Crafting a Great Query Letter
Your novel is finished, edited, and edited some more, and now you’re ready to query. Writing a novel is tough, but summing it up in one page can seem even tougher.
The good news is that if you’ve ever picked up a book and read the jacket copy, you already have an idea of what you’ll want your query letter to accomplish. Both your query letter and jacket copy have the same goal: make someone want to read your book. Before you start writing your query, take a trip to your favorite bookstore or library and spend time reading the jacket copy on books that are similar to yours. That should give you some ideas for effectively enticing readers.
I recommend that your fiction query letter follow this structure in two or three short paragraphs:
- Introduce your main character and describe the world they live in. Even if your book is in first-person POV, always use a third-person perspective when writing about your book in your query letter.
- Present your main character’s biggest problem. Sometimes you’ll hear agents phrase this as “What are the stakes?” You could also think of this as showing the reader what your main character stands to lose or the event they’re facing that will forever change their life. Agent Donald Maass wrote a great tweet about this once, where he phrased showing the stakes as asking the question “What does your main character want most in the world, and what will happen if they don’t get it?”
- Leave the agent wondering how the main character is going to solve the problem or survive not getting what they want most in the world. Your query letter is not the place for spoilers; those go in the book synopsis. When we want to know what happens next for your main character, that’s when we’ll read or request your sample pages.
You should always include somewhere in your query:
- The title of the book
- The audience and genre (such as contemporary YA, historical romance, or middle grade science fiction)
- The word count. Word count is preferable to page count because it gives the agent a much more accurate look at the length of your book.
- Your contact information
Some agents prefer the information for the first three points before the book description, and some prefer to see it after. If you research an agent but nothing in their interviews or on their web page mentions a preference, then mention these points wherever you think is best. Contact information should always go at the end.
Things that are optional, but really nice to include if you have the space:
- Titles of books similar to yours or authors who write for your audience, preferably published in the last 3-5 years
- Your list of publishing credits or awards won, if any
- A short (about two or three sentences) biography, especially if it shows your subject-matter expertise. If you’re a doctor who writes medical thrillers or a police officer with a cop drama, we want to know. But since everyone is welcome to write fiction, it’s perfectly fine if you’re an accountant who writes about astronauts.
Think of your query letter as a job application for your book, and use appropriately professional language and presentation. I promise no agent will pass on your work for the sole reason of thinking it looks too professional. Keep your letter in the realm of 250-275 words. For snail mail queries, use white paper and a twelve-point font that’s easy to read, like Times New Roman or Helvetica. And most importantly, follow the submission guidelines as required of you by individual agents. Every agency has different rules.
Although it takes time to write a captivating query and submit it correctly, the time you spend will pay off when you pique an agent’s interest with your characters’ dilemmas and simultaneously present yourself as someone who is serious about their book and their writing career.
To get you started, here’s a (fake) query letter for a (fake) YA novel:
Dear Ms. Webber,
After a long audition process, seventeen-year-old Brianna has landed a spot on America’s Next Top Teen Chef. The winner gets a cookbook contract, a full ride to culinary school, and their own show on the Cooking Channel. If Brianna wins, she gets to build the future of her dreams. Losing means she’s stuck in her one-Starbucks town waiting tables and attending community college part time while all her friends head off to big-name universities.
Brianna brushes up on her knife and pastry skills before she flies to Los Angeles for filming, but once she’s there she finds that cooking is the easiest part of the show. The other chefs use ingredients she can’t even pronounce, the producers are trying to make her into the show’s villain, and even though she has a boyfriend at home, she’s falling for one of her fellow competitors. With all the drama, she’s losing focus and could lose the contest.
The Offal Truth is a debut contemporary YA novel complete at 65,000 words. It will appeal to fans of authors like Jenny Han and Kate Brian.
I am a professional wedding officiant and lounge singer from Las Vegas, Nevada. I review local theater for the Las Vegas Journal and blog about reality television.
Thank you for considering my novel. I look forward to hearing from you.