The 5 Components of a Query Letter

I know, I talk a lot about queries and the querying process. You may have even heard me say most of this before, but I’ve decided to break it out again in a clean format. Because?

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

Dear [Agent],

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.

Complication

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.

Sincerely,

Your Name

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.

7 Ways Writers Handle Rejection

You might be aware that I’m actively querying my second-world fantasy novel. Maybe something to do with the theme of my last few posts.

Let’s just say, I’m not getting the nibbles I would like.

So, going from the not-so-useful to the potentially helpful, here are:

7 Ways Writers Handle Rejection:

1 – Lashing Out

These are the writers who write back, who tell the agent that they’re wrong to not fling money hand-over-fist at them. These are the writers who go to social media and call out agents for perceived faults.

These are the writers that agents warn each other about. The ones who helped encourage agents to never give feedback.

Clearly, this isn’t you.

(Of course, I’m not saying there are no problematic agents. I watch the literary news and gossip.)

2 – Indulging in substances

From the PG-13 versions of chocolate and ice cream, to the more adult versions of alcohol and pot, to harder substances, plenty of writers have been known to comfort eat/indulge themselves. Finding distraction and a sugar rush — or what have you — to help raise those endorphins.

3 – Walking Away

The literary world is hard. Constant rejection is hard. Some writers toss in the towel, either giving up on publishing and deciding to write for themselves and any online followers, or by giving up on writing altogether. Of course, if they ever change their minds their novel will be right there waiting for them.

4 – Binge Reading

Nearly every writer out there got into it because of our love of reading — and our dream of seeing the types of stories we want told in published books. Sometimes, the best way to find your enthusiasm for writing again is to remind yourself what you’re aspiring to — by reading books that give you characters and settings that consume you.

5 – Self-Publishing

Just do it yourself!

Traditional publishing is surrounded by gatekeepers, accepted tropes, dictated pacing, and a lot of waiting. In this day and age, one doesn’t have to subject oneself to all of that. You can take your novel, get it edited, and publish it yourself — controlling everything from the title to how it’s marketed. No need resign yourself to cover art you don’t adore or blurb text that pushes the wrong aspects of the story.

6 – Revision

Every rejection has one thing in common — the agents are rejecting your manuscript. (Not you, no matter how personal it feels). Maybe the problem really is with your query. Or your synopsis. Or your story. It might be time to take a good hard look at what you have and what the market seems to be looking for.

7 – Sending Out Another Query

And, of course, there’s the fact that maybe you just haven’t found the right agent. So, when you get one rejection in, you just send out a new query to a different agent. Maybe this one will see the not-so-hidden gem within your manuscript.


How do you handle rejection? What ways have worked? What ways haven’t been so useful?

The 13 Types of Responses Writers Get When Querying Agents

Or, Tales of a Form Rejection Connoisseur

When you’re querying agents, unless you’re both very skilled and very lucky, you’re likely to get a collection of… letters, before you get an offer.

And most of that collection will be form rejection letters.

Why Form Rejections?

You’ve spent months to years hard at work, polishing your manuscript. Carefully selecting the right agent to query. So, you’d think you would earn a personalized rejection.

Sadly, that’s not how publishing works.

After decades of rejected authors lashing out at agents who rejected them for reasons the writer didn’t agree with, the ease of bulk email or online form querying, and, these days, the glut of new novels following a forced quarantine, the majority of agents, the majority of the time, send out form rejections. It saves them time and protects them legally.

But, not all agents have the same technique. What sorts of letters – form or not – can a writer expect?

The 13 Types of Responses To Queries

1. Silence

Many agents state that if they don’t reply in, typically 6 to 8 weeks, you should assume that “no response means no thank you”. These agents usually send a confirmation email when you query them, so you at least know your query went to the right place.

(Note: I have found that a non-zero percentage of these agents do eventually send a short “no thank you” email. Typically closer to double the given wait period)

2. Short and Not-So-Sweet

These agents don’t want to waste your time or their own. For these form rejections, there’s a short “Thank you for thinking of [agent], but [your story] is not right for our list. Best of luck.”

3. Polite and inoffensive

Many agents have decided the key phrase they should use in a rejection is “did not connect with the main character/story“. Mostly, because agents of yore found that it kept writers from trying to ‘fix’ the problem in three days and re-querying. It was hard to argue with “didn’t connect”.

There is a bit of push back these days, because “did not connect” can mean “you’re from a different background from [the agent] and this story isn’t what [the agent is used to],” but, the push for #ownVoices story is hopefully slimming out the instances where “did not connect” is used because of cultural divides.

These rejections are the most common form of form rejection I’ve found.

Typically, these are two paragraph rejection letters along this vein: “Thank you for querying [agent or agency]. While I did find the query interesting, I just didn’t connect with the story to the degree I would need to, in order to make you an offer.

Publishing is very subjective so it’s very possible someone else will love your story like I wish I could have. Good luck.

They’re not always that supportive, but many are.

4. Polite and late

These are the same as the polite and inoffensive “Didn’t connect. Publishing is subjective.” Just with a dash of “I’m so sorry for taking so long.

