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Query Letters 101 [Fiction]: Basics

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Fri Oct 20, 2017 10:53 pm
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ChildOfNowhere says...

To those of you who have considered publishing your works through traditional means, the words "query letter" likely ring familiar, and the phrase "dear agent/publisher" might be already starting to make you anxious.

As I'm working on a novel that I'm intending to send out to agents, and I've done a lot of research and critiquing on query letters and related matters, I've decided to put together a short guide for everyone on YWS looking to sail the same waters. Do keep in mind that you'll need to spend a lot more time reading and learning about all this before actually sending your queries out — this guide will cover the basics, but it's a delicate process and there's strong competition, so the more time you spend learning about it and polishing your QL, the better your chances.

To start from scratch: what is a query letter (and what is it not)?

A query letter (QL) is a letter to an agent or a publisher in which you present your work (and yourself).

A query letter is not a synopsis. If you're taking the path of traditional publishing, you will be writing both, but there's quite a difference between the two. Most notably, there's the length difference; a query letter is much shorter (a couple of paragraphs as opposed to a couple of pages) and thus focuses only on the most important things — your main character (MC), your inciting incident, and your stakes. The other major difference is that queries do not give away the major plot twists or the ending, unlike a synopsis. The query is meant to tease, where the synopsis tells us everything that happens.

Another important thing to know is that not all query letters are the same. They depend on what the agent or publisher is looking for, the country you're submitting to, and the genre of your work. In this article, I can't go through what every individual agent is looking for, nor give you details on each country's querying rules. This article exists mostly to serve as a guide through the first tricky steps of writing and understanding query letters and the process of querying. In the end, however, I've put together a list of links that may answer questions about those other details.

What to include in a query letter
Exceptions that bend the rules aside, every query letter* — needs four things:

• Character
Even if your novel is told from multiple POVs and/or has more than one main character, you should generally focus on one in the query letter. This is because a query letter should be around 250 words in length, and that's not much space to pack all the important information in. Focusing on one main character also means that you have higher chances of having the agent connect to them and want to read more. This is also where you need to quickly establish the character's relation to the world or setting, especially if you're writing a novel set in a different universe from this one.

• Inciting incident
This is the thing that happens to set the plot into motion. It's not necessarily the first thing that happens in the story itself, but it's what turns the character's world around and makes them abandon their routine to pursue whatever goal you put in front of them.

• Stakes
This is the impact your character's decisions will have. In this part, you want to be specific; you want to tell your future agent the choice your character faces. What horrible thing must they do or overcome to succeed? What even more horrible thing will happen if they fail?

• Housekeeping
While the rest of the QL focuses on what happens in your novel, this is the section for the facts: title, genre, wordcount, and optional details about your background or comparisons to currently published books. It's not a place for you to tell the agent what they should be thinking or what you think the novel's message is — that should be visible from the query itself.

*This, as the rest of the article, applies to fiction queries.


Without going too deeply into the analysis, allow me to demonstrate what I'm talking about. The following query is the actual query that got @Megrim her agent.

Dear Ms. McDonald,

Iari Lenerian wanted to help make the galaxy a better place. He was supposed to be a small cog in a big machine—an informant posing as a palace guard, that’s it. He didn’t mean to attract the Emperor’s attention, didn’t mean to gain his trust. And he didn’t mean to fall in love. 1

The rebellion that recruited him is going forward as planned. Iari is the only person who can get close to the Emperor—and the only mindfighter strong enough to challenge him. Iari still wants to see his impoverished homeworld free of Imperial exploitation, but he’s not ready to kill the man he loves. Desperate to keep the Emperor safe, Iari takes him hostage aboard the insurgent fleet. 2

The planet below isn’t so fortunate when Iari’s allies open fire in a last-minute change of plans. Suddenly the galaxy doesn't seem so black and white, and he's feeling more like a traitor than a revolutionary. The Emperor is heartbroken, systems are falling into civil war, and the insurgent leaders are as dangerous as they are powerful. With the destruction of a planet on his conscience and the Emperor's vengeful sister chasing them across space, Iari has to decide if fighting for his ideals is worth sacrificing everything he loves, and becoming a villain himself. 3

THE PULL OF GRAVITY, a science fiction novel of 122,000 words, is told through two alternating timelines, Before and After. It includes themes of romance, alien cultures, and a space battle or two. 4

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Paragraph One: We get to know the main character and his situation right away in the first sentence—what he wants, and what's getting in his way. We know that this is going to be an SFF story from the mention of the galaxy, and that romance will play a big part in it. We also already know that it features an LGBTQ protagonist, without it being directly spelled out.

