Oh, the dreaded query letter. It’s torture, but it’s the gateway to traditional publishing. You might have an amazing manuscript, but if your query writing skills aren’t polished, you’ll never get anyone to read it. So what do you do? Practice, practice, practice, and hopefully this post will help a little.
The following advice is by no means the ultimate guide. However, there are only so many ways to write a query letter, and most people will agree on the basic rules. Sure, there are exceptions to every rule, but do you really want to cross your fingers and hope that you’re the exception? Don’t risk it! Instead, stick to the basic format and wow them with your story not a gimmicky letter. Give yourself every possible chance. Here’s how:
How to Write A Query Letter
Keep it simple and don’t get creative. “Attn.” and “Dear” are probably safest. But whatever you do, spell their name right. And if you use Mr or Mrs, make sure you’ve got the right gender. Personally, I like using their first and last name. Then you don’t run into problems with Miss vs Mrs vs Ms. Don’t say “Hey”, like you’re best friends, or just call them by their first names. Keep it professional.
Introduction (or Conclusion)
This paragraph can either be placed at the start or the end of the query letter, just before the closing. It’s just a matter of personal preference. Keep this quick and to the point. The less words you spend on the rest of the query, the more you have left to spend on the blurb. Also, keeping your letter susinct shows that you know how to use words wisely.
- Title – The title of your MS.
- Genre – Make sure you’ve chosen the correct genre. Do your research, and don’t be overly specific or the agent will question if they will be able to find a place in the market for your work (i.e. YA dystopian steampunk romance mystery)
- Word count – Know your audience and the acceptable word counts. If you’ve written a YA novel and it’s 150,000 words, chances are most agents will press their magic reject button immediately. Not trying to sound harsh, but it can show that you haven’t done your research, or that you need more practice at deciding what’s part of the real story and what’s not. There are lots of epically long books out there, but they’re generally by established authors, not first timers. There are exceptions to every rule, but do you want to rely on that?
- Personal touch – If you choose to tailor your letter to the specific agent, this paragraph is the place to do it. Give a short explanation as to why you chose to query them. This will show that you put some thought and research into your search for an agent. While you may still get a form rejection, agents do appreciate when you make sure they’re right for your work.
- Comparisons – Some people like to compare their manuscript to similar published novels. This gives the agent an idea of what to expect or to show that there is a market out there for your MS. This is personal preference as well.
- Sequels – If you choose to mention that this is the first novel in a potential series, do so here. Some people say mention the possibility, some say don’t because it’s presumptuous. I don’t think an agent is going to hold it against you for being up front about your project.
This is self explanatory. It’s supposed to hook the reader, draw them in, invite them to keep reading. Make it exciting, it should be like a question left hanging in the air, waiting to be answered. It should raise eyebrows, pique curiosity. How to do this?
- What makes your story different? – What makes your character interesting? What’s the shock factor in your story? What was the main reason you wanted to write this story?
- The ‘when’ method – This form of hook can be very effective, however use it wisely as it’s the the most common way to begin a query letter. For example: “When an event happens, seventeen-year-old Sue …”
- The question method – Thought provoking, or dramatic questions can draw the reader in. Questions make people want to learn the answer. Such as, “Don’t you just hate it when your pet ghost destroys your date?” But be careful, some agents find the question hook annoying.
- When you decide what makes your story special, use it as your hook – Is it your setting? “It was a dry summer in 1871, and Chicago…” Maybe it’s the central event of the novel? “After WWIV, a series of bombings tore the small town of Morinville apart…” Your dynamic character? “Ella was the best damn pole dancer in …” Perhaps it’s an interesting theme, or a hot topic. Is it the heart wrenching journey of a recently blinded teen and her trust issues? The first human colony on Mars? But if you’re having trouble finding a hook, maybe the problem has more to do with your manuscript than your query.
This is like a mini synopsis. It should read like the back of a novel. Remember, this is your chance to sell your MS. Keep it sharp, make it pop, and revise, revise, revise.
- Focus on what’s important – Forget the side plots. What’s the story really about? This will take a while to narrow down. Don’t expect to get it right the first time… or ten.
- Forget the supporting characters – Don’t bother to mention the names of people who aren’t main characters. Instead, refer to them as ‘her father’ or ‘his best friend’. Do they even need to be mentioned at all?
- Don’t summarize the entire novel – Don’t you hate the movie previews that give away the entire plot? Your query is the same thing. It should just be a taster, not a play by play. Some say a good rule of thumb is to only delve into 1/3 or 1/4 of your story, enough to set up the plot but not spoil it.
