Writing a query letter can feel as daunting as drafting an entire book. How can you distill all the beautiful complexities of your book down into just a few sentences? Will my query sit at the bottom of a slush pile forever? How do I stand out?
I used to work as an acquisitions editor, which means I got to read queries and submissions daily. But, I’ve also been on the other side of submissions. As an author, (to this date) I have received 72 rejection letters, 2 partial requests, 5 full requests and 3 book contracts from my own queries.
When I sent my first query in 2015, I remember feeling nervous at how I would handle the inevitable rejection letters. Someone told me to expect 100 “no’s” before I got a “yes”. I told myself that I wasn't going to quit querying my manuscript until I got 100+ no's. So, each time I got a rejection, I took a tally and felt excited that I was getting closer to my "yes".
I’ll admit, rejection still hurts even with a good perspective. Especially when you get a form rejection on Christmas Eve (even if I did feel sorry for the agent who had to bring work home that day). But, it helps when you remember that querying is partially a numbers game. Perfectly publishable manuscripts are rejected every day. Don’t give up on your book before it reaches the right hands. Agents and editors are rooting for you to become their next favorite author!
As I honed my own query over the years, I realized that there was definitely a recipe to crafting a submission. Now that I’ve read so many different voices in a variety of query formats, it’s easier than ever for me to see what makes a query letter stand out in the slush pile. In this article, I'll give you formatting and content advice, then I have a few wonderful volunteers who submitted queries for critique. I'll go through these (already solidly written) critiques and point out what they did right and how they could make it even stronger.
Let's get started.
1. Contact information
Place your contact information at the top left side of your letter. Make it look something like this:
Website (if you have one)
Question: Should I still include this information if agents/editors have an online submission form?
Answer: Yes. Always. Many writers assume that including their contact information on top of the letter is redundant. That redundancy is a good thing. Nothing was more frustrating for me than having a full manuscript request returned as undeliverable because the author typed their email address wrong. (This once happened to me three times in two months.) If we didn't have your email, we couldn't ask for your novel. You don't want to miss a publishing opportunity over a simple typo.
2. Professional greeting
I recommend starting with a formal, professional greeting.
"Dear Mr. Petersen," or "Dear Ms. Wilson,".
Some websites recommend using a colon (:) after your greeting, claiming it’s even more formal and respectful. You can do that if you feel the need to, but a simple comma was fine for me.
If the agent/editor responds back to you with: "Hi Rachel," then it's appropriate for you to match their tone and speak to them on a first name basis. But until then, keep things respectful.
Next, make sure you spell their name correctly.
"Dear Mr. Petersen. Or was it Peterson? Oh, goodness. Pederzon. I'm glad I checked."
Getting an agent/editor’s name right is one step towards showing you've done your research.
3. The introduction paragraph
As an acquisitions editor, I genuinely appreciated when a query's first sentences pointed out why the author was querying me. Your introduction can be something as simple as saying we connected on Twitter, that they read my blog posts, knew what genres I was interested in, or appreciated my publishing house's mission statement. These first two sentences will have to be customized for every query you send out. And yes, it's worth it.
In that same paragraph, list the title, genre, age group, word-count, and any comparable titles. (You’ll see some good examples of this below.) This information is crucial for agents/editors. They know what their agency/publisher is currently looking for. Also, If they see a genre that they’re not a good fit for, they can easily pass it along to another editor who loves and specializes in that genre.
4. The story paragraph(s)
You have up to two paragraphs to pitch your story idea. I know that sounds impossible to condense your entire work down to that. But, I'm here to tell you that you certainly can do it, it just takes practice. Start by answering these questions in a third-person narrative form:
1. Who is my protagonist?
Give us their name, age and their most defining trait: Brody, a 12-year-old class clown... Nina, a 34-year-old golfing instructor...
2. What do they want?
This should be the need or desire that drives them through the entire story. It should be at the root of every decision they make.
3. Why can't they get it?
What obstacles stand in their way? These should feel insurmountable.
These three points should be in your first paragraph. This introduces us to the character on a deeper level, ensuring that your reader is invested in continuing. The second paragraph should answer the next two questions:
4. How does your protagonist try and fail?
Be specific here. Many times authors say something like "After Aladdin's harrowing escape..." That didn't do a lot for me. I wanted to know that he "narrowly escaped a collapsing cave filling with lava while riding a magic carpet." That kind of specificity pulled me in immediately.
5. How will your protagonist have to change?
Don't give up the ending. Instead, leave a question hanging in the air. For example, in my query for Granted: Curse of the Emerald Jinn (which ultimately got a publishing contract), I ended with the thought that "If Liam escapes the deadly curse, it will unleash a bloodthirsty jinni from his cage..."
This is what I like to call "The impossible choice", and it's a winner in any query. Instead of giving us the "Will they defeat the bad guy?" (Because we all know the slipper will fit Cinderella in the end), make your final sentence about them choosing between what they want and what they need. So, in this case, I detailed how Liam had to decide to stay safe (but trapped in another world for the rest of his life), or escape (and release a terrible Jinn on the world) instead? Try highlighting a moment where your character must make an impossible choice and we'll be dying to know more.
In short, if you can get your reader to understand your compelling character arc, you're on a good track.
Now that you have the basic outline for what to include in your paragraphs, build out the synopsis portion of your query. Pick dynamic words, and give us a glimpse at your tone, worldbuilding, and literary style. Let us hear your voice through it rather than making a bullet point synopsis.
4. Marketing and bio
Your last paragraph is your chance to show that you're a professional and already involved in marketing your books. Even if you don’t have a backlog of previous publications, you can include details that convince us you are the best candidate to tell this story. Some points to focus on:
Education or background in topics that apply to your novel.
Social media platforms you're already involved in.
Personal website or blog links.
Finish with a short expression of gratitude, sign your name, then work up the tenacity to send it off your dream agent/publisher!
Okay! Now, who is ready for some examples?!
I had some wonderful Twitter followers who donated their queries as examples. I’ll include their paragraphs and make notes of what they do right and how they could make it even better. I don’t have the personalized lines from the beginning of their queries, although it was included and done well. When you save your query, you want to save without the personalization and then add that every time you prepare it for a new submission. This gives you an easy template to work from and will save you a lot of time as you send out new batches of queries.
STARVATION is a 52,000 word Young Adult contemporary novel. It would appeal to fans of Laurie Halse Anderson's WINTERGIRLS and SPEAK, Jay Asher's 13 REASONS WHY, and Emery Lord's WHEN WE COLLIDED.
What she did right: This novel is a great length for its genre. I love the titles she compared it to because they were current, within the same genre as her title, selling well, and had a consistent tone. I immediately trust that this author is well read in her genre.
Tips to tighten: This paragraph is informative, formatted perfectly, and brief. Perfect.
Story Paragraph 1:
16-year-old Wes McCoy is not the favorite child. He does not have a wrestling scholarship to Stanford nor does he live up to the family legacy as an athlete, unlike his brother, Jason. But when Jason dies in a car accident on the way to the state high school wrestling championship, Wes turns to food to give him the control over his life he didn't have before, and the kind of success he never tasted.
What she did right: The first sentence is a beautiful way of introducing the character. She included his age, name, and a nuanced introduction to his insecurities. She didn’t directly say that he’s insecure, she showed me. Absolutely wonderful. The concept immediately sets a desperate tone that draws me in.
Tips to tighten: Saying so much about what Wes is “not” says very little about what he “is”. After the first sentence, I would like to see why he isn’t an athlete “unlike his brother, Jason.” I think mentioning wrestling twice is unnecessary and can free up some words for a deeper focus on Wes. The phrase “turns to food” made me think he ate for comfort. But as I read further I had to re-align my idea of Wes as a sympathetic eater to an anorexic. When you have so few words to work with, you want to ensure you lead your reader in the right direction. Since anorexia is part of Wes’ “try/fail” cycle in coping with his brother’s death, I suggest focusing mainly on the problem of Jason’s death and not introducing the eating disorder until the second paragraph.
Story Paragraph 2:
Told through alternating past and present chapters revolving around Jason's death, Wes must come to terms with more than Jason's death. There's Caila, a defiant girl who introduces him to the painful pleasure of starving. Plus Collin, Wes's best friend who speaks in Shakespearean insults and with whom his relationship is irreparably damaged. But most of all, Wes must take back control from his eating disorder as he learns more about himself and Jason's accident, before he loses his life and those closest to him.
What she does right: “The painful pleasure or starving” is such a wonderful expression of voice. The introduction of Caila as a catalytic character progresses the plot in a fantastic way.
