Query letters are hard.
You’re sending an unsolicited, 1-page email, trying to entice an agent to ask for more pages. Depending on the agent’s submission guidelines, you might include a synopsis, probably even a chapter. But, you’re sending out your hopes, your dreams, and the culmination of months-to-years of work while hoping to avoid rejection.
Query letters can be intimidating.
Yet, when you boil them down to their basics, query letters are business letters designed for a purpose. Sure, you hear about those unique queries that caught the agent’s attention, but most agents are just rolling their eyes at what they see as gimmicks.
Queries written as though they’re by the main character? Queries filled with rhetorical questions, asking what the agent would do in the main character’s situation? Queries that do the hard-sell, letting the agent know just how lucky they would be to represent the next best seller?
Not actually original ideas. Not actually compelling.
The story should sell itself, you shouldn’t have to talk it up.
So. Let’s take the mystery and stress out of writing that all-important query letter and just put the pieces together.
Component 1 – The Salutation
When it comes to the salutation, there are a couple things you can do. You can either research their bios and make sure you get the proper gendered title, guessing for Ms. or Mrs. or you can just use their full name. I usually use “Dear Firstname Lastname”, with a copy/paste, so I don’t misspell anything.
Component 2 – The Story
Note: The Query Shark recommends just diving straight into the story. I mean, the subject line should mention it’s a query, we all know why you’re here. But, some agents and agencies prefer the stats paragraph first. If it’s explicitly called out, or you think it’s a better sell, go ahead and put that first.
When you do talk about your story, you want to use the tone of the story, but not any first-person narration. Remember this is about stakes and making the characters sound compelling. This is not a summary. You should introduce as few characters and settings as possible.
The entire story section should take no more than 2-3 paragraphs.
Character and Stakes
Introduce the main character(s) and the initial goal.
Talk about the complication and emotional issues.
This is where any secondary plot might get mentioned.
Goal and Consequences
If the main character is going to save the day, they must do something or consequences. [Or, they must choose between hard thing with consequenceA and harder thing with consequenceB.]
If you have more than one main character, you can add one more paragraph, to introduce a second main character. Typically, shrinking the complication paragraph into 1-sentence at the end of both character introduction paragraphs, with the final paragraph bringing all the main characters and stakes together.
Component 3 – The Stats
Title is a [genre] novel, complete at XX,000 words. [OPTIONAL] It should appeal to fans of [Novel] and [Author]. and/or It combines the trait of [Novel] with the trait of [Other Novel]. and/or Reason why you queried this agent in particular.
You need to give your novel a genre. If you can’t pick one, think of a book with a similar feel and think about where it is on the shelf. If you absolutely must, you can include a second genre, but no more. Otherwise, your book will sound like you don’t know how to market it. As I’ve mentioned before, different genres have different pacing and trope expectations. If you mash up too many, you end up disappointing fans of all the included genres, which leads to 1-star reviews and poor sales.
For anything from Middle Grade novels and up, you should round the word-count to the nearest thousand.
Do use comps (comparison novels) if you have good ones. If not, you can try to appeal with novels that may share a trait with yours – tone, setting, or themes, typically. If you don’t have any, that’s okay, just skip that line.
Especially if this the first paragraph, this is where you would include your logline. A one-sentence pitch that often works great for selling high-concept novels. If you can’t summarize your story in one-sentence? You probably don’t have a high-concept story. And that’s okay.
Finally, if you have a connection to the agent, this is a great place to add it. If your only connection is that they are looking for things in your genre or with a particular theme? I find it feels pandering to say “I’m querying you because I thought my [theme from their bio] would appeal to you.” But. Some agents want to make sure you’ve done at least a little research and aren’t just boilerplate spamming every agent in the market and ask for you to include a reason why them. If they ask, go ahead and pander, it’ll show you did your research.
Note: You can mention your book’s theme, but do not spend more than one line on it. The story should speak for itself. If you over-explain a theme, agents get suspicious that the theme is more important to you than the story. When people focus more on themes than stories, you often end up with works that read like an after-school special. More preaching than anything else. I’m sure your story was your priority, make sure you sell the right aspects of your manuscript.
Component 4 – Your Bio
I write from my home in Place [with my family and/or pets]. When not writing, you can find me doing Activity1 or Activity2.
If you have publishing credentials, list the top 2 or 3 — assuming they’re related to the type of work you’re submitting. Even academic credentials can be beneficial if your story explores those themes.
If you have self-published, you can include this in your bio, but if the stories did not sell well, it may not help your credentials. Do note, you should not be querying any novel that has previously been self-published.
If you have a degree related to writing or to some major plotpoint, include it.
In any case, keep this short and sweet, at least for fiction. You’re trying to sell your story, not yourself and credentials aren’t as important as they seem.
Component 5 – Closing and Signature
Thank you for your time and consideration.
The Query Shark has stated that she sees “I look forward to hearing from you soon” as presumptuous. Additionally? A decent percentage of agents have a posted policy that if you do not hear back in 6-12 weeks, assume you’ve been rejected. So, you’re not going to hear from many of them.
It might be generic, but, at least you’re thanking them for something you have a decent chance of having had.
If you have a website or social media, you may want to link it here. I’ve heard some agents like it, because it means you’re establishing a platform. I’ve heard some agents find it eye-rolling. It’s up to you if you want to link yourself here. Luckily, these days, many agents are using submission forms with spots to put these links — if they’re personally interested, and that helps remove the question.
Hopefully, this has helped demystify the query letter writing process.
Have you queried a novel? How did it go?
Anything you do differently or that I missed? Let me know in the comments below.