Paragraph Two: This is where we find out more about the MC and why he's the one whose story we're reading about, as well as more details about the world the novel takes place in. Here is where we learn what's driving the MC to act — note that the MC is active and doesn't just have things happen to him — and we're introduced to the betrayal as the inciting incident.

Paragraph Three: Finally, this paragraph gives us the stakes. We get an idea of the aftermath of the MC's actions, a glimpse at his feelings about it, and a clear picture of the choices the MC faces.

Paragraph Four: This is the part I refer to as housekeeping. Short and to the point, including all the important info. If you're writing with multiple POVs or an unconventional structure, here is where you should mention it. A note on this part: some agents prefer it in the beginning of the query, right after "Dear Agent" and before the letter jumps into the story. Others, however, strongly prefer it out of the way and in the end of the query, like it is here, as that allows them to immediately get immersed into the story itself. Most agents will mention their preference on their social media or official websites — some will not, and in that case it's up to you to decide which option rings right to you.

It's worth noting that the query clocks in at 258 words, not counting addressing the agent and Meg's signature.

If you'd like to take a look at some more great query letters out there, here are the Query Kombat winners from the past two years: 2016 and 2015.

Also note that there is A LOT more to how to write a query than what I've covered here. Enough so, in fact, for it to deserve its own article. [There will be a link here soon enough :wink: ]

When to query

You've finished your novel, be it after a month during NaNoWriMo or after several years of careful research and dedication. You gave it your best effort, and you absolutely love it — you must be ready, right?

First, take a deep breath, and congratulate yourself on having completed the most important step on the road to getting a book published — you have it written all down. As tempting as it may be to jump straight into writing queries and contacting agents, however, finishing a novel is still quite a long way from having a finished novel.

Confused? No need. Agents and publishers out there receive many, many more manuscripts for consideration than there can be books published. Getting into that small percentage that ends up with a book deal is not easy. It takes time and effort, and skipping steps is usually not an option. Thus, before you embark on that journey and put your efforts into a query letter, you need to be sure your novel is as polished as you can get it. This means several rounds of editing, feedback from beta readers and critique partners, and mourning the deaths of your darlings.

Once the novel is as done as it can be, it's time to polish up the query letter to match. Remember, the letter is the first an agent will see, and it's what will — hopefully — entice the agent to read through your manuscript sample. It's a lot like a cover letter for a job, only instead of a resume, you're sending your manuscript. There are many resources available to help you get the query letter in best possible shape. This includes writing forums (such as YWS, Critique Circle, Scribophile, or Absolute Write), where you can receive feedback from fellow writers of various levels of experience, as well as submitting it to archives such as QueryShark, Evil Editor or AQ Connect, where agents and people with experience in the industry offer advice.

How to query

Even with the query letter shining like a new penny, there are a few more things to think about before hitting that send button.

When it comes to how, your best resources are the websites of the agents you're planning to query. If they are open to unsolicited submissions, there will always be a section on their website with information on what exactly they wish to see. Generally, a submission package is your query letter and the opening pages of your novel, all pasted directly into the body of the e-mail. Some agents may require a synopsis or set various page- or wordcount limits to the sample. Some may want to see the housekeeping section in the beginning, and others in the end. Some specifically require the use of comparison titles, while others don't find it important. Agents, just like writers, are individuals, as scary as they may seem at this point, and it's important to do your research before approaching them.

The pre-query checklist

From typing the last period to hitting send on an email to agents, here's a handy list of steps.

