THE ART OF THE QUERY LETTER
I want to talk for a fast minute about query letters. For those of you who don’t know what they are, or for those who know very little, this should prove to be a helpful post.
Query letters are the first professional handshake between an aspiring author and a literary agent. The first hurdle you must pass through in the writing world is an agent; once you snag a good one, you will usually have them guiding you for the rest of your career. Of course, it’s not unheard of to run with a certain agent for a decade and then move on for myriad reasons.
But either way: A query letter is what gets you there. Sans query letter, you have virtually no chance at making substantial contact in the literary world with someone who can get your work to the next level. Unless of course you’re a social media God and you want to self publish; that’s a whole other blog post. Or, you know, you’re very wealthy and/or you have ‘connections.’ (Kind of sounds like the Mafia.)
Query letters are, in their simplest form, a letter, like a cover letter, that demonstrates the who, what, when, where and why of you and your book. You have to remember: Agents in 2016 have to sift through hundreds, even thousands of these puppies a week. This is why they often employ assistants or find college interns to help them push through the interminable Slush Pile. I was an assistant in this area and believe me, there is a LOT to go through in order to find that gold nugget.
The truth is, there are a million different ways to write a query letter, but really, in general, only one way that most often works. The idea is simply to get the agent’s attention and make them want to read your book; that’s it. Here are the main things to remember:
• One page long, no longer (250-350 words max)
• Three solid paragraphs only: Hook (including the genre and word count); mini-synopsis; and author bio
•Don’t compare your book to major titles (some agents like this but most don’t); simply demonstrate what the book is (i.e. the stakes, the character motivation, the basic plot) and why you are the best person to write it
•Show your narrative voice [of the book] in the query but also stay formal and be respectful.
•Do your research: Mention in the first paragraph why you chose the particular agent, even maybe mention one of their titles; let them know you’ve researched their website and know their preferred genre, etc; make it clear you’ve done your homework.
The whole thing should be—to repeat here for clarity—three paragraphs and 250-350 words long. It should be clear, simple, concise, to the point. Clip the fat off the bone. Think Hemingway: terse does the job. If it’s 350; cut it down to 300. Three hundred, try to cut it down to 250. They love a short, concise query; believe me. Read these:
The point is to get your idea across. The agent will be looking for clarity, logic, and a great plot that makes their heart skip a beat when they read the letter. Everything about the idea should pop off the page and make them want to read your book; make them want to request materials.
So do your homework, make sure you have a one to two sentence ‘logline’ hook that you place first before anything else in the query, then the genre and word count (‘This is a New Adult suspense novel at 80,000 words…’), and then get into the mini-synopsis.
Read some of the examples online from the websites I listed. Also simply type ‘How to write a query letter’ into Google: Much will pop up to read and explore. Don’t try to be the exception; be the rule. Yes, there are examples on those websites that run 477 words, or have an unusual format: Those are the rare ones. Stick to three paragraphs, 250-350; trust me.
Also, use the ‘when formula’ for your hook/logline. Example: ‘When John meets Jane B. in the elevator at Nike in downtown Portland, he wants desperately to tell her there’s a bomb strapped to the inside of his backpack; but he can’t.’ See how this is simple, concrete, to-the-point and also elicits the reader’s interest? That’s what you’re going for.
In addition to having a query letter ready, you’ll want to have a one- and a two-page synopsis ready for when an agent is interested. Sometimes they’ll directly request material. The agency I interned with did that often. But a lot of the time they will instead ask for a synopsis first, sometimes a one page, sometimes two. I’ll save the synopsis for another post. Follow the directions I’ve given and you should at least get a chance at having your work read.
I am a freelance developmental book editor. I also work with authors to craft their query letters. If you have a book you’d like edited, or a query letter you need help with or written entirely, please contact me at: email@example.com.
Till next time, writers! Good luck with those letters!
Here’s a sample of my fiction writing. If you like it, please feel free to buy the whole story at Alfie Dog Press for 66 cents!
Tightrope Going to Mexico was a bad idea, and deep down both of us knew it. But the great thing about my roommate was that every time I came up with a bad idea, I could count on him to be on board. My brain was always concocting thrilling plans in which the only person I could include was Hilly. No one else would be crazy enough to walk that tightrope with me. They’d be too jaded to see the adventure of it, or too nervous to take the risk. No, when these ideas came to me in the night, it was dear old Hilly whose face I saw. And that's how it came to be that I woke up in the early morning San Diego fog proclaiming, “Hey, Hilly…ok man…I got this great dig, ya see. You and I…” “Yeeeeessss…” he interrupted, drawing out the “e.” “Listen Hill, listen. You and I…we’re gonna go to good ole MEX-I-CO, Baaaby!!!” Hilly sat perplexed, his eyes unreadable, registering somewhere between indifference and exuberance — as if the plan was a no-brainer. Of course we’d go to Mexico; we lived in San Diego, thirty minutes from the border. Living at the gateway to a foreign land, a land where anything might happen, well, it was gonna go down at some point, right? It was just a matter of one of us deciding it was time. We both knew it would be me. After breakfast we headed for the bus that would take us to good ‘ole Mexico. We paid the fare and headed for the seats farthest in the rear, as we had done our entire high school careers and probably would do for the rest of our lives. Hilly looked good. I looked good. The world looked good. Mexico, the idea of it — both of us in it for the next twenty-four hours — made life seem more exciting in some childish way, how you felt as a kid getting in the car with your parents for a road trip. Yet as the bus careened through downtown San Diego I felt some warning, some distant bell sounding in the depth of my soul. I couldn’t be sure what that bell meant, nor what, if anything, going to Mexico meant. But I did have the faint sensation of fear.
By the time we got to the border, we were in such a state of excitement that I thought we might go crazy and jump out of the bus while it was moving. It dropped us off in downtown Tijuana and turned around, heading back to the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. There was no turning back now. We started sprinting — toward what we weren’t sure, maybe the road leading south of Tijuana, toward fun and freedom. After a minute we stopped running, bent over, cupping our hands on our knees. We sucked air like we were old men. Still hunched, Hilly grabbed my shoulder. “Gonna be a search n’ destroy mission, eh ol’ boy,” Hilly said.
The adrenaline slowing, we started looking around for a cab, both of us flailing our arms in the air. A beat-up taxi with advertisements in Spanish pulled over. I jumped in back; Hilly followed, slamming the door. We knew we were on the brink of being spit into the dragon’s lair. Who knew what would be waiting for us.
The road curved, winding up, up, up, like a massive concrete snake slithering toward sand. Tijuana was behind us, and Hilly seemed to relax. I know I did. One of Hilly’s leather-jacketed arms hung freely in the sun, flapping against the taxi as the force of the wind blew it back. Coastal villages passed, one after the other, each identical — decrepit shanties with tin roofs and cardboard walls, covered in blankets. Kids, half-naked and filthy, played between shelters. Stray dogs, their ribs sticking out, wandered noses to the ground, groveling through lots littered with broken down vehicles and old washing machines, trash of every kind blowing in the breeze. Another landscape came into view — dirt roads leading to clusters of houses on the hillside. Rosarito — the all-night party was coming. I glanced at Hilly. His eyes shone like a million stars exploding. The taxi pulled to a stop in front of a bar, as we’d instructed. It was an ancient building. Hilly pulled out a wad of bills and paid the driver. “Pay me back with drinks,” Hilly said, shoving us out of the cab. The taxi flipped a U-turn, heading back to the border to pick up the next batch of clueless American kids. (to read the whole story please buy it for 66 cents at Alfie Dog Press.)