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Querying: Part 3 - Writing a Killer Query Letter

writing a killer query letter quills & coffee blog caitlin lambert

Hi ya'll! There haven't been any more requests for posts, so let's continue with the series. Today, I'll be talking about how to write a killer query letter - the most crucial part of querying. Of course, determining your genre and finding the right agent are also incredibly important, but if you don't have a strong query letter, agents won't be drawn to your work. This also ties into the next part of the series - sample pages - but the query letter/pitch is almost always the first thing an agent sees when your email pops into their inbox. There are several different components of a query letter:

1. The greeting - Some people might leave this out, but I'm putting it in because the greeting can literally be the death of your query in two words. If you start your query with "Dear Agent", "Dear Agency", or "To Whom It May Concern", an agent is already going to be sighing. A number of interviews and posts by agents I've read have talked about how a pet peeve they have is when authors don't personalize their query letters. This could mean specific personalizing (like I'll discuss below), but it also refers to a thing called "mass-querying". When writers mass query, they gather dozens of email addresses and BBC (blind copy), or sometimes just put them all in the "TO:" line. Then they write a generic query with something like "Dear Agent" in the line. When agents receive these and see a whole slew of agent emails in the address line, or when they can tell it's a mass query, it isn't very attractive. If you include no other personalization but this, do this - put the agent's name in the greeting. If you are querying a Ms. Mary Smith, then address it, "Dear Ms. Smith".

2. The title, genre, word count line - This can come before or after the pitch/summary of your book, but I usually put it first in my queries. It's up to you. This line will read something like this (I'll use WHAT LIES ABOVE as an example): "I am seeking representation for my 81,000-word YA sci-fi fantasy novel WHAT LIES ABOVE, the first in a planned trilogy." Include the word count (rounded), the title, and the genre (see my post on deciding genre here). You can also include if it is part of a series or trilogy. Like in my example, you could say, "the first in a planned trilogy", or you could say, "Novel name is a stand-alone with series potential". This is especially for books that could stand-alone, as in if they don't end on a cliffhanger or have unresolved plot points. Another thing that could be included here is comparable books, phrased something like this: Book A meets Book B in my 80,000-word novel, TITLE. or I am seeking representation for my 80,000 word YA fantasy, TITLE, which will appeal to fans of author's name TITLE.

4. The pitch - This is the meat of your query, the part where you summarize in a brief, convincing way what your novel is about. You want to give enough details that it isn't too vague, but don't tell every character arc and plot twist of the story. It's like throwing out bait for a fish. You want just enough to reel them in. The agent is the fish. Your query is the bait. Finding that balance is hard. First, ask yourself several basic questions, always keeping in mind the broad question What makes my book unique?:

- Who is your story about?

- What is your character's life like pre-tragedy? What makes the main turning point of the book so pivotal?

-What is the event(s) that suddenly changes everything?

-What is your character's goal?

-Why does that goal matter?

-What are the consequences if your protagonist doesn't accomplish that goal?

-What is the hook?

This is a very general outline. It will vary based on your specific plot, but it's a good overview. Let's look at the steps in action, using Marissa Meyer's query for her novel Cinder. This query can be found here.

Sixteen-year-old Cinder (the who) is a cyborg, considered a technological mistake by most of society and a burden by her stepmother. Being cyborg does have its benefits, though—Cinder’s brain interface has given her an uncanny ability to fix things (robots, hovers, her own malfunctioning parts), making her the best mechanic in New Beijing (pre-pivotal-moment life). This reputation brings the prince himself to her weekly market booth, needing her to repair a broken android before the annual ball. He jokingly calls it a matter of national security, but Cinder suspects it’s more serious than he’s letting on (event #1).

Although eager to impress the prince, Cinder’s intentions are derailed when her younger stepsister, and only human friend, is infected with the fatal plague that’s been devastating Earth for a decade (hints at a change in the protagonist's goals & why it matters - it's her stepsister and only human friend)​. Blaming Cinder for her daughter’s illness, Cinder’s stepmother volunteers her body for plague research, an “honor” that no one has survived (events that change everything) .

