Sometimes I think of myself as a "novelist," which is a person who writes novels. I have actually written some novels. You probably didn't know that. One of my novels is called Mona in the Desert. It's a family story spanning sixty-odd years, etc. Cervantes, witches, Shakespeare, cigarettes, sex. The synopsis is not important. What is important--to me at least--is that I'd like Mona in the Desert to be a published novel, and so I have begun to send emails to people called "literary agents." Literary agents market manuscripts to editors at publishing companies. Publishing companies purchase the right to publish (that is, edit and design and print and distribute) editions of books. Many publishing companies will only consider purchasing the rights to manuscripts brought to their attention by literary agents. They will not consider manuscripts brought to their attention by people who actually write the books. There are many reasons for this state of affairs; we won't go into that.
The emails one sends to a literary agent, soliciting her services as representative of one's manuscript, are known as "queries." "I am querying William Morris with my latest piece," one might say. I am querying a variety of literary agents with my novel Mona in the Desert.
The form of a query, or query letter as it is sometimes called, is pretty standardized. Salutation, brief mention of personal or professional connection to the agent, statement of book's marketing niche (or genre). Then follows a brief (three-to-five sentences, usually) paragraph of advertising copy describing the Most Interesting Thing About the Book. This is known as the "pitch." An author's pitch will often find its way onto the cover of a published book, having traveled with the manuscript all the way through the publication process. A fragile pitch cannot survive this journey. After the pitch is a listing of the writer's previous publications (called "pub creds" in the business), any relevant biographical information, and the author's wish to hear from the literary agent soon. That is a query, bounded in a nutshell.
Frequently, one is invited to paste a portion of the novel into the body of the query email. This portion will range from ten to fifty pages, or from one to three chapters. This sample, always the beginning of the novel, is called a "partial." If a literary agent requests the full manuscript to read, they are looking at the "full." Sometimes literary agents will wish to be the only literary agent reading your full, and they ask for an "exclusive." To this request, it is always best to say yes. "Yes" is easily said.
I have been pasting the first ten-to-fifty pages of my novel Mona in the Desert into the bodies of query emails. I have been reading random paragraphs of the novel, and making minor changes here and there. This does not mean that the novel is still in need of revisions. It means that I cannot keep my hands off of things, and will always wonder what the prose would look like if it were different here or there. This means that I am sending out many slightly different versions of the first part of the novel. I don't think that really matters very much. I am never finished with a piece of prose; I am always merely between rounds of tinkering. Progress is, after all, just a myth; all we have is ongoing difference, change, fussing.
I continue to think that Mona in the Desert is a beautiful and startling and very good book.