Writing Query Letters in a Women's Fiction Market
You need to hook your readers! Whether that reader is an agent, a publisher or the person purchasing your book at the bookstore, you must hook them! And you do that with, well, with a hook.
A hook is a single sentence that is designed to catch your reader -- be it the agent, the publisher, or the person in the bookstore. A hook will typically tell the who, the where, and the what (but not always, sometimes just two of these): Annabelle knew her family was hiding a dark secret in the attic. Who did? Annabelle did. What was it about Annabelle? She knew her family was hiding a dark secret. Where was it? In the attic.
Now, if that sentence does not hook your reader, I don't know what will! The idea is to keep them reading. If that is the first line on the back of the book, it will (hopefully) keep the reader's eye moving down the blurb. If it is the inside of your book jacket, same thing. When the reader, or the agent, or the publisher, continues to read, you have a win. You have hooked them!
When you think of summarizing your book, first think of the hook. Who, what, where? Try to get that into one sentence and you have got your hook. One fun way to practice this is to simply Google -- type in a date, type in an event, or type in a name. See what the first hit is, and then go to that page. Try to write a hook about what you have found -- pretending you are writing a book about it.
For example, Google "Feb 2, 1890." Maybe you came up with The Van Gogh Letters? Be creative and write a hook: "On Groundhog Day, 1890, Van Gogh wrote a letter to Gauguin -- but what did it mean?" (The first Groundhog Day was celebrated in 1886, in the US, so the hook really makes no sense, but you can see that developing a hook is crucial to making the reader want to read more.)
Now, your turn. Google! Find something to write about and come up with a hook.This exercise does not have to be turned in, but it is fun and it can often get you out of a writer's block -- writing about things that have nothing to do with our main "project" can often get the creativity flowing in many ways. You may find that block disintegrates immediately!
The query letter follows an accepted standard format -- no there is no actual rule that says it has to be done this way, and an agent won't throw your letter out if it is not in this format, but it is the "accepted" format. The letter should be three paragraphs in length; it will contain a greeting, a hook, a bit about you, a bit about your book, a conclusion and a thank you.
When you do your research, you will find that some agents are fine with an emailed query, some prefer snail mail. Query letters that are longer than three paragraphs are 'frowned upon', because agents are busy! And you want them to be.They are out there finding publishers for their authors, or book deals, or televisions deals, and so on. So, don't waste their time. Be succinct (never more than one page), be polite and be informative.
Make sure that each letter is unique; do your homework and skip the form letters. Make sure the agent you write to can tell you have researched her/his agency and know what their agency is about. Address the agent specifically.
As you write, construct an intelligent, concise dialogue with that agent. Try to draw the agent in, much as you want your book to draw your readers in. Use proper grammar, address the agent using the correct salutation, be sure to spell all words correctly, and do not use slang. Be as professional as possible in your query.
Your letter will include an introduction that provides the agent with your hook, the next paragraph will be the synopsis of your novel, and then finally, your third paragraph will be your autobiographical paragraph where you tell her/him a bit about yourself.
- Your first paragraph will provide the agent (or publisher) with your novel's hook. Make that agent want to sign you from the get-go!
- The next paragraph will feed off of your hook, giving a brief synopsis of the work that you have completed.
- The third paragraph will (briefly) explain why you feel you are the expert on your subject, or why you are qualified to write this piece of women's fiction. If you have won accolades for your writing somewhere, let the agent know about it here. If you are writing about a hospital setting and are a nurse, give her or him that information now.
In this last paragraph you can also let the agent know that you are sending your queries to more than one agent. Sometimes an agent's website will ask that you only shop their agency. This means that you can only query them.They'd like first refusal. If you send it to more than one agency at a time, there is the chance that more than one will accept your work (which is wonderful if it happens!) Agencies that ask for you to shop them only are trying to keep that awkward moment from occurring. If they specify this, make sure to follow their rule, and let them know in your letter that you are only querying them. Typically this means you will hear from them quickly, and if they pass, you can send your letters to other agencies.
And finally, thank them and close. You should also note somewhere in your letter that your novel is finished and can be sent upon request.This assures the agent that you are finished with your book, and are not querying prematurely. No agent wants to become interested in a work, only to find out that the author has written a thousand words or so.
