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How to Write a Query Letter

Updated: Jan 18

Ready to get an agent, grab a book deal, and see your book on the shelves at Barnes & Noble? First, you'll need a query letter. That's the business email you write to inquire of an agent if they'd like to represent your book.

So let's have a look at what's in a query letter, and how to make yours stand out.

Query letters have 4 pieces: personalization, description of the book, a sentence with the age category and genre, word count and similar books aka "comp titles," and a bio of you, the author.

It looks a little like this:

It also has a very specific LENGTH. When you describe the book itself, that should take 150-250 words. The entire query, including all pieces, should stay within 300-400 words.

Personalization: This is the only piece that's optional. This is where you tell the agent if you have a specific reason to think they might like your book. For instance, if they had an #mswl request for books about platypus racing on, and your book is about the first female platypus jockey. However, if your only reason for querying them is that they rep your genre, you don't need to include that. Agents already know they rep your genre so there's no need to waste the space repeating it. If you don't have a specific reason to query them, just jump right into the main body of your pitch.

Genre, Word Count, Comp Titles: This can come at the top or bottom of your query. Some agents like to know the context of the age category and genre (for example: Adult Cozy Mystery or Young Adult Thriller) before they read the description. I tend to lean toward putting this at the bottom, as every book has a genre and word count and agents tend to skim those, and I like to jump right into the part of the query that helps you stand out: the description itself. Remember that when you're writing your word count, don't write it out exactly: 88,437 words. Instead, round to the nearest thousand: 88,000 words.

For comp titles, pick two titles (preferably in your age category and genre, to show that what you wrote will sell to the audience it is intended for) that are similar to your book. Now, they don't have to be EXACTLY the same as what you wrote. If you have the first platypus racing book ever, that's okay. But maybe you could say it has similar heart-pounding racing action to Seabiscuit, which is about horse racing. Or perhaps it has a very strong female protagonist competing in a man's world, like Other Feminist Novel. For comp titles, you can simply show the names of the books (Hunger Games meets Pretty Woman), but I think it uses the space a little better if you contextualize the comps you chose by giving the agent a hint at HOW they're similar to your book. (With the death defying stakes of Hunger Games and the billionaire hero of Pretty Woman...) If you want to use a movie or TV show, as I did above, that's okay, but try to include at least ONE comp title that's a book in your age category and genre. After all, different things sell in books versus movies, so if what you have is only selling in movies, that won't help you if you need to market a book.

Book Description: Here is where you introduce your characters and setting, tell us what they want, what stands in their way (obstacle/conflict) and what they'll lose if they fail (stakes).

A few tips:

-Keep it short! This is just enough to give agents a taste. If you try to include too much, it will actually get HARDER for them to grasp the core of the story. The trick is, the strongest books have a very easy to describe core dynamic, so don't be tempted to clutter it up with too many subplots and character names.

-Try to name no more than the main characters. Three or fewer character names are best. Otherwise it feels like you're meeting too many people at a cocktail party and you can't remember them all.

-Don't spoiler the ending! In the synopsis (which is a different document than the query), you are supposed to spoiler the ending, but here you end on the main conflict framing and stakes. ("Frodo must fight supernatural creatures and dangerous volcanoes to destroy the ring of power at Mordor, or all of Middle Earth will be enslaved to Evil Sauron." Note: the query doesn't tell us if he succeeds.)

-No rhetorical questions! Agents hate these, though they're common in book jacket descriptions (Example: Will Sally find love before she loses it all?) Instead, try to end on showing the active choice that the protagonist faces during the meat of the conflict: As Sally prepares to be the first bare-knuckle fighter of the deadly platypus, she must decide whether to use her last five minutes before the fight to protect her fortune or to finally declare her feelings to her best friend, Giraffe Sam.

-Never say "fiction novel" as that's a repetitive statement.

-If you have a fantasy query, try to use as few proper names for worldbuilding/fantasy countries as you can. Learning each of these taxes your agent's short term memory, and leaves less mental bandwidth for them to use to grasp the core of your plot.

-Keep the sentences a little simpler than you normally would. When I was a PitchWars mentor and reading hundreds of queries at once, I noticed that I was skimming faster and my reading comprehension was lower than normal. Busy agents are always reading dozens or hundreds of queries at once, so we want to make it easy for them!

-If you can, try to mimic the voice of your book in your query, a bit. But do NOT write it from the POV of your main character. It's a business letter between you and a potential literary agent, not part of the book itself.

-If you have a ticking clock in your book, mention it in the query! (Does the whole book take place in a 12-hour countdown to a nuclear bomb? A two-week countdown to graduation?)

One thing I've seen that can invigorate a query is showing the character's central desire. Every character needs a goal to drive the narrative, and to understand their goal, we have to understand what they want and why they want it. If you can weave that into your query, it will help an agent "connect" to your character by understanding what emotionally drives them.

If I could give ONLY ONE TIP for queries, it would be this:
Be More Specific!

Agents don't want to hear that your book is a "sweeping love story about grief and sibling rivalry." They have 100 more books in their inbox right now that are sweeping love stories. They want to know what specifically makes yours so sweeping, and how it is different from all the rest. (Example: My book is a love story that spans decades, from an underground tunnel in Antarctica to a broken-down Rover on Mars, examining what happens when your twin sister is in love with your husband...and then they get assigned to a Mars mission together for six years straight.) Instead of naming the themes (a story about moral quandaries and racism...) show the specifics of how you approach those themes (Example: a nurse is arrested for touching a baby to give it life-saving medicine because she was black and the baby was white.)

If I could give TWO tips for how to write queries, though, I would add: don't forget the stakes!

What does your character stand to lose, if they don't make the right choice? What will go wrong if they don't save the day?

Bio: Okay, we're through the hardest part of the query and onto the easy stuff! Whew! For for a bio paragraph, you don't get a lot of space. So you can't include everything about yourself. That can make it tough to decide what agents want to hear! My advice is to make space for the most important stuff first:

-Any writing publications, either of books or articles

-Any bestseller status you have achieved

-Any awards you have won. If there are too many to list, use the most major first. If you've made a shortlist or finalist, you can include those if you still have space left.

If you don't have any of those, or you have more space left, include:

-Your job, if it's something that might help you in your writing career (for instance, if you're a professor of English, or you work in marketing, or publishing) or if it's something particularly impressive (like you're an astronaut).

-Your educational level, if it's pertinent or just generally impressive (Ph.D in physics, etc.)

-One quirky or funny sentence about yourself. If you have anything that ties you personally to your story or that you share with your protagonist, use that here! If you don't, just add a quick fact about yourself phrased in a way that shows a peek at your personality. For example: "I’d like to thank cold brew, my dry sense of humor, and daily naps for carrying me through marketing day jobs, a brief stint as a self-defense gym owner, and years of early morning writing sprints." Notice how this phrasing shows personality and also name drops one job that's useful to a writing career, and another one that's just interesting, to help the writer be more memorable?

If you'd like examples of queries that got agents, organized by age category and genre, you can see many of those here. Be sure to check the dates for the newest examples, as some of the older ones use a style that's no longer common.

I also wrote a blog on how queries are different from the descriptions on the back jacket of a book, and you can see that here.

If you're still not sure if your query is working, I do personalized query critiques. You can find out more about that on my Editing page!

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