How to Write a Query Letter
query letter is a short, one-page letter (now, usually a short email
less than 500 words) sent to an agent (not an editor these days) to
introduce you and your book in hopes of being asked to send more.
Some agents ask that you include the first ten pages of your book
with your query letter, but you have to do the work and figure out
which agents want what and send them exactly what they want.
you have to individualize them. No, you can’t send out the same
email to every agent on the planet. That looks sloppy and like you
are spamming them, and your letter will immediately be deleted. If
you want individual attention from an agent, including a response to
your query, you need to write a unique email to every agent on your
you’ve promised an exclusive submission (which, by the way, I
don’t recommend), you can send out ten or twenty queries at
once without making anyone angry. No one expects you not
to be sending to many agents at once.
recommend writing a three-paragraph query letter with the following
Description of your book (often called a “hook”),
Conclusion and thanks.
your query letter as short as possible. I really think sometimes we
as writers fuss too much over a query letter. Yes, it needs to be
good. No, it doesn’t need to be perfect. It’s a business
letter. Do NOT have someone else write your query letter for you.
Especially do not pay for some business to write your query letter
for you. It will stink to high heaven of this. Believe me, the agent
can tell. And it doesn’t look good. Agents assume that if
you’re a writer, you can write a simple business letter. That
doesn’t mean you can’t ask for advice from friends,
however. Write up a sample and send it around or take it to your
writers group. Revise as you would revise a manuscript, and do your
best to keep it free from typos and grammar mistakes.
introduction of your query letter is about the agent. This is your
chance to say why you are sending your book to this agent. If the
reason is really boring (like, I found your name on-line in a list of
agents who represent this genre), then maybe skip this part. If you
read the agent’s blog or follow them on twitter, mention that.
If you are sending because you know a client, say that. DON’T
say that you were recommended by a client unless you actually were.
Agents will check this, I promise. In general, don’t go
overboard with too much praise. Be professional, not fawning.
will also want to mention the genre your book is (mystery, fantasy,
science fiction, women’s fiction, literary, etc.) and what your
target age group is (adult, middle grade, young adult). Have a word
count that is reasonable (for most novels, that is under 100,000
words, but not less than 60,000 for adult books). If you want to
mention a comparable book, you can, but resist the temptation to use
ridiculously best-selling books like Harry Potter or Twilight, which
don’t show you’ve done much reading in the genre. Also,
never EVER say that your book is way better than anything else in the
genre because it will just make you sound like an idiot.
description of your book, or “hook,” portion of the query
letter is the trickiest part, and is where you should focus your
attention. J Scott Savage
recommends that your “hook” focus around these four
Consequences of success and failure.
in one (or possibly two) paragraphs, you must explain who your
protagonist is, what the goal is, what a few of the obstacles to
achieving that goal are, and what the stakes are—i.e. what
happens if they don’t achieve the goal. Here is an example of a
description of The
written in this way:
Linda Wallheim is a
50-year-old Mormon bishop’s wife who is nearly an empty nester.
When her neighbor Jared Helm announces that his young wife has left
him in the middle of winter, abandoning their adorable five-year old
daughter, Linda cannot believe the story. She is convinced that he
has done something nefarious to his wife, and though her husband and
the police seem to all think Jared Helm is one of the “good
guys,” she is determined to prove Carrie Helm is the victim of
foul play. Along the way, she bakes cookies to get into the Helm
house and rummage around for clues, and finds out she is both right
and wrong about what has happened to Carrie. Who the real villain is
surprises her, however, and hopefully will surprise readers, as well.
It’s not always the open misogynist who is the real danger to
the women of the Mormon church.
this paragraph, I’ve introduced Linda very briefly, with a few
stats that are most important. I don’t go into her history as
an atheist or her past of losing a child at stillbirth. I hint at the
fact that she bakes a lot, but that’s all I do. I talk about
the central mystery (not the secondary mystery) and about what
propels Linda—she is convinced she’s right and that the
men are covering for each other. I talk about what she does to propel
the plot forward and I hint at the final conclusion and its twist.
another one, for a fantasy novel I’m working on:
Jane Fairchild is
left-handed, which means that none of the binding magic patterns on
the Grand Isle seem to work for her. Still, she has to finish a shawl
for her debut ball at Lady Winterton’s or she won’t be
able to be introduced to society with her best friend, Susan Thorne.
When Susan finds a book of ancient left-handed patterns in her
long-deceased father’s library, however, everything changes.
Suddenly, Jane is the expert, and it turns out that the binding
patterns that everyone had assumed were getting better and better,
are actually becoming more and more dangerous in the ways they
imprison the darkness, a mystical power that was on the Grand Isle
when the founders arrived there two hundred years before. Jane and
Susan have to work together to communicate with the darkness before
it swallows up their county—and every human on the island
feels to me like a gross simplification of the plot, which has four
different points of view. I could explain that in this paragraph, and
I could try to explain about Matthew Thorne and Frederick Fairchild,
who have their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to fighting
the darkness. But for the sake of a query letter, I’ve cut them
out. I’m doing broad strokes here, not simple ones, and Jane
is, in my opinion, the most important of the four points of view. I
talk about the magic system, but not with any detail. You’ve
got to be able to do this in a query letter and you’re going to
keep doing this for a long time as you talk about your book. If
you’ve got a one sentence Hollywood pitch of your novel (Jaws
meets Happy Days), go ahead and use it. Think about this paragraph as
the back cover of your book. It’s to introduce it to people who
don’t know anything about it and to get them to open to the
first page and read it.
final paragraph is your chance to talk about you. If you have some
special expertise on the background of your book (you’re a
lawyer and writing about the courtroom, for instance), mention it
here. If you’ve got some genuine publication credits (beyond,
say, writing articles for your high school newspaper) or have won
some awards, mention a few of them. If this is your first novel, you
can simply say that. There’s no need to pad this paragraph. It
can be very, very short. I usually end with a final sentence thanking
the agent for their time and hoping to hear from them soon.
it. Don’t overthink this. If you’re doing it right, you
will get requests for more pages shortly. If you hear crickets, I’d
recommend trying a different middle paragraph and sending it back
again. If you get nothing after that, I’m afraid all I can
recommend is that you try doing a significant revision or writing a
different novel. Most of the time, if your query letter is failing,
it’s because of real problems in your book.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison