I’ve been reading a lot of queries lately, and it’s made me think about what makes a good query letter. Not an original topic, I realize, but I wanted to offer a few quick tips on the basics of query letters. I’m talking about fiction queries here today.
First, be sure to read the agent’s submission guidelines. They’ll tell you what they want. Some require you to send manuscript pages (we do), and some will only read a query, no pages.
Ask yourself, What is the purpose of a query? Answer: To get the agent or editor intrigued enough that they want to see more of your book. How do you do this? You’ve got to tell them about the story.
We see a lot of queries that talk about the “theme” of a novel but not about the story itself. “My novel deals with many issues Christians deal with—sin, forgiveness, and redemption.” But so do 99% of all novels, Christian or not. What’s the story? Or they might talk about the characters: “My novel is full of quirky people with unique personalities…” Excellent. But what do those quirky characters do?
Below is a basic template for a query. Please note: I’m not suggesting you follow this exactly. It’s not a formula. You’re a writer, after all. But we get many queries that meander off in a million different directions instead of just telling us what we need to know.
Here’s what we need to know:
→ The genre: This is important because it immediately orients the agent or editor to your book. See this post if you need to know more about genre. It’s okay to combine genres in a reasonable way, like “Women’s fiction with a touch of humor.” But avoid the all-over-the-map approach: “My book is a historical/fantasy/suspense romance with elements of a legal thriller.”
→ About the book: This can be about four to eight sentences (the “blurb”) that tells us the basics of the book but doesn’t try to be a synopsis of the whole thing. You basically want to summarize the first 20-40 pages of your story (the setup), leaving us dying to know what happens next. The best way to learn how to do your blurb is to spend an afternoon in the bookstore, reading back covers. You’ll notice the cover copy doesn’t tell the whole story, it simply gives the setup, maybe talks a little about theme (i.e. what the reader may get out of the book), and makes you want to read it.
→ About yourself and your writing background: Please don’t include a resumé or detailed background information, but DO include information that’s relevant to your life as an author, including things like: How long you’ve been writing, how many books you’ve written, any awards you’ve won, any contests in which you’ve been a finalist, any writing courses you’ve taken, whether your book has been professionally edited, whether you have a critique group, if you are a member of ACFW or another writer organization. You may also mention what you do in “real life,” especially if it’s related to writing—you’ve been a journalist or a teacher, for example. If your career is related to the topic of your book, that’s always interesting. And if you have a platform of some kind, that’s crucial to reveal. We want a feel for who you are and where you might be on this writing journey.
→ Something about US: Yes, you read that right. It helps to know why you are pitching our agency, or a specific agent. How did you hear about us? What is it about our agency that makes you think we might be right for you? Is your book similar to others we represent? If you read our blog, say so. If you heard about us from somewhere, say so. The personal touch is important. You can even open your letter with this as a way of introduction.
Some things to AVOID in your query:
→ Saying how great your book is. I’ve read queries that have told me how “exceptional” their stories are and things like that. Never do that. It’s your job to tell the agent about the book; it’s the agent’s job to decide if they think it’s exceptional or forgettable or somewhere in between.
→ Saying that your story is too complicated to summarize. Puh-leeze. This is part of the game. Wanna play? You have to learn how to summarize your story. I’ve had people write in the query things like, “I can’t explain it, you really just have to read it.” Well, no, actually I don’t. Not unless you make me want to read it.
→ Try to avoid instant turnoffs, which admittedly may be hard to identify, but here’s an example from a query I read recently: “Most of the book is basically character development.” That’s a “no thank you.” I need character development, yes, but I need it to grow out of the story. Another example of a turnoff would be, “My novel is realistic because it really happened to me.” Readers don’t care about realistic, they care about believable, and they care about loving the story. When you say your novel is realistic, I immediately see a long future ahead with a writer who doesn’t want to deal with issues of plot or characterization or dialogue because, “That’s the way it really happened.” Nightmare.
