This is not a recipe blog. Or is it?
Okay, maybe it is, because today I’m sharing my recipe for cooking up the publishing equivalent of a soufflé: the much-dreaded query letter.
Most authors hate writing them, but query letters are a prerequisite for fiction submissions to most agents and editors. A good one will make you stand out to even the most jaded slush reader. A bad one could fall flat, deflating a book’s chances before an agent even gets to the sample pages. Any way you slice it, it’s a high-stakes document that has to do a lot of work in a small amount of space.
Query letter writing is a separate skill from fiction writing. It has vastly different conventions and limitations. As I have been reviewing quite a few of these lately through giveaways and donation drives on Twitter, I wanted to share some general tips on what makes an effective query letter, along with some common issues I’ve noticed.
A query letter is a sales pitch.
When approaching a query letter, it’s important to remember its purpose. A query letter should provide selling points to an agent or editor. It should answer basic questions about the book it describes with clarity and succinctness.
A query letter does not have to summarize the entire plot of the manuscript. That’s what a synopsis is for. It doesn’t have to include every character or plot twist. It requires a ruthless and clear-eyed assessment of the marketable elements of the story it represents, while still accurately and adequately conveying its essence.
As any author who has attempted to boil down their complex, nuanced novel-length work into a few paragraphs can attest, it’s anything but simple. It’s a hard skill to master and deeper than it appears. And although most writers hate the idea of selling their work, the art of the pitch will only benefit those who seek a career as a published author.
Let’s break down the basics.
Though the query letter is a sales pitch, it’s not an advertisement. Special fonts, graphics, tricks, or gimmicks will not improve a query’s chance of success, so stick to the basics: Times New Roman, 12-point font, single spaced, with a line break between paragraphs. There’s also no need to include an introduction like “I am writing to seek representation for my manuscript,” because the purpose of a query letter is obvious to the recipient. (Including this won’t hurt your chances, it just doesn’t help either! It’s semantically meaningless.)
Likewise, the salutation and sign-off can be simple. “Dear [Agent Name]” is a perfectly fine salutation. Make sure you use the agent’s preferred title, and don’t use Ms./Mrs./Mr. if you aren’t sure.
“Sincerely, [author name]” is all you need as a sign-off. Even if you intend to use a pen name, most guidance will tell you to sign the query with your legal name. You can add “writing as [pen name]” to it if you wish. ETA: Nothing bad will happen if you don’t sign with your legal name! It is a business document, though, and you will need to use your legal name on any contract, so keep that in mind.
A standard query letter consists of four to five paragraphs and should fit on a single typed page. One of these paragraphs should include the book’s metadata (explained below) and ideally a sentence of personalization for the agent. One paragraph should provide a brief biography of the author, including any publishing credits or relevant experience. That leaves two to three paragraphs for the pitch itself, the heart of the query letter.
The order of these paragraphs can vary. When I queried, I placed my metadata, comps, and personalization first, then went into my pitch, then closed with my bio. If you have significant writing credits or a referral, you may wish to start with that. Jane Friedman’s post on this topic has some good thoughts on different ways to open a query letter.
Metadata: just the facts, please.
In the context of a query, metadata means the basic information about a manuscript: the book’s title, word count, audience category, genre, and two comps, or “comparable” titles. If you think your book could become a series, describe it as “a standalone with series potential.” You can include additional descriptive info with your genre if you think it’s relevant, like “multi/dual-POV,” but don’t go overboard.
Here is an example script for conveying metadata:
[NOVEL TITLE] is a/n [adult/young adult/middle grade] [genre and/or subgenre], complete at [word count to the nearest thousand] words. It will appeal to readers who enjoyed [Comp Title #1] and fans of [Comp Title #2].
Obviously, you can mix this up a bit, as long as you cover each data point in a straightforward manner. Round your word count to the nearest thousand and make sure the word count matches expected ranges for your genre and audience. Put your book title in all-caps. Put comp titles in italics with standard title case capitalization.
