Think of it like a cover letter on a job application, or like your profile picture on a dating website. If you want someone to read your resume or send you a smiley face, you first have to stand out and grab their attention. In the same away, a query letter is part business letter, part “hey, look at me!”. Simply put, it is a letter describing your project.
There are a lot of differing opinions out there on what a query letter should look like. I don’t claim to be an expert, but having read hundreds of queries over the last two years, I know what I do and do not like to see when I open an email. The number one thing I expect to see: a query letter.
I’m all for breaking the rules when rule-breaking is due, but one must know the rules first in order to shatter them. There’s a rhythm to reading slush pile submission. When reading pitch after pitch, a well-written and formatted query can get agents excited before they even read the first sentence. Having to hunt for important information or lacking a distinguishable voice leads to lack of interest, and ultimately, the unwanted form letter rejection.
So what goes into a query letter? What do agents expect to see when they open an e-mail? For me, it looks like this. I come from an academic background, so I’ve drawn up a little “worksheet” of sorts… a template, if you will, to build your letter from:
[Salutation] – Whitley or Ms. Abell are both fine. I lean towards first names when I write simply because the title (Ms. / Mrs. / Miss) can be so tricky sometimes, plus I prefer to be more personable when I write. But either will work as long as you spell it right.
[Paragraph 1: Intro] – Why did you choose to query me? (make it personal). Also, include general info up-front: title, genre, word count (WC can really go at the beginning or the end).
[Paragraph 2: Hook] – Think of this like your tagline or your one-line pitch. You want to grab my attention, set the stakes, make the recipient want to read on without giving too much away.
[Paragraph 3: Summary p.1] – Very briefly describe normal life for the main character, the inciting action, and why the MC pursues (what’s at stake for them if they don’t?)
[Paragraph 4: Summary p.2] – Show what the protagonist must do about the problem OR show how life has changed after the inciting action. What choices must they take? What will happen if they fail? And most importantly, why should the reader stay invested?
[Paragraph 5: Conclusion] – Is your book stand-alone or does it have series potential? What are some comparative titles? Who is the ideal audience? In this paragraph (or in a separate paragraph if need be), also include your author bio: namely your qualifications and publishing platform.
[Optional additions before signing off] – Is there anything else the agent should know? Is this on simultaneous submission to other agents / publishers?
Now I don’t know about you, but I learn from example more than by outline. I’ve read so any great (and not-so-great) query letters that I’d love to share with you, but I won’t betray authors’ confidence.
Instead, I’ve written up a sample of what I’d love to see in my inbox… you know, if we were living in the 1990s and fairy tales came true.
I saw on Twitter that you are seeking a fresh take on the traditional boarding school story. As such, I thought you might enjoy my 76,000 word middle grade fantasy novel, HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE.
Harry Potter has no idea how famous he is. That’s because he’s being raised by his miserable muggle aunt and uncle who are terrified Harry will learn that he’s a wizard, just like his parents as his parents… and the man who murdered them.
Harry Potter was brought up perfectly normal, thank you very much. Sure, his Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia make him cook, clean, and sleep in a dusty closet beneath the stairs, but what does he expect when they have their own son to raise. However, nothing is normal about the owl-delivered letters to Mr. H. Potter, The Cupboard under the Stairs, 4 Privet Drive, inviting Harry to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Suddenly, Harry is swept into a world where his parents were killed by an evil wizard so powerful that everyone is afraid to so much as utter his name, Voldemort, and Harry survived with a lightning-shaped scar and enormous celebrity in the world of magic, because Voldemort vanished following his failure to kill one little boy. But is he gone for good?
Hogwarts is exactly like a traditional British boarding school, except that the professors are all wizards and witches, ghosts roam the halls, and unicorns and centaurs inhabit the surrounding woods. There Harry makes good friends and terrible enemies, battles a troll, helps a giant man raise a dragon, and becomes the youngest seeker in Hogwarts history to play for the House Cup. But evil is lurking at the very heart of Hogwarts, and Harry and his friends must finally face the malevolent and powerful Voldemort, who is intent on returning to his former power and taking over the world.
HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE can stand alone but is intended as the first in a series. I believe it would appeal to fans of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising and C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. I have a degree in French and Classics from the Exeter University and an Honorary Doctorate from Harvard University. I live in Scotland, where I am working full-time on my next novel.
I’d be thrilled if you would consider HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE for representation. A few other agents are considering simultaneously. Thanks very much, and I hope to talk to you soon.
Joanne Rowling (writing as J.K. Rowling)
And that’s all there is to it. Not that I’m downplaying how hard it can be to compress your 50+ K word manuscript down to 5 paragraphs. Because it is. But we, as agents and editors, are searching for something that piques our interest and hoping that each e-mail we open is the chosen one, so to speak. We want to want to read more! All you have to do is nudge us in the right way.
What do you think? Do you have a different formula for writing (or reading) query letters? Do you have a successful letter you’d like to share?
Next week, I’ll talk about what the “Do”s and “Don’t”s of querying. But until then, best of luck and when in doubt, just keep writing!