You've done it. Finished an entire manuscript, poem, article, short story, etc. Hours of polishing, reading, critiquing, rereading, and perfecting your work produced something you're proud of and ready to share. If you're at this point, congratulations! Now it's time to really get to work. There are lots of publishers and editors that work with young writers, just like you, but you've got to take that next step. Time to query.
What's a query? Great question. In a nutshell, a query is a business letter in which an author presents their work to an agent, editor, or publisher in a concise and clear manner. The typical query may contain three sections: a summary of the writing offered, a brief market comparison/analysis, and an author's references. There are many varieties within the body of a query, but these three elements tend to be commonplace and desirable from the perspective of the agent/editor/publisher.
Let's take a look at each element in turn. The summary is just that, a summary of what your story, article, or poem is about. It needs to be written clearly with attention given to the specifics from your story that might catch the curiosity of the letter's reader. Some authors write brilliant summaries that read like the back cover blurbs of the best books. For others, like myself, condensing an entire story into a few sentences that portray the voice of my characters, capture the attention of the reader, and add just enough specific information is more of a nightmare than harsh critiques. For those in that camp, Nathan Bransford has developed a wonderful formula to get you started. Check it out: Query Letter MadLib.
The second element, the market comparison and/or analysis, may or may not be required by the individual you are querying. The requirements of each agent/editor/publisher can typically be found on their submissions or guidelines page. I highly recommend reading that page before submitting a query of any sort to ensure your query will be given the attention you desire. If they ask for either the comparison or the analysis, include it. It's a bit of footwork on your part, but worth the effort as it shows your willingness to play by the rules and do the work required by the person you're querying. With that written, what is this analysis/comparison thing? An analysis is an overview of where your work fits into the publishing market. Where would the bookstore put your book? Which genre does it fit into? Which reader would be interested? Why would those readers be interested in your piece? A market comparison may include some of the same information an analysis contains, but it should also contain other titles you would consider similar to your own. What other books would readers who like your book be apt to read? (Great stuff on the analysis/comparison thing.)
The third, and often final section of a query letter, is about you. Who are you and why are you the perfect person to write the manuscript you wrote? What would you bring to the marketing table if you were published? Are you published already? Do you speak publicly? Do you have a social network platform? In essence, the publishing world wants to know if you are the right person to write the piece and if you have clout with potential buyers. (The how-to on writing bios.) Don't worry if you don't have shiny credentials or tons of money-wielding followers. All though those are helpful, there are many success stories of authors who simply left this section with, "this is my first novel."
Now, you've got the basics and it's up to you to write the query. But, if writing this type of correspondence has you tied up in knots, there are several places you can go for query critiques and suggestions. First, make sure to click-thru the links mentioned above. There are lots of great information on those pages and beyond. Also, query critiques can be done through online forums like nextgenwriters.com and during MuseItUp's online conference scheduled every fall.
Are you at the querying stage? What's the hardest part of the query for you to write? Where do you go for query help? Who do you hope to query?