TODAY I offer you a valuable guest post from Jane Friedman (www.janefriedman.com). Jane has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors. In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, “How to Publish Your Book.” She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018). Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund.
The Complete Guide to Query Letters
The stand-alone query letter has one purpose, and one purpose only: to seduce the agent or editor into reading or requesting your work. The query letter is so much of a sales piece that you should be able to write it without having written a single word of the manuscript. For some writers, it represents a completely different way of thinking about your book. It means thinking about your work as a product. And it helps to have some distance from your work to see its salable qualities.
This post focuses on query letters for novels, although much the same advice applies for memoirists as well; nonfiction book queries are addressed here. Before you query, novelists should have a finished and polished manuscript before they begin querying. Even though I repeat this recommendation again and again, numerous writers ask if they’re the exception. “But what if I’m two-thirds of the way done?” Or, “What if the manuscript is currently being copyedited and it’s almost finished?” Well, sure, you can query if you want. But what will you do if the agent/editor immediately asks for a partial or full manuscript, and you don’t have it? You may end up rushing your writing or editing process (undesirable to say the least), or admitting to the agent/editor that it will take you X weeks or months to follow up, which makes you look foolish. To avoid creating a high-pressure or awkward situation, I recommend you wait until you feel the manuscript is totally done—the best you can make it. That doesn’t mean you have to hire freelance editors or copyeditors or proofreaders, but it does mean fixing or revising anything you know needs attention.
5 basic elements of every query letter
I recommend that every query letter include these five elements, in no particular order (except the closing):
- Personalization: where you customize the letter for the recipient
- What you’re selling: genre/category, word count, title/subtitle
- Hook: the meat of the query; 100-200 words is sufficient for most novels
- Bio: optional for unpublished fiction writers
- Thank you and closing
This post elaborates on each of those elements, so keep reading.
How to open your query letter
You should put your best foot forward, or lead with your strongest selling point. Here are the most common ways to begin a query:
Maybe you’ve been vouched for or referred by an existing client or author; mention the referral right away. If you met the agent/editor at a conference or pitch event, and your material was requested, then put that upfront. When you’ve heard the agent/editor speak at a conference, or you read an interview or post that indicates they’re a good fit for your work, mention it. Starting with your story hook is a classic opening, but of course the hook should be compelling (more on this later). Published or credentialed writers may mention their track record, especially if they’ve won awards or received an MFA from a well-known school. However, very few fiction writers begin their query by talking about themselves because most are unpublished. (This isn’t a problem, though.) Many writers don’t have referrals or conference meetings to fall back on, so the hook becomes the lead for the query letter. Some writers start simple and direct, which is fine: “My [title] is an 80,000-word supernatural romance.”
Personalizing the query letter
Remember, your query is a sales tool, and good salespeople develop a rapport with the people they want to sell to, and show that they understand their needs. Show that you’ve done your homework, show that you care, and show that you’re not blasting indiscriminately. However, you will not be rejected if you don’t personalize your query. Still, I think it can set you apart from the large majority of writers querying—if it’s done meaningfully, and that’s the point.
Here’s an example of a strong, personalized lead. “In a January interview at the Guide to Literary Agents blog, you praised The Thirteenth Tale and indicated an interest in “literary fiction with a genre plot.” My paranormal romance Moonlight Dancer (85,000 words) blends a literary style with the romance tradition.”
If you personalize the query by saying, “I found you in Writer’s Market,” and you add nothing else, that’s not a meaningful context. You need to go further than that, and say something that can’t be added to practically every query letter you send.
Identify what you’re selling
Your book’s title, word count, and genre are generally stated upfront, although you can wait until the end of the query to spell out this information.
Everyone knows your book title is tentative, so you don’t have to explicitly state the title is tentative.
If your novel’s word count is much higher than 100,000 words, you have a bigger challenge ahead of you. Eighty thousand words is the industry standard for a debut novel. If you have an off-putting word count, some agents recommend withholding this fact until the end of the letter, once you’ve potentially hooked them.
If you’re unsure of your genre, you can leave out any mention of it; however, in such a case, I recommend drawing a comparison between your book and another (hopefully recent) title. You can say that your book is written in the same manner or style as another specific book or author, or that it has a similar tone or theme. Just be careful of overdoing it. One or two comparisons should be more than enough, and the more thoughtful the comparison, the better. Comparing yourself to a current New York Times bestselling author can come across as arrogant or too easy; it’s better to demonstrate a nuanced understanding of where your book falls in the literary landscape.