Let’s dig into the comp title part, because a lot of querying writers find comp selection particularly challenging. Comps are important, however, because they show agents that you are familiar with the current market and understand how your book might fit into that market. Here are some rules of thumb in choosing and using comp titles:
- Use at least one recent comp title in your target audience/genre, meaning one published no more than 2-5 years ago.
- It’s okay to use a comp that isn’t a book, like a movie, TV show, or video game, but at least one comp should be a novel, preferably your recent comp.
- Don’t use comps that are TOO popular or overused. This is an opportunity to stand out from the crowd.
- Comps don’t have to match your book’s plot exactly. They are a great way to convey a particular “vibe.”
- If selecting a comp for a specific element, manage expectations for your manuscript by briefly describing the reason you chose it, e.g.: “This manuscript will appeal to readers who loved the lush worldbuilding of [Comp #1] and fans of [Comp #2]’s ensemble heist comedy.”
- You only need TWO comps. Just trust me on this one.
Personalization: make them feel (a little bit) special.
Don’t agonize over personalization too much. It’s just an opportunity to demonstrate to the agent or editor that you perused their manuscript wish list or MSWL, their agency website, and/or their client list. I generally put my personalization in the same paragraph as my metadata, after my comp titles. Here is a simple script for personalization, adapted directly from my own query to my now-agent:
“Given your interest in [x, y, and/or z], I think [MY BOOK] could be a great fit for your list.”
Again, you can play around with it as you see fit, but it really doesn’t need to be more complex than this. It shows the recipient that you have chosen them for a specific reason and that you aren’t mass-mailing your query to every open inbox. Here are some other ways of personalizing:
- Naming a specific client or books they rep that inspired you to query them, as long as the other work isn’t too similar.
- If their wish list states “send me the next [Title/Author]” and your book might match up, say so!
- If there’s a professional connection, referral, or interaction with them that led you to query them, definitely mention it.
- “I was thrilled to see your tweet last week about seeking a cottagecore whodunit with a spooky ghost story, because I think my cozy mystery featuring a village sleuth who sees dead people might be a great fit!”
If the person you are querying does not have an MSWL, or their MSWL is vague, it can be tough to provide meaningful personalization. Don’t sweat it. You can even leave it out. Personalization probably won’t make or break your query chances unless you are creepy about it. DON’T BE CREEPY ABOUT IT.
Also, agents, if your MSWL says something like “I especially gravitate toward character-driven literary and commercial fiction across all genres,” a.) what the heck are you even thinking b.) why did you bother to publish an MSWL in the first place and c.) you deserve to have an overflowing query inbox full of vague, meaningless personalization.
Bio: something to remember you by.
Again, keep the bio simple. Don’t tell them your entire life story. Don’t tell them how many of your beta readers raved about your book. One or two sentences about yourself will suffice. If you can, this is a great time to showcase your personality and voice just a little, or share something about yourself that makes you stand out.
For one of my favorite examples of a great query bio, please see this masterpiece by romantic fantasy author Gabriella Buba, which is clever, concise, and captures the author’s brand precisely:
Your bio, like your personalization, will not make or break your query. If you have any published work or writing-related education, or if your day job is relevant, you can mention it here. Don’t worry if you don’t have any writing credits. Having them can be a small advantage, but not having them won’t hurt your chances of getting picked up, at least if you write fiction. (Non-fiction authors may need to have more of an existing audience.)
The pitch: stay succinct and specific.
The pitch is the most important part of your query. Everything I just talked about, the metadata, personalization, and bio, are necessary, but they’re not the five essential ingredients I promised above. They’re more like the container that holds the dish. The pitch is the substance of it, the meat of the query, and it must deliver the flavor that makes the story special, interesting, different, or relatable.
