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Query Letters: What Are They and How Do I Write One?

Updated: Jun 12

A female sits with a pen and a blank page wondering what to write in her query letter to a publisher or agent.

I previously wrote about querying with literary agents in my blog post 'Should I Query With a Literary Agent?' and how you'd need an impressive query letter to send along with your edited 10,000-word sample.

But what exactly is a query letter and how do you write one?

I'm glad you asked. Let's take a look, shall we?

What is a query letter?

This is the letter (well, usually an email these days) that you send to a literary agent along with your edited sample to entice them into seeing your full manuscript.

It typically comes in at between 250 to 350 words (or one page) and offers a sneak peek into your story.

However, regardless of how exceptional your manuscript may be, if your query letter doesn't cut the mustard, it's unlikely a literary agent will look into you or your book any further.

What makes for a great query letter?

  • The Hook

Ideally, you'll want to provide adequate information while conveying enough intrigue about what could arise in the story, leaving that sense of mystery for the agent to want to know more.

It's been said that if you can't sum your story up in 25 words, your hook is too long and needs to be more focused. It doesn't need to be anything fancy at this point, just the bare bones in one or two sentences to give you something to work from.

Once you have your plotline rendered down into its most basic form, you can then look at word choices that effectively convey the right tone and feeling.

For example, if your book is dark and malevolent, try to spark a tone in your letter that evokes a corresponding feeling for your agent to get a feel for the manuscript before they've even looked at it.

  • The Synopsis

This is where you introduce your book and build upon the hook you wrote.

You'll probably want to start by setting up the story, including things like who your protagonist is, what situation they find themselves in and why it's important your book started at that particular point.

Then you'll want to explain what has spurred them to take action. It's likely to be what happens in the opening chapters of your book, which is essential considering the sample you send will always be from the very beginning of your book.

If you lead with a bunch of stuff that doesn't happen until much later in the book, your agent's expectations won't be met in the sample they read.

Then, without giving too much away, you'll drop hints as to what them taking action will bring to their life and the stakes at play. It's at this point where your agent should be gripped enough that they're dying to know what happens next.

  • The Author Bio and Closing Section

This is where you'll reveal the title, genre and word count along with some information about yourself.

The agent doesn't need to know too much about you at this point, so only include information that is relevant to the story (e.g. you're a retired detective and your protagonist is too).

It's perfectly acceptable to say it's your debut novel. Literary agents expect new novelists to be contacting them, so don't be embarrassed by this admission.

If you've written any previously published material either online or in print, such as in magazines, or won any awards, this is the time to give them a mention. You don't need to list them all, your prospective agent hasn't got time for that, just pick three of the most recognisable and let them know you have more.

  • Make sure it's personalised

Now, if you read my previous post, you'll know you should have done your research on who to query with by looking at the profiles and interests of an agent.

You'll want to make the literary agent believe you've chosen them specifically because of the information you garnered while researching them.

Dropping breadcrumbs of information that directly link to things you've read and/or know about an agent will help them to feel more invested in your manuscript.

Key points to remember when personalising your query letter: make sure you're following the submission guidelines, you spell the agent's name correctly and you have read their profile.

What happens once I've written my letter?

Now, you start sending it out.

It can be tricky keeping track if you send out too many at once, so it's advisable to submit in batches of around ten agents. You'll also want to bear in mind that some agencies might have restrictions on how many agents you can query with at any one time or ever.

Be prepared for rejection. Lots of it. But keep your head high and try again.

Agents can take around six weeks to reply, if at all, so be sure to leave enough time for them to review your manuscript before you do any chasing.

Be polite when you do send your follow-up email. There may be a small chance it was accidentally deleted, went to junk or got lost among the many other emails they have to deal with.

If you still don't get a reply, it's time to cross them off the list and move on.

Post takeaways

Querying with an agent requires a thick skin and perseverance, but a gripping query letter can make all the difference in whether they say 'yay!' or 'nay'.

If you're thinking of querying with an agent and need your first 10,000 words polished to impress, then why not contact me for a 10,000-word agent teaser?

Inspiration and information for this post were garnered from Reedsy.

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