The basics of a writer’s query letter

Everybody’s talking about query letters, at least in most of the blogs I read. A writer is either working on one, about to mail one, or waiting to hear from someone who received it. The letter causes anxiety, frustration, and sometimes celebration in the writers who send them.

What exactly is this letter that brings up such an array of emotion? I know what query means (a question, an inquiry), so I’m not completely in the dark. I know that writers with completed manuscripts send these letters to pique the interest of a publisher or an agent. The mystery for me is what the letter actually contains.

You may have a manuscript ready and you’re wondering about this next step. Or you may be like me and want to be prepared ahead of time. It’s never too soon (or too late) to learn about the business of writing.

So, let’s find out: What are the basic elements of a query letter?

An introduction to your book and yourself

With a query letter, you have one page to tell the reader about your book and about yourself. If you go beyond one page — and my research affirms this — your letter will most likely not be read. It is really the cover page for your manuscript, so don’t plan to write your life story as a way to interest the reader. What will be of interest is the concise way you introduce your book and yourself, and what you include in three standard paragraphs.

Paragraph 1: The hook

Write a one-sentence tagline for your book. It’s an exercise in writing a description that catches a reader’s interest and reels her in. (Think fishing.) Here is an example of a hook as listed on an agent’s profile:

  • Lady Liberty: When U.S. Vice President Sybil Stone, code-named Lady Liberty, receives an urgent message calling her back to American soil while negotiating a vital peace agreement in Geneva, she discovers in seventy-two hours disaster will strike, catapulting the United States into a war that will cost millions of lives, and only Sybil Stone holds the key to stopping it.

Though one sentence is the recommendation, I looked through close to 20 agent profiles and the length of the taglines varied from a single sentence (some short, some long) to several sentences, to several paragraphs.

AgentQuery.com is a fan of the When formula for the tagline: When such and such event happens, your main character—a descriptive adjective, age, professional occupation—must confront further conflict and triumph in his or her own special way.

Take time to search out agent websites or databases and read the hooks of their clients’ works. These will help give you an idea of how you should write the hook for your own query letter.

Paragraph 2: Mini-synopsis

In a query letter, the mini-synopsis is the paragraph that sums up your novel. That must be a tough writing exercise, but if you wrote a good hook, then your mini-synopsis has a good start. You will be adding more details about your characters and their conflicts. Your task is to cause the reader to be intrigued by what she reads. At this point you will probably want your friends (and perhaps strangers) to read the paragraph for feedback. When you have it just right, you will have a catchy synopsis, just like the ones you read on the back flap of books you buy. In fact, reading some of those will give you good examples to follow.

Paragraph 3: Writer’s bio

Now you get to write about yourself, but your description should be short and only be related to your writing life. If you mention your day job, it should connect to your book (e.g., you’re a nurse and so is your main character) and you should point that out in your bio. List any education credentials, and be sure to include your published stories and the awards and contests you’ve won.

Closing the query letter

Remember that this is a formal letter, so it should have a formal closing. AgentQuery.com suggests that you

  • Thank the agent for her time and consideration;
  • Let the agent know that the full manuscript is available upon request. You should not query any agent unless you have a finished manuscript.

Next, you get to wait for a response. If your query letter did its job, you’ll receive an invitation to submit sample chapters. That will be one fine day! And if the news isn’t what you wanted to hear, then you’ll learn from the experience, and keep writing and submitting.

There’s a snapshot for you of the query letter. You will find more helpful information on AgentQuery.com, the site I used to gather this information and have added to my Writer’s Toolbox page.. There you will find examples of hooks and synopses from popular books, the “do’s and don’ts” of query letters, and a database of agents, their profiles, and their clients.

Sending a query letter is a big step for writers. Writing one that will attract an agent takes time and practice. Click here to read a letter that got an agent’s attention.

You can do it, too.

Have you sent out query letters for a manuscript? What advice can you share?


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6 thoughts on “The basics of a writer’s query letter

  1. Yes, as you know I’ve been querying. I find it very difficult, and I don’t enjoy it nearly as much as writing novels. The biggest problem for me is that every agent has different requirements in regard to the query. Some want it formatted a special way, some don’t want the special tagline, some want you to say why you’re querying that particular agent…

    I learned not to worry about each individual requirement and just write ONE query that follows most guidelines, esp. keeping it less than a page long.

    The other important inclusion is your contact info. Your name, mailing address, email address and phone number must be included on the query.

    Additionally, if you have a blog/website that is writing focused, you might want to consider including the links. It’s a quick way for an agent to get another glimpse of your work. There is no guarantee they’ll click on the sites, mind you. However, if you have sufficiently enticed them with your query they are sure to check out any blogs you write.

    But I’d be very sure that they are representative of your writing style. In other words, if you just run a photo blog, with little to no writing, then I wouldn’t mention it.

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    1. Good practical advice, Kate. I like your use of the word “entice” to describe what you’re trying to do with the letter. One NYC agent said this: “My message to writers is the writing you do about your writing is as important as the writing itself.” I like that!

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  2. I love how you’ve broken down the query letter. Its a tough thing to write, not only because it requires squishing an entire novel into a couple of paragraphs, but there’s also the pressure of trying to sell the story.

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    1. That’s a good point — the pressure to sell in the midst of it all. It is tough, but I can imagine the feeling you get when you’re finished — success, victory, excitement! But then there’s the waiting. The whole query process must be a roller coaster of emotions.

      Like

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