Alright, deep breaths. I tell myself as I sit down to write a query letter.
Writing a manuscript? Easy! Seeking beta readers? No problem! Integrating feedback from said beta readers into said manuscript? No worries at all! Writing a query letter to submit to literary agents? You’ll find me hiding under the covers.
Why query letters send me running
I cannot truly explain the irrational fear that I have when it comes to writing query letters. But perhaps it’s the brittle acceptance of knowing that most people who read it (if they read it) will reject it.
Perhaps I hate writing query letters because it forces you to shove your story into a few flashy lines of text. I write novels for a reason; I’m rarely at a loss for words. Condensing my words down to three paragraphs, however, proves its own challenge.
My last fear comes down to the fact that good query letter writing doesn’t exactly translate to good novel writing (and vice versa). The unfortunate part is no matter how good the novel the query letter has to sing its own melody to pass the agents/publishers litmus test.
But no matter how we slice it or dice it, query letters are essential to traditional publishing. So if that’s your goal, let’s roll up our sleeves and get started!
1. Have your story written, edited, and shining with polish
Writing a query letter prior to completing or editing a story is not an issue that has crossed my path, but once more, query letters fill me with existential dread that I hope to avoid like a bad haircut.
When you’re ready to submit your book to the mewling jaw of an agent or publisher, you want to have your manuscript complete and polished. And thusly you want to write your query letter to reflect that polished story.
Don’t attach your cart in front of your horse. Let your manuscript be the best version is can be, then write that query letter! (But also, don’t procrastinate on it like I do).
2. KISS your fears goodbye
When writing a query letter, you have 300 words or less to sell your story. If that sounds like a sales pitch, it’s ‘cause it is!
You might have heard the lovely acronym KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). Often simplicity is the best policy. With query letters, the concept and idea is what will wow the agent. This means that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel with the format of your letter.
Try to keep it to this basic structure…
Section One – Introduction (one or two paragraphs)
Your greeting should show that you are pitching to this agent for a particular reason (most likely because they represent something similar) and quickly introduce your book with some key details (this could be genre and sub-genre, comparison titles, word count, key themes or concept).
Section Two – Pitch (one or two paragraphs)
This will be the meat of your query! Pitch your story in a way that entices the agent and leaves them curious and wanting more.
Section Three – The Closing (One paragraph)
Now it’s time to wrap things up with a bow and a parting message. This is often when people include details about writing credentials or impressive statistics regarding your writing platform. If you don’t have them, that’s okay, don’t make anything up. Instead, this could be where you include your word count, comp titles, and any additional reasons to why people would want to read the book.
3. Sell your manuscript with an enticing pitch
This is a lot easier said than done, but it doesn’t have to stress you out! The hook is your way of presenting your story in the most intriguing way possible. Like the back-cover blurb, you want this to capture the agent’s attention and pique their interest so they are curious to read more.
This can be done in a combination few ways…
- Present a question that they will want to know the answer to.
- Show off the most interesting piece of your story. Shiny objects are, by nature, eye catching.
- Set the tone and voice of what an agent can expect when they read the full version.
- Hint at the theme or deeper meaning that is explored in the story.
- Mention a couple key story beats
4. Keep your main character central
When pitching your novel, you want to capitalize on the connection an agent can have with a story. The best way to draw a connection to the story is to lean into human empathy, which tends to have an easier time relating to characters.
In your pitch, try to capture…
- What conflict the Main Character (MC) is going through?
- What does your MC want?
- Why does your MC want it?
- What keeps your MC from getting it?
- What quirks make your MC intriguing?
If you are a fan of Save the Cat Writes a Novel, you can also break down your novel pitch this way:
- Part one: Introduce your setup, flawed hero, and the catalyst (aka the inciting incident)
- Part two: Go over the “break into 2” and “fun and games,” essentially this is the flashy concept or the try/fail cycle that will take your MC through the story.
- Part three: Share your theme or “theme stated”, hint at the “midpoint” and/or “all is lost” to show how your character will struggle and leave it on a cliffhanger on how they will overcome their struggle.
5. Stick with specifics
All stories start to get muddled if you leave things in general terms. “A noble hero must set off on a path of self-discovery” or “A mysterious evil has descended upon a small town.” Instead, tell who the hero is, what is at the root of their journey, what is the specific evil, and even where is the thing located.
Query letters are all about showing off what makes your story distinct.
One quick caveat. While it is important to be specific, you also don’t want an agent to get hung up on too much proper nomenclature. Keep names of characters to a limit of two, maybe three, and only name one maybe two locations. Rule of thumb, be picky on what is most vital and interesting in the story.
6. Don’t leave out the technical details
In our electronic world we live in, it’s easy to forget the poetic art of letter writing, but don’t forget to include the basic mechanics:
- A greeting (keep it professional)
- A personalized greeting line (more on this next)
- Your contact information
7. Personalize your letter
Once again: your query letter is a tool to “sell” your book to an agent.
People are more interested in “buying” what they have a vested interest in. They will most likely have a greater interest in you if you take an interest in them. That personalization is when you can prove that you have that interest.
Good ways to do that…
If you took inspiration in your story from an author they represent or someone that the agency represents, let them know! If you follow them on social media and found something they said insightful, let them know! If you have none of that, do a little research on the agent to find some sort of common ground to connect with them and ensure that your query doesn’t sound like a cut-and-paste job.
8. Make sure that the agent represents your genre
You can also look for agents who represent authors writing books that fit a similar genre. As an author, you want an agent who understands the specifics of your genre in order to set you both up for success. And if you’re sending letters to agents who don’t care for your genre, then you’re probably wasting both of your time.
9. Review submission guidelines
Before you hit send on the email (or rather, before you compose the email to a specific agent) review all the submission guidelines for that agent. There will be similarities, of course, but the differences will save you from automatic rejection.
Just like personalizing your greeting to the agent, taking the time to read and adhere to the guidelines will ensure that you are not wasting said time.
10. Proofread your query letter before submitting
A few typos or mistakes in your thousands or words of awaiting manuscript can be overlooked, but the agent probably won’t get to that point if there are mistakes in the query letter.
Proof read! Then proof read it again. Send it to a few friends to proofread. Then proofread once more. Now you can send it.
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