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There’s no shortage of advice about how to query a literary agent and what makes for a successful query letter, and we’re not reinventing the wheel here. But I do want to offer a straightforward breakdown of query letter format.
Last week I talked about query-letter etiquette in general, dos and don’ts, and how to approach writing queries to help keep the process from sucking (too much).
This week I want to dive straight into the mechanics of what makes for a good query letter that will catch an agent’s attention.
Please see disclaimers from part one, “Fun with Query Letters (No, Seriously”), and review best practices and red flags.
Think of this section as an initial handshake. You’re just metaphorically looking the agent in the eye and introducing yourself. I suggest beginning with something briefly personal, like why you are contacting them specifically: You loved a book (or several) they represented; you saw them speak or teach and really liked their approach; you’ve read their work or heard them in an interview and appreciated something particular they said, etc.
Agents read hundreds of queries every week—many clearly simply blanketing every agent the author could find. Stand out right away by letting them know something singular about them that made you want to contact them. Remember agents are humans, and just like humans, they want to feel like they’re more than just the next name on your Excel spreadsheet.
But be specific: “You are my dream agent” is a little vague—tell them why. Does she represent other authors and titles you feel are good fits with what you write? Do you admire her approach to the business (and if so, specifically state in what way), or appreciate the particular way she shepherds her clients’ careers, etc.?
Things to point out up front:
- If you’ve had a past encounter. Did you meet or pitch to her at a conference or class or event? Did she previously ask for a partial or full from you on another manuscript—or offer feedback on this one, no matter how long ago? Did you chat at the bar for a while at a conference? Offer details of whatever that previous encounter was to help him “place” you—and if it involved a previous email exchange, it’s a great idea to send it on the same thread so he can see the exchange as a reminder (change the subject line in that case to something like “Follow-up submission” or similar).
- If you have a relationship with the agent or are writing at the recommendation of one of their clients. DON’T say someone “recommended” or referred you unless they expressly did that. If they didn’t, you can say something like, “A fellow member of my writing group, Author-You-Rep, speaks so highly of you.…”
- Any legitimate connection you may have: a mutual friend, a colleague, or you share a massage therapist or dog walker; you went to school together, etc.
The most important element of your intro paragraph—clearly state in the first line or two your story’s genre and word count, as well as a very brief logline if you like. If you have comps for it, it’s fine to use them—it can be helpful. But make sure they are realistic—comparing yourself to Tolkien or saying your story is the next Harry Potter can signal to agents that you don’t have a realistic grasp of the market or business. If your story has a “high concept” (basically an easily definable premise, like “It’s Fleabag meets Alien”), use it.
The resources I’ll post below include some specific tips and examples for writing your thumbnail summary of the story for a query. But here’s a basic formula:
Basic character description [including defining characteristic(s) and main flaw] wants X [main goal], but faces [major challenges and complications] en route to attaining it, and ultimately [succeeds or fails in her goal] and is changed by it in X way.
You are just hitting the major mileposts here: the character’s point A plus what she wants and what stands in her way as she works to achieve it, and her point B as a direct result of that journey. Don’t overcomplicate it. Don’t editorialize.
Do give it voice—but not so much that it draws attention away from the clear, simple description of the story. Find an irresistible hook—meaning something that might make a reader hungry to find out more about how the story unfolds or is resolved (if you can’t, consider whether you’re ready to query yet or your story itself may need a stronger premise). But don’t leave out the ending/resolution, at least some indication of it.
For a “MadLibs” style template that may help crystallize your story to its most impactful basics, download my free “Story Sketch Template” on the Editing Toolbox page of my website under “Free Downloadable Guides.”
If it’s part of a planned series, let the agent know that. (See last week’s “Fun with Query Letters” post for more details on what else to include.)
This is not the place for modesty—but it’s also not the place to brag or get cocky. It’s also not the place to lie or exaggerate (there really are so few places for that); this is a small industry and a connected one—untruths often get found out, and there are few better ways to get effectively blacklisted among agents. Pick out your top credits/experience and let them shine.
