Take comfort in understanding that there is no “perfect” query letter. What’s amazing to me may be suckolicious to someone else. I’ve seen wonderful query letters that made my blackened heart sing, only to discover that the manuscript was less so. The converse is true as well – meh query letter, fabulous manuscript.
There are degrees of of perfection, but you’ll never go wrong if you stick to the key points:
- Who is the protagonist/main character (fiction-nonfiction)?
- What is his/her story?
- What does s/he want?
- What does s/he discover?
- What choices/decisions/changes does s/he encounter?
- What will happen/ would have happened if s/he chooses (chose) A; what will happen/would have happened if s/he doesn’t/didn’t?
- Short bio (include previous publications)
- Word count
Anything less than this, and I have to try to connect the dot, or ask the author to please clarify a few things. The question is; will I? Depends on the story. If it’s a cancer story, then no. There are enough cancer stories to choke the beagle. However, if it’s about Early Onset Alzheimer’s and the author has a good platform, then yes, for the simple reason that there aren’t a whole lot of good books out there on the subject that aren’t academic.
The bio is optional, of course. But for my purposes, I depend on the author’s platform, so if the author excludes this, it means I have to ask. Any extra step you force an editor to take is one step closer to a rejection – and missing information is frustrating. For fiction, the bio isn’t as big a deal, with the exception of the writer who’s a cop and writes murder mysteries, or the lawyer who writes courtroom drama. That’s good to know. Look at it this way; you won’t be shown the door if your bio gives you something to brag about.
Previous publications tends to take on a personality of its own. If you were published by a POD/vanity press and you mention it – I just gloss over it because it’s not a real publishing credit in my eyes. Same goes for the self-pubbed author…unless you sold 10,000 copies. If your prior publication was with a trade press, I can look up the sales numbers and see how well it sold. I do that in order to determine if you have a readership.
Word count is so important. Several years back, I was very interested in a story, and like a doofus, I forgot to ask for the word count. When I got the full, it was only 29,000 words. Yikes! Other times, manuscripts were 200,000 words. Yikes x 2!
Does your pitch have to be artfully perfect? No. Does it help? Yes…only in the way that it encourages me to ask for your first three chapters. And that’s the whole point, right? To get someone to want more of your work. Your query letter is your foot in the door. The less information you put in it, the easier it is to politely close the door because I don’t have enough information in which to render a decision.