3 elements of the story hook
For most writers, the hook does all of the work in convincing the agent/editor to request your manuscript. You need to boil down your story to these three key elements: > Protagonist + his conflict > The choices the protagonist has to make (or the stakes) > The sizzle Or, you can think of the hook in terms of: what does your character want, why does she want it, what keeps her from getting it? Some genres/categories should also be sure to clarify the setting or time period. The “sizzle” is that thing that sets your work apart from all others in your genre, that makes your story stand out, that makes it uniquely yours.
This idea isn’t tired or been done a million times before. How do you know if your idea is tired? Well, this is why everyone tells writers to read and read and read. It builds your knowledge and experience of what’s been done before in your genre, as well as the conventions. When a hook is well written but boring, it’s often because it lacks anything fresh. It’s the same old formula without distinction. The protagonist feels one-dimensional (or like every other protagonist), the story angle is something we’ve seen too many times, and the premise doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. The agent or editor is thinking, “Sigh. Another one of these?” This is the toughest part of the hook—finding that special je ne sais quoi that makes someone say, “Wow, I’ve got to see more of this!” And this is often how an editor or agent gauges if you’re a storyteller worth spending time on. Sometimes great hooks can be botched because there is no life, voice, or personality in them. Sometimes so-so hooks can be taken to the next level because they convey a liveliness or personality that is seductive. I have heard an eternity of pitches featuring women as victims, survivors, single mothers, etc. If someone pitches me a story about a 43-year-old unmarried woman who has had a successful career in advertising or law or pharmaceuticals or whatever, and decides at the last minute that her biological clock’s ticking and she wants to have a child … I will wait for the writer to tell me the rest of the story. And there is no rest of the story, because in their mind, that is their story. To which I say, “Who cares?” Seriously, who will care about that storyline? No one. We have seen numerous stories about women wanting to have children later in life. I could produce a list at least two pages long consisting of books and movies with this plot line. However, if one of the main characters is a 43-year-old single businesswoman having her first child and, at the same time, her 22-year-old niece is also having her first child—because the niece does not see the benefit of having a career and only wants to be supported by a rich husband—I suddenly see some conflict here.
Whenever I teach a class where we critique hooks, just about everyone can point out the hook’s problems and talk about how to improve them. Why? Because when you’re not the writer, you have distance from the work. When you do come across a great novel hook, it feels so natural and easy—like it was effortless to write.
Examples of brief story hooks
Every day, Publishers Marketplace lists book deals that were recently signed at major New York houses. It identifies the title, the author, the publisher/editor who bought the project, and the agent who sold it. It also offers a one-sentence description of the book. These hooks are inevitably well-crafted, and can help you better understand what hooks really excite agents/publishers. While your hook would/should probably get into more detail than the following two examples, these hooks help illustrate how much you can accomplish in just a line or two.
Bridget Boland’s DOULA, an emotionally controversial novel about a doula with a sixth sense [protagonist] who, while following her calling, has to confront a dark and uncertain future when standing trial for the death of her best friend’s baby [protagonist’s problem] (a doula with a sixth sense? cool.) John
Hornor Jacobs’s SOUTHERN GODS, in which a Memphis DJ [protagonist] hires a recent World War II veteran to find a mysterious bluesman whose music [protagonist’s problem] — broadcast at ever-shifting frequencies by a phantom radio station — is said to make living men insane and dead men rise [twist]. Check for red flags in your hook.
How to tell if your hook could be improved
• Does your hook consist of several meaty paragraphs, or run longer than 200 words? You may be going into too much detail.
• Does your hook reveal the ending of your book? Only the synopsis should do that.
• Does your hook mention more than three or four characters? Usually you only need to mention the protagonist(s), a romantic interest or sidekick, and the antagonist.
• Does your hook get into minor plot points that don’t affect the choices the protagonist makes? Do you really need to mention them?