It is not uncommon for agents to take up to double the given wait time that is listed on their own agency website. After that, you might think about nudging.

I don’t usually see ‘Sorry for being so late” until the agent has passed that double-the-given-wait limit, but some apologize the day after their self-imposed deadline.

5. Generic Advice

These start off like “Polite and inoffensive”, and add in some generic writer advice. Sometimes, how to get beta readers. Sometimes, with links to writing or querying sites.

6. Feedback Lite

The next type of form rejection are the ones that leave you wondering if it’s a form rejection or actual feedback. The easiest way to find out is, if the agent is on QueryTracker, and you have a paid account (or friend with one), plenty of writers share their full rejection letters there.

Many agents have a selection of form rejection templates and use different ones depending on how much your story was outside their wheelhouse.

The most common form rejection with vague feedback unsurprisingly addresses the start of your story. You know, the pages you actually sent. As many writers, especially debut writers, start the story in the wrong place, most of this feedback addresses that.

The three main critiques are:

  • The story started too slow
  • The story threw us in before we were given reasons to care about the character
  • I’m not sure what the stakes are

The agent may even customize the form rejection with your title and main character names. It is actual feedback, but pretty commonly given and high-level.

7. Actual Feedback

The holy grail of rejection letters. Actual feedback.

Thank you for querying [agent]. While [some aspects] of [title] appealed to me, I felt that [something else] could use some work.

Thank you and good luck.

Awesome! And USEFUL. Something actually actionable.

8. The Partial

Since many agents ask for something less than 20 pages (if any) with their query package, it can be hard for them to glean much about your writing style and pacing from a query letter. While not an offer of representation, this is where an agent says “I like what I’ve seen, send me some more.”

9. Revise and Resubmit

This is when you really start getting your hopes up.

This starts off looking like not-form-feedback and ends with an actual invitation to resubmit to them if you make the proposed changes. If it’s not explicitly said, it’s probably not an “R and R”.

10. The Full

Just like the partial, only they’re asking for your entire manuscript.

11. Salt in the Wound

A form rejection after a partial, full, or R&R REALLY hurts. Especially, if it’s the one that give advice. On how to query or beta read. After they asked you for more pages. And you know it’s what they send the queriers the reject in 3 seconds flat, too.

A form rejection months after the “if you haven’t heard after 8 weeks, move on with your life.” You already got the point…

A shorter, less friendly form rejection… after they already rejected you. Probably one was from their intern. Or they were just clearing out their query folder and didn’t realize these were already done.

12. Set Up A Call

This type of letter, the agent says lovely things about your manuscript, and asks to set up a time to call you. Most agents only do this for offers of representation, some agents will do this for an R&R. Temper your hopes accordingly, but be prepared to ask questions, just in case it’s “THE Call”.

13. Offer of Representation

Congrats! You’ve graduated out of the query trenches. You can typically take a week or two to reach out to any agents with whom you have outstanding queries, partials, or fulls. Most will bow out, but it’s a great way to get a quick reply, and some may express interest.

Most agents will try to set up a call at this point. Otherwise known as “THE Call.”

Assuming you have a good rapport with the agent and decide to accept their offer, you now have an agent.

Some agents will have you revise your work immediately. Others will want to know if you have other stuff they can shop around as well.

But, now the agent will be submitting your manuscript to all those publishing houses. Hopefully with insider knowledge of which publishing Editors prefer which approach. It’s the agent version of the query trenches, but you’ve made it past one gatekeeper, and that much closer to traditional publication.


Are there any types of query responses I missed? I’ve heard of rude, insulting rejections but they seem apocryphal these days.

Tell me about your time in the query trenches.

9 Terms All Querying Authors Should Know

The road to traditional publication is a long one. Once you (and your beta-readers) have taken your novel as far as you can, it’s as polished as you can make it, and you’re ready to share it with the world, the next step is typically finding a literary agent with a process known as querying.

While these are the common definitions for these terms, they are not uniform across the board, and you may find people using these terms for different things.

For those who’ve never queried a novel, here are 9 terms you’ll probably encounter along the way.

1. Querying

What exactly is querying, is probably the first question you have in this process. I’ve talked about this extensively, but querying is the process by which you select an agent, compose a query letter, send it to the agent, and then wait for a response. Many agents ask for more than just a query letter. On the agency’s submissions page, they will describe what they want. A query package may include: X number of pages from your manuscript, a synopsis (1-3 pages), a pitch or logline, knowledge of the target audience, or more.

Originally, people would mail letters to the agencies. Some agents still accept mail, but most have moved to email or even electronic forms.

2. The Query Letter

In America, the query letter is typically 3-4 paragraphs, 2 describing the story’s main character’s stakes and goals, 1 with the manuscript’s stats and any comparison novels, and 1 with a short biography of any relevant information.

If the agency you’re looking at requests a cover letter, it’ll be similar to a query letter, but the story part of the letter will typically just be one to two sentences.