Women's fiction is primarily any work done by women for women, with exceptions, of course. Anything that is marketed towards women, to an extent -- that is women's fiction. The themes of women's fiction run the gamut, but they generally touch on women's issues, from family, to mature love affairs, to loss, to heartbreak, to abuse, dysfunction, and "headline" topics.
Women's fiction is timely; it is set in modern times, rather than historical settings (or, as we discussed, it will be classified as historical fiction, rather than women's fiction). The setting is both the place and the time, and you need to do your research in order to make the setting as realistic as possible.
Your central character is female, always, and she should be fleshed out. She should be strong, as that is the definition of a central character in women's fiction, and you should know all that you can about her, even before you start to write her. Character-building worksheets are great tools, as they can help you flesh out your character on paper, answering the questions that will help your character become more lifelike. Other great tools include thinking like a reader and thinking like your character. Decide what you'd like to know about her if you were reading. If you were your central character, how would you deal with certain situations? Ask yourself these questions as you begin to develop that character.
The plot in a women's fiction novel is relationship-driven. This is similar to being character-driven, since characters make the relationships. The relationships in the story get you from point A to point B. Therefore, your secondary characters do play a big role in your work. Take the time to flesh them out, too. Use the character worksheets for each character you feel will play a big part in the story.
Agents are actively seeking out new authors in women's fiction, so if you have an idea, now is the time to act on it! Women's fiction is a multi-billion dollar industry and both agents and publishers know this -- and now you do, too. Why not take advantage of this window and get your book into their hands? Remember not to rush your work, though, the window does not appear to be closing any time soon. Take your time, edit, and come up with a strong story. If your idea is unique, even better -- as this is what agents are looking for.
Remember that a subgenre is the "other" category or categories contained within your novel. Your work might be women's fiction, but if it also includes mystery, the subgenre would be mystery, or perhaps it contains a love story and the subgenre is romance. It is not important to worry over your subgenre as you write, it is just a bit of information that will let agents know you have done your homework. When you write to them, mention the subgenre that you believe your work falls into. Agents like to know that you understand the business.
Subplots help to make your story more interesting. They also help to give your reader backstory and additional information pertaining to your main character. Subplots are also ways to involve your secondary characters. The subplots do not have to involve your main character, but they can. As we have already discussed, the plot is relationship-driven in a women's fiction work. These subplots are a great way to establish these relationships that move the plot forward. They are also a wonderful way to show how your character interacts with other people. It can show whether or not she is empathetic, honest, kind, cold, cruel, etc.
Once you have completed your work, it is time to seek out an agent. As we have discussed, agents can be hard to procure, but once you have an agent, they will go to bat for you, and do all the work from there on out. You have written the book, let them take it from there.
Finding an agent involves a lot of work, research, and skill; the skill is in the writing. Providing the agent with a catchy, unique hook is key. Make them want to read your book, or at least learn more about it.
You must do your homework, though, as not all agents represent the same types of authors. Some are looking for young adult fiction, some science fiction; some agents works strictly with non-fiction, and so on. You will want to find agents who are actively seeking women's fiction authors.
Queries are the way you reach out to an agent, or publisher, and sell your work, and yourself. Remember that the standard query today is three paragraphs in length because agents are busy. Write in a professional format, using the appropriate greeting and closing. Address the agent by name, showing him or her that you have done your research and are not simply sending out form letters.
Promote yourself! Tell your prospective agent about other work you have published, writing contests you have won, your Master's in creative writing or about your career/job if it pertains to your novel. If you are a teacher, writing about a teacher, let her know. Expertise is always a boon. Additionally, let your prospective agent know that you are willing to self-promote with blogging, social media, local library and bookstore stops, etc. The agents love hearing that you are up for the challenge of promotion! It helps make their job easier.
So, what's next?
We have talked about "big-picture thinking" in regard to both your goal and your story's goal. Adhere to your writing schedule and meet that goal you have set for yourself. Set a date to begin querying agents, and know who you are going to query.
Thought about self-publishing? Now that we have talked about publishers and agents, let's talk a little bit about self-publishing. It is no secret that both the Kindle and nook are hot items, and they just keep getting more popular as people begin to eschew paper books and purchase ebooks. Once upon a time self-publishing was looked down on, but not anymore. With Kindle and Amazon's easy and user-friendly publishing options, you can have your book live within hours. The service is free, and the percentage that Amazon takes is low.
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