Tips to tighten: The first sentence is unnecessary. Remember, the purpose of these story paragraphs are to develop your character’s arc, not your novel’s format. I would like to see how the new character, Collin, relates to Wes’ problems. Does he influence a second choice in Wes’ try/fail cycle? How is their relationship irreparably damaged? Give specifics. The final sentence should show Wes’ impossible choice, rather than a choice between an unhealthy trait and survival. It’s easy for us to assume the protagonist will triumph. You don’t want your reader to guess the ending. Instead, focus on his choice between facing two equally terrifying fears.
Marketing and Bio Paragraph:
I am pursuing my degree from Swarthmore College in Neuroscience, English, and Spanish. As a part of Neuroscience, I research and study mental health including eating disorders. I have published in The Blue Route Literary Magazine and The Blue Nib as well as in academic journals. I also run my own blog on writing.
What she does right: This author shows how her accolades contribute to her writing this story. She has a list of previous publications and shows that she’s already involved in networking within the writing community by running a blog on the subject.
Tips to tighten: I would like the direct link to her blog so I can visit it to learn more.
In this next example, the story paragraphs come before the introduction. This is also an acceptable format. Do whatever feels more natural to you.
Story Paragraph #1:
As a college graduation present to himself, Tom Dassler decides to fulfill his dream of exploring the untamed jungles of Costa Rica. He has no idea, however, that there has been a recent spike in vicious animal attacks against those who venture those dark jungle paths.
What he does right: The character introduction gives me a sense of a naïve man about to encounter a wild adventure. I like that my mind already predicts a likeable person. The character wants to explore, and the obstacle is already established. This paragraph is off to a strong start.
Tips to tighten: All of the sentences in these paragraphs are about the same length. Adding variety will make it flow more naturally. Making the second sentence short and punchy will make the danger feel more threatening.
Story Paragraph #2:
After days of camping in the jungle, his hiking party is suddenly surrounded by mutated monsters. Tom is only spared because his beautiful and slightly goofy jungle guide, Natalia Silva, transforms herself into a majestic puma to fight off the beasts.
Now Tom, with the help of Natalia and her family of Latin American werecats, must figure out his new place in this world of monsters and morphers. They've got to find a way to stop the attacks and remove the sinister creatures from the earth, all while navigating the complicated hierarchy of werecat life, as enforced by Natalia's jaguar shifting brother, Gabriel.
What he does right: The initial obstacle to his motivation to explore and the setting are both really interesting concepts. The introduction to the new character is engaging and well written.
Tips to tighten: I want specific details about the mutated monsters. Are they a science experiment gone wrong? Are they animals that magically changed? Are they mythological creatures? That detail will give me an idea if this is fantasy or science fiction. Also, how does Tom face an impossible decision in the end? Will he have to choose between his desire to explore and his desire to help this new friend? Does it run deeper than that?
THE JUNGLE NEXUS (97,300 words) is an urban fantasy adventure in the same vein as I AM NUMBER FOUR and MOON CALLED by Patricia Briggs but with a Tarzan meets Stephen King vibe.
What he does right: He listed all the facts an editor/agent needs to see. I love his “Tarzan meets Stephen King” comparison. It made me smile and immediately drew me in.
Tips to tighten: This paragraph needs to be divided into two sentences. As for the book comparisons, I AM NUMBER FOUR is YA, but for this protagonist to be a college grad is a little old for a YA protagonist. MOON CALLED feels more appropriate.
Marketing and Bio Paragraphs:
I received a Bachelor of arts degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing from The University of California, Irvine. I minored in Spanish and have lived nearly four years in Central and South America. I wrote THE JUNGLE NEXUS while living in Costa Rica with my wife. This is my first novel and I look forward to exploring the series further.
Thank you for your consideration,
What he does right: He has a degree in creative writing, but I also love that he wrote this book while living in Costa Rica. I can only imagine the depth of detail that he will put into the setting descriptions. It also gives me faith that he will get the cultural and character details right. Personal background is a wonderful qualifier.
Tips to tighten: Even if you are pitching your debut novel, or don’t have any other publications, list the things that show you are actively seeking professional betterment. Are you a part of a critique group? Have you attended any conferences? Did you study under professors with published works? You can also show how you are working to build a brand around your name. Do you have followers on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook? Do you have a following outside of writing that could translate to sales? Do you have connections within the industry that could land you a celebrity blurb, or other promotional pursuits?
I hope this article helps you in crafting your own queries! I’m looking forward to reading your book someday!