Is the query letter standing between you and your dream of signing a traditional publishing deal? Well, then you’ve landed on the right article!
The stand-alone query letter has one purpose, and one purpose only:
To seduce the agent or editor into reading or requesting your work.
The query is so much of a sales piece that you should be able to write it without having written a single word of the manuscript. For some writers, it represents a completely different way of thinking about your book—it means thinking about your work as a marketable commodity. To think of your book as a product, you need to have some distance to see its salable qualities.
Before you begin the query process, have a finished and polished manuscript ready to go. It should be the best you can make it. Only query when you’d be comfortable with your manuscript appearing as-is between covers on a major chain bookstore shelf.
This post focuses on query letters for novels; nonfiction books will be addressed in a different (and future) post.
The 5 Elements of a Novel Query
Every query should include these five elements, in no particular order (except the closing):
- Personalization: where you customize the letter for the recipient
- What you’re selling: genre/category, word count, title/subtitle
- Hook: the meat of the query; 100-200 words is sufficient for a novel
- Bio: sometimes optional for uncredited fiction writers
- Thank you & closing
This post elaborates on each of those elements—keep reading!
What’s in the very first paragraph of the query?
This varies from writer to writer and from project to project. You put your best foot forward—or you lead with your strongest selling point. Common ways to begin a query:
- You’ve been vouched for or referred by an existing client of the agent’s—or if you’re querying a publisher, you might be referred by one of their authors.
- You met the agent/editor at a conference or pitch event where your material was requested (in which case, your query letter doesn’t carry much of a burden).
- You heard the agent/editor speak at a conference or you read something they wrote that indicates they’re a good fit for your work.
- You start with your hook—a compelling hook, of course.
- You mention excellent credentials or awards, e.g., you have an MFA from a school that an agent is known to recruit clients from, you’ve won first prize in a national competition with thousands of entrants, or you have impressive publication credits with prestigious journals or New York publishers.
Many writers don’t have referrals or conference meetings to fall back on, so usually the hook becomes the lead for the query letter. Some writers start simple and direct, which is fine: “My [title] is an 80,000-word supernatural romance.”
Personalizing the query: why it makes a difference
Remember, your query is a sales tool, and good salespeople develop a rapport with the people they want to sell to, and show that they understand their needs. Show that you’ve done your homework, show that you care, and show that you’re not blasting indiscriminately.
Will you be automatically rejected for not personalizing your query? No, but if you do take the trouble to personalize it, you’ll set yourself apart from the large majority of writers querying, and that’s the point.
Example of a strong, personalized lead
In a January interview at the Guide to Literary Agents blog, you praised The Thirteenth Tale and indicated an interest in “literary fiction with a genre plot.” My paranormal romance Moonlight Dancer (85,000 words) blends a literary style with the romance tradition.
The 3 Elements of a Novel Hook
For most writers, it’s the hook that does most of the work in convincing the agent/editor to request your manuscript. You need to boil down your story to these three key elements:
- Protagonist + his conflict
- The choices the protagonist has to make (or the stakes)
- The sizzle
Some genres/categories should add a fourth element: the setting or time period.
What does “sizzle” mean? It’s that thing that sets your work apart from all others in the genre, that makes your story stand out, that makes it uniquely yours. Sizzle means: This idea isn’t tired or been done a million times before.
How do you know if your idea is tired? Well, this is why everyone tells writers to read and read and read. It builds your knowledge and experience of what’s been done before in your genre, as well as the conventions.)
When a hook is well written but boring, it’s often because it lacks anything fresh. It’s the same old formula without distinction. The protagonist feels one-dimensional (or like every other protagonist), the story angle is something we’ve seen too many times, and the premise doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. The agent or editor is thinking, “Sigh. Another one of these?”
This is the toughest part of the hook—finding that special je ne sais quoi that makes someone say, “Wow, I’ve got to see more of this!” And this is often how an editor or agent gauges if you’re a storyteller worth spending time on.
Sometimes great hooks can be botched because there is no life, voice, or personality in them.
Sometimes so-so hooks can be taken to the next level because they convey a liveliness or personality that is seductive.
You want to be one of those seductive writers, of course.
You have a few options; these are the most common ways to build the hook.
- “I have a completed [word count][genre] titled [title] about [protagonist name + small description] who [conflict].”
- Answer these questions: What does your character want? Why does he want it? What keeps him from getting it?
- [Character name + description] + [the conflict they’re going through] + [the choices they have to make].
