10 Steps to Query Letter Writing Success
Good query letter writing seems like a mysterious process, but its necessity to landing an agent or editor makes for a pressure-filled, intimidating task.
But it needn't be!
In truth, writing a query letter is rather formulaic. I’ve split the process into ten manageable steps, so you can create a letter that will stand out from all the others flooding agents' and editors' email inboxes on a daily basis.
STEP ONE – IS YOUR MANUSCRIPT READY?
Has it been edited? Multiple times? Have you used beta readers to give you feedback? (No, your cousins and aunt and grandma do not count—unless they are no-nonsense readers who aren’t afraid to hurt your feelings.) Are you sure it’s as good as it can be? Ignoring the self-doubt that we as writers seem to always have, make sure you can truthfully answer yes to this question before you begin the querying process.
STEP TWO – DO YOUR RESEARCH ON WHO YOU’RE QUERYING
Whether you’re seeking an agent or an editor at a publishing house, do your homework. Use the internet to search for those who best fit the type of manuscript you’ve written. Look them up online, check out their social media posts, read their interviews and manuscript wish lists, and subscribe to Publishers Marketplace to see what agents are selling and editors are acquiring. Most of all, read their submission requirements on their website. If they ask you to use the submission form, USE the submission form. If an editor says they are closed to unagented submissions, believe them and don’t send them a query. If they say, do not include attachments to the email, DON’T ADD ATTACHMENTS. If they are only looking for nonfiction, don’t send them FICTION.
But all this research helps you to a) know you’re querying the right person and b) will allow you to show that you’ve done your homework for step three
STEP THREE – PERSONALIZE YOUR QUERY LETTER
Do not send generic letters to Dear Agent or Dear Editor. That is bad bad bad! And a waste of your time (and theirs). Send your letter to a specific person, and if you can, personalize the opening. If you’ve met an agent or editor and are allowed to submit to them based on attendance at a conference, mention this in the opening. If you’ve been referred by someone, put that right at the top. Or if you’ve read something about them that makes you believe your manuscript would be a good fit, include that here. (But be brief!)
AFTER A ONE-ON-ONE PITCH:
Dear Ms. Agent Name,
It was lovely to meet with you at the Writers’ Institute and have the chance to introduce you to Mardella Houston. I hope you will find her story intriguing.
AFTER A CRITIQUE:
Dear Mr. Editor Name,
It was a pleasure meeting you at the SCBWI Fall Conference in Wisconsin. I appreciated your critique of the first three chapters of my middle-grade novel HAVEN and hope that you will find the remainder of the story intriguing.
AFTER A RECOMMENDATION:
Dear Ms. Agent Name,
John Smith at ABC Books suggested that I contact you regarding representation for my young adult contemporary novel, NAME OF BOOK.
AFTER FINDING OUT SPECIFIC THINGS DURING RESEARCH:
(Okay, this one isn't brief, but I decided to give it a try. After reading a hilarious interview where this agent said there'd be points awarded if anyone made her laugh and that she was a Ravenclaw, I combined that with an equally funny review she wrote about the Clan of the Cave Bear series. I had been querying for a while at this point and didn't think it would hurt to try a different approach, plus I had done my homework. She requested the full manuscript by the way.
Dear Ms. Agent Name,
If we’re making up our own rules here, and I seriously think we can in the land of fiction, I hereby award five points to Ravenclaw because you made me laugh out loud today. (Your comment about the Clan of the Cave Bear series devolving into “cave porn” was spot on!) While I also appreciate both writing and consuming well-written historical novels, I am asking you to consider a very different project today and would like to introduce you to 11-year-old Mardella Houston. I hope you will find her story intriguing.
OTHER TYPES OF BEGINNINGS:
You can also start with writing credentials if you have award recognitions or publishing success, or start in an informational manner with “BOOK TITLE” is a 65,000 word cozy mystery, or you can start with your hook and jump immediately to step four.
STEP FOUR – CRAFT YOUR BOOK’S HOOK
This is your one- or two-sentence pitch. It introduces your main character and gives the conflict of the story and hints at other interesting details—usually the mystery, challenge, or twist. It also must identify why your book is different.
Here’s one of mine from Rainforest Rescue: An Amazon Adventure
Josie Browning’s summer in the rain forest should have come with a warning label. She knows to beware of giant insects, poisonous snakes, and wild animals, but she never could have predicted that government protests, eco-terrorists, and sabotage plots would be even greater dangers.
