A Query Letter Format: Part 1
Really. You can do it this way.
I have seen every single trick you can think of that queriers have used to get my attention in query letters. Gifs. Purple fonts. Self-deprecation (DO NOT DO THIS.) Outright hostility. Begging. Promises of bestsellerdom. Offering me 50% commission (DO NOT DO THIS EITHER.) And I can tell you that zero of these things have worked.
You know what works? Telling me about your book. That is the single most effective strategy in writing query letters. The point of a query letter is to…tell me about your book so I can decide if I am the right agent for it. (Note that I didn’t say that it’s for me to judge if your book is good. If you’re a paid subscriber, you’ve read about why you don’t actually want me to tell you if your book is “good” or not.) I read query letters to connect with writers and books. So, it follows that your query letter should focus on you, the writer, and your book.
This simple formula can help you get started and at the very least break the paralyzing fear that comes with staring at a blank page. I teach this format in classes and have used it myself. Not to be all this formula will change your life, but I do think it is a solid way to start.
Part 1: Salutation
Part 2: Manuscript basics: title, genre, word count.
Part 3: Book summary
Part 4: Author bio
Part 5: Closing
Let’s start at the beginning:
Part 1: Salutation. Try one of these. [Insert appropriate agent name, obvs.]
Dear Kate McKean,
Dear Ms. McKean,
That’s it, folks. Do not overthink the salutation. The rules are: use the right agent’s name and spell it right. Be respectful. If you do not know a person’s gender identity or marital status, use their first or first + last name. Publishing is a relatively casual business, so I think it is ok to use a first name only, but YMMV. This is not your seventh grade language arts class. You are not going to get marked down for saying Dear Kate instead of Dear Ms. McKean. Just spell it right. Double check. Don’t call me Katie.
Part 2: Manuscript basics.
I like to start a query letter with the title, genre, and word count of the work. This gets the very basics of the book right up front, and gives me the information I need to start deciding if I’m the right agent for a project. If you start telling me about your political thriller, I can stop right there, because I don’t represent that genre. If you’re anxious about not picking the right genre, I’ll be covering that in a future newsletter, so hold tight.
Word count is also important, because it is very, very, very hard for me to sell a 500,000 word book, and very, very, very hard for me to sell at 25,000 word novel. We talked about word counts here. There are many reasons for this, also a future newsletter topic, but it’s important for me to know right off the bat how long your book is. If you are writing a book proposal and haven’t finished writing yet, you can say your book is an “estimated 50k words” or “projected 75k words” or just leave it out and say you’ve got a completed book proposal. I will understand.
It also helps to have a title! I will understand, too, that it is a working title or that you’re open to a different title and all that jazz, because a title can very much change in the publishing process. That’s not important to the querying process. Try your best to come up with a good title, one you like, one that’s memorable, and suits your novel. I know that’s hard, too! Do your best. I would never reject a book I liked because of a bad title.
Part 3. Book Summary.
This is the real hard part. You have to tell me about your book in an engaging way, basically as quickly as possible. The biggest mistakes people make here are not telling me what happens in their book and telling me EVERYTHING that happens in their book. There is a nice middle ground, I promise. (There is not length restriction here, but it should be shorter rather than longer.)
Not sure where to start? Start with the climax or conflict of your book. Start with the stakes. Character A must do Action B before Time Limit C. Marty McFly must get his parents to kiss at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance or he’ll POOF out of existence. (Back to the Future is the best movie ever.) From that point, you can go back and explain a little more. Marty is from the future. He and Doc Brown went back in time in a Delorean. Bully Biff is there to make everyone’s life hard. Marty’s dad is a wimp and he’s got to give him the confidence to ask out his mom! Exciting stuff!
But there’s also so much I’m not telling here. I don’t mention Jennifer. I don’t mention how Marty invents rock ‘n roll (¯\_(ツ)_/¯ lol). I don’t even say the words “one point twenty one gigawatts!” You want your book summary to hit the highlights and focus on the conflict. Show me the stakes.
Your voice will come through. Your character development will come through because your characters do things because of who they are. If your book is not very plot heavy, the reader still needs to know who to root for, still needs to know what drives your main character. Tell me that. If nothing drives your main character, then you might have a problem.
I know I’m talking mostly about fiction here, so this is what you should do with non-fiction. Tell me what problem your book solves. Tell me what question your book investigates. Tell me what the reader will gain from reading your book. Tell me the story of your memoir—what happened to you or them? Don’t pad your query with “87.4 million people have consumed a Coke product and my memoir is about my love of Diet Coke therefore 87.4 million people will like my book.” (This is false, of course.) Stats you Google are not market research. (There is almost no market research in publishing.)
We’ll get into parts 4 and 5, including talking about AUTHOR PLATFORMS!!!! next week, so stay tuned. If you’re enjoying this newsletter, please tweet about it, tell a friend, send up a skywriter. As you will come to learn as a writer, word of mouth is the single most effective way to market anything. And if you have questions or topics you want me to cover, you can just reply right here, and it comes straight to me. (No pitching.)
This answered a question I had... whether it's permissible to query before your manuscript is finished (but you have a solid narrative arc and you know exactly how the story unfolds). Sounds like it is, as long as you're up front about it. Follow-up question to that is, should you indicate how long it might take to finish the book?
If you are a good writer no need for tricks. Just demonstrate your talent in the letter.