You’ve finished a manuscript and polished it until it can’t shine any brighter. Now you need to begin the task you’ve anxiously been awaiting: writing a query letter.
A quick Google search pulls up dozens of articles on the topic and how to excel at it. But some of the content is contradictory. How do you figure out whose advice is accurate?
Over the past couple years, I’ve written several query letters that garnered requests for more material, and recently I signed with Kenzi Nevins of Cyle Young Literary Elite. Through those experiences, I’ve compiled a set of fundamentals that can guide you along your path to querying.
Structure Your Query Letter Effectively
In brief, a query letter is how you introduce yourself and your manuscript to an agent in hopes that he’ll represent you to publishing companies. Depending on the agent you approach, he may ask for supporting material such as a synopsis, sample chapters, or even a full proposal (which can be intimidating). Fortunately, a query letter itself is fairly straightforward. When drafting one, you’ll need to include the following four parts.
Think of this as the tagline you read on a book cover or movie case. It’s a short teaser that makes an agent curious about the rest of the story. The format can vary from a slogan to a list to a description of the plot. Here are a few examples:
- Divergent: One choice can transform you.
- To Best the Boys: The task is simple. Don a disguise. Survive the labyrinth. Best the Boys.
- Six of Crows: Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist.
- Fawkes: Thomas Fawkes is turning to stone, and the only cure to the Stone Plague is to join his father’s plot to assassinate the king of England.
A fun way to practice your hooking skills is to participate in Twitter pitch events. The goal is to craft multiple pitches (or hooks) in 280 characters or fewer, then agents can search through tweets with the host’s hashtag and contact you if they’re interested. Not only will you have opportunities to connect with agents but also the chance to test how enticing your hook is based on the interaction it gets.
2. Marketing Information
Disclose your book’s title, genre, word count, and target audience. Most agents also ask for comparative titles to help them get a feel for your book and gauge how well it will sell. Even if an agent doesn’t request these, citing a few is a wise idea. Optimally, you read heavily in your genre and are familiar with books similar to yours. But if you’re having trouble coming up with examples, you can use broad search terms such as “YA books with male protagonists” or “middle-grade books about adoption” to find what you need.
Some agents prefer marketing information to appear at the beginning of a query while others want it reserved for the closing. If their submission guidelines don’t specify, you can exercise your own discretion. In my own query letters, my marketing information is sparse, so I can insert it after my hook without bogging down the flow. However, if you’re going to propose marketing strategies, series potential, and alternative titles, I’d recommend placing that (potentially lengthy) paragraph near the end so the agent is immersed in your hook and blurb first.
Wherever you decide to position your marketing information, group all of it into the same section. Agents are bombarded with queries, and if you force them to piece together what kind of book they’re dealing with, you’ll frustrate them from the outset. Whether you land the agent or not, you’ll leave a much more positive impression if you’re thorough and organized instead of scattered.
This is a 150–200 word summary like you’d see on the back cover of a book. It needs to be captivating without revealing too much. Don’t talk about nonessential characters or subplots, and definitely not spoilers. Solid blurbs generally imitate this outline:
- Introduce the protagonist(s)
- Set up the primary conflict
- Establish the stakes
- Drop a hook
Observe how the blurb for All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace hits these key points:
[The protagonist] As princess of the island kingdom Visidia, Amora Montara has spent her entire life training to be High Animancer—the master of souls. The rest of the realm can choose their magic, but for Amora, it’s never been a choice. [The primary conflict] To secure her place as heir to the throne, she must prove her mastery of the monarchy’s dangerous soul magic.
When her demonstration goes awry, Amora is forced to flee. She strikes a deal with Bastian, a mysterious pirate: he’ll help her prove she’s fit to rule, if she’ll help him reclaim his stolen magic.
But sailing the kingdom holds more wonder—and more peril—than Amora anticipated.
[The stakes] A destructive new magic is on the rise, and if Amora is to conquer it, she’ll need to face legendary monsters, cross paths with vengeful mermaids, and deal with a stowaway she never expected…or risk the fate of Visidia and lose the crown forever.
[The hook] I am the right choice. The only choice. And I will protect my kingdom.