    · Write the novel
    · Get the novel critiqued
    · Edit
    · Repeat the above two steps until you feel the novel is in the best state it can possibly be
    · Research how to format a manuscript and make sure yours looks professional.
    · Read up on How-Tos of query writing before jumping right into it (it's quite different from writing a novel)
    · Get the query critiqued
    · Edit the query
    · Submit the new version for critiques and repeat the above step until the query is in the best shape possible
    · Do your research on the agents you're planning to contact
    · Make sure to follow the agents' guidelines
    · Create, if you don't already have one, a serious e-mail address to correspond with agents (some writers like to have one specifically for querying purposes)
    · Optionally, send a test version to yourself to ensure the formatting and everything else looks okay
    · Be sure to email agents one by one — I'm sure no one likes seeing their name along with 20 or 50 others in the recipient line
    · Hit send, and get ready for nervousness and excitement that come with waiting for an answer

The Dos and Don'ts

Additionally, here are some things you definitely should do when querying, and some you definitely shouldn't. I've put together this list from several sources, and will link to some below. When researching agents, chances are you'll run into their own version of this list, as well.


    · Research each agent and check their social media — agents have accounts on Twitter and other websites, and those are great for figuring out bits about agents' personalities and preferences. Make sure to read their bios and interests on their agency's website. (And make sure they represent your genre!)
    · Personally address the agent — you wouldn't like constantly being called "Client" or "Author" in correspondence with your agent, and the same goes the other way around. Addressing queries to "dear agent" or even worse, "to whom it may concern", is not going to help them connect to your query at all.
    · Spell the agents' names right — it might seem obvious, but misspellings happen surprisingly often. Proofread everything you put in that e-mail before hitting send, both your own and the agent's name included!
    · Follow the directions/submission guidelines — I've mentioned this one before, but it's worth mentioning again. If the guidelines say first three chapters, don't send two and don't send four. If they say font size 12, don't use 10 to squeeze more text into less space. Put things in the body of the e-mail, not as an attachment. Nothing makes an agent delete a query unread faster than ignoring the instructions.
    · Keep in mind that page requests are assuming double-spaced — not single spaced.
    · Include relevant credentials (if any) — Querying with the first novel you've ever written, and with no publication history behind you, is completely okay. But if you have published* something before, mention it. This only applies to real publications (including short fiction magazines) and contests you have won. Also if you have a specific area of expertise that's directly relevant to the novel, include that.
    · Stay professional — the agents are professionals whom you're hoping to enter a business relationship with. You're making an impression on them just like at a job interview. Don't try to treat an agent as a close friend straight off the bat.
    · Mention referals, contacts or personal connections (if any) — If you've attended a pitch session or a conference where you talked to an agent, or were otherwise referred to query a specific agent, let the agent know.
    · Personalise the query for each agent — this ties in to the very first point. Many things you find on their social media won't be relevant, but when you find something that is (such as the fact that your novel may cross off an item off the agent's wishlist), mention it and let them know you've done your research. Same goes for, say, having read and enjoyed books by other authors the agent represents, and thinking your own novel might in some ways compare.
    · Sign the query with your name — even if you're planning on writing under a pen name (which you can mention at this point or later on), sign the e-mail with your actual legal name. You may want to add a phone number to your signature as well, though corresponding over the phone is a thing that usually happens at later stages.