Whenever I teach a class where we critique hooks, just about everyone can point out the problems and talk about how to improve them. Why? Because when you’re not the writer, you have distance from the work. When you do come across a great novel hook, it feels so natural and easy—like it was effortless to write.
But great novel hooks are often toiled over. To convey a compelling story in just a few words is the test of a great writer.
I often recommend brevity when writing the hook, especially if you lack confidence. Brevity gets you in less trouble. The more you try to explain, the more you’ll squeeze the life out of your story. So: Get in, get out. Don’t labor over plot twists and turns.
Examples of brief hooks
Every day, PublishersMarketplace lists book deals that were recently signed at major New York houses. It identifies the title, the author, the publisher/editor who bought the project, and the agent who sold it. It also offers a one-sentence description of the book. These hooks are inevitably well-crafted, and can help you better understand what hooks really excite agents/publishers. While your hook would/should probably get into more detail than the following two examples, these hooks help illustrate how much you can accomplish in just a line or two.
Bridget Boland’s DOULA, an emotionally controversial novel about a doula with a sixth sense [protagonist] who, while following her calling, has to confront a dark and uncertain future when standing trial for the death of her best friend’s baby [protagonist’s problem] [a doula with a sixth sense? cool.]
John Hornor Jacobs’s SOUTHERN GODS, in which a Memphis DJ [protagonist] hires a recent World War II veteran to find a mysterious bluesman whose music [protagonist’s problem] — broadcast at ever-shifting frequencies by a phantom radio station — is said to make living men insane and dead men rise [twist]
Check for red flags in your novel hook
How to tell if your hook could be improved:
- Does your hook consist of several meaty paragraphs, or run longer than 200 words? You may be going into too much detail.
- Does your hook reveal the ending of your book? Only the synopsis should do that.
- Does your hook mention more than three or four characters? Usually you only need to mention the protagonist(s), a romantic interest or sidekick, and the antagonist.
- Does your hook get into minor plot points that don’t affect the choices the protagonist makes? Do you really need to mention them?
The Key Elements of Your Bio
For novelists, especially unpublished ones, you don’t have to include a bio in your query if you can’t think of anything worth sharing. But it’s nice to put in something.
The key to every detail in your bio is: Will it be meaningful—or perhaps charming—to the agent/editor? If you can’t confidently answer yes, leave it out. In order of importance, these are the categories of pertinent info.
Be specific about your credits for this to be meaningful. Don’t say you’ve been published “in a variety of journals.” You might as well be unpublished if you don’t want to name them.
What if you have no fiction writing credits? Should you say you’re unpublished? No. That point will be made clear by fact of omission.
Many novelists wonder if it’s helpful to list nonfiction credits. Yes, mention notable credits when they show you have some experience working with editors or understanding how the professional writing world works. That said: Academic or trade journal credits can be tricky, since they definitely don’t convey fiction writing ability. Use your discretion, but it’s probably not going to be deal breaker either way.
Online writing credits can be just as worthy as print credits. Popular and well-known online journals and blogs count!
Leave out credits like your church newsletter or credits that hold little to no significance for the publishing industry professionals.
Should you mention self-published books?
That’s totally up to you. Sooner or later this information will have to come out, so it’s usually just a matter of timing. Lots of people have done it, and it doesn’t really hurt your chances. If you do mention it, it’s best if you’re proud of your efforts and are ready to discuss your success (or failure) in doing it. If you consider it a mistake or irrelevant to the project at hand, leave it out, and understand it may come up later.
Do not make the mistake of thinking your self-publishing credits make you somehow more desirable as an author, unless you have really incredible sales success, in which case, mention the sales numbers of your book and how long it’s been on sale.
If your career or profession lends you credibility to write a better story, by all means mention it. But don’t go into lengthy detail. Teachers of K-12 who are writing children’s/YA often mention their teaching experience as some kind of credential for writing children’s/YA, but it’s not, so don’t treat it like one in the bio. (Perhaps it goes without saying, but parents should not treat their parent status as a credential to write for children either.)
It makes sense to mention any writing-related degrees you have, any major professional writing organizations you belong to (e.g., RWA, MWA, SCBWI), and possibly any major events/retreats/workshops you’ve attended to help you develop your career as a writer.
You needn’t say that you frequent such-and-such online community, or that you belong to a writers’ group the agent would’ve never heard of. (Mentioning this won’t necessarily hurt you, but it’s not proving anything either.)
