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Writing Tips From a Writer in the Trenches

Query Letters: Everything you Need to Know

What are They and Why Do You Need Them?

When I finished my first novel, which shall forever rest in a box beneath my desk, existing solely to remind me of how far I’ve come, I had no idea about anything to do with the publishing world.

All I knew was that writers write, agents represent, and publishers publish. I had no clear thoughts on how those worlds merged.

Also, my naive little mind thought writing the book was the hard part. Cue the maniacal laugher.

Enter the Query Letter:

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What is it and why do you need it?

Basically, a query letter is a piece of business correspondence sent to an agent or an editor, to sell your story, (and yourself,) in a way that is polite, efficient, and effective.

And most importantly, it should compel these publishing individuals to want to read more. The purpose is to entice, not explain everything in great detail.

Your letter should be short and to the point. No longer than one page, or around 300 words single spaced.

Most experts agree that a query letter should consist of these basic parts:

1.) Personalization: Why you have chosen this particular individual to query. Did you meet them at a conference? Are they looking for exactly your story? Do they represent authors you admire, or write in a style similar to yours?

2.) Meta data: Describe what you’re trying to sell: Title, word count, genre, comparative titles, ( books similar to yours) if you have any.

3.) The Hook: Not always necessary, but many agents like a one or two sentence hook, that describes the essence of your story in a way that engages.

4.) The Book: The meat of your story, a few short paragraphs should suffice. Don’t give away the ending, but do include stakes.

5.) The Cook: Your bio. Who you are, and what makes you the person to write this book. Add writing credentials if you have them, but don’t stress if you don’t. It’s not essential.

6.) Thank you and closing. Self explanatory.

The order that you place these items can vary depending on individual agent/editors submission guidelines.

Some agents want the meta data up front, so they know what type of story they’re looking at, others prefer it at the end. Some agents love comparable titles, others don’t.

Be sure to read submission guidelines and follow them carefully.

One agent I met at a conference requested pages from me, and in her submission guidelines it stated that she wanted the ending of the story in the query. Not a typical request, and one I would have messed up if I hadn’t carefully scoured those submission guidelines.

There are scads of resources out there on how to write an effective query letter, so I won’t bother describing what is involved in great detail.

Here are a few of my favourite resources for crafting the perfect query letter:

Query Shark

Janet Friedman

New York Book Editors:

Writer’s Digest


Another very important piece of advice.

It’s going to take a lot of practice and hard work, and likely more than one attempt, to get your query letter as good as it can be. Don’t assume you’ll sit down at your keyboard and presto—change-o, you’ll have the perfect letter.

I realize I probably had a much, much, steeper learning curve than most, but a while back I was cleaning out files from my computer, and realized, with not some small degree of horror, that I had 123 different versions of the query for my second novel (The first story never made it to that point.)

Yep, that’s right. 123 different versions of the same…letter.

I can’t believe I just admitted that to you.

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But, the letter I have now is consistently garnering me requests. So it was worth the effort.

Please, don’t repeat my mistakes.

Read everything you can find before you start crafting your letter. In particular, I can highly recommend going through all Janet Reid’s archives, (The Query Shark.) That was one of the most helpful things I did.

Another great piece of advice is to write your letter before you write your book. I know, I know, that seems like ridiculous advice. But…even if your story is just an amorphous idea floating around in your head, you probably have a pretty good idea of what the essence of that story is. And that’s what a query is..the essence of your story, without the ending.

And, can I just say that it’s a lot easier to get that essence down in a few short paragraphs, than it is to condense an entire 90,000 word manuscript into the same space.

I write my query first for all my stories now.

Naturally the letter will require some tweaking once your novel is complete. As anyone who writes will tell you, stories have a tendency to evolve as we write them, but the process will be so much easier if you’ve already got the basics down.

Okay, now that your Query letter is written, what do you do with it?

Send it out into the world:

Research each agent, (or editor if you’re going that route instead) very carefully. Be informed and aware of who these people are. Not all literary agents and agencies are created equal.

You’ll want to know the answers to some very important questions before you start:

  1. ) Is this agent open to querying? Many agents regularly close to submissions, so be sure to check on their agency’s website.
  2. Does this agent represent your genre/age category? Most agents will have what’s called a manuscript wish list, where they will list what they are looking for.
  3. Is this agency well established, or brand new? This can impact how much support you will have should they accept you as a client, and also what their relationships are with the editors of different publishing houses, a very important factor when it comes to selling your book. A newer agent in an established agency is the perfect scenario. They are hungry for clients, but they will usually have the support of one or two more established agents at that agency.
  4. Have they sold similar books to yours, or have they made any sales at all? If the agent has already established relationships with editors who are looking for your type of story, this will make it easier for them to sell your book, should they take you on as a client.
  5. What type of agent are they? Are they hands off, or are they an editorial agent. Are they willing to work with you to get your manuscript into the best possible shape before sending it out to the world? You should be able to determine this with a little research.

Here are a few great resources:

Query Tracker

Publisher’s Marketplace

Agent Query

Literary Agents Directory

Literary Marketplace

Writer Beware

Manuscript Wish List

#MSWL on Twitter

#500queries on Twitter

#10queries on Twitter

#TenQueries on Twitter

#AskAgent on Twitter

#QueryTip on Twitter

So, you have your letter and your list of agents to query. Now what?

Most experts agree that it is a good idea to send your query out in smaller batches. Some recommend making an A and B list, with your top choices, whether they be the best matches, or from the top agencies, in the A list.

Send a few queries to each list, perhaps five for each, and then wait.

That’s one thing you’ll have to get used to. Waiting. The publishing world is monumentally SLOW.

Waiting to see what type of response your letter gets can help you decide if your letter is working or not. No point in burning all your bridges by sending out fifty queries at time, only to realize your query just isn’t doing a good job of selling your story.

If you send ten queries, and all come back with form rejections, do some research. Make sure you’ve followed the submission guidelines, make sure the agents were indeed open to queries, and that they are looking for your type of story.

If the answer is yes, consider tweaking your query to better represent your story. Be sure your letter is polite and professional and that your stakes are clear.

Rinse and repeat. Probably more than once.

Stay tuned for common query letter mistakes and how to fix them.

Now, go write.