    · Try to convince the agent to take you on — this is something your query and sample chapters/pages should do. The agent knows why you're there and what you want from them.
    · Be arrogant — yes, completing a novel is a great thing, and you definitely deserve a pat on the back for that. Maybe your novel is even the next bestseller, and any agents who pass it will come to regret it. Maybe — but don't tell them that in your query.
    · Compare your novel to something absurdly successful — such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or the Hunger Games. It makes you look like your inflating your opinion of yourself.
    · Spend forever getting to the story — They don't need to know why you wrote the book, what inspired you, what your teachers said about your writing style, and what you hope the book's message will be. The longer you waffle, the more likely you are to lose their interest. Just get to the character and plot.
    · Use nonsense things as credentials — Every writer has critique partners, for example. Telling the agent that you went to a writer's summer camp every year as a child or that you wrote an article in your town newspaper is not going to get you any points.
    · Say that you've been writing since you were x years old — You might hope this makes you look passionate, but it only makes you look like an amateur. Try to avoid using things as credentials that literally anyone can say.
    · Use self-published books as your comp titles. Self publishing is very different from traditional publishing, and different rules apply to authors who choose each route.
    · Try to be gimmicky to grab attention — this applies from the way you present your story in the QL itself, to the fonts and formatting of the e-mail and the sample pages. If the query isn't doing its job standing out from the pile of other queries, 14 pt magenta comic sans logline isn't going to help. (Any sort of logline isn't going to help, but that's another topic.)
    · Query more than one person at the same agency — choose one. If the agency has other agents who may be interested in your manuscript, the agent you queried will know that and may forward your query over to them.
    · Start negotiating terms of the contract — you don't have a contract to negotiate over yet.
    · Include links — not even ones to your author platform or anything else that might eventually be relevant. With as many e-mails as the agents receive every day, they're sure to have in place filters to catch potential spammers. Links double the chance of an e-mail getting caught by those filters, and agents are generally not overly inclined to click on them. If you have an author's platform or social media presence, and they're curious about it, don't worry, they'll find it.
    · Be impatient — check the agents' websites for usual response times. They will generally also tell you when it's alright to prod, or — more likely — whether no response equals rejection.
    · Argue if you get a rejection — Rejections are a thing. They will happen during the querying stage, they will happen later on; they're something to get used to. When an agent rejects your manuscript, the best thing to do it to move on and query more agents. Arguing about it will not change their mind about your query or your novel — just make their attitude towards you take a turn for the worse. Also, it's a small industry, and if you make a bad impression, word can spread to other agents.

*This rule changes a bit if you have self published before. Generally, when it comes to self publishing, it's the numbers that speak for you. The agent will look up whatever published works you mention, and if what they find is a self-pubbed novel with very few copies sold, they might worry about your writing or ability to attract your readers. If that's the case, you're safer bringing your self-publishing adventure up later on, when you're already talking to the agent based on them liking what they've read.

(another note you should include is first publishing rights: ie- don't try to query a novel that's self published already. Chances are, you will lose)

What next

You've sent off your query. You've maybe already received some requests for your partial or full manuscript, and possibly some rejections too. You've told your critique partners or close friends that you're querying now, and they've wished you good luck — or you kept it for yourself; either way, you're probably equally nervous and excited about it. You've gone through the query and the novel itself again, spotted a single typo in a hundred pages, and resisted the urge to e-mail the agents again and profoundly apologise for it.


What's left for you to do now is breathe. From this point on, for a while at least, it's out of your hands. The queries and the sample are out there for the agents to chew on, and they will reach their decision and inform you about it regardless of how much you stress over it. So, the best you can do now is relax, congratulate yourself for the road so far, and occupy your mind with something else. Take that hike you've been putting off. Try that recipe, finish that short story, catch up with your favourite series, whatever makes you happy. And be patient.

Helpful links

QueryShark is probably one of the most often linked archive of query resources out there. It's a blog handled by literary agent Janet Reid, on which she gives general advice as well as dissects queries to help their authors write much better ones.

[]Evil Editor[/url] is a blog in the same line, written by a member of Hannah Rogers Literary Agency who chooses to keep his identity a secret. Both EE and QS may require a thick skin, or at least a comfort cookie standing at the ready by your side.

Critique Circle, Scribophile and Absolute Write are writing websites (some similar to YWS, others not so much) where you're likely to find a lot of people who are going or have gone through the querying process, as well as general advice, questions answered and places to post your query for critique.

AQ Connect (or Agent Query Connect) is, as its title suggest, a forum specifically centered around queries, pitches and hooking agents, as well as publishing adventures in general.

Writers&Artists is a great website with resources on every step of the creative and publishing process.

Query Tracker is the go-to place when you're doing research on agents. This is where you can find agents, genres they represent and links to their respective websites, as well as keep track of your query and much more.

Manuscript Wish List (official) and MS Wishlist (unofficial) are both websites on which you can find wishlists and interests of literary agents as well as editors and interns. The latter is based on Twitter feed from the agents/editors, and also includes archives of useful tags such as Ask and Agent, PubTip and Ten Queries.
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