The query letter: Your manuscript’s most important page

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(Part of a blog series: How to catch the eye of a literary agent)

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines query as “a question or a request for information about something.”

In your query letter to a literary agent, that something is the level of interest an agent has in you as a writer and what you have produced and shared with that agent.

You can read my post that covers the basics of a query letter and which also includes resources from which to learn more about the mechanics of writing one.

With this post, though, the focus is on the reader of the letter. What qualities is an agent looking for in a query letter? That’s important to know because if your letter doesn’t read well, then the agent is not going to read anything else that you include; namely, your manuscript. That’s the written-in-stone fact I’ve found while researching the query letter.

Let’s accept and embrace that fact. Literary agents get hundreds of query letters each week. They are going to read the letters that are well written and inspiring. And I appreciate that. It makes me happy to know that there are agents who are careful and serious about the craft of writing, and who don’t just focus on the money-making side of it.

In her Writer’s Digest article, literary agent Kimiko Nakamura of Dee Mura Literary says:

Agents look for queries that make us want to turn the pages of your story. That means you need to think of your query as the first and most important page of your manuscript.¹

Isn’t that an interesting statement? Instead of seeing the query letter as a dry business letter, I now see it as another piece of my creative work.

Query Letter Checklist

Well-respected website AgentQuery.com tells us that agents “take [query letters] seriously and actually respond to the ones that spark their interest.”

So, what’s going to spark an agent’s interest? In her article, Nakamura lists these essentials:

  • Logline (a brief summary of your story that hooks the agent) and manuscript stats
  • How you found the agency
  • A movie trailer version of your book
  • Your main characters and why the agent should root for them.
  • The major points of conflict in your story
  • A brief bio paragraph.
  • The materials you’ve enclosed that were requested in the agency’s submission guidelines
  • Contact info
  • A brief word of thanks for the agent’s time and consideration.

Click here to read a query letter that led to a first request and a signing. You’ll also find agent comments for each part of the letter, which are also helpful, especially since not all of them thought the letter was perfect!

Beware: You can include every one of these checklist points in your letter and still not create any interest. How? By not writing the letter with as much care and polish as you did for your manuscript. You’re presenting your manuscript, but you’re also presenting yourself as a writer. Don’t just throw together a “cover letter.”

Make Them Care

Article after article that I’ve read points to the same objective for a query letter: Make the agent care about your story. She needs to catch the uniqueness of your protagonist, feel the conflict, and wonder about the consequences. Use your writing skills to make sure that every person who looks at that letter will long to find out what happens next.

It’s the most important page you’ll write for your manuscript.

Write it well and with the agent’s expectations in mind. Write briefly and clearly, yet with a bold sense of who you are and how you write.

And get ready for good results!

There’s so much to learn about the business side of the writing life. Stay with me as I share what I learn.

Next in the series: Your Manuscript — preparing your work to “wow” an agent.

(Part of a blog series: How to catch the eye of a literary agent)

¹Your Future Agent’s Wish List: How to Be On It, Writer’s Digest, October 2013 issue.

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