Essentially, this is the moment where you shake the agent’s hand and share a little about yourself to solidify his interest after evaluating your hook and blurb.
Crafting a bio can be daunting, especially if your resume is scanty, but don’t underrate yourself either. Be sure to emphasize any writing-related education or memberships, publishing credits, active social media accounts, and background experience that qualifies you to address a particular issue. And if you have a previous connection to the agent, such as an appointment at a conference or a referral from another writer, you can either mention that here or before your hook.
Now that you have a template to model your query letter after, you need to focus on how you conduct yourself as you prepare to send it.
Adhere to the Agency’s Rules
As writers, I suspect that we often struggle with query letters because we’re driven to be creative. We want to display our quirks. But a query letter is not the appropriate context for self-expression. You’ll have more success if you stick to a standard formula than if you try to stand out as unique.
Yes, your hook and blurb need to reflect your narrative voice—and your bio can hint at your personality. But the format of your query letter should be nearly indistinguishable from the others filling an agent’s inbox. Although the order of your hook, marketing information, blurb, and credentials may vary, how you present each part needs to be methodical.
Thankfully, agents have removed some of the guesswork from this stage of the process. Pay attention to the guidelines given on an agent’s website, because conscientiousness is what will set you apart, not cute fonts or snark. I’m shocked at the number of writers I’ve heard about who disregarded an agent’s preferences and submitted unwelcome content in a bizarre format. Don’t be ignoramuses, friends. Your query will get tossed into the trash.
Cultivate Professionalism from Start to Finish
What’s an acceptable tone for a query letter? How friendly should you be? Opinions differ widely: some people recommend personalization while others don’t. You’re free to write in whichever style you’re most comfortable with, but keep a few dos and don’ts in mind.
1. Do treat the agent as human. Starting your letter with a generic “dear agent” sounds neither pleasant nor businesslike. Greet him by name, whether his first or his title/surname—and spell it correctly!
2. Don’t act like a stalker. If you received a note from a stranger who knew how many members are in your family, where you live, and the activities you do every weekend, wouldn’t that unnerve you? No matter how deeply you’ve researched an agent, bringing up his personal life is more likely to seem creepy than conversational. If you’d like to remind him that you met him at a conference, enjoyed your chat, and are delivering the material he requested, that’s fine. So is stating that your book matches his literary tastes or the criteria on his manuscript wishlist. But tread carefully with any information unrelated to your project or past interactions with him.
3. Don’t cross the line between confidence and arrogance. Since you should only be querying agents who suit your project, you don’t need to apologize for taking up their time. But neither should you claim that your book will be the next bestseller, or remark that they’re lucky you picked them. If a fellow writer made those assertions, you’d probably roll your eyes and mumble that she has a lot to learn. Agents have a similar reaction—except they won’t continue to listen to the boasting like a friend might. They’ll click delete.
4. Do seek feedback on your query before sending it. A second (and third) pair of eyes can help you catch grammar and spelling errors, unclear phrasing, and anything that comes across as amateurish.
5. Do be polite—even in the face of a rejection. Thank the agent for his time and response, regardless of his answer. You might need to query him again in the future, and agents rant about rude people just like anybody else. You don’t want to develop a reputation for being a pain.
Putting Yourself Out There
If you’ve completed a manuscript that shows promise, throw yourself a party and accept my hearty congratulations. Querying can be frightening, but it’s also exciting. I guarantee that you’ll go through ups and downs. But you can never reach the high of publication without clicking send on that first query letter.
Since a query could be your gateway to the publishing world, it’s worthy of as much care as the manuscript it promotes. I’ve only covered the basics in this article—check out Agent Query, Query Shark, and Writer’s Digest for more comprehensive advice on writing a query letter. You can do this. And I can’t wait to read your novel.
Maddie Morrow grew up with her mom reading to her and her dad telling stories about cowboys hunting Bigfoot. The combination sparked her love of writing early, and she’s been lost in her notebooks ever since. Aside from writing, she enjoys loud music, good horses, and hardcover books. She lives on a farm in Nebraska with her husband and children. Her Gaslamp novella, Red as Blood, won the 2018 Snow White retelling contest hosted by Rooglewood Press, and it released in December 2018 with the Five Poisoned Apples collection.