The point of a query letter is to sell your story.
Writing your query letter, your goal is to make the reader want to pick up the book. That is the entire purpose. We’ve all recommended books to friends before. It’s exactly that, except now that book is yours and the stakes are high. A query letter is, above all, persuasive. While writing your query letter, make sure you draw your reader into your story with every word.
A query letter is not a creative letter; it’s a business proposition.
Writing a query letter, don’t think of yourself as a writer, especially not of this particular story. You are now Don Draper. He’s creative, but not a creator. His job is to make the product appeal to the consumer. He’s not rolling the cigarettes. He’s selling them. You were the writer of your manuscript. Now you’re its ad man. An industry professional. Your task it to sell an idea to someone you want to sell your idea (the agent) to someone you want to sell your idea (the editor) to someone you want to buy your product (the reader). By querying your manuscript, you’re requesting a place in an industry. This means that you should follow some industry standards:
- Use business letter formatting. 12 point font. Single spaced. Left alignment. No indentations. A space between paragraphs.
- Don’t be familiar. This is a business letter. A formal letter. Unless you already have some sort of a relationship with the person you’re querying, if you’ve met at an event or corresponded in some other regard, write like you’re writing to a potential business associate.
- Write the letter as yourself. Don’t write as your character. Don’t write as your narrator. Don’t write as the historian who discovered your story 1,000 years into the future. It’s a risk that rarely pays off. On that point…
- Don’t be creative with the form of your query. Save the creativity for your manuscript. Don’t think out of the box. Don’t quote a section in your opening lines. Don’t include a box of chocolates with it when you mail it off. Don’t be gimmicky. If you feel the need to resort to a gimmick, the agent is going to assume it’s because you don’t know how this works or your story isn’t strong enough to stand on it’s own. Play by the rules. Trust in your story.
- Keep it short. 250-400 words. Remember your goal: to get them to pick up the book, to spark their interest. Agents can read hundreds of queries a day. They don’t have time for wasted words. They’re looking for an excuse to go on to the next query. To get through their inbox. Get to your point as quickly as possible.
Writing Your Query:
You don’t have long to tell your story. Just a page. This means you can’t include much more than the information that is absolutely vital to your story and the querying process. I’ve outlined the information, and separated it into paragraphs. You don’t have to divide it the way I’ve set out here, but these are the general lumps of Query Stuff.
Each point I’ve bulleted should only be a sentence or two long in your query. If your reader wants to know more, they’ll read the first chapters and request the manuscript.
The Opening Lines: The Formalities
- Address the agent. As this is a business letter, start with a “Dear Mr./Ms. [First Name, Last Name] or [Last Name]:” For example: Dear Mr. Tolkien:
- State your intent. In my research I’ve found this unecessary, but if you choose to do so you can say something along the lines of: “I’m submitting for your consideration my completed novel, [TITLE]…”
The First Paragraph: The Introduction
The meat of the letter. You should introduce your story as cleanly as possible. It should be minimal, yet evocative. Specific to your story, but skimming the surface of it. The more set-up you give, the more complicated you’ll make things for yourself.
- The set up. What was life like for the character when the story began? Where does the story take place?
- The inciting incident. The “but when…” What set the ball rolling? This can be in the same sentence as the setup.
- The combination of the set up and inciting incident should work as a sort of tagline.
- Character motivation. What does your character want?
The Second Paragraph: The Story
I’ve made this a separate paragraph because shorter paragraphs make a page more inviting for a reader. In this paragraph, you don’t want to summarise the entire book; you want to show your ability to weave a compelling story. It should have energy. It should tell the reader just enough to get them excited.
- Highlights of the first two acts. Give your reader the flavor of your story with the juiciest bits of the rising action. This part can be a few sentences longer than the rest. Make these specific. Don’t say Jane gets injured. Say Jane was caught in a swarm of flying tea cups.
- The central conflict. What is the main obstacle your character will face to achieve their goal? What’s at stake?
- The hook. The line or question that will make your reader want to read more. If you’d like, you make it it’s own paragraph.
The Third Paragraph: The Details
Some people make this their first paragraph, but I’ve decided to put this after the introduction to the story. These are the formal details of your story, where it gets very Industry.
- The title. You might have said it earlier, but it won’t hurt to say it again here.
- The word count, genre, & age range. All necessary industry information. Round your word count to the nearest 1,000.
- Comp titles. What books might this person have read that are similar to your own, either in tone/setting/story? This can give your reader a sense of the potential audience for your story. You only want to include one or two.
- If you really want, you can choose to personalize the submission here and say why you’ve queried this particular agent. If you only want to show that you’ve done your research, you should have already gotten this point across clearly with the summary, age range, and genre. But, if you really love this agent, if you follow their blog or twitter or love some of their authors, it won’t hurt to say so.
The Fourth Paragraph: The Author
The last paragraph is usually set aside for a line or two about yourself. This should only include information relevant to writing this manuscript: awards, university degrees, writing conferences/workshops attended, expertise related to the content of the book. You should be able to summarise this paragraph with: here is why you should trust me to tell this story.
If you don’t have any qualifications, say what else you’re currently writing/enjoy writing/have written. Let the agent get to know you as a writer outside of this one story. If you have qualifications, you can still save a line for this.
The Closing Line
Thank the agent for taking the time to read your query. A small but important consideration.
- Highlight your story’s strengths. If your story is funny, include the funniest moments in the short summary. If the writing is lyrical, your query should have a hint of that, too. You don’t want to drown the agent in your writing style, but you should splash them a bit.
- DON’T INCLUDE THEMES. Don’t say this is a story about “friendship and the power or love,” or “children will relate to this story of bullying.” A query letter isn’t a literature class. Don’t analyse your manuscript for your reader. Let the story speak for itself.
- Don’t sing your own praises. Don’t say that your mom loves your book, or that your little cousins devoured it. Don’t compare it to Harry Potter or any other best-seller. Don’t say you think the book will sell well. The agent won’t believe you.
- It’s okay if it takes you days and days to write your query. It should take days to write. Whether or not the agent even looks at your first chapter will depend entirely on this single page. You can write the novel of the century, but no one will look at it unless your query sells it.
- Have someone else look over your query before you send it out. Share it with the smartest person you know. Share it with your old English teacher. Share it on a writing website, like r/writers. Have them judge it on clarity and quality. Ask them where it can be trimmed. Ask them what they think the strongest sentence is. Ask what the weakest sentence is. Have them check for typos.
- Triple-check you’ve spelt the agent’s name correctly. They’re looking for a reason to toss this query in the trash. Don’t give it to them in the first line.
- Triple-check the agent’s submission requirements. Getting these wrong is another way to get your query tossed directly into the trash.
- Let them know if there’s a potential for sequels. If you’re writing a trilogy, don’t try to sell all three books at once. Use this query letter to sell the first book of the series only. Then, casually let the agent know that “[Your Title] has the potential for two sequels continuing [Your Protagonist]’s story.” An agent wants you to have more than one book in your arsenal, but this is a short letter. There’s only room for the one book in it.
I know this is a long post, and it may seem like too much information to handle. If it all seems impossible to accomplish in a single letter, remember: you’re recommending a book. That’s all. It just happens to be your book.
/surreptitiously saves this for hopefully-early-2017