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How to Query, Part 1: Writing your query
How to write your query — dos, don'ts, and a template worksheet to get the bones of your query on paper.
Happy New Year! I hope you had a lovely holiday with friends and family. I, for one, definitely enjoyed (and needed) the break. Now I’m back and recharged and ready for another year of newsletter content. Let’s dive right in…
Several years ago, when I still wrote for the group blog Publishing Crawl, I posted a very basic “Querying Dos and Dont’s” piece. You can view it here.
I consistently get asked to revisit this topic and since it’s such a big one, I’ve decided to tackle it as a four-part series that I’ve aptly titled How to Query. These parts won’t come back-to-back—I’ll still have other posts/content between them so as not to bore anyone uninterested in querying info. But at the same time, I promise I won’t stretch this series out for too long.
Today, in part one, I’ll break down how to write the query itself, recap best practices, provide general dos and don’ts, and share my own query letter (along with a fill-in-the-blanks template so that you can get the bones of your own query on paper.)
In the weeks ahead, you can look forward to:
getting/staying organized and developing a querying strategy
requests you may see from agents and email templates for responding
what to do if/when you get offered rep
Keep in mind that I’m approaching this from the context of traditional publishing. Standards and norms shared in this series are for authors pursuing the trad route, though there are indeed things any writer can learn from the posts. Also: it has been a long time since I personally queried agents and despite my best efforts to confirm that everything in this series remains accurate, some best practices/standards may have shifted in ways I’m unaware of. When it doubt, research/double-check as needed.
Okay! Let’s kick off Part 1…
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What is a query letter?
I know most of you probably know this, but for the sake of clarity, let’s define things. In simple terms, a query letter is a sales tool. The sole goal of the letter, sent digitally1, is to entice a literary agent to request to read an author’s full manuscript.
A good query letter will:
Introduce the author
Pitch the story (via premise + hook)
Include the author’s contact info
Agents receive dozens if not hundreds of queries a week. The best way to stand out is to craft a polished, succinct, and gripping query.
When an agent reads a query that intrigues them, they will request additional pages to read. This request will either be for the “full” (the complete manuscript) or a “partial” (a certain number of pages specified by the agent).
If an agent reads and loves your full manuscript and wants to work with you, they will offer literary representation. Translation: the agent offers to represent your work—this story and future stories that you may write.
An offer of rep is just that: an offer. You would need to formally accept the offer (and then sign a contract) to officially become the agent’s client. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Do you have to write a query letter?
If you want to be traditionally published, yes. Editors working at publishing houses will rarely consider unsolicited manuscripts. Instead, they consider projects that come to them from a reputable “middle man,” an agent who has vetted the manuscript first and believes the work to be both marketable, sellable, and of great quality. In short, a literary agent can get your work in front of most editors; you’ll hit lots of walls without one.
The most surefire way to connect with an agent is to query them. There are rare exceptions where an agent may reach out to an author (because they saw fiction by said author online or they connected with the author at a conference). But even in these instances, the agent will often still invite the author to query. Please query me when you have your novel ready!
Queries are an industry standard within trad pub, and you will likely have to write one.
If the thought scares you, think of the query as an exercise in learning more about your novel. Writing a query forces you to boil your novel down to its premise and hook. It’s essentially like writing jacket copy. What is your story about and why should the reader care?
Writing the query will help you down the road, too, I promise. Your agent will likely use your query as their starting place when writing their own pitches to share with editors. If the novel sells to a publisher, your editor may later use that same pitch to develop jacket copy and other promotional materials.
The Dos and Don’ts
The more succinct, polished, and professional you are, the better your chances are of catching an agent’s attention. (Remember, they receive hundreds of queries a week!)
Let your writing speak for itself and keep in mind that the following rules/best practices exist for a reason:
DO personalize the query.
Let the agent know why you are querying them. E.g.: the genre(s) they represent, a referral from an existing client, a comment the agent made on social media that led you to believe your work is a perfect fit for their list, etc.
DO keep the query around 250-350 words.
Be short, sweet, and to the point. 400 words should be your max.
DO be professional and succinct.
Even though 99% of agents accept digital-only queries, this is still a business letter. Format and write it as such.
DO include your bio and relevant references.
If you’ve won any major literary awards or belong to any writing organizations, say so. (If you don’t have any relevant references, don’t worry. Simply sign off with your contact info.2)
DO mention your novel’s genre, and word count.
If applicable, include comp titles.
DO put your title in all caps.
This helps the title stand out without being italicized or bolded, and translates across all email platforms.
DO polish the heck out of the query.
Every word should be necessary and purposeful.
DO proofread the query carefully.
Pro-tip: Read the query out loud to help catch more typos.
DO follow the agent’s querying guidelines exactly.
Most agents list their guidelines on their personal website and/or their agency’s website. Guidelines will vary between agents, so take note!
Avoid telling the agent how great your book is or insist they have to read it. A good query will speak for itself.
DON’T open with hypothetical questions, use first person narration, or experiment with unique approaches.
The query is a tool and it has a format/template for a reason. The agent wants to know, as quickly as possible, who the story is about, what the protagonist wants, and what they have to lose if they fail to succeed. Premise + hook, written in third person. Simple as that!
DON’T spell out the ending.
A synopsis includes the ending, but a query is only the premise and hook. If you need inspiration, read the flap copy of your favorite books.
DON’T query more than one project at a time.
Start with only one book. If an agent passes, you can then query them with a different project.
DON’T submit to multiple agents within the same agency at once.
Example: If Agent #1 at a literary agency passes on your query, you can then query Agent #2 at the same agency.
The only exception to this rule is if the agency has a “no from one of us means no from all of us” policy, in which case a pass from Agent #1 means all agents at this agency are now off the table for this book. Again, check guidelines!