With such a small amount of space available, it’s crucial to chose every word in the query with care. Use specific, evocative, vivid language, use active voice and strong verbs wherever possible, and focus on the arc of one or two characters, even if the story has an ensemble cast.
Don’t get bogged down in the intricacies of a complex plot and don’t summarize the entire story. Some guidance says that the query should cover the events of the first third to half of the book. I’m not sure that’s a good hard and fast rule, but the query should certainly leave some questions unanswered and shouldn’t give away all the twists. Leave the audience wanting more.
So what are the five ingredients? The way I see it, a pitch should get across the most essential elements of the book: the main character(s), the “GMC” (i.e. the character’s goals, motivation, and a compelling conflict) and what’s at stake in the conflict. In other words, it should answer the first question on every slush reader’s mind, which is “Why should I care?”
That sounds a little harsh, but remember, most query readers must filter through hundreds of submission packages. They don’t know your characters, your book, or what’s special about them.
You have 250 words to make them care enough to want more, and the GMC is the special sauce.
1. Character: who are these people?
Limit the number of characters you mention in your query. Queries get crowded easily. A good guideline is to name no more than three: the main character, the antagonist, and an important secondary character, such as a love interest or second POV.
Keep the focus on your main character if possible. If you have two main characters, as with a romance, you may want to structure your pitch by discussing the goal and motivation of character A in the first paragraph, the goal and motivation of character B in the second, and how their stories come together and create conflict in the third.
When introducing important characters, include a brief description. This can be as short as a couple words, like an adjective and/or a descriptive noun. The description should quickly establish who the character is in a way that makes them interesting and memorable. Specific and unusual choices here will spark more interest than vague or generic descriptors.
2. Goal: What does the character want?
I think the goal is the easiest thing to get right when writing a query, because it’s typically central to the plot. “Goal” here means more or less what it says on the tin. It defines what the character wants or what they are trying to accomplish. Usually, the goal is an external objective that drives the story’s plot: the character wants to beat the bad guy, defeat the shadowy evil, find the MacGuffin, escape a terrible fate, win a competition, etc.
In my opinion, the goal, while crucial, is the least interesting element of the query. It’s like the flour in a béchamel sauce. You can’t make the sauce without it, but it’s not going to do anything special until you add the butter and cream.
The query letter must clearly convey what the character wants, but more than that, it must tell us why.
3. Motivation: Why does the character want it?
While reading query letters, I’ve found that this is the ingredient that gets shorted the most often. The goal is WHAT the character wants. But the motivation is WHY they want it. Motivation is where things get personal. This is where the character’s backstory, their emotional wounds, and their core beliefs come in.
Motivation can have an external aspect, for instance, they want to beat the bad guy in order to save the kingdom. However, the character must have an internal motivation as well to give them depth and dimension. It will drive the choices they make throughout the story and determine the course of their character arc.
Do they want to beat the bad guy to save the kingdom because they are an outcast who believes their heroism will win them the acceptance they crave? Or are they a mercenary born on the mean streets who will stop at nothing to secure the reward and retire in luxury? Or were they raised from birth to be the big damn hero and never got a choice to begin with? Those are three very different stories about three very different characters.
To put it another way, their internal motivation must be strong enough to drive them toward the story’s conflict rather than away from it. Most people, when confronted with a shadowy evil gnawing at the roots of their homeland, will ignore it or run the other way and let someone else deal with it. The main character, however, is that someone else. They have to have a strong enough motivation to deal with the central conflict, and that motivation makes them interesting.
I think this probably gets left out of queries a lot because internal motivation seems complex or nebulous and query space is limited. However, if given a choice between learning a nifty plot detail and learning what drives a character, I’ll pick the latter every time. It goes a long way toward answering to the question “why should I care?”
Equally important, it communicates that the characters are well-developed and complex. If your novel’s main character has a well-defined external and internal motivation that drives the plot, but the query doesn’t include any clues as to that motivation, the query is selling your story short.
