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

Query Letters 101: Letters and Agents

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Tonight I’m teaching a small workshop to me writing group called Query Letters 101. I suspect most of you will not be there, which is really a shame. I have every intention of dropping some serious knowledge this evening. Lucky for you, my lovely readers, I’m going to spend a few posts talking about literary agents and query letters. I hope it helps!

Many of you may know this already so I’m going to try and hit the important points quickly so I don’t bore anyone. You’re obviously reading this because you know that this is an important tool to publishing. If you’re interested in pursuing the traditional publishing route (agent, publishing house, book) then this is a skill you’re going to need to polish as much as your manuscript.

A query letter is your introduction, your first impression, your cover letter that presents you to a literary agent. Your literary agent is your best tool for getting your book sold to a publisher. He or she represents you, pushes for your best interests, sells you and your work, and should help you negotiate contracts. When it comes to traditional publishing, an agent is going to be your best friend. So you want to make a good first impression with your new best friend, right? Right. That’s your query letter.

Literary agents receive hundreds of query letters every week, most of which – it’s just a numbers game – they are going to reject. Filtering through all of these letters is only one part of the job that agents have to do, so they can only budget so much time for this task. You need to grab their attention immediately and be interesting enough to hold it. This is going to be the job of the first sentence or, if you are very lucky, the first paragraph of your query letter.

You need to do some research and some thinking before you decide who to send your query letter to and this will also shape the kind of letter you’re going to write. What genre does your novel fall into? Sci-fi? YA? Literary fiction? Make sure the agent(s) you’re querying represent the genre(s) you write. Additionally, make sure your agent(s) of choice is currently accepting queries. Otherwise you’re wasting your time!

An agent should ALWAYS: talk with you via Skype or phone or even in person, be head over heels in love with your work, champion your project, be honest and forthright about their previous sales records. An agent should NEVER: charge you for their services (a 15%-20% royalty upon sale of your project is normal; an up-front payment is not normal in the industry and a red flag that something is probably wrong)

Check out the other parts of the Query Letters 101 Series:

Research and Glossary

Your Query Letter