Crafting Query Letters

By Allison Gorner

Oh, the dreaded query letter. If you choose the traditional publishing route, it is a necessary, albeit frightful, step in publishing your novel. An exceptional query letter can propel your manuscript to representation and a publishing contract. A query letter’s purpose is to persuade an editor or an agent to read your manuscript—to invest their time in your work. It needs to be seductive and contain charming persuasion. It is a sales letter and displays your book as a marketable product.

The following steps will help you craft a successful query letter.

Finish Your Book

Most agents and editors will not consider unfinished fiction manuscripts. Complete the manuscript, edit, revise, and polish it before sending out queries. Your manuscript should be the best you can make it and feel ready for publication. The exception to this is if you already have an established relationship with a publisher and they request a manuscript pitch from you.

Research Agents and Publishers

The next step is to research agents and publishers that you want to send your manuscript to. Look for those who have represented books in the same genre. Who was the agent/publisher of your favourite novel? Look in the author’s thank you section for names. Make a list of agents in your genre and note each agent’s submission guidelines.

Some useful databases include Publishers Marketplace, AAR Database, Agent Query, and Query Tracker. Also check out agents’ blogs and Twitter feeds.

Read Successful Queries

Reading successful query letters helps you to recognize what works, and what doesn’t. Why were these letters successful? What elements were included to make it stand out? Look for examples of queries on author and agent blogs, writing websites and publications. An excellent resource is the “Successful Queries” series on writersdigest.com. This series of articles shows queries that had offers of representation and often include agent’s comments and reasons the letter worked for them.

Write the Query

Introduction

Open the query with a thoughtful, personalized approach. Address the agent or editor by name, spelled correctly. Customize your letter for each submission. Do not address your letter “To Whom It May Concern.” Mention if you have met them or heard them speak before. Reference a title they represented in your same genre that you liked and that your manuscript could be compared to.

Define your manuscript by stating the title, genre, word count and target audience.

Example:

Dear Mr. Smythe,

I recently heard you speak at The Writers’ Conference, which inspired me to craft this query letter. My novel, The Book, is a YA fantasy romance complete with 80,000 words. I am submitting to you because I believe my manuscript will appeal to the same readers as Author 1 and Author 2, whom you represent.

The Hook

In 100 – 200 words, the hook is the real meat of the query. It shows the setting and time and boils down your story to a few compelling elements and characters. Be specific (too much detail is a mistake) and have a tight focus on the conflict or unique situations of your manuscript. Only mention your protagonist, love interest, and antagonist. Don’t go off on several secondary characters or on minor plots. Don’t reveal the ending, instead make the agent or editor want to read more to find out what happens.

A successful hook conveys what the book is about and makes the agent want to read it and the reader want to buy it. An excellent hook could become the flap or back cover copy for your published novel.

If the hook is well written but boring, it means the story is lacking anything fresh. Just the same old story or formula with no distinction.  To spice up your hook, add conflict and specificity. Figure out what is truly special about your story and express it in a captivating way.

Write several drafts of your hook then pick out the best part from each draft. Choose words that convey emotion. Does the hook express why we want to care about the character?

Hook Formula 1Hook Formula 2
What does your character want?State your character’s name with a brief description.
Why does he want it?Describe the conflict she faces.
What keeps him from getting it?Convey the choices she has to make.

Biographical Note

Include a brief description of yourself and your publication credits. Mention if you have any advanced writing degrees, professional writing affiliations, and/or awards or competitions won. Comment on your job and career only if it lends authenticity to your manuscript. For example, you wrote a detective novel and have been in law enforcement, or you have a picture book manuscript and are an elementary school librarian.

Bio Don’ts:

  • Don’t talk about every little writing thing you’ve ever done. Pick out a few of the best.
  • Don’t say how much your friends and family love your book or how much they want you to write.
  • Don’t talk about all the times you’ve been rejected, or your close acceptances.

Thanks and Closing

Leave a final good impression by thanking the agent for their consideration. It is expected that authors will send out multiple submissions, so no need to state this, but do mention if another agent or publisher is considering your manuscript.  Make sure your contact information is included after the signature in an email submission.

Workshop and Revise

After your query is written, workshop the letter as if it were a manuscript. Show it to friends and other authors who haven’t read the book. Get their feedback and impressions and ask them to repeat back to you what they think the story is about. Does your query accurately represent your book? Revise as necessary.

Red FlagsQuestions To Ask
Query is over one page.Will it be meaningful? Charming? Persuasive?
Comments on the quality of your work – it should be self-evident.Does it reveal my work’s voice or personality?
The hook sounds like to many other hooks – too boring.Does it create an emotional response?

Send the Query

When your query is finished send it to 5 or 6 agents or publishers at a time. Remember to follow each agent’s specific submission guidelines. If you receive 1 or 2 requests for pages that means you have a great query letter. If no requests are received, that means you need to re-evaluate your letter. Make tweaks and edits – strengthen the hook – and send it out to 5 or 6 more agents.

Expect rejections and don’t give up. Remember, finding the right person to work with takes time, patience, and more than a little effort. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Work like hell! I had 122 rejections slips before I sold a story.”

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