4. Conflict: What stands in the character’s way?
Like motivation, conflict can be both internal or external, ideally both. External conflict is generally the events of the plot that keep the character from reaching their goals, or the clash of two character’s goals, often both. Internal conflict occurs within the character and its resolution completes the character’s arc.
I think of the conflict as the “but when” of the query, e.g. “[MAIN CHARACTER] wants [GOAL] because [MOTIVATION]. But when [CONFLICT OCCURS], they must…” Whatever comes after the “must” sums up the core action of the plot. You can continue in this vein: “To make matters worse, [SECONDARY CONFLICT ENSUES]. And when [YET MORE CONFLICT ERUPTS], they must [choose/change/learn]…”
The choice and the change will address the character’s internal conflict. It often means that the character’s motivation shifts, for example, from selfishness to selflessness (as might transpire in the mercenary’s story above), from insecurity to confidence (the outcast’s story), or from lack of agency to personal freedom (the anointed one’s story). And voila, there you have it: a character arc.
Make sure your query at least hints at the character’s internal arc as well as defining the primary external conflict. Again, if nothing of the book’s conflict or character arc appears in the query, the query is missing a major selling point.
5. Stakes: What’s the worst that could happen?
Finally, the query should make it clear what is at stake if the character fails to achieve their goal and what they must sacrifice to succeed. Depending on genre, the stakes may need to be set quite high. For instance, high fantasy and most science fiction typically revolves around a large-scale conflict which threatens the survival of humanity, or at least the stability of the world as the character knows it.
Even so, don’t forget about personal stakes. What will the character personally lose if they fail, and how does this tie back to their motivation? Once again, this answers the crucial question of why the reader should care. They don’t have much reason to care about the fate of the Land of Far Away and Long Ago, let alone the World of Right the Fuck Now, if they don’t care about the people in it. Make the stakes personal and you’ll go a long way toward getting them invested.
Usually, the spot to name the stakes is at the end of the query letter. Make sure the stakes are specific. “If he fails, he’ll lose everything” is generic. It says nothing about what the character cares about or what losing everything means to them.
Compare: “If Beast fails to win Beauty’s affection, he’ll stay a lonely, angry monster forever, shut away in a castle that, like him, will remain eternally unchanged. But to earn her true love, he’ll have to expose his soft, fuzzy underbelly and compromise, risking the only pain that truly scares him: heartbreak.” That’s specific (and extremely personal, as is typical for a love story). It’s a tale as old as time, but it’s still compelling, because we viscerally understand what’s at stake for this character.
Hot take coming through!
Sometimes, perfecting the query letter is simply a matter of ensuring that it reflects the manuscript in its best light and contains the five ingredients I outlined above. But sometimes, issues in a query letter reflect deeper issues in the manuscript itself or point to a need for further revisions.
That’s why many writers, including myself, use a draft query letter as part of their early planning process to diagnose any potential weaknesses at the outset and clarify the shape of the story. But it also means that an experienced agent or editor can use your query letter to do the same thing.
If it’s difficult to articulate the GMC or stakes while writing a query, the book might not be ready to query at all. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t always the case. It’s notoriously hard to write your own pitch because you may not see the forest for the trees, and it can really help to run it by fresh eyes. But if you’re really having trouble, the manuscript may require a revision pass to draw out those elements.
Okay. I could say more on the topic of query dealbreakers and reasons to go back to the drawing board, but this is already way long so I guess I’ll save that for another time when I’m feeling extra spicy.
Finally, much of the query reading I’ve been doing lately is for a good cause. If you appreciated the info I shared here, please pay it forward to the Transgender Education Network of Texas, or another charity fundraiser supporting trans kids and their families in the U.S. South who are facing discriminatory and abusive policy changes by fundamentalist lawmakers.
Because the personal and the political are the goddamn same.
Thoughts? Comments? Questions? I love hearing from you!