Query letters are hard.
They’re a job application to sell a project that you’ve poured your heart, soul, and more-than-just-all-of-your-free-time into for months, years, or even decades.
But, if you could have told your story in 250 words or less, you wouldn’t have needed to write the whole novel!
The problem is, there are thousands of other writers who (mostly wrongly or naively) think their novel deserves to be published more than yours does. You’re reaching out to jaded agents who’ve seen almost everything and you need to convince them that your novel is different! (Or at least written well enough that readers don’t mind)
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to get it right. I don’t know the secret formula either, and I suspect it’s different for every agent, and dependent upon how recently that agent had lunch.
But all is not lost!
I CAN tell you what mistakes you should do your best to avoid!
These 10 tips will put you miles ahead of far more aspiring authors than they have any right to.
1. Strictly Business
Your query is a business letter, don’t get overly familiar with the agent.
The subject should follow the guidelines as listed on the agent’s website. In lieu of any specific directions, the email subject should stick to the point:
“QUERY: [Genre] [Title]
Once you get into the body, start off with a formal address. If you go with:
“Dear [First] [Lastname],”
you won’t mis-gender anyone, plus, it’s professional without excessive titles.
Similarly, many agents have expressed a dislike for the almost standard closing line before your sign-off,
“Thank you for your time and consideration, I look forward to hearing from you soon.
as [Pen Name]
Some see the “look forward to hearing from you” as presumptuous, and the “soon” and as preemptive nagging for agents who chronically have massive email backlogs.
Now, many see it as a generic courtesy, but personally, I suggest (as does the QueryShark) leaving it simply at “Thank you for your time and consideration.”
It’s a query letter, you know and they know what you want from this.
(If desired and applicable, you can add a final sentence, “As per your guidelines, the first chapter/10 pages/a synopsis have been included below.“)
2. Show Your Research
Your query should show you’ve done your research. If you can, mention why you picked the agent. It proves you did your research and that you’re not simply mass-querying every agent in your genre (or worse). Don’t overdo it, but mention a preference of theirs or a book they’ve recommended.
(This goes in either the opening paragraph, or in the closing paragraph, depending where you’ve placed your [Title], [Wordcount], and [Genre].)
You can mention an item on their #MSWL (manuscript wish list), a conference you saw/met them at, a book they’ve represented, or a TV they’ve tweeted about. But don’t go too far…
3. Don’t Stalk Agents
Don’t message them about a journal they kept when they were 12, or those anniversary pictures you saw on Instagram. Anything that is public on social media, under the name they agent under, is relatively fair game. Everything else is creepy.
Do not get rejected because you made the agent feel uncomfortable… because you crossed the line and invaded their personal lives.
4. Straight For The Pitch
Your query has 3 seconds to hook the agent/intern before they decide your story’s not unique enough to bother with. Get them hooked by the first line.
You can either launch straight into the story part of your pitch, or you can kick off with the traditional,
“I am currently seeking representation for [Title], a [pick one genre only] in the vein of [Recent Comparison Novel] and [Another Comparison Title].
If you can, pick comparisons (comps) that don’t quite mesh, to draw in interest.
My current comps don’t have a sharp difference but, I’m pitching my novel as “a matriarchal mash-up between The Golden Compass and the movie Frozen.” The Golden Compass, while not very recent, is well known without (hopefully) sounding too vain. Frozen, while not a novel, is mostly recent. Together, they help convey a touch of setting, themes, and characters.
Don’t spend half (or more) of your precious 250 words on your biography (bio). The agents are not evaluating you, they’re evaluating your story. The bio typically goes in the closing paragraph, but keep it short and sweet, especially if you don’t actually have any credits. Embellishments aren’t necessary and waste space.
Don’t spend your query letter talking about the theme of the story, your motive for writing it, or what your story is trying to accomplish (teaching kids how to handle bullies?). People read books for the characters, the plots, and the worlds.
5. ALWAYS Make the Stakes Clear
Stakes are what matter most.