- Leave on a cliffhanger – Keep the agent wanting more. Enough to request a partial or full. You last sentence should really lay the intrigue on thick, or it might be a question yet to be answered. “Does Katie go to the ball to meet her prince? Or does she …”
- Use active words – Make your character sound actively involved in the plot progression (which they should be in your MS anyway, but make sure that comes through in your query). A query is short and you only have so many words. Choose each one carefully. Each word should be under the microscope. Is it needed? Is there a more powerful word? Did you use one word more than twice? For example, ‘sprint’ is more active than ‘run’, ‘wrenched away’ gives a stronger image than ‘taken away’, and ‘hurl’ or ‘puke’ is more descriptive than ‘be sick’. Get the idea?
- Write in present tense – Regardless if your MS is written in the past tense.
- Be specific – Don’t be vague about the details of your novel. It’s not intriguing. It’s frustrating. The details are what sets your novel apart from others. Reveal the specific conflicts getting in your character’s way, or slip in a tidbit about your original setting. It’s okay to reveal things about the plot, so long as it doesn’t turn your query into a bland summary of events.
Keep it short. Keep it relevant. Don’t feel the need to fill this space with why you’re so passionate about writing, or why you really really really need to get published, or how long you’ve been searching for an agents so please please read my MS. This is like a brief resume, so use it to boast about your accomplishments.
- Publishing credits – This can include even minor articles. Anything helps. However, when it comes to self-published works, tread carefully. Anyone can self-publish nowadays. But if your book did well and you can back it up with sales and statistics, then by all means mention it. It will show that you know how to market yourself and that your writing was well-received.
- Links to sites – Because you’re very serious about promoting yourself, you’re already actively promoting yourself and getting your name out there, right? So say that, and an agent will take note that you’re savvy with your writing career. You can add the url to your website, but don’t get pushy. You can mention it in your bio, or else you can include it with your contact info. It’s a subtle way to let them know it’s there and they can check it out if they want to.
- Writing affiliations – Sure, local groups are always important to be involved in, but don’t forget the national organizations. For example, if you’re a romance writer, are you a member of RWA? Science fiction your style? Are you involved in SFWA?
- Personal info – Remember, this is a professional letter, so keep this part relevant. Don’t go on about your family, or pets, or hobbies. However, say if you’re writing a crime thriller and you’re a lawyer, then that’s a great thing to mention. This is relevant information. It shows that you’re the right person to write the novel.
Your closing should be brief . If (and only if) the submission requirements have told you to include sample pages or a synopsis, use the closing to say that you have done so. Then thank the agent for their time and consideration. Don’t forget your contact information. Even if it’s by e-mail, the agency might print them out, so at least share your e-mail address and telephone number below your name.
- Follow all instructions to the letter – Read the instructions listed on the agency’s website very carefully. If it tells you to include an SASE, sample pages, a synopsis, etc, then do so. If you aren’t able to follow instructions, then the agency will know that you didn’t take the time to research their company. Or if they offer you representation, then they might question if you will be able to follow directions in the future.
- Tone of voice – While the letter is a professional one, the hook and blurb shouldn’t be. It should be written in the same tone your novel is written in. If you’ve written a comedy, the pitch should be funny or lighthearted. If you’ve written a crime novel, it will probably have a deadly, serious feel to it.
- Query word count – A query is no longer than 1 page. That’s 300 words at the absolute maximum. This is your opportunity to show your skills at keeping your writing to the point.
- Format – This means single spaced, 12 point font, aligned to the left margin, and stick with traditional fonts like times new roman or courier. No indentations, make sure to add spaces between paragraphs, and don’t cram it in to fit the 1 page rule.
- Proofread – This might seem obvious, but mistakes still happen. Have several people read it, then double and triple check it.
- Don’t – beg, plead, suck up too much, handwrite the letter, explain your theme, try too hard to stand out (your work should do that job for you). Don’t address the letter to no one in particular, or include positive comments from others about your MS. I could go on, but if you want to play it safe, stick to the formula. Sure, it’s boring and sometimes deviating can get attention, but this is a standard letter format for a reason. It works!
Yes, queries are tough to write, and it will take several tries, but think of it as your golden ticket. It will be worth it in the end when you receive ‘The Call’. Over the next few posts, I’ll share agent advice, as well as examples of query letters that resulted in an offers of representations. Make sure to check back for more help on developing that perfect query letter.