The Question is? The Elements of a Great Query Letter

BrainworkLearning how to write a great query letter is almost as important as writing a must-read manuscript. If you don’t have a fabulous query letter the chances of ever hearing those wonderful words: “Send me your full manuscript!” are just about nil.

When I finished my first novel, I searched the Internet for a query letter format. I took the first one I found, edited it to suit my project and emailed away to ten agents. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and didn’t get a single response. Over the last year I’ve sent about twenty letters and must admit that I’ve had more requests for full manuscripts than many of my fellow writers. I attribute this to a number of things and here is what I’ve learned.

The Dos and Don’ts for writing a query letter:

  • Do read the submission requirements for each agent carefully. The formula varies for each agent-agency. Stick to the rules.
  • The format for queries is different depending on what type of book you wrote (novel, nonfiction, poetry, etc.) Know it.
  • Do address the agent by name and use business letter format.
  • Do keep your query to a single page.
  • Do start with the pitch. I always led with my introduction, now I begin with the hook.*
  • Do tell the agent why you chose her. Do you follow her blog? (Which I highly recommend) Did you see her speak at a conference? Find something you have in common or cite a book she’s championed as one of your faves.
  • Do state your platform if you have one. Do you have a blog with 20,000 subscribers or a Twitter account with a significant following? If you don’t then don’t mention it at all. This ties in with selling your novel. You will be more attractive for marketing if you’ve already amassed an audience.
  • Don’t brag that you have the next bestseller or a book that will earn a mega million-dollar movie deal. Be humble and ask for their guidance.
  • Don’t include you age; it can only lead to bias.
  • Do thank the agent for her consideration. All business letters usually end with a customary thank you, don’t skip it here.
  • Don’t follow up with an email asking if she’s had a chance to read your query. Following up when interviewing for a job is good practice, but with a query- you’re either going to get their attention and get a response or not. Unfortunately, most agents NEVER respond and it can be disheartening. I’ve had a variety of experiences. Some agents send an autoreply so you at least know they received it. Some give a standard rejection email that is short and not-so-sweet. All told, I’ve had many personally crafted responses. Some said what they liked and offered advice on how to improve. Some considered a rewrite and a few are still considering. Unfortunately the turn-around time can be endless. I had some serious interest from Rosemay Stimola, the agent for The Hunger Games. In the end she didn’t sign me, but we exchanged several emails and she helped me focus on what needed to be fixed.
  • Don’t include writing credentials that aren’t meaningful. You won the poetry contest in 11th grade? Leave it out.
  • My last piece of advice is the most important: Study other successful query letters. Tons are available on line. I follow Mary Kole’s website and she’s even responded when I’ve asked questions over the years.

Write us and tell us about your experience with successful or unsuccessful queries. There’s always more to learn. And don’t get discouraged, this is a highly subjective business. Remember, best selling author Kathryn Stockett, (The Help) received over seventy rejections before she got signed. And some of the feedback she received was brutal, telling her she’d never sell her book.

Oh! One more thing… don’t query if you haven’t finished the book! Duh!


Up Next from Caryn… Building Platform

Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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