Some areas to consider:
- Past publication: If you are previously traditionally published, absolutely say so—even if you lost your publisher or your books sold poorly. It lets an agent know you were good enough to get through the gatekeepers, and they understand market vagaries.
If your books had a lackluster track record and you are willing to publish under a different pen name, let them know that too. Sadly, today’s market often favors shiny-new “virgin” authors over those with established careers unless they are already bestsellers.
If you have been published in other outlets—magazines, newspapers, literary or academic journals, well-known blogs or websites, etc.
If you have previous self-published titles, they are likely not relevant to an agent unless you happened to have stellar sales or loads of reviews. This can be a mixed bag—different agents regard indie pub differently. Mention at your own risk.
If this story has been previously published—anywhere, in any format—do let them know that. Don’t plan to slide that fact in once the agent nibbles—it affects how marketable your book may be, and it’s a key factor for an agent to consider. Hiding it may cause resentment or annoyance, and that’s not how you want to start a relationship.
- Other writing-related experience: Were/are you a journalist? A teacher or professor in a writing-related field? An editor or agent or other industry professional? A longtime regular blogger? Etc.
- Training: Your degree if it’s relevant, or any notable writing programs like Iowa Writers or Bread Loaf. Most agents don’t care if you’ve taken paid workshops with industry professionals, even top-notch ones, but if it’s all you have, it doesn’t hurt to convey that you study your craft.
- Subject matter expertise/experience: If you have some special expertise or connection to the story subject (e.g., it’s about a character on the spectrum and you have a child with Asperger’s, for instance; or it’s about a Navy SEAL and you were one, etc.)
- Accolades: Any former bestseller status (although “Amazon bestseller” has become a fairly devalued term with many industry pros, BTW), or healthy sales. Writing awards (don’t list a dozen, if you happen to have that many—pick out the top few). Meaningful reviews of past publications (i.e., Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, the New York Review of Books, LA Times, etc.). A pay-for-play review (like paid Kirkus reviews) may or may not pack much punch with an agent.
- Platform: If you have a significant existing platform, mention it. This is more than just social media followers (although if your numbers are impressive, it may be worth including): Here’s a good guide to what might catch an agent’s eye.
Ask for what you would like—clearly and simply: “Per your preferences, I’ve included the first X chapters/pages for your consideration, and I’d be very happy to send the full and discuss the possibility of representation” or some straightforward variation thereof. Be polite. Be realistic—this is a process and there are a number of steps before a possible offer of representation might come.
Include exactly what the agent asks for and not what they don’t—if they want 5 pages, give it. If 30 pages or three chapters, do that. Don’t cheat it with font size or formatting—use industry-standard formatting.
Pay attention to whether they request that your synopsis and pages be included in an attachment or pasted in the body of the email—many agents won’t open attachments for fear of viruses.
Finally, be patient. Agents aren’t trying to be rude or leave you hanging—they are inundated with query letters that compound exponentially by the day—and while seeking new talent to represent is part of their job, the man part is actively representing the ones they already have, and that’s where their priorities rightly are. Please don’t take a long response time personally.
The best way to distract yourself from the agony of waiting is to query more agents—and work on a new project (Guess what makes an author even more enticing to an agent? More manuscripts in the works.)
Next week we’ll talk about the dreaded rejection letter—what it means and doesn’t mean, how to handle one, and when rejection isn’t rejection.
Meanwhile, authors, let me hear your query thoughts: What have I forgotten or left out of query letter “best practices”? What have you had success with in your own query letters? What are some of your favorite resources for how to write a good query?
- As always, Jane Friedman offers a great overview of the topic in her “Complete Guide to Query Letters.”
- Writer’s Digest has a terrific “Successful Queries” series with examples of query letters across nearly every genre.
- Agent Kristin Nelson’s “Query Letter Archives” are full of example of actual queries that caught her eye, with her analysis of why.
- “The Sh*t No One Tells You About Writing” podcast, hosted by Bianca Marais, begins with a regular feature—valuable insight from two agents (Carly Watters and CeCe Lyra) on what works, what doesn’t, and why.
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