Writing a query letter for fiction or poetry is a bit different from writing a query letter for a nonfiction piece.
Short Fiction and Poetry
In the case of short stories or poetry, you in general won't be writing many query letters; editors may be mildly annoyed at getting a query letter about a piece when their guidelines clearly state that writers should simply submit such pieces. Thus, you will write query letters in only a few circumstances:
- You're writing to find out if the publication is currently accepting submissions; do this only if your market research has yielded conflicting information. This type of query should be short and to the point:
Dear (insert title and editor's last name here),
Are you currently accepting materials for NAME OF PUBLICATION? I have a (5,000-word/50-line/whatever) (science fiction short story/poem/whatever) that I wish to submit. My work has appeared in (list relevant credits).
(your name here)
(phone and email)
- You're writing to find out if they're willing to look at a piece that falls outside their submissions guidelines (for instance, you might have a short story that's a few thousand words longer than what they say they'll take)
- You're trying to get into an invitation-only anthology or chapbook
In the latter two cases, you will be writing a letter similar to the one for the basic are-you-accepting-work? query above. There are a few things to keep in mind when writing such a query:
- Make sure you've got the editor's title and name correct; this is basic, but to mess this up really hurts your chances. Not figuring out that Editor Pat Smith is female rather than male and then addressing her as "Mr. Smith" is a common mistake.
- Do not ever, ever try to summarize your poem or story. This is a huge turnoff for most editors. Give them the length and its genre and, if relevant, its topic.
- Include your relevant publishing credits ("My fiction has appeared in publications such as NEAT-O STORIES, TALES OF THE UTTERLY FABULOUS, and EEK! IT'S FICTION"). Demonstrating that you are a published writer -- and therefore likely the author of competent, readable work -- will help your cause. If, say, you're an unpublished fiction writer but you've had poems published in magazines that run both fiction and poetry, you can sneakilly rephrase things ("My work has appeared in publications such as TALES OF THE UTTERLY FABULOUS and GRINDSTONE QUARTERLY"). If you are well-published, don't list the whole shebang; pick and choose which publications are likely most recognizable to the editor. A maximum listing of two or three lines is sufficient.
- Don't include biographical information unless it's quite relevant to the piece you wish to submit (for instance, if you've written a thriller novellette based on the time you were held captive by guerillas in El Salvador)
- If a better-published writer known to the editor has suggested you send your work to this market, by all means mention this. If you're trying to get into an invitation-only anthology, this is pretty much crucial: "(writer name) suggested I submit this piece to you."
- Keep a businesslike tone. Don't try to be funny unless you are VERY sure of the editor's sense of humor. It's way too easy to inadvertently offend someone and have your attempt at humor backfire.
A lot of the above advice will equally apply to writing cover letters when you submit a story or poem to a publication.
Novel queries can be simple documents, or they can be complex works that will take you weeks to properly prepare. It all depends on what the publisher says he or she wants to see. If they say they want a query letter and the first chapter or three of the novel, that's essentially what you send. Piquing their interest is crucial in getting them to ask to see the rest of your novel. You will be summarizing the plot and character interactions of your novel. You will also want to include publishing credits and relevant biographical/expert knowledge. In short, your opening letter will be much like the type Lometa described in her writeup above.
Writing a novel synopsis is a complex topic worthy of its own writeup.