DON’T GIVE UP!
Every published writer has been rejected. Every last one. It only takes one yes, so be persistent!
The query template
There are a few different ways you can go about structuring a query, but the following format is a fantastic starting point and, in my opinion, fairly foolproof:
personalization/intro → premise + hook → summary
The “premise and hook” section will make up the meat of your query, accounting for about 75% of your letter. The personalization section doesn’t need to be more than one sentence and the summary is usually 1-2 sentences long.
Here’s a fill-in-the-blank-template:
I thought you might enjoy my [genre] novel, [TITLE], because [personalized tidbit].
In [setting], [protagonist’s name] is [description of hero and/or how they spend their days]. But when [inciting incident], [protagonist] must [protagonist’s quest] and [verb] [antagonist/villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal] before [stakes].
Complete at [word count], [TITLE] will appeal to readers of [comp titles]. [Author credentials, if applicable.]
Thank you for your time and consideration,
This template is adapted from Nathan Bransford’s template, which I consider to be one of the best fill-in-the-blank queries out there.
Keep in mind, however, that this is simply a starting place to get the bones of your query on paper. You’ll need to tweak and finesse it so it doesn’t sound so bland and formulaic. Aim to have your voice shine through and for the copy to read smoothly, and remember that the meat of the letter (the second paragraph) will likely be longer than template’s two sentences.
You will probably need several rounds of revision before your letter is query-ready.
A note on personalizations:
You don’t have to include one, but it can help you stand out. A personalization also shows the agent that you’ve done your research—you know the agent’s preferences and the types of stories they represent.
The personalization doesn’t have to be long or detailed. A simple sentence will do. Here are some examples:
I saw on Twitter that you’re looking for stories that blend genres in unexpected ways.
We met at [event] and you encouraged me to query you when my manuscript was ready.
I read in an interview that you’re a fan of unreliable narrators.
I’m reaching out to you today based on your representation of heartwarming contemporary MG.
A note on comp titles:
A comparative (“comp”) title is a reference to another work that is similar to yours. A good comp will immediately communicate what is at the heart of your story, quickly telling an agent what your novel is about, where it fits in the market, and who your ideal reader is.
You’ll want to pick successful, well-known titles to comp (typically from recently published fiction, but recent film, TV, and other story mediums can also work). At the same time, you want to avoid sounding too pompous. Pitching your book as the next Lord of the Rings or Twilight may make you sound arrogant.
You can simply list out the comp titles, saying something like “This story is Alien meets The Thing,” which were my comps for my novel Contagion. Or you can include more specific descriptions, saying something like “My sci-fi novel has the comical, hilarious voice of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy,” or “This will appeal to readers who enjoy thrilling space operas like James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes.”
A query example
Here’s my query for Taken (then titled The Laicos Project), which landed me my agent in 2011. Please note there are a few slight Taken spoilers ahead.
Dear Sara Crowe,
Happy New Year! I read on your Publishers Marketplace profile that you are seeking strong, original new voices, and given your representation of a variety of YA subgenres, I thought you might enjoy my YA science fiction thriller THE LAICOS PROJECT.
Gray Weathersby is counting down the days until his eighteenth birthday with dread, for in the primitive and isolated town of Claysoot, a boy’s eighteenth is marked not by celebration, but by his disappearance. When his older brother meets this mysterious fate, vanishing in the phenomenon the villagers have come to call the Heist, Gray begins to question everything about the place he’s called home. It all feels wrong: The Wall that no one can cross without dying, the Council leaders and their secrets, the nature of the Heist itself.
Desperate for answers, Gray climbs the Wall. But Emma follows him. Emma, who Gray has admired since the day he first stole a wooden toy from her hands as a child. The two are surprised to find a modern city beyond their Wall, not to mention the Franconian Order—a mysterious group of black-suited soldiers that hold the two hostage and then call for Gray’s execution. Running for his life, Gray takes to the forests. These woods are rumored to hold hostile Rebels amongst their trees, violent civilians banding together in opposition of the Order. But the Rebels also have answers. Answers Gray has long searched for, and answers he may soon wish he never unearthed.
THE LAICOS PROJECT tells the tale of a boy caught in events far greater than himself, as in Philip Reeve’s MORTAL ENGINES, and I believe it will appeal to readers who enjoyed the fast-paced and mysterious elements of James Dashner’s THE MAZE RUNNER. Complete at 83,000 words, THE LAICOS PROJECT is the first in a trilogy, although it also works as a stand-alone.
Thank you, in advance, for your time and consideration.
[contact info redacted]
This comes in at 325 words total and looking back on it now, I think it could be streamlined further. But even in this state, you can see that my query follows the basic intro » premise + hook » summary format.
If you’d like to read additional examples of successful queries, complete with agent commentary, check out this roundup from Writer’s Digest. You’ll quickly notice that some writers skip the intro/personalization and jump right into the meat of the query. Others include summary info (such as word count) in the opening paragraph instead of the closing. This clearly works and if that approach feels right for you, feel free to do the same.
The template I share in this post is merely a starting point, a way to make sure you get all the necessary info written down. The only thing you absolutely must have somewhere in a query is the pitch itself (the premise and hook), relevant book info (title, word count, genre), and your contact info.
Phew! That’s all I’ve got for query letter basics. I hope this was helpful. (If you have questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.)
Up next is Part 2: Actively querying, which will drop in the coming weeks.
Queries used to be sent exclusively by snail mail, then by a blend of both, and now the norm is firmly in the digital space.
Truly, do not worry if you don’t have any relevant credentials. I sure didn’t! (I was a full time web designer when I queried, with nothing writing-related on my resume.) These credentials aren’t a prerequisite to catch an agent’s eye. They are nice-to-haves but in no way necessary.