Given that pressure, it’s easy to get bogged down in query hell, but if you strip things back, there’s a template that covers most situations. Queries fall naturally into a three paragraph format, like this:
First paragraph: Introduces main character, setting, situation and goals.
Second paragraph: Turning point, conflict, rising tension, antagonist.
Third paragraph: Stakes and consequences. What happens if the character fails, and will they face any cost if they win?
If you start with these guidelines, you’ll have a template to hang the unique parts of your story.
What else to remember?
Always start your query letter with Dear and the agent’s name. Never use a generic greeting like Dear Agents, and double check spelling and pronouns. This is a business letter, and you don’t want to start with a bad impression.
Finish your query with a line or two that includes your word count, genre, and age category. If you know a couple of similar books, you can mention this here, so the agent has an idea of where you think your book sits, and that you know the market. Finally, if there’s anything that makes you stand out as the author, for example if your book is a cyber thriller and you work in information security, or if the book focuses on a particular culture you belong to, include it here.
Personalise your query
What you have so far is your base query. Each one you actually send is likely to be slightly different. Before sending, make sure you read the agent’s submission guide on their website. They may want a synopsis or a first chapter included. They may want things like a log line or a bio that other agents aren’t bothered by. Some want the housekeeping information (word count, genre etc) at the top rather than the bottom.
It’s also a good idea to track down interviews with agents, as they often go into more detail about their personal preference, such as whether they like a line of why they were selected, or whether such things get in the way and they’d prefer to get straight down to it.
Things to make sure you do
Always start with a blank email. That makes sure you don’t do things like forget to change the agent name. Trust me, it’s embarrassing.
Send a copy of your first email to another email account, or a friend. That way you can check your formatting doesn’t change, and there aren’t any strange backgrounds or similar.
Make a checklist so you don’t forget to include any of the extras an agent might ask for.
Send your queries out in small batches. That way if you find it isn’t getting the expected response, you can amend it before it gets in front of any more agents.
Read your query out loud, either yourself or use a text to speech device. It’s often easier to hear mistakes than see them.
Keep it short. Queries should be between around 200 to 350 words. Fantasy and sci-fi queries will often end up at the larger end, romance at the shorter.
Read as many queries as you can, particularly successful ones, to get an idea of what works. There are several archives on the internet, with Query Shark being one of the best.
Follow hashtags on Twitter like #tenqueries to get an idea of how agents think.
Remember rejection isn’t personal. And it isn’t always a reflection of the writing. Many submissions are rejected for utterly subjective reasons, like not liking sad endings, or because the agent already has several books like this on their list.
Things to Avoid
Don’t write your query from your character’s perspective. The only part that should be in the first person is the bio.
Don’t forget to show, not tell. Don’t list themes and moods, let them come out in your word choice.
Don’t write a synopsis. The query shouldn’t just be a list of things that happen, and generally only focuses on things in the first third of the book.
Similarly, don’t try and cram too much in. Don’t worry about getting all the details of your world-building in. Just enough to show how your setting is different.
Make sure you label your query correctly. A suspense novel is different to a thriller; women’s fiction is not romance.
Don’t pitch more than one project at a time. If your book is part of a series, mention this, but don’t go into details about the sequels.
Don’t be vague. Phrases like ‘dark secrets’, ‘unknown events’, ‘mysterious stranger’ are not enticing, because they’ve seen them all before. They want to know the things that make your story unique. Equally, avoid rhetorical questions.
Don’t talk down other books or genres. You and everyone you know might hate a book, and think yours is much better. But you don’t know the agent’s opinion on it. You won’t put yourself in a good light by slating something they enjoy. Keep your query professional at all times.
Don’t neglect to think about word choice. The query should show off your writing ability as much as the manuscript. Flat writing in a query will get you rejected, even if your manuscript is beautiful.
Don’t attach anything not requested. It will often get your email deleted. Equally, if they do request something, don’t forget it.
Queries can be fun
You’re selling your manuscript, so the query is the time to remember how much you love it. Think about all its strengths, how your betas have said they couldn’t put it down. You’re distilling that awesomeness down to grab an agent’s attention. If you focus on your love for your work, it will shine though in the query.
Some useful links
- http://queryshark.blogspot.co.uk/ - a database of hundreds of queries, critiqued by a seasoned and respected agent.
- https://querytracker.net – database of agents, what they represent, and a place to keep track of queries you’ve sent.
- http://www.michelle4laughs.com/ - has many interviews with agents to help refine your query
- http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com – a database of sometimes very specific agent desires for their list. Can help select which agents are the best fit, and also give inspiration.