Writing a Query Letter

I’ve seen a few folx posting documents they intend to use as a query letter, only to have other writers point out that what they’ve written is far too long. So I thought I’d post the basic format of a cover/query letter.

Note: we like to think as creatives, our creativity belongs in our cover letter. For agents/publishers, a query letter is a business document and it has very standard expectations, including length and content.

Length: 300 words; 350 is considered too long while 320 is acceptable but wordy.

Yep, that’s not nearly long enough to outline your book. But an outline that covers everything isn’t the work of a query letter, that’s the work of a synopsis. You will increase your odds of getting someone to actually consider the content of your letter, and request pages from you, if you do not confuse the two.

Opening: Be intelligent. Pay attention to a person’s preferred pronouns (check their Twitter profile, then their web page), e.g. Dear Mx., Ms., Mr. . . . do not be overly friendly, be professional. You are writing an appeal to gain something, you are not hiring a service. [You may think your work will make the person money one day, but they have no reason to believe this yet; in the beginning, you’re no better than a phone solicitor trying to sell them something while they’re trying to get something else done.]

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Paragraph 1: a) Why this agent/publisher and b) what are you offering?

a) It is best if you can point to a work they have recently (no more than 3 years) printed or represented, that is in the same genre that you are offering and has another commonality, like a similar theme to your book.

b) Title, genre, word length of your work. If this is your first traditionally published book, let them know it is a debut, as that means you have ‘potential’. If you’ve self-published a previous book, don’t mention it unless you can add that you sold thousands of copies.

Dear Ms. Smith,

When I learned you represented Betsy Bop’s The Dinosaur Wrangler, I thought you might be interested in DINOSAURS IN THE VILLAGE, 69,000 words. This is my debut MG novel.

Paragraph 2: Conflict/motivation – what is the main conflict your point of view character has to face, and why do they care about resolution (and therefore, why should the reader care?) Yes – include an example of motivating forces, NO – do not try and tell the whole story.

When 11 yr. old Glory discovers her little brother is keeping a baby dino in the pocket of his wheelchair, she knows she must hide it before he is found out and banished from the village. Then Wizard Skizims discovers Glory and her brother with the dino, sneaking out at night to free the baby’s caged daddy, and Glory’s fears are realized. Now Glory has 13 days to return the dino to his mother, who plans to trample the village with her tribe, retribution for trapping the baby dino’s daddy. Can Glory save them all or will Skizims’ prejudice lead to their destruction?

Paragraph 3: Comps/placement – a) if an agent/publisher went into a bookstore looking for your book, what other books would they find on the shelf alongside it (this is marketing info. It is vitally important. If your book has no comps, then you are unlikely to get anyone to handle/publish it.)

You can also do a ‘meets’ example, e.g. if I took these two things and put them together, their child would be my book ( Title X Title). In the ‘meet’ example you can use TV/movies as well as books, you’re trying to connect your book with popular culture ideas that the person you send the query to would be familiar with, and that provides accurate insight to your tone/theme.

b) any qualifications you have to write on the topic, and any other writing credentials you have.

DINOSAURS would be found between The Dinosaur Wrangler and The Dinos of Warp Land, think Dora the Explorer X Lord of the Rings. This stand-alone book also has series potential. I am a sixth-grade teacher with a specialization in paleontology; my students’ love of dinos inspired this book.

Thank you for your consideration,

(188 word cover letter).

This letter does all the work a letter needs to do; yes, I did use a simple example, with one POV character. Some writers have a plethora of characters they switch between. The more complicated your book is to crystalize into a query letter, the more likely you’ll encounter trouble getting someone to look at it. Plenty of writers end up putting their first book aside and querying their second or even third book. Once you have an agent or publisher, you can revisit your more complicated works, because you already have a foot in the door.

Remember, an agent/publisher knows the kind of work they’re currently interested in. They need fairly bare-bone facts to know if they are interested in requesting/reading your pages. Once they read your pages, they’ll know if the book meets their needs. Pitch the idea and genre first, then let your writing sell the book.

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