Today we are talking about writing a query letter, which is the first step to getting a literary agent, who will then sell your book to an editor, beginning the wondrous path to your book’s publication! Writing a query letter is much like writing a great cover letter for a coveted job. There’s a formula, and if you don’t stray far from it, you are likely to succeed — which, in the case of querying, means standing out from the rest of the query submissions and receiving a request from an agent for either half or your full manuscript.
Since query letters are comprised of only four or five paragraphs, it’s easy to break them down. First of all, query letters are 99% of the time emails (I didn’t send a single mailed query). Your first paragraph should consist of an introduction to your book, why you are querying this particular agent (it helps to know what’s on their manuscript wish list or to know what books they’ve worked on in the past), and other books that are comparable to your project. It should read something like this:
Hi [Agent’s Name] — I’m reaching out because like many of the books you’ve worked on, my novel [NAME OF NOVEL IN CAPS followed by (# of words)] is an outer-space thriller that tells the story of two highly trained galaxy defenders in pursuit of an extraterrestrial cockroach who threatens to destroy Earth and beyond. Set in New York City in the 90’s, [NAME OF NOVEL IN CAPS] will appeal to readers who enjoy [book in similar genre/subject] as well as [additional book in similar genre/subject].
Then, you should lead into two or three paragraphs about what the novel is about. You want to keep this description relatively short, and you want to get at the heart of the story fairly quickly. Start by making clear who the protagonist is. End once you’ve reached what sounds like the beginning of the adventure. Your description should make your reader want to hear more. Your goal is to leave off at the exact part that makes them think, ohh, how intriguing! For example:
Every day, a young and courageous cop named James shows up to work at the New York City Police Department, where he is overlooked and under-appreciated, despite his impeccable crime-fighting skills. While the rest of the team sits around eating donuts, James traverses the city, scaling walls and cracking jokes, always catching the bad guys. One day, one of his pursuits leads him to the top of the Guggenheim museum, delivering a very strange prophecy before leaping to his death.
Back at the station, James relays the bizarre encounter– the man had not one, but two sets of eyelids that moved like the gills of a fish — a description that’s met with riotous laughter from his coworkers. But what James doesn’t know is that he won’t need the NYPD for much longer. Someone else has heard of his story–and they believe every word he says.
So begins James’ initiation into the secret agency known as the Men in Black, where everything he thought he knew about the world is turned upside down, and where courage takes on an entirely new meaning when it’s not just a city, but a whole galaxy that needs defending.
After you’ve written a completely irresistable description of your book, you are now ready for the next part of your query letter, which consists of your “thank you,” your brief writerly bio, an offer to send along your full manuscript, and the first pages of your book pasted into the email. Now, this is important — every agent will specify the number of pages they want pasted directly into a query letter — for example, one agent might say to paste the first five pages under your letter while others might ask you to paste the first twenty. Rarely do agents want an attachment until they request a manuscript, and I assume this is because everyone is a little wary of spam. In any case, you can usually find explicit instructions about what an agent wants on an their agency website. But if you can’t find instructions anywhere, I’d say to NOT attach a word doc of any number of pages until you get a request and that a good number of pages to paste under your initial query letter is the first 10. So again, here’s what you’ll want to end your query letter with — a thanks, a bio, and pasted pages:
Thank you for your time and consideration, and I’m happy to be able to share my work with you. I’ve included a brief bio below as well as the first ten pages. I would gladly send you the full manuscript in a Word document upon request.
Future Space Cowboy Author
[followed by pasted 3-4 sentence bio and opening pages, double-spaced]
And that’s it! Once you have your query letter ready, make sure you keep track of who you’re sending to. It can take months for an agent to respond, so you’ll want to know for your own sake who you’ve reached out to and who you haven’t yet. While many agents sadly will not respond unless they’re interested, others will have meaningful advice, even if they end up passing. And who knows–you might even get a request! Once that happens, you know you’re making progress!
And if you have any questions, feel free to email me.
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