by Irene Vartanoff
Publishers and agents are constantly deluged with manuscript submissions. Most do not accept unsolicited manuscript submissions, so a would-be romance author must go to the effort of creating a winning query letter and often a synopsis to accompany it. If the query letter does its job, the author then receives permission to send either the complete manuscript or a partial manuscript to the publisher or the agent. There is plenty of advice available about writing query letters, but much of it is not relevant to romance writing. Here are the generally accepted principles of querying if you want to submit a romance novel. You won’t go wrong if you follow them.
The query letter should be a one-page letter on standard business-size bond paper with or without your personal letterhead. It should be straightforward, never coy. There’s not much space in which to accomplish a lot, so you need to be succinct and on target. Your job is to identify what you want, what you have done and who you are. And right in the middle of that, you must sell your story concept.
If you have met the editor or agent at a writers’ conference or have a friend in common or the like, start with that information. If you haven’t, cut to the chase in your opening paragraph. Say that you have written a romance novel that is targeted at their audience, or that is aimed at a particular line they publish, or that is like a certain book they recently published (or agented). Give the number of words and say whether the manuscript has been completed. Identify the genre and subgenre of your manuscript.
The second paragraph of the query letter is the tough one. You must give a brief, sales-oriented description of the story, using sentences that are the most polished in the letter. There should be no hype. Tell who the characters are, including their professions if significant, and make them sound appealing. Briefly describe the locale. You must explain the major conflict of the story, as well as the arc of the plot, including how the story ends. Although this paragraph is basically ad copy, it must not leave the editor or agent with questions. Do not dangle a carrot, so to speak.
The third paragraph should briefly detail anything about you that is relevant to romance publishing or the specific romance novel you’ve written. For example, if you have been published, whether in fiction or nonfiction, give a few details. If you have some special knowledge that makes your story content particularly accurate, say so (for instance, if your heroine is a doctor and you’re a doctor.) If you are a member of a romance writers’ organization, have taken an active role in one or have won any romance-writing contests, list these. If you’ve never been published in fiction, it’s fine to say that this is your first novel. This paragraph should indicate your level of professionalism.
These three paragraphs are crucial in a query letter. A fourth brief paragraph is usually needed to thank the editor or agent for considering your work and to say that the submission is disposable or that you have included a stamped, self-addressed envelope (SSAE or SAE) for the editor’s or agent’s reply. Some people believe that a query letter should be exactly three paragraphs and no more. You can achieve that by using the standard code “enc/SSAE” below your signature, and putting your thanks into the closing line of the third paragraph.
Some hopeful authors make the mistake of trying to be cute or too personal. Remember, this is a business letter. You are trying to catch the attention of a very busy person, someone who may look at a thousand queries a month. So proofread it carefully. Use your best grammar. Do not sign it in pink ink or print it on pink paper. Don’t include an author photo or give biographical details such as your age, marital status or number of children. Don’t try to be funny. A query letter is most of all a sales piece. Your query letter should be polished. It should be relentlessly upbeat. It should present you in your best light. It should get the job done. If you follow these rules, you’re on your way to success.