutonic Order and to Uldolf’s traumatic past. As the Order hunts her down, it will become impossible for Lilly’s other self to remain hidden.
[SWANN: Note what I said about brevity? I'm describing here in two paragraphs a novel that's considerably longer and more complex than Forests of the Night. Even in that short space you know the genre, the setting, the main characters and the major arc of the plot. The shorter you can get those essential elements, the tighter your query will be, and the more impact it will have.]
The finished novel will be around 100,000 words, and a complete draft will be available by June 15th. I can provide you with a fully developed proposal if you are interested in representing me.
[SWANN: Again, tell them the legnth, what you can give them, and when you can give it to them.]
You’ve come recommended to me by several people, one of whom called you “the best in the business.” It also hasn’t escaped my attention that you represented the Hugo-nominated Eifelheim, which bears some similarity to Wolfbreed in setting; though I should warn you that Mr. Flynn and I are rather different writers.
Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
[SWANN: Here's a good practice. Let the agent know why you're querying them in particular. If you know of something similar that they represented, mention it (briefly ;) and the agent will know that you did some homework, rather than sending queries blindly.]
Steven A. Swiniarski