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?
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