Writing about your background (your bio note)
For novelists, especially unpublished ones, you don’t have to include a bio in your query if you can’t think of anything worth sharing. But it’s nice to put in something. The key to every detail in your bio is: Will it be meaningful—or perhaps charming—to the agent/editor? If you can’t confidently answer yes, leave it out. In order of importance, these are the categories of pertinent info:
Fiction writing credits. Be specific about your credits for this to be meaningful. Don’t say you’ve been published “in a variety of journals.” You might as well be unpublished if you don’t want to name them. If you have no fiction writing credits, you don’t need to state that you’re unpublished. That point will be made clear by the fact of omission.
Nonfiction writing credits. Many novelists wonder if it’s helpful to list nonfiction credits. Yes, mention notable credits when they show you have some experience working with editors or understanding how the professional writing world works. That said: Academic or trade journal credits can be tricky, since they definitely don’t convey fiction writing ability. Use your discretion, but it’s probably not going to be deal breaker either way. I’d leave out credits like your church newsletter or credits that hold little to no significance for the publishing industry professionals.
Self-published books. Sooner or later this information will have to come out, so it’s usually just a matter of timing. Lots of people have done it, and past self-publishing doesn’t really hurt your chances with a new, fresh project. However, if you’re trying to get an agent or publisher for a book or series that’s already been self-published, my advice is to not bother trying. If your self-published book was successful enough for a traditional publishing deal, you probably would’ve had agents or publishers already knocking on your door. Do not make the mistake of thinking your self-publishing credits make you somehow more desirable as an author, unless you have really incredible sales success, in which case, mention the sales numbers of your book and how long it’s been on sale.
Your profession. If your career lends you credibility to write a better story, by all means mention it. But don’t go into lengthy detail. Teachers of K-12 who are writing children’s/YA often mention their teaching experience as some kind of credential for writing children’s/YA, but it’s not, so don’t treat it like one in the bio. (Perhaps it goes without saying, but parents should not treat their parent status as a credential to write for children either.)
Writing cred. It makes sense to mention any writing-related degrees you have, any major professional writing organizations you belong to (e.g., RWA, MWA, SCBWI), and possibly any major events/retreats/workshops you’ve attended to help you develop your career as a writer. You needn’t say that you frequent such-and-such online community, or that you belong to a writers’ group the agent would’ve never heard of. (Mentioning this won’t necessarily hurt you, but it’s not proving anything either.)
Special research. If your book is the product of some intriguing or unusual research (you spent a year in the Congo), mention it. These unique details can catch the attention of an editor or agent.
Major awards/competitions. Most writers should not mention awards or competitions they’ve won because they are too small to matter. If the award isn’t widely recognizable to the majority of publishing professionals, then the only way to convey the significance of an award is to talk about how many people you beat out. Usually the entry number needs to be in the thousands to impress an agent/editor. If you have no meaningful publication credits, don’t try to invent any. If you have no professional credentials, no research to mention, no awards to your name—nothing notable at all to share—don’t add a weak line or two in an attempt to make up for it. Just end the letter. You’re still completely respectable. On the other end of the spectrum: avoid cataloguing every single thing you’ve ever done in your writing life. Don’t talk about starting to write when you were in second grade. Don’t talk about how much you’ve improved your writing in the last few years. Don’t talk about how much you enjoy returning to writing in your retirement. Just mention a few highlights that prove your seriousness and devotion to the craft of writing. If unsure, leave it out. If your bio can reveal something of your voice or personality, all the better. While the query isn’t the place to digress or mention irrelevant info, there’s something to be said for expressing something about yourself that gives insight into the kind of author you are—that ineffable you. Charm helps.
Novel queries don’t have to address market concerns Don’t be tempted to elaborate on the audience or market for your novel. This is often misunderstood since nonfiction writers do have to talk about market concerns. However, when it comes to selling fiction, you don’t talk about the trends in the market, or about the target audience. You sell the story.
Also, novelists don’t need to discuss their marketing plan or platform. Sometimes you might mention your website or blog, especially if you feel confident about its presentation. The truth is the agent/editor is going to Google you anyway, and find your website/blog whether you mention it or not (unless you’re writing under a different name). Keep in mind that having an online presence helps show you’ll likely be a good marketer and promoter of your work—especially if you have a sizable readership already—but it doesn’t say anything about your ability to write a great story. That said, if you have 100,000+ fans/readers on Wattpad or at your blog, that should be in your query letter.
