Key Elements for a Query Letter by Author Janet Skeslien Charles

*While I’ve been hard at work on the dreaded query letter, I’ve enlisted a professional’s insight into the key elements to a great query letter. I’ve very excited to tell you that author, Janet Skeslien Charles, has written an incredible article and will be The Write Stuff’s first guest!

Janet Skeslien Charles recently made her debut into the world of publishing with her novel, Moonlight in Odessa. Moonlight in Odessa was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the top ten debut novels of Fall 2009, Book of the Month by the National Geographic Traveler (September), and awarded the 2010 Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance. In addition, the Foreign language rights have been sold in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, Brazil, Iceland, Romania, Serbia, Taiwan, Denmark, and Spain.

Of course without a successful query letter, her wonderful book would have languished, unseen! Here is an author who spent months crafting the art of query, launched her career from writer to author, and is here to provide us with crucial query letter tips she learned along the way. With out further ado…all the way from Paris…

Janet Skeslien Charles: Key Elements for a Query Letter

A query letter is a document that you send to an agent or a publisher to give them information about your book. It is just like a cover letter when you are looking for a job. The letter needs the right elements – usually, a synopsis of the book, author bio and credentials, and two similar books to give the agent (and later the editor and marketing people) an idea of where the book will go in the bookstore. Since your query is the first impression an agent or editor will have, you want to make it as professional as possible.

Synopsis of the book. This is a paragraph that tells the agent or editor the basic details about your book. I thought that writing a paragraph about the book was as challenging as writing the whole book! You might have to work through several drafts to get it just right. The goal of this paragraph is not to explain the whole book, but rather to tell the agent who the main character is, what dilemma or conflict she faces, and how the conflict get resolved.

Your credentials. This is where you list your publishing credits, your experience as an editor or writer. If you don’t have experience, get some. Start writing articles or essays for local newspapers or magazines. Join the board of a literary journal. If you live in a remote area, there are many great ones on-line. When you have proven yourself at a local level, try to write for national magazines and newspapers.

These credential will serve you not just for getting your book published, but will also come in handy when you need book reviews and other attention for your book.

Why you are the one to write this book? It may not be necessary but, I think it helps to define the experience you have that makes your story unique. In his query letter for his novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford explains that he found a pin which said “I am Chinese.” Ford found out his Chinese-American grandfather may have worn it during World War II, when Japanese-Americans were taken from their homes and put into internment camps. This pin inspired Ford’s novel and shows a personal connection and research into a painful time into American history. In my case, I had met and interviewed several “mail-order” brides in Montana and two of my dear Ukrainian friends married Westerners. I’d lived in Ukraine, so I could understand the temptation of wanting to escape. I’d met several American men who married foreign women, so I knew first hand often, the women’s situations went from bad to worse. If there is no personal connection to the story, there is no need to force one. Good writing is the most important element of the query and the novel.

Where should the book go on the store shelves? This is a question that the agent, editor, and marketing people at the publishing house will ask. Is it a romance? Literary fiction? Commercial fiction? Young adult? Compare your book to two similar titles. I chose A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian because like mine, that novel featured a “mail-order” bride and A Thousand Splendid Suns because Moonlight in Odessa is also set in a different culture and gives rich details about the way people in another part of the world live. The key here is to make sure that the books you chose are specific, published in the last few years, and really related to your themes and plot. It doesn’t hurt to say your books are similar to bestsellers, but don’t say “My book will be bigger than the Bible and better than all of Oprah book club selections put together.” In this section, include the book’s word count and let the agent know that the manuscript is finished.

Research is key We are so lucky to be writers in the Internet age. Most agents and publishers have websites that explain exactly what they want and how they want it. This means there is no excuse for sending your cookbook query to an agent who only represents fiction. Take the time to do the research. Look on the agent’s website or even google the agent to see what she has sold recently. If you are writing YA, seek agents who have experience in selling novels for young adults. Do your research and find ten agents that have experience in your genre. Send a personal query letter ‘Dear Ms. Jones, I read on your website that you are interested in X and feel that my novel Y might be a good fit for you.’ Letters that begin ‘Dear Agent,’ often go in the trash.

Writing for pleasure is a personal joy, but writing for publication is a business. Rejection is a part of life, whether you are looking for a job, in the dating game, or trying to get your book published. When you are looking for a job, you want to work with people who will appreciate your work. When dating, you want to find love, friendship, and the right chemistry. When submitting your novel, your goal is to find an editor who will love the book as much as you do. A rejection isn’t personal, it’s a sign that your project isn’t right for them. Keep writing, keep honing your credentials and your query letter writing skills, keep sending your work out.


2 thoughts on “Key Elements for a Query Letter by Author Janet Skeslien Charles

  1. Bobbi says:

    Wonderful insight! I like her take on rejection while trying to find the right agent. Thats a good way to look at the picture

  2. Krista says:

    Thanks for the great advice on query letter writing!

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