→ Avoid hype. I get annoyed when I read queries that go overboard with things like, “Read it… if you dare!” like it’s a movie trailer or something.
Here’s an important thing to remember: When I’m reading through a stack of queries, I really really really want to love each and every one. It’s like Christmas and there’s a pile of presents and I’m ripping off the wrapping, SO excited to find what’s inside, SO ready to love it, whatever it is. Write your query knowing we are primed and ready to love it, then try to give us something exciting, surprising, intriguing.
Remember, a successful writing career can be launched by one terrific query letter.
What’s the hardest thing about writing query letters?
Image copyright: shiyali / 123RF Stock Photo
Great post, Rachelle. This is one to bookmark.
* The hardest thing about querying is knowing whom to query.
* I’ve come to the realization that finding an agent is far more like finding a spouse than hiring a swimming-pool contractor. There has to be the prospect (hard to quantify at first query) of a personal connection; the agent’s belief in the writer, and the writer’s implicit and explicit trust of the agent.
* There are a lot of great agents out there; but I have come to the decision that if I am ever to be represented, it will be by Books and Such. I can trust you guys with my legacy.
Thank you, Rachelle. Finally, a definition that makes sense.
On a slightly different note, I’ve been reading a certain author’s new book tonight, Andrew. ?
*Let me add “when” to your “whom.” Twice I’ve thought I was almost to “when” and then decided to make a change–first, writing to men as well a women, and right now, tweaking the content to line up with a change in the title. When will it be “when”?
Kristen Joy Wilks
Ha, you’re like me Shirlee. But I realized it was time to submit once my story actually started getting worse with all the fiddling. When my husband said, “that earlier version of the 1st 5 pp. was much better.” I knew it was time.
Andrew, I’ve equated the search for an agent to a search for a spouse, too. Mostly because we’re hoping for a long-term relationship, and it has to be a good fit. Thanks for the perspective!
I’m reading this about a month after sending Rachel Kent my query. I left a couple of things out, but thankfully she must have overlooked that 🙂 Now I need one about the proposal…
Kristen Joy Wilks
Yay! Kathy! Rachel Kent is so awesome. She spoke at our local writing conference twice in the last decade.
Kathy, I think we’ve done some posts on book proposals here at the B&S blog. Maybe I’ll do another one soon. Meanwhile, there’s this:
I find the hardest part to be deciphering the agent’s instructions. Some are very straight-forward and some are vague. I recently sumitted to an agency that had vague instructions. I tried my best and then some, but got a robo-email saying I did it wrong. The email also suggested that most people get it wrong and told me to go back and do it “this” way.
I have to wonder 1) if that many people are doing it wrong, wouldn’t it be easier to improve the wording on the submission guidelines rather than create a robo email to correct it? 2) if this agency writes contracts for a living, shouldn’t they be all about clarity?
Anyway, I will admit to liking “submittable” style forms – at least those are very clear about what they want.
NOTE: I WANTED to call into to Moody last week, but had a toddler in the house. People seemed excited to talk to Jerry Jenkins — I was dying to talk to Rachelle!!
Last question: I submitted to Rachelle years ago when I was just starting and had no idea what I was doing. Is it ever kosher to resubmit to an agency on the same (but vastly improved) MS? Who at B&S would look at middle-grade?
Kristen Joy Wilks
Yeah, I think you can resubmit with an edited ms….at least I have and no one tracked me down and threw tomatoes, also, I’ve read on other blogs that you can. Middle Grade is hard…I’m pitching a MG ms. right now and so I know! You might want to try Sally Apokedak of Les Stobbe Literary Agency or Cyle Young of Hartline Literary Agency. They both rep. middle grade. Not me, per se, but a girl can hope.
Hi Sheila, you can just submit to the agency according to our guidelines, and it will be sent to the right agents.
And I know how frustrating it can be submitting to agents whose guidelines are not clear! Sorry you’ve had to go through that.
I’ve not composed a query letter in several years. This is great refresher. Bookmarking. Thanks for this.
Glad it was helpful Marilyn!