Close your letter professionally
You don’t read much advice about how to close a query letter, perhaps because there’s not much to it, right? You say thanks and sign your name. But here’s how to leave a good final impression. You don’t have to state that you are simultaneously querying. Everyone assumes this. (I do not recommend exclusive queries; send queries out in batches of three to five—or more, if you’re confident in your query quality.) If your manuscript is under consideration at another agency, then mention it if/when the next agent requests to see your manuscript. If you have a series in mind, this is a good time to mention it. But don’t belabor the point; it should take a sentence.
Resist the temptation to editorialize. This is where you proclaim how much the agent will love the work, or how exciting it is, or how it’s going to be a bestseller if only someone would give it a chance, or how much your kids enjoy it, or how much the world needs this work. Basically, avoid directly commenting on the quality of your work (whether to flatter yourself or criticize yourself). Your query should show what a good writer you are, rather than you telling or emphasizing what a good writer you are.
Thank the agent, but don’t carry on unnecessarily, or be incredibly subservient—or beg. (“I know you’re very busy and I would be forever indebted and grateful if you would just look at a few pages.”) There’s no need to go into great detail about when and how you’re available. At the bottom of your letter, include your email address and phone number. Do not introduce the idea of an in-person meeting. Do not say you’ll be visiting their city soon, and ask if they’d like to meet for coffee. The only possible exception to this is if you know you’ll hear them speak at an upcoming conference—but don’t ask for a meeting. Just say you look forward to hearing them speak. Use the conference’s official channels to set up an appointment if any are available.
Appropriate query length
In its entirety, the query shouldn’t run more than 1 page, single spaced, if printed, or somewhere around 200 to 400 words. I recommend brevity, especially if you lack confidence. Brevity gets you in less trouble. The more you try to explain, the more you’ll squeeze the life out of your story. So: Get in, get out.
The following stuff doesn’t belong in the query:
• Your many years of effort and dedication
• How much your family and friends love your work
• How many times you’ve been rejected or close accepts
• How much money you’ve invested in editors or editing
• Such-and-such well-known person has read your work and/or offered advice on it. Perhaps it’s boosted your ego or confidence that some VIP has read your work or offered a critique. But agents/editors will make up their own mind, and if your VIP really believed in your work, why aren’t they offering you a referral to their agent or editor?
Special advice on email queries
Email queries tend to get read and rejected more quickly than snail mail queries; with that in mind, you may want to create two separate versions of your query letter, one for email and another for printing. Here’s a formatting process I recommend:
• Write your query in Word or TextEdit. Strip out all formatting. (Usually there is an option under “Save As” that will allow you to save as simple text.)
• Send the query without any formatting and without any indents (block style).
• Use CAPS for anything that would normally be in italics.
• Don’t use address, date headers, or contact information at the beginning of the e-mail; put all of that stuff at the bottom, underneath your name.
• The first line should read: “Dear [Agent Name]:”
Some writers structure their e-queries differently from paper queries—they make them shorter or add more paragraph breaks. Consider how much the agent can see of your e-query on the first screen, without scrolling. That’s probably how far they will read before responding or hitting delete. Adjust your query accordingly. Usually the hook should go first, unless you have a strong personalization angle. If you have an e-mail address for an editor/agent who doesn’t accept e-mail queries, you can try sending your query on a hope and a prayer, but you probably won’t receive a response. In fact, I’ve heard many writers complain that they never receive a response from email queries. (Sometimes silence is the new rejection.) This is a phenomenon that must be regrettably accepted. Send one follow-up to inquire, but don’t keep sending e-mails to ascertain if your e-query was received.
You’ve sent your query—now what? If you don’t hear back, follow up after the stated response time using the same method as the original query. If no response time is given, wait about 1 month. If querying via snail mail, include another copy of the query. If you still don’t hear back after one follow-up attempt, assume it’s a rejection, and move on. Do not phone or visit. If an agent asks for an exclusive read on your manuscript, that means no one else can read the manuscript while they’re considering it. I don’t recommend granting an exclusive unless it’s for a very short period (maybe 2 weeks). In non-exclusive situations (which should be most situations): If you have a second request for the manuscript before you hear back from the first agent, then as a courtesy, let the second agent know it’s also under consideration elsewhere (though you needn’t say with whom). If the second agent offers you representation first, go back to the first agent and let her know you’ve been made an offer, and give her a chance to respond.
Additional resources on query letters: QueryShark, run by an agent who critiques queries. AgentQuery: a database of agents, plus a community that can help critique your letter.