The Age-Old Challenge for Authors
You’ve toiled and troubled over draft after draft of your manuscript. You’re finally ready for an agent or editor But now that you’ve started looking into it you realize the odds of capturing anyone’s attention is slim to none.
How do you get them to notice you?
The solution: Writing a good query letter.
First, congratulations are in order! You’ve entered a new phase! Querying is a very exciting time in your writing journey.Now it’s time to put your best foot forward and tell the world why they should take notice of you and your work.
Don’t worry it’s not as scary as it sounds!
Follow along as we tame the beast that is understanding query letters, and dissect how to write your own.
Step by Step of a Query Letter
- Step 1: Paragraph 1 – Know your Audience and Write to your Target
- Step 2: Paragraph 2&3 – Provide a Premise and the Hooks of your Story
- Step 3: Paragraph 4 – Notify Qualifications and Authority on your Subject
- Step 4: Paragraph 5 – Call the Recipient to Action
What exactly is a query letter?
Your query letter is the first impression of who you are and what your project is that the agent or editor will ever see – they will read this before anything else (including a synopsis or any chapters of your manuscript). As such, writing a query letter that is in sync with your brand, your project, and your personality is arguably the most important tool you will have in your arsenal towards becoming traditionally published.
A query letter is like a cover letter that you send out with your resume. It’s a one-page professional letter that tells the agent or editor who you are, what your credentials are, what your project is, and why they should sign you.
When should I start to query?
It is always important to query after you finish your novel, especially if you are a first-time novelist. And by that, I mean you haven’t published anything. You might be sitting on 12 manuscripts at home, but unless you have gone through the traditional publisher route, you are still seen as a “first-time author” to any agents or editors you’ll query.
Querying after you have finished your novel proves to the editor/agent that you can actually finish your manuscript. There are so many people out there that start writing and get distracted by other things in life and never finish their books.
Only query when you are confident that you have completed your manuscript. Make sure all the edits, rewrites, rereads, beta reading, and grammatical fixes have been completed.
Writing Your Query Letter
Sitting down to write your query letter might feel overwhelming, but it’s a very exciting time in the life of your manuscript. You’ve done the hard yards – you’ve written a book, edited it (through many drafts), and have possibly written a synopsis. Now you need to draft your letter.
It’s important to remember that query letters should not be long. At a maximum, they should be one page long and structured into four or five short paragraphs, itemised in the steps below.
Take a deep breath and remind yourself that you’ve come this far and you are definitely going to make it across the finish line. Here we go!
Step 1: Paragraph 1 – Know your Audience and Write to your Target
The first paragraph should be short and sweet, 2-3 sentences long. That’s it. Anything more and you’ve lost your audience.
The first paragraph is all about the agent or editor you are querying. Why have you picked them specifically to query? All queries you send out should be meaningful – you’ve done your research into who this editor or agent represents and the types of novels they accept. Never, I repeat never query an editor or agent that you haven’t researched.
Goals for the first paragraph:
- Show you have researched the editor or agent
- Make it clear what you’re selling (yourself, your novel)
- Show the word count of your novel
- Convey confidence that your work fits in with the agent/editor
Dear Ms. Editorname,
I am a long-time reader of the thrilling, dystopian YA novels Contemporary House publishes, especially the recent TIMEJUMPER series. I have completed a 75,000-word manuscript entitled The Moon Howls Back that I believe will be a good fit for your publishing house.
Step 2: Paragraph 2&3 – Provide a Premise and the Hooks of your Story
Your second and third paragraphs (third paragraph optional) provides the agent or editor with a brief premise of your book, and hooks her to your writing style and your overall project. It in these paragraphs where the reader will decide whether to continue to your manuscript (or synopsis). Ensure you use the same tone in your premise as you do in your novel to really sell it. If these don’t add up then you’re effectively selling a different story to the reader.
Goals for the second and third paragraph:
- Introduce your main character (or characters if you’re working with multiple points of view)
- Identify your protagonist(s) objectives
- Identify opponents and conflicts that the protagonists face
- Hook the reader in! Keep them wanting more!
As a child, Dorothy had the distinct impression that the moon was following her. Every time she looked up at the night sky, there it was, beaming back at her, watching her every move – both good and bad. What she once passed off as childish imagination is revealed as truth when, 25 years later, she discovers that she’s the result of a space mission gone wrong, and the only thing tying her to her mysterious past is the satellite hanging solemnly above her.
