The dreaded query letter! I think this pitch makes every writer slightly stressed out, and with good reason. It’s 250 words that might change your whole life.
No pressure there!
But before we get busy talking about some tips, let’s review the two cardinal rules of querying:
Rule 1: Never give an agent an easy reason to reject your query.
Agents get so many letters, they are hunting for any red flags, typos or other mistakes to help them weed the slush pile. Make sure you follow agency guidelines and send a clean letter.
Rule 2: If the agent or small press editor does reject you, never send them disgruntled emails or talk bad about them on your blog or other social media.
These two rules are broken by inexperienced writers all the time, but rule two is the one that shocks me. Publishing is a small world. It’s wise to treat every interaction as you would a job interview and the query as your job application, because that’s what a query is. You want to create a business partnership with another professional, so be smart about what you say and how you say it.
The basic components of a great query letter are not complicated; it’s just four parts:
The order of these four parts is fluid, but some agents are specific about the order they favor. It never hurts to find out what each agent likes and adjust the letter formatting to fit.
Keep the Introduction tight. You should be able to cover these four introduction points in one to two sentences.
1. It takes longer, but it’s best to query one person, by name and title, with each query letter.
2. There are agents who enjoy letters with a personal touch. For those agents you can mention why you’re interested in working with them. Perhaps they represent a favorite author. Or maybe they wrote an article, tweet, or wish list entry requesting the kind of book you’ve written.
3. It’s nice to give the letter a hint of personality, but don’t take it to the extreme. Never fill the query letter with exclamation marks and stalker-like gushing.
4. If you have met this person at a conference, or they have expressed an interest in anything you have written in the past, you might want to jog their memory.
The next five points are for the most important part of the query letter.
1. The best teasers include the following four aspects of the story, presented in one to two tight paragraphs.
i. A snapshot of the main character (or two main characters) and what makes them unique. This is often the life goal the main character wants to achieve, or something from their past they want to overcome.
ii. The problem/obstacle faced by the main character(s) and how it influences their life. This is often the story’s inciting incident, or the first main plot point. You want to mention what sparks the characters to change direction.
iii. What the stakes are, namely what will happen to the main character if they fail to solve their problems? The stakes should be real, something tangible will happen to them if they fail. And the stake should be personal and preferably high and life changing.
iv. You can also include any unique setting or the aspects of the world building that make your story come to life.
2. For most novels the teaser will include information from the first fifty pages. Some writers also like to include the ending in the query, but I prefer to save the ending for the synopsis.
3. Let your voice shine through. While lots of good query templates and examples of successful query letters are available for reference, too few people talk about voice. Voice is a confusing collection of things: word choice, tone, sentence rhythm and more. Voice might be a hard thing to pin down, but it’s critical to agents.
4. The tone of the letter should mirror the tone of the book. A light funny query letter is all wrong for a serious book packed with social commentary.
5. Don’t bog down the reader in details and extra character names. Hit the high points and move on.
There are nine important facts to consider including in a query.
1. A working title.
2. A word count. With picture books this number should be to the exact word count, but with longer length books you can round within reason. Make sure you numbers are within the standard range for your genre.
3. The genre and/or sub-genre. Even with crossover titles pick the closest one. You risk making the project look unmarketable if you name three or more unrelated genres.
4. For children’s books, include age demographics. Remember market demographics (MG, YA, NA etc.) and genre are not interchangeable. Pick only one age demographic. If your book manages to crossover into to another age demographic that’s great, but for the query should show you understand the market and know where your book will primarily fit.
5. Your comparable titles AKA comps. This is a book, movie or TV show that compares to your story in a few critical ways. You can learn more about that here.
6. A logline if you have one, that’s just a single sentence that sums up the theme of your book. Sometimes your comps might also work as a logline. More on loglines in this post.
7. Any awards the manuscript has won.
8. In rare cases, the facts also need to include out-of-the-norm structural or prose choices. If the novel is written in verse, or if it features reverse chronology, alternating viewpoints, or any other major plot devices, you should mention that.
9. Which point of view and tense you’re writing in.
Failure to include the facts is another way writers give agents an easy reason to reject their query letter.
The Closing / Bio:
You don’t need much to close the letter, but these last three points are helpful.
1. If relevant to your manuscript, include one line about why your background makes you the best person to write this book. For example, if you are a lawyer writing legal thrillers. Don’t mention mundane hobbies or interests, just solid expertise that the majority of writers will not have.
2. Education, such as an MFA, goes here. Don’t get crazy with GPAs, minor awards, what professors have to say about your work and such. Just mention the school and your status if pending a diploma.
3. Contact information. Many agents and editors use submission services, and these programs can strip off your email header. Adding contacts inside the body of the email helps agents and editors can find you faster. Be aware, listing your blog or social media contacts means an interested agent will look you up.
Most publishers and agents want to work with writers who know the publishing market and that means your query should show your preparation. If you’re unsure your letter will stack up, consider sending it other writers to read. Or think about entering a query feedback contest. Also take the time to read winning queries, and follow Twitter feeds (or MSWL) where agents talk about rejecting or requesting pages based on queries. These are great places to learn about the query process. You have only one or two minutes to crawl up from the slush, make them count!
Please share your favorite query tips or pitching experience in the comments.
6 thoughts on “Pitching 101: Query Letters”
“Contact information. Many agents and editors use submission services, and these programs can strip off your email header.”
Good looking out! I wouldn’t have thought of that.
Also, I found this long detailed post from Jane Friedman to be quite helpful. https://janefriedman.com/query-letters/ (If you don’t want to click on the link just type the name in your browser.)
Also Jane mentions Query Shark http://queryshark.blogspot.com/
How To Write Query Letters … or, really, how to revise query letters so they actually work. At this siite eople post query letters and she comments on some of them. Very insightful.
Finally, there is a query letter critique community (and other useful resources) at http://agentquery.com/.
Really good advice. I haven’t give up yet!
Thanks! And I agree, you should not give up.
Robin, this is the post I’ve been looking for, loaded with facts about what must be done and what mustn’t. My problem has always been how to get all this into 250 words. I’m going to take a look at the other sites you’ve listed, but it doesn’t seem possible. When I read successful query letters, although they’re obviously compelling, they often don’t have all this info. Do you have suggestions about what to eliminate if necessary?
You really can get your intro down to a line or two, same for the closing. That leaves the bulk of your space for the teaser.
If you must cut somewhere it should be from the intro and closing. Keep the agent greeting (by proper name) and go right into your teaser. End with the facts and your contact information. The teaser is the most important part, and for that you need to learn how to consolidate information effectively. I suggest reading book blurbs. Also practice writing pitches of different lengths for your book. You can cover a lot of ground in about 35 words, and that is the exact number of words some query contest request. Once you master writing a 35 word pitch, writing your query letter will be a piece of cake.
Thanks for the detailed reply – I’ve been practicing, but now will practice as you’ve suggested.