Avoid cataloguing every single thing you’ve ever done in your writing life. Don’t talk about starting to write when you were in second grade. Don’t talk about how much you’ve improved your writing in the last few years. Don’t talk about how much you enjoy returning to writing in your retirement.
Just mention 1 or 2 highlights that prove your seriousness and devotion to the craft of writing. If unsure, leave it out.
If your book is the product of some intriguing or unusual research (you spent a year in the Congo), mention it. These unique details can catch the attention of an editor or agent.
Most writers should not mention awards or competitions they’ve won because they are too small to matter. If the award isn’t widely recognizable to the majority of publishing professionals, then the only way to convey the significance of an award is to talk about how many people you beat out. Usually the entry number needs to be in the thousands to impress an agent/editor.
Charming, ineffable you
If your bio can reveal something of your voice or personality, all the better. While the query isn’t the place to digress or mention irrelevant info, there’s something to be said for expressing something about yourself that gives insight into the kind of author you are—that ineffable you. Charm helps.
It’s okay to say nothing at all about yourself
If you have no meaningful publication credits, don’t try to invent any. If you have no professional credentials, no research to mention, no awards to your name—nothing notable at all to share—don’t add a weak line or two in an attempt to make up for it. Just end the letter. You’re still completely respectable.
Don’t bother mentioning these things
Unless you know the agent/editor wants to hear about these things, you don’t need to discuss (for novelists, remember, not nonfiction writers):
- Your social media presence
- Your online platform
- Your marketing plan
- Your years of effort and dedication
- How much your family/friends love your work
- How many times you’ve been rejected or close accepts
Sometimes you might mention your website or blog, especially if you feel confident about its presentation. The truth is the agent/editor is going to Google you anyway, and find your website/blog whether you mention it or not (unless you’re writing under a different name). Keep in mind that having an online presence helps show you’ll likely be a good marketer and promoter of your work—especially if you have a sizable readership already—but it doesn’t say anything about your ability to write a great story. That said, if you have 100,000+ fans/readers on Wattpad or at your blog, that should be in your query letter.
Example of a solid bio
A professional writer for more than 30 years, I’ve had short stories published in literary journals such as Toasted Cheese, Long Story Short, and Beginnings. My first novel manuscript was a finalist for a James Jones Fellowship. I am co-founder and editor of the online literary journal Cezanne’s Carrot, and also write the blog Writers In The Virtual Sky.
Close your letter professionally
You don’t read much advice about how to close a query letter, perhaps because there’s not much to it, right? You say thanks and sign your name. But here’s how to leave a good final impression.
- You don’t have to state that you are simultaneously querying. Everyone assumes this. (I do not recommend exclusive queries; send queries out in batches of three to five—or more, if you’re confident in your query quality.)
- If your manuscript is under consideration at another agency, then mention it if/when the next agent requests to see your manuscript.
- If you have a series in mind, this is a good time to mention it. But don’t belabor the point; it should take a sentence.
- Never mention your “history” with the work, e.g., how many agents you’ve queried, or how many near misses you’ve suffered, or how many compliments you’ve received on the work from others.
- Resist the temptation to editorialize. This is where you proclaim how much the agent will love the work, or how exciting it is, or how it’s going to be a bestseller if only someone would give it a chance, or how much your kids enjoy it, or how much the world needs this work.
- Thank the agent, but don’t carry on unnecessarily, or be incredibly subservient—or beg. (“I know you’re very busy and I would be forever indebted and grateful if you would just look at a few pages.”)
- There’s no need to go into great detail about when and how you’re available. Make sure the letter includes, somewhere, your phone number, e-mail address, and return address. (Include an self-addressed stamped envelope for snail mail queries.) I recommend putting your contact info at the very top of the letter, or at the very bottom, under your name, rather than in the query body itself.
- Do not introduce the idea of an in-person meeting. Do not say you’ll be visiting their city soon, and ask if they’d like to meet for coffee. The only possible exception to this is if you know you’ll hear them speak at an upcoming conference—but don’t ask for a meeting. Just say you look forward to hearing them speak. Use the conference’s official channels to set up an appointment if any are available.
Query Letter Red Flags
Here is an overall list of red flags to look for in your query letter.
- If it runs longer than 1 page (single spaced), you’ve said too much.
- If your novel’s word count is much higher than 100,000 words, you have a much bigger challenge ahead of you. Eighty thousand words is the industry standard for a debut novel. See this post for a definitive list of appropriate word counts by genre.