Rachelle, I’m also bookmarking this post for future reference. The guidelines on your site are clear and very helpful, but today’s information is such a bonus.
Thanks, Lara.This is pretty bare-bones advice, but I think if you follow it, you can’t go too far wrong, regardless of the particular agent’s preferences.
What a great post, Rachelle. I always appreciate posts that share examples of do’s and don’ts, especially with topics like querying. 🙂
*I have a hard time writing the blurbs, but I’ve been working on that. Keeping it concise yet alluring can be tricky. 🙂
*For those of us who don’t have many (or any) writing accomplishments to our credit, how do we make our bio the best possible?
Jeanne, writers who have no credits should always keep the bio information short and sweet. “I’m a teacher and the mother of four living in Colorado. I’m in a critique group and I’ve been writing and attending workshops for years. This is the first novel I’m submitting for representation.”
This is extraordinarily helpful. Thank you!
This is great! And what a great picture–“When I’m reading through a stack of queries, I really really really want to love each and every one. It’s like Christmas and there’s a pile of presents and I’m ripping off the wrapping, SO excited to find what’s inside, SO ready to love it, whatever it is.” Some presents are disappointing, some are just so-so, and some are just what we wanted. And I guess the hardest thing is knowing how to give an agent just what they want. Thank you for showing and telling us how.
I loved that picture too, Shelli. 🙂 It’s so hopeful.
Glad you liked it, Shelli. I mainly wanted people to know that we’re not approaching the query pile with distaste or a predisposition to hate everything. We’re looking for books we can love!
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
“God gave me this story. And if you don’t publish it? Then you don’t like puppies, and eat kittens as snacks.”
Not a direct quote of anything I ever sent, by the way.
The hardest thing is to infuse the passion I have for the story with all that needs to be in the query letter without putting the agent to sleep.
Jennifer, “not putting the agent to sleep” is a GREAT goal. Carry on.
Great article! Thanks so much for the helpful information.
Glad you found it helpful!
I appreciate your emphasis on “story,” Rachelle. Isn’t that why we’re all here? I also appreciate the Books & Such submission guidelines posted on this site and your list of reminders. It makes the process so much easier when we know what the target is.
Thanks, Davalynn. Every once in awhile, we have to go back to the basics. 🙂
Kristen Joy Wilks
It’s so good to know that you are eager to find the next writer you want to work with, we hear so much about terrible slush piles that this gives us a bit of a boost. The hardest part about writing a query…making the story blurb sum up the beginning of the book and yet still be in the voice of the story. Also, I was given the advice that I needed to mention what the main character sacrifices in order to conquer at the end of the book…but that sacrifice is at the end, not in the first 25%…so that confused me to no end. What do you think? Mention the sacrifice or no?
Honestly Kristen, all the conflicting advice out there would confuse ANYBODY to no end. That’s where your own good judgment and the input of a few good friends will make the difference. 🙂
Exceptional post Rachelle, thank you.
Thank you so much, Rachelle, for giving such clear and sound advice on writing queries. I’ve long benefited from your advice on pitching and proposals, and this post is no exception. Another one to print out and keep as reference!
It took me 30 years to write a book about the mystery’s of the Bible. It just may be another 30 years just to reach an Agent. Your video with Mr. Hyatt was helpful. Had to watch it twice. I was captivated by your pretty smile the first time, couldn’t pay attention.
Wow! Just got my first response from an agent. It came within 12 hours of sending out my query letter! It was exciting opening the response with all the thoughts of fame and good fortune. Quickly imaging all the news media with all there cameras outside my door fighting to get the first interview. So I clicked on the response and it said, “NO THANK YOU” I probably should of sent out the 90$ check for administration fees. Truly, getting an agent is more complicated then understanding the Bible. I’ve sat in front of the computer for hours trying to think of that first sentence, “the hook”. Offering 50% didn’t work. Well in a since I got a fast response, “NO THANK YOU”. LOL
Encouraging and informative. Your commitment shines through.