A query letter is the brief letter you use to introduce your manuscript to an agent in the hope of piquing their interest. It’s a one-page pitch that strips your book to it’s bones as an artistic product.
As far as I can tell, there are five essential parts to a query letter:
- The Introduction/Overview
- The Summary/Book description
- The Bio
- Comp Titles
- The Outro
These pieces are included within a 3-4 paragraph query letter. Please bear in mind that the order of these pieces and the specific flair that you add is a truly individual process. Some people like to start with their synopsis, then give background info, others disagree. I don’t think there’s any one right way to do it, especially since many variations on the query letter have led to success. However, agents want to know some of these basics, and I’ll dive into them individually.
This is often the first paragraph of a query letter. You should explain what your genre and word-count is, and explain why you think this specific agent is right for your book. Some good examples of why you might be a great fit:
- You met the agent at a conference or event and they expressed interest (hard to get, but effective!)
- The agent works with your genre and/or sub-genre
- They already represents titles comparable to yours
- They stated in recent interviews or on their MSWL page that they are seeking books like yours.
This requires a bit of leg-work on your part, but it’s necessary leg-work. If you can’t make a case for why this agent is right for you, why should they bite? One quick reminder – always spell the agents name correctly!! Here’s a sample first-paragraph:
Dear Jane Doe,
After researching your agency and finding that you are currently seeking Middle Grade Fantasy books, with a special interest in stories about friendship, I thought you might be right for my book THE JOURNEY OF DRAGONS, complete at 55,000 words.
The Summary/Book description
This often takes up the next one or two paragraphs. The title “summary” is a little misleading, since what you really want is more of a… book-trailer. It should grab the reader’s attention, it should make them sit down and listen up, it should compel them to want to know more! Introduce the main characters, their arcs, and the main conflict of the book. Add enough details to make it original, but don’t get bogged down in trying to fit the entire book’s plot into one or two paragraphs. My best piece of advice for this bit is to get another set of eyes. I had a really hard time condensing my book, but after some beta readers and an editor, the improvements were phenomenal.
Since this is such a subjective art, instead of writing a fake summary, my best advice is to check the backs or inside flaps of books that are similar to yours, and read those blurbs. Another great resource is Amazon – you could spend hours reading book descriptions there. Just remember to keep it tight, introduce your characters, and fill it with conflict, high stakes, and suspense.
Ah, the dreaded bio. For those of us without many writing credentials, this piece always seems the most depressing. But never fear! If you don’t happen to have a wildly successful published novel, or a short story published in the New Yorker sitting in your back pocket, there’s still hope for you. Here are two things other than publications that you should list: why you are the right person to write this particular book (are you a nurse writing a medical drama? that’s important – let them know!) and pertinent education. Of course, if your short stories, essays, poems, etc. have ever been published (or you have a thriving blog), do mention that as well. Sample Bio (this one is actually the one I used in my own query):
My name is Danielle M. Hines, I’m a Maine guide during the summer and I work in an Emergency room during the off season. One of my short stories, The Man with the Coats, was published in Teen Ink’s print magazine, under the pen name “Della Vine” in 2014.
These should be current, within your genre and age-range, and you should have 2-4 of them. This can be a part of your outro, part of your intro, but probably not part of your synopsis!
Basically, here you’re just signing off respectfully. Thank them for their time or tell them you look forward to hearing from them, and indicate that you’ll be pasting their requested materials below (or attaching them, if they state they prefer attachments).
A Few Things To Avoid
- Arrogant comp titles. Confidence is good, but don’t say you’re the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games!
- Spelling the agent’s name wrong – a big no!
- Querying an agent who doesn’t represent your genre (this won’t be helpful to either of you – do your research!)
- Exceeding one page (or about 400 words)
- Forgetting to attach/paste sample pages and/or a one-synopsis per the agents specific requests (again, this research!)
- A dry, boring summary (remember, this is where you make your book sound like a must-read!)
I hope this was helpful! Here are a few other resources that you might find helpful:
All the best,
Danielle M Hines