They matter to the character and they matter to the plot. Sometimes? They matter to your world.
The reader doesn’t care when fate or the author’s plotting shoves a complacent character along.
The reader needs to have a reason to care, and that reason is the stakes. Often, the main character has conflicting stakes.
Stakes aren’t goals, but they can relate to them. Stakes are what the character risks, to reach their goals.
In my story, Lilyen could stay home at her internship and risk her secret coming out – one that is a death sentence for her and a life sentence for her family. Or she could leave home and her dream internship, heading out alone with winter coming in fast, and hope to keep dodging the Righteous Brigade’s patrols, while they hunt for exiles just like her. If she can’t find the rumored home of the exiles, she’ll soon be either caught or frozen–but at least her family should be safe.
6. Play Favorites
In your query, you’re going to have to play favorites. If you have multiple main characters, you’re going to have to pick 1, maaaaybe 2 to focus on, then use the last paragraph to tie the plot together. You only have 250 words to get the story across, so pick the characters with either the most screen time, or whose stories tie in best with the overarching plot.
I know, all of your main characters are important and have critical roles to play. But remember, it took you probably over 80,000 words to get your story out. You don’t have that kind of space here, you have to cut to the core of the story, (and maybe even further), to write a query.
7. One At A Time
I write fantasy, so trust me, I know this is hard. But for each query you send out, you can only sell ONE novel at a time.
“Of course Morgan, I knew that!” you’re thinking.
Have you mentioned in your query that your book is one of a trilogy (or planned series)? If so, you’re selling more than one book.
ESPECIALLY if you’re unpublished, or have low publish numbers, agents are typically not going to be eager to commit to a series. They want to see if you can get a following, they want to see how book 1 sells. Even IF they love everything about it, they still typically answer to marketing.
Of course you can mention it ‘has series potential’ and that can be a good thing.
But be sure your novel can stand alone. Carefully calibrate your character arcs, your pacing, and your plot. No matter if it’s the 1st book or the 5th book in a series, a well-crafted novel should stand on its own.
8. You Can Mention Diversity
These days, many agents are asking for diversity (#ownvoices, etc). These days, many writers out there want to make sure our world’s aren’t strictly upper-class, whitewashed, and same-old same-old.
But, how do you mention it in the query without sounding awkward? Without overemphasizing it? Your diversity should be part of the world, it should inform the characters, but your novel doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) exist simply to preach a theme.
To show off diversity in your query letter: mention it, then move on to the stakes and the plot.
“[My Novel] features a [black/lesbian/disabled] character, [Matilda], who [wants this and does that!]”
“[Title] features [Matilda], a [black/disabled/blind] [woman/man/dragon/alien] who [wants this and does that!]”
9. Never Pay
I mean, don’t prevent your agent from getting paid, but their money should come from the publisher, not your pockets. Especially for traditional publishing, one should NEVER pay for an agent. Money should always flow TOWARDS the author (even if everyone else gets their cut first).
(With some smaller agencies, or for indie publishing, you may need to pay for an editor, but that’s a separate thing.)
10. Sites to check out
- querytracker.net – Some agencies you can only query once, some you can’t query more than one agent there at a time, keep track of it all here.
- The Query Shark – The Query Shark is snarky, blunt, clever, and has a huge archive of revised queries that make for great examples. Read them twice.
- How To Write A 1-Page Synopsis – Some submissions require a synopsis with them, sometimes it’s easier to use this as a stepping stone to get to your 250 word query.
Although, here are some other techniques “Writing a Winning Synopsis“. (Personally, I’m a fan of: summarize every chapter. Then trim. Count pages. Then trim again. And again. It gets me my long summary, my 3 page, my 1 page, and my query pitch.)
These tips come predominately from the “Refining Your Pitch: Queries, Synopsis, and Agents”, a FAR too short workshop, run by K.M. Szpara. #Balticon51
Did I miss any of your favorite tips? Did I get any wrong? Let me know!