Here's my try at writing one for The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:
In the future North American country of Panem, an annual televised game of survival pits young people from twelve districts in an on-screen fight to the death where only one survivor will emerge. When her gentle, younger sister is chosen as one of the participants, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen immediately volunteers to take her place.
STEP FIVE – WRITE A KICK-BUTT SUMMARY OF YOUR BOOK
Once you’ve hooked an agent or editor, you need to give them a brief summary that makes them keep reading to your sample chapters. This is where you (briefly) address the main characters and the central conflicts that drive your story’s plot. But don’t give away the entire plot, leave the agent wanting more in the way you would write your book’s cover blurb.
Here’s the next paragraph I used in my query for Rainforest Rescue: An Amazon Adventure:
Twelve-year-old Josie expects a grueling, insect-filled endurance test when she visits her dad’s Amazon research station. That is, until she meets Reji, a cute boy her same age, and hopes the summer might be salvageable. Thoughts of fun quickly dissolve, however, when the government decides to construct a dam which will flood the research station along with thousands of acres of rainforest. Reji plans to stop the dam to protect his parents’ discovery of a unique cancer-fighting plant, but he needs Josie’s help. She refuses, knowing his idea is too dangerous. But then Josie discovers the devastating secret her parents have been keeping from her and the real reason she’s spending the summer in the jungle. With her world turned upside down, she has to decide if ignoring the danger and helping Reji is now the smartest thing she can do.
STEP SIX – INCLUDE A COMPARABLE TITLE
You’ll need to include a relevant comparison to at least one book that has been written in the past five years to help position your story within the marketplace and genre as well as to show the agent or editor that you have an awareness of the marketplace. (I have made exceptions to that 5-year rule—see below*.)
Avoid comparing your book to super popular books or books that are not well-known. Also don’t do anything weird like comparing books that are too dissimilar—like saying “Pride and Prejudice meets The Bourne Identity.” (ha-ha – I’ll be waiting for someone to actually tell me about a book that fits that strange combination now.)
Here are two of my examples:
HAVEN offers a unique look at the effects of domestic violence as seen through the eyes of a pre-teen, much like how "Ruby on the Outside" by Nora Raleigh Baskin carefully handles the issue of parental incarceration.
RAINFOREST RESCUE provides an ecological adventure for the middle-grade reader, combining the conservation theme of Carl Hiaasen’s novel "Hoot" with the intriguing location of the tropical rain forest.
*(I will note here that the book Hoot was published in 2005, and I was using this as a comp about a decade later—but I thought it was okay to do this as it was a well-known book and it was truly the best comp I could think of.)
STEP SEVEN – INCLUDE RELEVANT BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION
Include only details about your skills or experience that are relevant to writing or publishing or the topic you’ve written about. Have you won awards or had any other work published? Mention those items here. Are you a member of any writing associations? Do you regularly attend workshops or retreats? Are you an expert on the topic you're writing about? All of these things can give an agent or editor a sense of your platform and your commitment to your writing.
Here’s one of my sample biographical paragraphs from a few years ago:
My debut novel, Circle of Nine: Beltany (Lost Lake Press 2014) was a finalist for the Kindle Book Award, the Readers’ Favorite Book Award (YA-Fantasy category), and the Gotham Writers’ YA Novel Discovery Contest as well as being a BRAG Medallion Honoree. The Circle of Nine series has continued with a novella collection and will conclude with the forthcoming sequel Circle of Nine: Sacred Treasures. I participate in a critique group through my membership in SCBWI, and frequently present sessions on writing and book publicity at libraries, schools, and conferences.
STEP EIGHT – WRAP IT UP WITH A SUCCINCT CLOSING
Please find the sample chapters and synopsis pasted below for your review. I appreciate your consideration.
STEP NINE– FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES FOR INCLUDING YOUR WRITING SAMPLES
I mentioned this before in the step about doing your research but follow the instructions given for how and what to include with your query. Sometimes it is a set number of pages or chapters. Sometimes the agent or editor wants a one-page synopsis. Often, they will say not to include the materials as an attachment. Instead, the instructions often tell you to paste your sample chapters and synopsis in the body of the email. Do this below your query letter.
Proofread carefully and edit judiciously. Aim for a max of 450 words. Be sure you included your book’s title, word count, and genre!
If you’d like help polishing your letter before submission, I offer query letter edits! Learn more HERE.
Good luck and happy querying, Valerie