Query Letter. Two unassuming words that those of us who have fought in the query trenches regard with awe and dread. The query letter is the tool necessary to introduce your novel to an agent or editor. Nonfiction has different submission protocol. Click here for nonfiction basics.
Back to fiction. Literary agents receive almost 200 unsolicited (meaning the agent didn’t request them) queries per week. Welcome to the slush pile. To escape the dreaded slush, your query needs to stand out. In a good way.
What a successful query letter does:
- Sets up the stakes of the novel.
- Makes the reader (i.e., agents and editors) care about the characters.
- And most importantly, entices an agent or editor to read more.
What a query letter is not:
- A synopsis of your book.
- A sales pitch detailing why your novel is guaranteed to be a million seller.
- An entreaty begging for representation/publication.
Basically, you have a standard query format to follow and 250-350 words to sell your novel.
- Hook: A very interesting 100-200 word paragraph showing what your main character wants most in the world, and what’s standing in the way of achieving it.
- Brief Bio: This is not a personal bio. It’s a writing bio. And if you haven’t been published or won major awards or prizes, writing a bio can be intimidating. For help, click here.
- Conclusion: Information about your book, including genre/category, word count, title/subtitle, and a brief thank you for their time and consideration.
- Picture books should have a brief hook and include the book’s complete text. If you’re an author/illustrator you’ll need to include a dummy, which is a mock-up of the book.
Although that’s the standard format with the necessary information, you can ask ten different agents how they want it organized and you’ll get six different answers. For example, many agents prefer the above format, but just as many like a query to open with word count and genre. In the end, you’ll decide which format is right for you.
Some things I discovered trekking along the learning curve:
Guidelines: This is the most important aspect of querying. Each literary agency has its own submission guidelines. These are not suggestions. They are rules to follow if you want your query to survive the delete button. Individual agents may also have submission preferences that go hand-in-hand with agency guidelines. We’ll get more into this in the next post.
Comps: Comps are published books you cite in your query that compare to yours. I suggest not including comps unless the agent specifically asks for them. Your choices might come across as arrogant—My novel is The Fault in Our Stars meets The Hunger Games. Also, an agent may dislike an author or book you compare to your own, giving that agent a less than positive impression.
Personalizing the query: I’ve spent hours researching agents, uncovering personal tidbits to work into my query. It didn’t seem to get me anymore requests than the queries I didn’t personalize. Unless an agent specifically mentions they like personalized queries, I suggest not wasting valuable word count on too much schmoozing. The exception is in the salutation which should be addressed to a specific agent.
Show, don’t tell: Duh. As a writers, we can chant that in our sleep. I was positive all six revisions of my query SHOWED. Unfortunately, they just weren’t generating much interest from agents. So I sent the query to Query Drill (a query critique site) and got a reply that opened my eyes:
I need something that stands out to love a query: the writer’s voice, a great plot or (preferably) both. Your voice is the standard I’m-a-querying-author voice, which doesn’t automatically mean a rejection–at least, it wouldn’t for me, if I were an agent. What *does* result in a rejection is nothing for me to sink my teeth into. Don’t be coy!
Meaning— you’re telling me. I want you to show me. Ouch. That’s exactly what I thought I’d been doing. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and muttered, “It’s worth it. It’s worth it. It’s worth it.” Then I rewrote it. Query #7 as I fondly call it, enticed my agent to want to read more and eventually sign me. I’ll post excerpts of queries 1-7 Thursday so you can observe the difference. Check back then.
If you have any questions or advice to share, I’d love to hear from you in the comment section.
General query resources:
Query critiquing resources:
The Beyond the Book series was originally published in the SCBWI newsletter, The Mitten.