Query Letters 101: Your Query Letter

You may think you have an entire synopsis to impress an agent but really, you have one sentence. A great query letter is about so much more than a convincing synopsis of your manuscript. It’s about relating, conversing, understanding, and grabbing an agent’s attention.

  • No less than 250 words, no more than 700. Aim for about 400.
  • Don’t try to be cute and use weird paper or fonts. Stick with Arial, Cambria, or Times in 10 or 12 point font.
  • Use paragraphs! Don’t stick everything in one huge chunk of text. You’ll scare agents.
  • Personalize your letter! This sets good letters apart from great letters. While each one of your query letters is going to be 97% the exact same as the last, 3% of that should be personalized for each new agent you send it to. Show agents that you’ve put in the time and effort to get to know their tastes before querying them.
    • Always address each letter to the agent by name
    • Use one or two sentences to tell them why they are the right match for you.
      • “I noticed that you represent Gregg Olsen’s YA series ENVY. Because of this, I really think you’ll also enjoy my dark, psychological, YA thriller.”
      • “I had to query a fellow journalism woman!”
      • “I love that your nieces and nephews play such a huge role in your literary career. I hope one day, they’ll get a chance to read my novel.”
      • “I read your blog post titled ‘Be the Evel Knievel of Writing’ and it inspired me to finish my manuscript with a non-linear story structure.”
      • “I read your interview on Day-By-Day Writer and felt compelled to send you my query for _____.”
  • Use your letter to embody everything about your writing. Keep your voice and tone consistent but remain professional.
    Focus on the project you are currently pitching, even if you have been previously published. There is a place to talk about previous publications! Don’t worry. PITCH ONLY ONE MANUSCRIPT PER LETTER.
  • Be specific about plot details but don’t give everything away. You want to leave the agent wanting more so he will request your full manuscript!
  • Optional: Include the first five pages of your manuscript copied and pasted into the e-mail after the closing signoff. NO ATTACHMENTS. Some agents say not to include these pages, some do not specify. But there is always the chance that she will find herself just reading the pages anyway.
  • No e-mail blasts. It is unprofessional, lazy, and not personalized.
  • If another agent or publisher has referred you to an agent, mention it in your letter.
  • Query Letter Must Haves:
    • Personalized salutation, Personalized tidbit about agent, Title, Genre, Word count, Protagonist name, Description of protagonist, Setting, Inciting incident, Villain, Protagonist’s quest/purpose, Protagonist’s goal, Your Bio, Author’s credits (optional), Your name, Where you can be found online
  • Know your genre, type of project, and age group.

Much of this information came from an excellent class I took on LitReactor.com taught by the brilliant and lovely Bree Ogden. If you want more, sign up for some classes there!! There’s another Art of the Query Letter class coming up in February.

Check out the previous parts of the Query Letters 101 series:

Research and Glossary

Letters and Agents

No Writer is an Island

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“Be careful. You don’t want your work to be derivative.”

I’m not part of the camp that says there’s no such thing as an original idea (there must be millions out there crawling around!) but it’s hard to pretend that ideas don’t come from other books, movies, games, and comics that have already been published. If you ask me, there’s nothing shameful about picking and digging through existing works for inspiration.

Drawing inspiration, of course, is very different from “paying homage to” or “borrowing ideas” or “lifting characters from.” There’s a work that is derivative and then there is a work that is unoriginal. Derivative, I would argue, is nothing to be ashamed of when done well! Can’t we say that most modern and post-modern fantasy is derivative of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings/Middle Earth? And does that immediately devalue every fantasy novel, story, or game created since 1937?

I was given the above warning when workshopping a fantasy novel. I’ve spent countless hours world building for this piece and working hard to subvert traditional fantasy genre expectations and create races unlike those I’d read about before. When I was warned I might be too “derivative” I came to a realization: maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Some of the best told stories aren’t original ideas anyway.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet might be the best example of a derivative work that stepped out and away from its origins and paved a new path through the craft of writing and creation of memorable characters.

In no way do I or any respectable writer condone plagiarism or the taking of other writers’ ideas. BUT don’t let the fear of being labeled “derivative” scare you away from the ideas that move you the most.

In Defense of Jargon

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The writing and critique group I attend (almost) weekly is divided: how much sci-fi or fantasy jargon is too much? With such a wide variety of writers who pursue different styles, there’s polite disagreement on almost everything we bring up – but the issue of made-up words seems to be a hot one lately.

As a lover of fantasy and science fiction both, I believe in the power that jargon can bring to the page when it comes to creating a world. I don’t want to smack my readers in the face with excessive comparisons and descriptions based on objects they already know. I want to challenge them, to push them, to make them feel like they really are in a living, breathing other world.

When a reader is presented with new vocabulary or made-up words and languages, that’s a chance to really get him engaged. When she is looking at new jargon in the context of the new world, she’s taking some time to puzzle over the words while exploring a new place.

And that’s what I want! If I’m creating a whole new world for my readers and characters to explore, I want it to have a heartbeat that’s different from our own. I want the reader to hear that quiet thump-thump rhythm and fall into it headfirst, running wild through an unexplored place.