- Ensure you’ve specified your genre, without being on the fence about it.
- Avoid directly commenting on the quality of your work. Your query should show what a good writer you are, rather than you telling or emphasizing what a good writer you are.
- On the flip side: Don’t criticize yourself, or the quality of the work, in the letter.
- Don’t editorialize your story for the agent/editor, almost as if you were writing a review of the work. (“In this fast-paced thriller,” “in a final twist that will change your world,” “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, …”
- Do not explain how or why you came to write the story, unless it is really interesting or integral to the work.
- Do not talk about how you’ve wanted to write since you were a child.
- Do not talk about how much your family and friends love your work.
- Avoid heavy use of adjectives, adverbs, and modifiers. In fact, try creating a version of your query without any modifiers, and see what happens.
- When it comes to selling fiction, you don’t have to talk about the trends in the market, or about the target audience. You sell the story. (However, for nonfiction queries, you do talk about trends and market, which is why some writers are confused over this point.)
Tell me more about exclusives—what are they?This is when an agent responds positively to your query and asks for an exclusive read on your manuscript. That means no one else can read the manuscript while they’re considering it. I don’t recommend granting an exclusive unless it’s for a very short period (maybe 2 weeks).
In non-exclusive situations (which should be most situations): If you have a second request for the manuscript before you hear back from the first agent, then as a courtesy, let the second agent know it’s also under consideration elsewhere (though you needn’t say with whom). If the second agent offers you representation first, go back to the first agent and let her know you’ve been made an offer, and give her a chance to respond.
Should I compare my book to another title, or compare myself to another author?
This can be helpful as long as you do it tastefully, and without self-aggrandizement. It’s usually best to compare the work in terms of style, voice, or theme, rather than in terms of sales, success, or quality.
Is it better to query via e-mail, if allowed?
Yes. E-mail can lead to faster response times. However, I’ve heard many writers complain that they never receive a response. (Sometimes silence is the new rejection.) This is a phenomenon that must be regrettably accepted. Send one follow-up to inquire, but don’t keep sending e-mails to ascertain if your e-query was received.
How can I format the e-mail query properly?
- Write your query in Word or TextEdit. Strip out all formatting. (Usually there is an option under “Save As” that will allow you to save as simple text.)
- Send the query without any formatting and without any indents (block style).
- Use CAPS for anything that would normally be in italics.
- Don’t use address, date headers, or contact information at the beginning of the e-mail; put all of that stuff at the bottom, underneath your name.
- The first line should read: “Dear [Agent Name]:”
- Some writers structure their e-queries differently than paper queries (or make them shorter). Consider how much the agent can see of your e-query on the first screen, without scrolling. That’s probably how far they will read before responding or hitting delete. Adjust your query accordingly. Usually the hook should go first, unless you have a strong personalization angle.
I have an e-mail address for an editor/agent who doesn’t accept e-mail queries. Should I try them anyway?
You can try, but you probably won’t receive a response.
How soon can I follow up if I don’t hear back?
Try following up about 2-4 weeks after the stated response time. If no response time is given, wait a couple of months. If querying via snail mail, include another copy of the query. If you still don’t hear back after one follow-up attempt, assume it’s a rejection, and move on. Do not phone or visit.
Is it OK to tell agents/editors to visit my website for more info?
Avoid this. Agents should have all the information they need to make a decision right in your query letter. (Of course, most of them will Google you anyway and check out your online presence to get a sense of how you might be to work with.) It’s OK to list your website or blog as part of your contact info; just don’t tell agents in the body of the query to visit your site for more info, or to read your book at your site.
Should I send a synopsis with the query?
Only if requested in the submission guidelines. Click here for instructions on how to write a synopsis.
More resources on query letters
- QueryShark (opportunity to get your query critiqued + read others critiqued)
- Agent Rachelle Gardner’s post on query letters
- Former agent Nathan Bransford’s guide to query letters
How to identify agents to query
- PublishersMarketplace (for in-depth info on agents and publishing deals, costs $25/month)
- WritersMarket.com (requires monthly or annual subscription)
- AgentQuery: a free online resource
- Don’t forget to look at agency websites (as you begin to select and customize your queries and submissions for each agent appropriate for your work)
Looking for more?
- Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published
- Start Here: How to Write a Book Proposal
- Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis
- Perfecting Your First Page [especially helpful if you’re sending the first 1-5 pages along with your query]
Please visit Jane and follow her for future writing advice!