Morning y’all! I’ve hesitated on writing this post for ages. The amount of material written and shared about writing query letters could damn near fill its own library wing and I saw no reason to duplicate that advice. But now I’ve obviously waivered on that because, you see, I love writing query letters.
That wasn’t the case when I first started writing. Not in the least! But with time and practice you really do get better at it. As contest time approaches this year I’ve been occasionally offering to critique query letters and quickly realizing how hard it still is for many people to craft these pesky things. It’s odd how you think other people progress and grow at the same rate you do. I now love writing queries, so I assumed everyone else did as well. We all jumped that hoop together, right? No? Oops!
So, for what it’s worth—here’s my two cents worth of thoughts and advice on writing a query letter that will get you noticed in the right way. (The write way, perhaps? Teehee!) This post is divided up into three main parts: Mom Advice, Definitely DO’s and Definitely DON’T’s…and there might be a bonus at the very end. Maybe…
First bit of Mom-advice: Don’t complain about having to write a query letter. This is an important distinction since you can openly complain about writing a synopsis, kinda, because those things are the most hated objects in the writing industry. But not the query letter. They do an important job—they get you to the top of your dream agent’s/editor’s slush pile. Think I’m kidding? Go read SlushPileHell. You know how they say you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun that other guy beside you? Kinda the same concept, y’all. Drafting a better query letter than the next guy bumps you up in the pile and will get the reader to take a peek at your sample pages. This is your opportunity to show off as a writer and get yourself to the top of that slush pile—don’t miss it.
Second bit of Mom-advice: Write your query letter before you write the manuscript. Of course things will change once the manuscript is finished, but it’s much easier to get down the major plot points using only the main characters when that’s all you freaking know. Weeding out subplots and other important characters from your query letter after the fact feels like treachery. Already written the manuscript? That’s okay. Keep reading, friend. Just remember this for your new shiny plot bunny.
Third bit of Mom-advice: Get the right eyes on your query before you send it to agents/editors. It’s okay to start with your mom/husband/boyfriend/sister/BFF to get a general feel, but they simply can’t give feedback like another writer can. This is so scary for some people (I know it was for me) but it’s incredibly important. But I said you needed to get the right eyes on your query, didn’t I? Whose eyes do I think you need? Glad you asked. You need the eyes of someone who’s made it out of the slush pile. Someone who’s garnered an impressive number of full requests or maybe even signed with an agent. AgentQuery Connect is a great (FREE!) place to start and there are a number of writers around the web that offer their eyes up for nominal fees (like twenty bucks or so). Get to know them on Twitter, read their referrals, and take the chance if you can. I used Naomi Hughes, who I met through Pitch Wars. Once we finished tweaking my request rate pretty much tripled. So I’ll say it again—get the right eyes on your letter.
Now, what should your query letter look like? There’s a lot of information on the internet about the format, number of paragraphs, etc. Some of that advice is outdated because it’s geared for snail mail queries and some make it sound like queries that are more than three paragraphs long immediately get deleted (this is simply not true). This isn’t to say that there aren’t guidelines that need to be followed.
So without further ado, here’s my list of DEFINTELY DO’s…sweet and simple.
- DO keep your query letter to less than one page (if it were to be printed out with standard margins).
- DO use standard font. Comparable to Times New Roman in 12 point. If your email program doesn’t have that, use the option closest to it.
- DO include your genre and word count. The general consensus is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s in your opening paragraph or your closing paragraph. Just make sure it’s there.
- DO round your word count to the nearest thousand. A manuscript with a word count of 84,279 would just be listed as 84,000 words. (I’m embarrassed to admit I made this mistake when I first started querying…true story.)
- DO use single spaces for your query letter. Double spacing is only for your manuscript. (Some folks will request a synopsis that’s double spaced, but usually they’re single spaced as well.)
- DO put the title of your manuscript in all caps, as well as any comp titles. (Some sources will tell you to put comp titles in italics. This was good advice for snail mail queries, but you never know what device your dream agent/editor will be using to read your query—italics and underlines aren’t always displayed correctly.)
- DO keep your query letters as short as possible while also enticing the reader to want more. This is the hardest part—you don’t want to sound like a movie trailer, but you must make them want more. REMEMBER to include the stakes. Be specific. “Faces a life-changing decision…” tells the reader nothing. What decision? Oh, a decision. Nope. Specifics, specifics, specifics. The pitch itself should be at or below 250 words. (But again, no one is going to delete your query because your pitch was 264 words.) Just keep it as short as possible.
- DO list any writing credits if you have them. If you don’t, well, don’t. I didn’t, so my closing line was, “I’m a member of SCBWI and currently spend my daytime hours spinning tales for my seventh grade students in Chattanooga, Tennessee.”
- DO use comps, if you can, but select titles that haven’t been made into blockbuster movies. This shows an agent/editor that you’re well-read within your genre.
- DO follow all submission guidelines on the agent’s/editor’s website.
And now, though it pains me to do this, here’s my list of DON’Ts. Now, keep in mind, this list was inspired by some of SlushPileHell’s best posts. Read it with a chuckle, but please, just don’t do any of this…
- DON’T use comps like Harry Potter, Twilight, Game of Thrones, Hunger Games, or Divergent. I don’t care if it’s true. See DO #9.
- DON’T use fancy font, colored backgrounds, or send attachments of any kind (unless their query guidelines tell you to send attachments—see DO’s #2 and #10).
- DON’T wax poetic about your inspiration for your novel, explain how much other reader’s love it, or include a discussion about your story’s themes or symbolism. As a matter of fact, never discuss your story’s themes or symbolism unless you’re directly asked. (And please don’t ask me about mine because I’m not sure I know.) See DO #7.
- DON’T include overly personal details about yourself or the person you’re querying. It’s creepy, y’all. See DO #7 again.
- DON’T complain all over social media about the publishing process, the ridiculous nature of writing query letters, or how we’re all going to hell in a handbasket anyway. Following dream agents/editors on social media to get a feel for their personality is a very good idea—just remember they can, and will, do the same. (See my first bit of mom advice.)
- DON’T submit to more than one agent/editor at an agency at a time. See their guidelines when you’re trying to decide whether or not it’s okay to query a different person at the same place. (See DO #10)
- DON’T follow up on the exact day/time listed for their response time on their website. Agents and editors are people too—with families, lives, and emergencies just like the rest of us. Giving an extra couple of weeks makes you look lovely and patient and kind.
- DON’T (for the love of fried chicken) send out a mass email with “Dear Agent” as your salutation—just don’t.
- DON’T use questions to try and hook the reader. “What if…”—what if the reader doesn’t come up with the answer you were hoping for? Remember that agents/editors read some pretty “out there” stuff…chances are they’re not going to offer up the answer you intended thus completely derailing the rest of your query.
- DON’T forget that you’re looking to enter into a business relationship with the person on the other end of that query letter. Treat them with the same amount of professional courtesy you expect in return.
And now…because I really do love writing query letters and in honor of my first contest as a judge—Query Kombat that starts THIS FRIDAY—I’m offering up a free query critique to the first ten people to comment on this post. Just leave your email address as: thisisme AT mydomain DOT com so the bots can’t skim your email.