But it doesn’t take long for the scientists to discover something unusual about their new guinea pig. The surgeons who turned Cinder into a cyborg had been hiding something. Something valuable.

Something others would kill for. (the hook)

If you know anything about Marissa Meyer, you'll know her books are very popular, and this concise, well-paced query is what led to all of that. Some things are implied and not explicitly stated - such as the risk of Cinder not reaching her goal. If her sister is sick with a deadly plague, the consequence of not finding a cure is obviously her step-sister's death.

The hook is arguably the most important part. It ties up the query with a sentence that grips the agent and makes them want to read more. Although I won't share the whole thing, here's the last lines of my query for WHAT LIES ABOVE:

Now, Eva must unravel secrets that could threaten everyone she loves, and everything she’s left behind. Her choices will decide – how far will she go for her freedom? And can she sacrifice her heart – her humanity – to survive?

Novels include many twists and turns, and what you don't want to do is include everything in your query, like I mentioned above. This can be the hardest part - condensing an entire 80,000 word novel into between 100 & 250 words. You have to choose your words carefully. Craft sentences that are direct and interesting.

You don't need to include every secondary character and sub-plot. Sometimes one or, at the most, two side characters can be included in a query, if they are central to the plot. The prince Kai in Ms. Meyer's query above is central, and thus included. I had to cut a character from my query because he just wasn't important enough.

Focus on the main plot of your novel, not all the sub-plots. What is the main struggle of your story?

Don't spend months or even years writing your book, and then hurt its chances with a query you spent ten minutes writing. My query has gone through tons of revisions, including many after I sent batches out in response to feedback. Take your time and remember that you usually only have one chance with an agent. First impressions really are everything. To us, this book is our world. It's the result of blood, sweat, tears, and hundreds of hours of work. But to an agent, it's just another query in the slush pile. They have thousands more waiting in their inbox. What about your query will stand out? What will grab their attention? What is fresh and unique and new?

Another thing to make sure you have in your pitch is voice. Don't write it like an advertisement for a service, or just bluntly list the events. Don't write it in first person either, but add something that will reflect your character. Janice Hardy, author of the MG series The Healing Wars, started off her query with, "Fifteen-year-old Nya couldn't find luck in an empty bucket". Get the idea?

5. The bio - This is where you list publishing credits, pertinent awards (from reputable contests, magazines, or sites that are well-known), successful blogs or fan bases (if you have one), and other relevant information about yourself. Make this brief and relevant. It's okay to add something quirky or fun, but don't lose the professionalism. If you don't have any publishing credits, don't worry. I don't either!

6. The conclusion - This reads something like, "I have attached the first (however many sample pages they request, if any) pages below, as well as a synopsis (if required). The full manuscript is complete and ready upon request. Thank you so much for your time and consideration."

7. The signature - Sincerely, best regards, or whatever line you want to use... Your first and last name. Under that, you put your email, phone number, and website (if you want, not required). Contact info can also go in the bio or conclusion section.

Overall, your query should be around one page in length, with three main sections - intro, pitch, bio/conclusion.

Things you should do:

- Address the query to the agent, using their name

- Keep it concise, but include all required information

- Check the agency "submission" page for additional requirements/sample pages, etc.

- Proofread, walk away, reread, edit, let it sit, revise... revise some more. When you think it's good, revise again :)

- Take your time

- Send queries in small batches (about 5 at a time) to gauge agent reaction; make

changes as needed

Things you should not do:

- Address it "Dear agent"

- Have grammatical mistakes

- Ignore specific requirements (like sending the whole manuscript instead of 5 pages, or

attaching a Word document instead of pasting in the body of the email)

- Rush

- Brag or promise that your book will be the next Hunger Games or Harry Potter

- Be unprofessional or too friendly

Lots of information here to absorb, but I hope it's helpful. Any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Just leave them below! Don't forget to like or share on my Facebook page, See you next time for part 4 - sample pages. Another critical part of the query letter. Stay tuned!

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