A query letter asks for representation from an agent or offers your novel for sale of some/all publishing rights to a publisher. It is a ONE PAGE business letter that follows guidelines set by the agent or editor. That means it has things like professional courtesy, uses a clear business font, succinct language, the receiver’s name, and a basic introduction of yourself. It states why you are writing and specific information about the book you are selling: genre, word count, and a paragraph about the story.
And your book must be finished, edited, polished to a shine, as best as you can make it.
YOUR BOOK MUST BE FINISHED.
Queries seem to be one of the most terrifying, annoying, frustrating, potentially rewarding, yet necessary experiences for writers seeking professional publication. Even if you have met the agent you are writing to, even if they asked you to see it in person, you still need to send a query. Don’t assume they will remember you. Agents deal with hundreds, if not thousands, of people and books a year.
Yes, queries and the whole process is used for gatekeeping. There’s no getting around that. Authors are in the entertainment business. The world is glutted with folks who think they can write a book, and agents see thousands of queries a year. The world is also glutted with writers who think they are too special to follow any kind of conventions. That’s why things like a professional demeanor in all communication and respecting the submission guidelines of the agency or publishing house, like these are so important.
A word about my experience and use of queries. I don’t really write them anymore for the purpose of selling books so much; I write something more akin to a pitch, which is closer to a cross between a one page synopsis and a query. However, since queries are so like back cover/flap copy (several of my pitches have been adapted to cover copy by my publishers) I tend to write myself and my agent a one line elevator pitch, a lengthier pitch of 2-4 paragraphs, and a complete synopsis for my own use before getting too far into drafting. These are constantly tweaked as I work through the story, of course, but still I have the query finished before I write so I know what the book is about and can get some advice on interest and sales potential.
Prior to publication years ago I spent a lot of time perfecting my queries and revising others’ queries. Most of this activity was centered on Query Shark , a snarky, anonymous, awesome agent, and a private accompanying blog where people submitted prior to posting for Query Shark for more advice. Through this experience I came up with a formula that works for me, which at least gives me something to build on. I’ll just say it: if you can’t fill in this formula, the problem is probably with your book, not the query writing process. I’ll also add the query process is mostly for novels, and for novellas now that some publishers are picking them up.
What a query letter is not for: a cover letter for magazine short stories. I wrote a definitive post on this here years ago. If you write a “query letter” to a magazine, it’s to inquire about the status of your story once time has run on.
The basic format looks like this, the equivalent of one page, single space 12pt font, even in an email:
Dear Agent’s Name:
Why you’re writing this person in particular. This might include a mention of a writer they represent/publish that makes you think they’d like your book, or if you’ve met them before and they asked to see your work. Your book title, genre, word count.
A paragraph about your book. Yes, just one. More on that later.
A little about yourself. Short story credits. Day job if it applies to writing or your genre. Perhaps where you live. This is short. If you don’t really have much here, it’s totally fine.
Thank them for their time, you look forward to hearing from them, yada yada.
Your Actual First and Last Name (whatever you like to be called, not a pen name. initials are especially difficult here unless you go by the actual initials)
Pronoun preferences if they aren’t abundantly clear. (the point is, make it super easy for someone to call you and tell you they LOVE your book!)
How to reach you: Email. Phone. Address.
Basically the novel query paragraph formula goes something like this:
PROTAGONIST NAME is (description, job, rank) who has an inciting (sometimes ongoing) Problem/Situation. But when XXX happens (often something the ANTAGONIST does to them, it’s okay to use their name) things get worse because STAKES. Name Protagonist’s goal. List specific action(s) keeping him from achieving his goal, with rising stakes.
My query for Exile: When Draken vae Khellian, a decorated royal guard, is falsely condemned for the grisly murder of his beloved wife, he is exiled to distant Akrasia, a forbidding land on the brink of a bloody revolution where malevolent banes possess the bodies of the living. Consumed by grief, Draken lives only to avenge his wife. But he soon finds himself possessed by a warrior spirit, aligned with an enigmatic necromancer, and pressed into the service of a foreign queen whose life and land may well depend on Draken’s divided loyalties.
Now lets break it down and note the formula hits:
When Draken vae Khellian, a loyal king’s guard, is falsely condemned for the grisly murder of his beloved wife [PROTAGONIST with Inciting Problem/Situation] (incidentally, this has happened prior to the story start)
he is exiled to distant Akrasia, a forbidding land on the brink of a bloody revolution where malevolent banes possess the bodies of the living. [when XXX happens things get worse] (incidentally, this is where the story starts)
Consumed by grief, Draken lives only to avenge his wife. [Goal] But he soon finds himself possessed by a warrior spirit, aligned with an enigmatic necromancer, and pressed into the service of a foreign queen whose life and land may well depend on Draken’s divided loyalties. [specific plot points keeping him from achieving goal with rising stakes]
One thing I think I did particularly well in this query is voice, which is something you want to hit in your query. It generally matches the voice of my book, which is third person. Voice gives a taste of the book and shows of your mad writing skills.
Some other things queries have are a tagline or one-line pitch. I think that can be a lot tougher to pin down but if you build off what you might say, short version, to someone asking you what your book is about, that often works. There are schools of thoughts about this. You can look at movie one line pitches or slogans, but to me they aren’t always specific enough for a query. I like to keep to specifics, also, just fewer of them.
Here’s a thought process: “Exile is about a man who gets exiled to an enemy country for a crime he didn’t commit.” I could add: “And while he tries to find the real killer, he gets embroiled in a war with the gods.” But the sales team at my publisher’s came up with “He lost his wife, his homeland, and his name only to find a destiny that would shake the gods.” Which also is very accurate and works a hell of a lot better than mine.
I usually try to focus on what’s cool about my story and what it’s about at the same time. It’s okay to make a list, even, and then start parsing it down into a paragraph.
You can write a little about yourself, but keep it to things pertinent to either your writing career (short story credits, for example) or to your story (you’re a detective with twenty years of service who wrote a police procedural).
And really, that’s about it. Good luck and no matter what, keep querying. Persistence really does pay off.