3. Comps

A ‘comp’ or ‘comparison novel’ is a novel that gives the agent a feel for what your manuscript is like. Traditional comps are typically less than 3 years old and in your genre, avoiding any wildly popular novels. (You don’t want to say you’ve got ‘The Next Hunger Games’ or something of that nature.) You can also use older comps with things such as “the court politics of BOOK A with the humor of BOOK B.”

4. Pitch or Logline

While pitches can be longer than a traditional logline, your pitch, or ‘elevator pitch’ is the 30-second version of your story, something pithy and tweetable. This is ineffably easier if you have something that is “high concept”. “She’s a war-hardened soldier, he’s a street-rat who’s made it big as a chef, together, they fight crime.” Or “Cinderella meets Pitch Perfect in a futuristic rags-to-riches battle of the choruses.”

5. High Concept vs Low Concept stories

High concept stories have easy to describe plots and those pithy pitches. Low concept stories are typically more character driven than plot focused, and harder to condense.

6. Slush Pile

Despite the name, a slush pile is neither a stack of slushie drinks, nor plowed snow piled by the side of the road. Any unsolicited query (or, in the short story world of magazines and anthologies — unsolicited submissions) is dubbed part of the ‘slush pile’. Agents have author clients that they are beholden to, and only a small percentage of their time is spent looking for more clients. Often getting dozens to hundreds of query letter submissions a week, the slush pile can easily get away from a busy agent. Reading these piles is sometimes even relegated to interns and agents-in-training.

7. Submissions

Submissions are when you send the full story to a publisher. If you’re looking to publish a short story, you’re going to be ‘submitting’ to them, not ‘querying’ them. When you have an agent , (or if you find a publisher that accepts unagented manuscripts), they’re submitting your manuscript to the publishing houses on your behalf.

8. SASE

In the old-school world of physically mailing your manuscript to agents, printing was also rather expensive. So, most authors who wanted the manuscript returned to them if the agent said ‘no’ would include a “self-addressed and stamped envelope” — a SASE for the agency to return the manuscript at no cost to the agency.

9. R&R

Sadly, in the querying process, this doesn’t usually mean “rest and relaxation.”

Some agents don’t say “no” or “yes” immediately. Some see potential in a story, but might email, asking for changes to be made, without offering representation, but asking to see the new version. These are known in the querying industry as “revise and resubmits” or – R&R. Some agents will give feedback without asking for a resubmission, so read carefully whenever you’re given advice. Standard practice is not to requery an agent with the same manuscript — unless it has undergone a massive overhaul. And, even then, it’s suggested to try different agents.


Are there any other terms you’ve run across when querying that those not in the trenches are unfamiliar with?

Let me know!

Getting An Agent – Querying In Batches

I talk a lot about the querying process. Maybe someday I can talk about actually working with an agent. But, if you’ve been following me for a while, you know that traditionally published books need an agent and that most publishing houses don’t accept submissions for unagented works. You know, in order to get an agent, you need to send them a one-page query letter, telling them about the story — the characters and the stakes, the manuscript’s stats and comparative novels, and a brief biography of yourself. I’ve talked about how to pick who to query. I’ve even let you know about my worries about when to send that query letter.

But that’s not all you need to think about.

There’s debate about how many agents to query at a time, when to stop, and whether to give up and ‘drawer’ the manuscript or self-publish. I know I have the bad habit of revising my whole manuscript every ten queries or so, which I shouldn’t need to do unless I’m getting consistent feedback or my manuscript isn’t ready.

However, I’ve been running into querying writers who are sending out ten queries a day, without stop, until they’ve queried everyone in their genre, (or at least not opposed to their genre.)

Stop it!

You’re only hurting your own chances.

I agree that queries should be sent out in batches — but of 3-5, maybe up to 10. But then you need to wait. You need to see what sort of responses you’re getting.

If you’re getting form rejections, that doesn’t tell you if the agent doesn’t find your voice or story compelling, nor does it say that it’s not what the market is looking for. It simply means your query (and/or your first 10-pages) aren’t working.

It’s a LOT easier to edit or tweak a query and opening chapter than it is to revise and revamp an entire manuscript. But, industry standards are such that one does not re-query with the same manuscript unless there have been substantial changes — plot, pacing, characters — to a majority of the story.

A slight aside about those opening pages – a lot of publishers and agents and even veteran writers have told me that newbie writers often start the story in the wrong place — even if their writing is great.

Now, back to the query talk. If you query every agent immediately, you’ll never know if the problem is your query and opening, or the story itself.

If you query in smaller batches, you can tweak and adjust until you’re getting requests for more pages, or more personalized rejections. Both mean you’re getting closer. Feedback is useful, but lack of feedback just means you haven’t hit the mark yet (or you’ve been querying the wrong people).

Don’t waste your query chances with your first polished query. Once you’re getting rejections on partial or full requests, it may be time to query more widely, because you’ve got the query just right. Or, it might be time to look at the story. But all a form rejection means on a query is that the query isn’t working.

Slow down your querying. The publishing industry is a slow process, and rushing the querying process won’t do anything but close doors to your current manuscript.


Have you queried a manuscript? What did you find to be the right size for a batch?

Have you mass queried and actually had it work?