How to write a query letter for agents
Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post about how to find a literary agent. In that blog, I covered five ways you can find an agent that is right for your novel, and how to keep track of your queries.
Once you’ve built your list of agents to query, the next step is to actually start sending those queries out. The standard components of a query package are:
A query letter
The first three chapters or 50 pages
In terms of your first three chapters (or however much the agent requests), there aren’t really any tips and tricks to share beyond really going at them with a sharp eye and a red pen. It’s about self-editing, getting plenty of beta reader feedback, or perhaps even working with a professional editor – though this is by no means necessary. The aim is simply to make those pages the best they can be so that when an agent reads them, they want to request further pages or the full manuscript.
The other two components, however – the query letter and synopsis – can be analysed separately, and that’s what I plan to do in the next couple of blogs. Here, we’re going to look at the query letter, what it’s for and what to include.
So let’s get started.
What is a query letter?
This is effectively your first point of contact with an agent. Think of it like a covering letter you might write for a job application. The objective of a query letter is to get the agent excited about your manuscript and you as an author.
Traditionally, the query letter is made up of three key aspects:
The order you choose to put these in is entirely up to you (though I wouldn’t suggest leading with the bio). Some agents will make it clear how they want the letter to be written, others won’t. In that case, just go with whatever format works for you. Try it in a number of different ways, send this to a few writer friends, and see what they think works best.
As the name suggests, the pitch part of your query letter is where you sell your story. Ideally it shouldn’t be more than a paragraph or two and it should not include any spoilers – save those for your synopsis!
In terms of structure, you might want to open your letter with a one-line hook, and then move into a slightly more fleshed out pitch in the next paragraph. Your goal here is to condense your story down into its most exciting elements. Introduce your protagonist and give us the stakes.
If your protagonist is on a journey to find a lost mythical crown, what happens if she does or doesn’t find it? What decisions is she going to have to make and, most importantly, what will be the consequences?
When [protagonist] is faced with [the primary conflict of the story] they must [do/decide this] to [achieve this result] before [these consequences occur].
This section covers all of the small but very important details that help agents decide whether your submission falls into their ballpark. Some examples of what you will want to cover in the housekeeping section of your query letter are:
· Word count
· Comp titles
· Key themes
Again, this section should run no longer than a paragraph and might follow this kind of simple formula:
[My Book] is a YA fantasy adventure, complete at 80,000 words. With its unique magic system and themes of self-identity, it would be suitable for fans of [Comp Title 1] and [Comp Title 2].
A quick note on comp titles: these are books that have already been published that you are using as ‘comparisons’ to your own manuscript. You will want to pick one or two books that were published within the last three years. These comp titles don’t need to have a similar plot as your manuscript, but could instead share themes, tropes or other important elements.
Here is where you finally talk about yourself. In a few lines, mention who you are, what qualifications you have, any previous work you’ve had published, your job, and anything that is relevant or interesting. For example, if you are a full-time police officer and your manuscript is a crime thriller, that would absolutely be worth mentioning.
But what if you don’t have any formal writing qualifications and no published work? That is fine. If your writing is good, the agent won’t care if it’s your first book.
I am a part-time accountant with two children. This is my first completed novel, though I have published short stories in [Publication 1] and [Publication 2]. When I’m not writing, I like to watch true-crime documentaries and fix up old bikes.
Extra tips for writing a query letter
Strike the right tone
It can be tempting to write your query letter from the point of view of your character, and done well this can be excellent and a great way to make your query letter stand out. However, the line between ‘great’ and ‘gimmicky’ is sadly very thin and often not worth taking the risk unless you are confident that it will work.
When querying, you don’t want to run with the same query letter for too long. If you find you’re getting only rejections and no full or partial requests, it’s time to give your query letter another look. Going back to it with fresh eyes a few weeks later will likely highlight ways it can be better.
Always, always, always follow the guidelines
Most agents’ websites will make their submission guidelines very clear and if you don’t follow them to the letter, you are effectively telling the agent that you either didn’t bother to read them or that you didn’t care to do as they asked. Neither option paints you in a very good light.