Under the moon’s ever-watchful gaze, Dorothy must race to find out not only who she is, but exactly where she belongs and where her true allegiance lies – before it’s too late for everyone.
Step 3: Paragraph 4 – Notify Qualifications and Authority on your Subject
This is part of the query letter that tells the agent/editor about who you are. What makes you qualified to write this story? Have you published before? Won any awards? Perhaps you’re a trained nurse and you’ve written a medical drama? Anything that ties you specifically to your novel premise should be noted here.
Many first time authors start getting nervous when they reach this point. They think that because they haven’t published anything or won any awards that they will not have anything to “sell”. This is categorically untrue. All editors and agents understand that first-time authors can be just as valuable as published or award-winning authors. This is the part of the query letter that you need to show that.
Goals for the fourth paragraph:
- List your writing credentials (published books, competition wins, etc)
- Identify any personal credentials you have that connects you to your manuscript
I spent my life living as an expat in Asia without ever understanding what that word really meant to my identity and self-worth. As such, I have an in-depth understanding of what it feels like to be an outsider, never truly understanding where my loyalties lie. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature and Media Communications, and have worked as a freelance blogger for Craft of Writing for the past three years.
Step 4: Paragraph 5 – Call the Recipient to Action
Explain why you think your book is a good fit in one sentence, and then end with a call to action. What do you want the agent or editor to do? Contact you, right? Tell them, then end the letter.
Remember to always include your legal name as well as your pseudonym, if you’re using one.
Goals for the fifth paragraph:
- Link your manuscript back to the editor or agent you are submitting to
- Include with your legal name
- Include your pseudonym (if required)
I’m convinced The Moon Howls Back is a good fit for your program because, while Dorothy is convinced she is insignificant, she must fight to protect those she loves and lead her people to safety, making sacrifices along the way. I look forward to hearing from you, and hope you will be interested in reading the manuscript.
What Not to Do In a Query Letter
Many people get caught up in the idea of “selling” their novel that they forget that a query letter needs to be engaging but not pleading. Here is a list of common pitching mistakes, and why they’re not effective:
- “My book is timely!” – your book might be right for the current political climate, and might address some hard-hitting truths that is perfect for the world at large, but don’t fall into the trap of nominating this in your query letter. What it says to the reader is that it might not stand the test of time. Books can take years from acceptance to the bookshelf, so by the time your book is out in the wild, it might no longer be “relevant”. Nominating it in your query letter might be shooting yourself in the foot.
At the end of the day, if the editor decides that your novel is something that should be set free onto the world, they will learn that from your synopsis and your manuscript sample.
- “Test readers love it!” – you might be trying to convey the message that you’ve had beta readers or critique partners that saw value in your story, but what you’re really doing is telling the agent or editor that she MUST love it, too. It’s a turn-off to be told what to think or feel about anything, and this is how you will come across.
Part of the editing process (before you query your novel) should be to have beta readers at some point. Who probably think your story is amazing, because it’s written by YOU. There’s really no need to tell the agent or editor this, as it’s a given.
- “This book is my baby” – sometimes it can feel like your entire heart and soul has gone into the creation of your manuscript. That’s part of writing raw which is perfectly fine. However, adding a sentiment like this into your query letter tells the agent or editor one thing: any requests for revisions will potentially crush you, resulting in a difficult working relationship.
Real talk: There will always be requests for more revisions. ALWAYS. Whether it is by your editor or your agent, you will need to make some changes. This is how J.K. Rowling’s “The Philosopher’s Stone” was changed to “The Sorcerer’s Stone” for the U.S. release. Sometimes you will have to make compromises, and sometimes you will need to kill your darlings. The editor or agent you are querying needs to know that you will not be defensive or difficult to work with throughout this process.
- “Never before has there been a book like mine!” – where do I start with this one? This screams warning bells to any agents or editors that you are querying. What you might mean is that it’s a niche project and exciting. What they’re reading is that your book doesn’t fit into a specific genre and therefore it will be difficult to find an audience to sell to.
We all want to write new and exciting stories. We want our ideas to be genuine and even experimental at times. But throughout the writing process you should ALWAYS know who your target audience is, and where your book sits in the bookstore. Perhaps you’ve written a mystery/romance/christmas hybrid. That’s fine, but what part of the bookstore will it stand? You can only pick one – and that’s the one you want to sell it as to the agent or editor. You do not, I repeat do NOT, want to wait for the agent or editor to tell you what genre your book is.