Amazingly enough, you’ll probably write your query letter to agents and the handful of remaining publishers accepting unsolicited submissions more times than you rewrote the manuscript. Good thing a letter is so much shorter!
A query letter is short—a mere 250-400 words consisting of a “hook,” summary, manuscript specifications, and an author biography.
That’s quite a lot of information to convey in only a handful of words. Your ability to do so, and do so well, however, alerts agents and publishers to the fact that you are a stellar writer. Exactly what they’re looking for in fact. That’s why mastering query letter writing is so crucial.
The first step is to transform how you think about writing. Instead of writing more, write less. Instead of adding, cut. The object of a query letter is to portray the essence of your writing—tone, style, plot, and characters for fiction pieces; and tone, style, problems, and answers for non-fiction pieces—in an engaging way that makes your readers want to bite. Just like in advertising.
And, just like in advertising, you’ll begin with something that will pique the interest of someone inundated with query letters—someone reading hundreds or even thousands of queries a month. This is the hook, or “tagline” for your manuscript. Your tagline should be a short statement or rhetorical question that causes your readers to think, Hm, I might like to read that. Let me look into this some more, just as the taglines on a movie poster make you want to check out what a movie is about. So make your tagline both memorable and interesting. Also, make sure to include the title of your novel. Just like commercials frustrate viewers when they don’t know what the product is until the last second, a tagline without this important bit of information leaves your readers floundering.
From the hook, you move into the summary. Calling it a summary is somewhat deceptive, as it is more like the blurb on the back of a book than an unimaginative summary you’d read on Sparknotes or Wikipedia. Remember, this is advertising, and you’re trying to persuade someone to read your book. So go and look at the blurb that caused you to pick up the stray book that became your favorite. Generally, blurbs reveal just enough about the characters and plot to emotionally connect a prospective reader to what’s happening, or mention enough of the findings and writer’s tone to whet a reader’s curiosity to know more. Your summary, then, should walk a fine line between too little and too much information, while at the same time, conveying the tone of your manuscript.
Now you’re on to book specifications. This includes the title, word count, and genre of your manuscript. You need all of these items as they explain to the agent or editor reading your query that this is something they’re interested in and have a market for. (Hint: If they specify word count, make sure yours is within the range, and so forth.) Additionally, try to pull out some comparable stories. What books, TV shows, movies, etc. influenced your writing and tone? Is your book Rick Riordan meets Die Hard? If so, state that. Have you answered the question that millions of people are asking about why the chicken crossed the road? Good, give those stats. Publishing is, after all, a business, and agents and publishers need to know that there’s an existing market for what you’ve written.
Finally, you need to provide a short biography, which tells agents and publishers why you’re qualified to write about what you’ve written. This does not mean telling them about the essay contest you won in fifth grade, but instead briefly outlining your current writing credits and background (as it applies to your manuscript). If you have no such credits yet, you can always begin to develop them by submitting articles or short stories to credible magazines, journals, contests, etc., or simply forgo writing a bio—although this is not recommended.
Overall, writing a query letter is quite challenging, but it is also rather fun. Especially when you know you’ve accomplished what you set out to do. So good luck and enjoy!
(Next week: The One Page Synopsis)
Query Letter Writing Tips
- Query writing is like business writing, in that you are demonstrating that you are not only a good writer but also a professional. As such, keep your tone polite and recall the rules of business letter etiquette.
- If you browse through Chuck Sambino’s “Successful Queries” on the Writer’s Digest website—which I highly recommend—then you’ll see one consistency: each agent is enamored by a query letter for a different reason. There is no surefire way to win a contract other than good, intriguing writing that follows each agent or publisher’s specifications.
- Intensively revise and rewrite your query letter. Your query is how you get your foot in the door to display your wares (manuscript), so it needs to be a strong pitch. The best way to do this is to take the time you need to write it—not a day, not a week. Let other people read it. Get objective advice and criticism. Write multiple drafts. Polish it and love it as much as you did your manuscript. All of this effort is bound to pay off and work in your favor.