Why and How to Write a Query Letter

You put in years of work, countless revisions, beta readers, even more revisions, and now you’re looking for agents to query. Only, every agents wants a “query letter.” What is a query letter, how do you write one, and why is each piece important? The process is intimidating, but I have great news! Agents need writers to survive. So let’s examine query letters, how to develop them, and why agents require that information.

Why you need a great query letter

A query letter is the first thing an agent will read before they even open page one. So you have to interest them in your book, and you, to read further. They’ll likely look it over late at night after they’ve worked all day with their current clients, so expect them to be half-asleep and running on fumes, plus they’ll have 100 other queries from that day. Therefore, your query must stand out!

Make query letters short and easy to read!

How well do you absorb information when you’re tired? Keep that in mind when you’re writing your query. You only need to hook the agent, not dazzle them with your prose. So don’t detail every aspect of your plot. Keep the query to one page max—if you’re long winded in your query, they will assume you’re long winded in your writing.

Formatting

As far as format goes, use 10-12 font size, black text, and standard font types. Don’t underline and italicize every other word, or throw in that “papyrus” font you love—make it easy on the eyes and keep it simple. Also, only pitch one idea or book at a time. They want the best of all of your ideas, and if you have others, you can talk about them when you sign.

Part 1: Email subject line

Most agents want the book title, genre, and your name in the subject line, but review each agent’s submission guidelines on their website and follow them to the T. If an agent is looking for a specific hole to fill in their client list, they can group submissions into those holes, and by putting this information in the subject line, you’ll be easy to spot.

Don’t include every subgenre (teen, zombie, vampire, regency romance) stick to the high-level subgenres and later mention comparable titles that give the agent a better clue (Nancy Drew meets Guide to the Universe).

Part 2: Introductions

The first part of a query letter should introduce yourself and your book (the title, genre), and personally address the agent. Before you write this part, research the agent. Find out and mention their previous projects, likes, etc., which resonate with you and your story.

Do the research! If you’ve spent this long perfecting your story, spend the extra time to find agents who would be interested in it. There’s no excuse for ignorance and they won’t represent you unless they connect with your idea, so don’t pitch every agent you find. You can check out MSWL (Manuscript Wish List) to discover agents looking for your kind of work, or open the acknowledgements of comparable books and find the agents and editors. This is a great place to find agents because they understood your idea enough to bring it to print.

Personalizing your query to an agent tells them why you make a great pair, not so you can point out they went to “WRITERS CONFERENCE OF YOUR GENRE,” or that they got back from vacation. So follow them on social media, browse their agent profile, and find aspects that connect them with you and your work. Maybe you’re both light hearted, coffee fanatics, or you both love camping.

This may seem unimportant, but when you say, “Your representation of THAT AWESOME BOOK leads me to believe you would be interested in my novel, MY AWESOME BOOK, and I’m also a big fan of underwater basket weaving,” it tells the agent you will be a good fit with them and them with you. (Remember, you must stand out from hundreds of other queries, and connecting with them is a great way to do that)

If you want to be traditionally published, you MUST approach this effort as a business. You’re not just selling your book, you’re pitching yourself as a business partner. So keep everything professional. Don’t worry about letting your personality shine though. If you have a comedic style, let it through, but don’t be insulting, or give them an excuse to pass because you’re abrasive. Consider, if an agent has two pitches they can’t decide between, they’ll go with the author whose personality is more marketable.

Close to 1 million books are published every year, and agents survive on writers, so show them how you can be a long term partner that can produce a best seller.

Part 3: Logline

Wikipedia’s definition of a logline is “A brief (usually one sentence) summary of a television program, film, or book that states the central conflict of the story, often providing both a synopsis of the story’s plot, and an emotional “hook” to stimulate interest.”

Sounds easy right? Strap in, this is the hardest part. We write 100,000 words to tell our idea… now do it in 25. There are great guides to writing loglines, like this one over at Scriptreaderpro, where they help you define the “struggle between all the major characters and essence of what’s at stake.”

The method I heard is to write your two page, double-spaced synopsis (which you must do pitching agents in the first place), then set it aside, and come back to rewrite it into one page. Do that again into two paragraphs, then 3-5 sentences, then finally one sentence. I’ll warn you, this will be rough. If you have a writing group, pitch them your logline(s), and if you don’t have a writing group, find one, they are key in your development as a writer.

Two notes on loglines:

-Don’t start with a question (Have you ever been angry?). This is worn out and provides no information—of course everyone has been angry at one point.

-Don’t give the story away. Make them interested to read the book, or at least a short summary that hooks them. If they want to know more, they can read your synopsis.

Part 4: Biography, Comps, and Word Count

BIO

Why are you qualified to write this story? If a publisher is going to print a book, they need to sell the book and you, and if you write non-fiction, your platform is incredibly important. So you need to tell them something about yourself: writers groups you’re involved in, awards, training, education, writing credits, and why you are the expert in what you write. But avoid throwing too much information at them. You don’t need tell your life story with children’s names, hopes, dreams, and every terrible thing that’s happened to you. Your goal is to be personable but not creepy—don’t make them scared of you!

Comps

Know your comparable titles (COMPS). If you claim “my story has never been done before” and you’ve never even checked, you’re starting off on bad footing. Comps give an agent an idea of what your book is like beyond its genre. So fill in the blanks of “Those who enjoy XYZ, will love my novel ABC,” you’ll be steps ahead of the competition by indicating your target market.

Your story could be entirely new, but you can still compare narrative voice, style, or concepts covered, or even what you drew inspiration from? Is your book similar to Harry Potter written by Edgar Allan Poe, in the style of Shakespeare? If you still don’t know, go to Barnes and Noble or your local library and say you’re looking for books like: “describe your book.” That will at least point you in the right direction if you’re not familiar with current books on the market.

Word Count

Word count matters—a lot! If you’re a first time author, falling within standard word counts means you have a grasp on story structure and pacing. Established authors get away with higher word counts because they’ve proven they know how to write good stories. When you’ve published several best sellers, you can do the same, but until then, stay out of the slush pile by sticking to the standards.

So research standard word counts for your genre. Google is your friend here. Once you have comps, look up their word counts, or search for “standard word count for YA Fiction” and you’ll get an idea of what you should stay within. If your goal is to write for yourself, don’t worry about word count, but if you want to get published traditionally, use those word counts and revise until you’re at least close.

Lastly, say thank you and keep it professional. If they sign you, you will have a professional relationship with them, so it’s best to avoid “Hang loose dawg.”

Conclusion

You want to sign with an agent excited about your book. They will go to publishing houses to sell your work, so you want them to be one of your greatest fans. So when you’re researching agents, search for people who you think would be excited about your work, not just “willing to represent you.” When you pitch those agents, half your battle will be won.

Hit send and wait for the rejections to roll in! It’ll be a rough ride, but don’t give up. Some authors go through a hundred submissions before finding the right agent. Any agents who seems interested and provides details in their rejection letter, ask them for revise or rewrite advice, what turned them off, or what you could do better in your next query. You might not get a reply, but take every piece of advice and continually improve. 

Good luck!

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