First: what is a query letter?
It’s the short letter/email you send to either agents or editors to see whether they would be interested in seeing your manuscript. Some agents/editors will ask for a certain amount of chapters with the query, but they will outline this very clearly on their website.
Which leads me to the first piece of advice: Read every agent/editor’s guidelines carefully and make sure you follow them exactly. These are busy people, and they ask for things a certain way for a reason.
Now you may be wondering why you should listen to advice from a random blogger like me – good question!
I spent months researching query letters before sending a whole lot of them out. Every agent I’ve heard back from so far has requested pages, which means that, totally separate to my manuscript, my query letters are doing exactly what they’re meant to. So take it or leave it, this is what i’ve learnt:
A query letter should be no more than a page long (they sometimes say 1-2 pages, but trust me, they mean 1 page) and should roughly follow this format:
intro – begin by telling them why you’re querying them specifically. They like to know you’ve done your research and that you haven’t just randomly picked them. (And hey, a little flattery never goes amiss!) Also state the title of your book, its genre and word-count (to the nearest thousand). Ask for representation. You can briefly go into why you think your book would work well on their list etc, but definitely be straight-forward here about what you want. Like I said, these people are busy.
hook line – this is where you need to sum up your book in one line…I know, easy peasy! This will probably take you a while, but it’s very important to have this one line that intrigues them. Mine was: “The most awkward possible place for a duke to meet the love of his life is in her bed…when he’s in hiding dressed as a woman.” It doesn’t tell you any plot specifics but it gives a good idea of what drives it.
blurb – don’t give a synopsis of your novel here. You want to write a one paragraph blurb of your novel, just like what you’d find on the back of a book. If the blurb would make you want to read that novel, it’ll make the agent/editor feel the same. I had a lot of trouble with this part and what I found really helpful was to read lots of romance novel blurbs until I had a good feeling for the tone/construction of them. Do the same with whatever genre your book falls into. Keep rewriting/reading aloud/showing to friends until you’re happy with it.
bio – introduce yourself here, but don’t waffle on. They want to know anything that relates to writing, eg. any previous works published, degrees in writing, other experience. If you’ve never been published just be up front without making a big deal about it or in any way belittling yourself. This is very important. They’re looking for a professional, positive attitude. Show that you know a bit about the market, eg. which books are similar to yours, which publishers you’re interested in. (Not necessarily essential, but shows you’ve done your research.)
sign off – make sure you thank them for taking the time to read your submission!
I was very glad in the end that I worked on my query for a couple of months, because I knew I had made it as good as I was able. Having said that, it’s so important to actually send your queries off! Agents/publishers are looking for potential, not a perfectly polished letter.
And this sounds a bit obvious, but I think we sometimes forget that good writing sells itself. Motivation and perseverance are a huge part of becoming successful as a writer, as is the ability to manoeuvre bureaucracy (such as writing a perfect query!). But if good writing lands on an agent/editor’s desk, they are going to be interested. It’s what their work is all about.
So go for it! Get your work out there, get people looking at it and giving you feedback on it. For me, finding out about query letters was a revelation – it was the leg-up into the murky world of publishing. I could never imagine, before, how I could possibly go from little old me writing away at home, to published-author me. Well, this is how.
Literary agent Kristin Nelson has an excellent section on her website about writing query letters, with a link to her blog discussion looking at specific query letters she was impressed by. I highly recommend visiting it!