A Starting Guide to Query Letters

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First of all, let me start off by saying I am in no way an expert on query letters. The one that landed me an agent went through roughly thirty rewrites. Yes, you read that right. Not three. Thirty. Some writers believe the query letter takes more time and effort than the entire manuscript itself. Some days, I’m inclined to agree with them. It sounds rough, I know, but as long as you’re not afraid to get your elbows dirty and your ego bruised more than once, you’re already on the right track.

The summary paragraphs for every query letter (except non-fiction) should have three parts: character, conflict, and stakes — in that order.

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Section One: Character

Introduce your protagonist in the very first sentence of the query. Tell us what’s special about them. Do not make the character’s life seem boring just so what happens to them seems more exciting. This will lead the agent to believe your opening pages are dull. Would you like to read the book about the average schoolgirl with average grades and an average life? Or would you rather read about the kid sitting next to her who’s secretly a troll?

You can also make this work for characters that have no idea they’re different at the beginning of the story: “12-year-old Kaylee is meant to save her school from sorcery. Too bad she doesn’t know it yet.”

It is important to state your main character’s age for all categories other than adult, so the agent knows you understand the age range for each category (middle grade, young adult, and new adult).

Now, follow up the character introduction with one to two sentences about their life/world. Again, focus on what makes them different. Give us an idea of the book’s setting and tone. If it’s set on a different planet or in a fantasy world, give us a taste of the rules and environment of this new realm. Just be sure to steer clear of the dreaded info-dump. Only give us the minimal necessary to understand this world and why it’s different.

To carry on with my previous example:

“12-year-old Kaylee is meant to save her school from sorcery. Too bad she doesn’t know it yet. Stuck across the hall from her friends, life in Ms. Henderson’s seventh grade class isn’t the only thing as bad as indoor recess. Her father is a genius, and her younger brother hot on his heels. Kaylee? She’s at the crossroads of Passed-Over and Loser-Ville. With braces. And freckles. Eww.”

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Section Two: Conflict

This is the initiating incident. You’ve introduced us to the protagonist’s world. What happens to make everything change? Usually this paragraph starts with a “but when…”

  • A deadly virus is unleashed.
  • An orphaned baby shows up on their doorstep.
  • A fellow student is kidnapped.

Whatever happens to turn your character’s world upside-down, show us here. To continue on with our example:

“But when Kaylee’s reflection starts disappearing from mirrors and silverware becomes gold under her touch, something special is finally happening to her. That is, until she turns the school’s coveted football trophy to dust. Now she’s the laughingstock of the whole school. Even her friends think she’s a freak. Worst of all, she can’t even tell what her hair looks like! Being special sucks the big one.”

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Section Three: Stakes

The first two paragraphs should lead entirely up to this. This is where you spell out what your protagonist stands to lose. The number one complaint I’ve read from interns, agents, and others lies within this elusive third paragraph. Nearly all writers suffer from the “vague stakes” syndrome, with symptoms like:

  • All hope will vanish.
  • Everyone will die.
  • Love will be lost.
  • Humanity will meet its doom.

The problem? The above statements also describe every B-rated movie ever made, so why would an agent care about your story?

Luckily, there’s a cure: spell out what makes this important to your protagonist. It isn’t bad to have a story where “everyone will die”. You built something on an epic, world-changing scale. Awesome! But put yourself in your character’s shoes. Sure, you’d be sad about humankind losing, but you can’t picture how it would impact everyone in the world. You just can’t. But you can imagine your siblings or friends never growing up, never having a great career, or kids of their own. Making the stakes personal to your character adds a unique emotional punch.

Back to our example:

“So when the always-on-the-edge-of-suspension Trevor corners her in the gym, she’s shocked it’s not to beat her up. He’s got powers too, and they’ve been activated because the principal is dealing in dark magic. If they can’t stop him, their powers might grow out of control and the school might go with them. This is Kaylee’s chance to be someone in her genius family, win back her friends, and impress the guy she’s so not trying to impress. But really, turning things to gold? Disappearing from mirrors? If she was meant to save the school, they could have given her better powers, and a less annoying sidekick.”

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Secret Bonus Section: Voice

Notice in the example above how phrases like “Eww”, “Sucks the big one”, and “As bad as indoor recess” gives the query a likable, middle-grade flavor. We get a better insight into the character and tone of the novel, and it showcases your talent as a writer. If an agent sees that your query letter has spunk, they’ll know your manuscript will be dripping with it. This, above all, can show what makes your story different. Not all plot lines will be unique, but your characters can be. No two people are alike. A story would never be told the same way through the perception of different characters. Find your protagonist’s voice and include it in your query.

I’m currently working on two novels. One is set in a noir-fantasy world. The other is set in a virtual reality video game. If each of the main characters were to talk about somebody dying, one would say “he bit the hard goodbye” and the other would quip “he got the permanent game over.” Notice how I don’t need to tell you which said which. You just know, because it matches the world they live in. Make sure you character’s voice reflects their age and their circumstances, and you’re not just golden — you’re platinum, baby.

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The Facts and Credentials

Besides the summary paragraphs, you’ll also want to include the following in your query:

  • Title (In all caps).
  • Word Count.
  • Age category and genre (eg. YA Sci-fi).
  • Comparable books or authors to your story.
  • Your credentials, if any, including: previous publications or writing/editing experience, your online presence, or anything else relevant to the story. Include your education if it pertains to creative writing, editing, or a specific topic in the book (eg. your main character is a biologist and you have a degree in biology). Same goes for your day job. If you’re a librarian or an editor of a local newspaper, be sure to say that. If you’re an accountant and your book has nothing to do with accounting, best to leave it out.
  • Personalization for each agent. Research their interviews and check out their twitter feed (most agents have one). Tell that agent why you think your book would be a good match to them.

Example:

“MAGIC, MATH, AND OTHER THINGS THAT STINK is a middle grade fantasy novel complete at 40,000 words. It will appeal to fans of [insert awesome MG fantasy authors here]. My short work has appeared in [cool magazine goes here] and I have a degree in creative writing from [epic school here]. According to your recent tweets, you are looking for middle grade fantasy with a strong, female protagonist and an unlikely team duo. I believe my book is an excellent match to your interests.”

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Last Bit of Advice

Critique the crap out of your query. Send it to every writing buddy you have. Enter query contests. Get feedback from professionals in the industry. Several blogs accept queries for critique. Find them and submit. Rewrite based off their advice. Do it again. And again. Once people start to tell you “this is agent ready,” try sending out a handful of letters to agents who represent your genre. If you get a request, stick with your letter. If not, send it out into the critiquing world again. If more people tell you “it’s ready”, then it’s just a matter of finding the right agent. If not, keeping rewriting and submitting.

Querying and query writing can be a long, painful process. But if you can work, and rework (and rework a dozen more times) the prize at the end is even better than a pot of gold…

An agent.

*Originally published on Enchanted Spark on September 10, 2014.

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