A great query letter can help you make a lasting impression with literary agents and move closer to achieving your publishing dreams. You’ve put months or even years into revising your novel, so make sure you put the same care and research into the querying process.
As a freelance editor, I often hear clients lamenting about “wasting” queries. Before doing their research, they throw together a quick query and send it off to their dream agent, only to get rejected. Now they’ve lost the chance to land that particular agent. Now, in reality, there are a million reasons why the agent might have passed. Maybe the book wasn’t a good fit for their interests, or they simply didn’t love the concept enough to request more pages. But now this client will always wonder: What if I had worked harder to craft a query letter that truly represented my work?
To help you avoid querying remorse, I’ve put together three tips for crafting a stronger query. You’ve poured so much time into your novel, you owe it to yourself to present the best query letter possible.
Tell your story. Don’t tell us about your story.
The goal of the query letter is simple, to entice agents to read your full manuscript. The opening, hook, comparative titles, and author bio are all dedicated to achieving this goal. Agents want to know: Why this story? Why now? Why are you the best person to tell this story?
So it might seem natural to launch directly into selling mode with dramatic claims about your book.
My Amazing Novel tackles the theme of modern consumerism with a quirky cast and humor so dry you’ll think you’ve spent an afternoon trekking across the Sahara.
Avoid the urge to wax poetic about your work. Leave this type of analysis to future critics who get paid to dissect your deeper themes and comment oh-so-poetically on your writing style and prose. Remember, you want to tell your story, rather than telling agents about your story.
You can get away with a lot when you’re eighty-seven and the spitting image of Betty White—waltzing through Saks Fifth Avenue in a stolen pair of Jimmy Choos, canoodling with every pool boy on the block—but Vangie Jacobs draws the line at murder. At least she did, until her high school rival and Blanche Devereaux impersonator, Lucille Clifton, sweeps into town, threatening to take everything Vangie has worked so hard to steal.(By the way, I 100% want to write this book now!)
Imagine these two examples are describing the same book. The first is so vague it could be talking about almost anything. The second introduces a delightfully devious main character, a compelling story problem, a hint at more drama to come, and it does it all by telling us the story, rather than telling us about the story. We see the humor and quirky characters in action, and this serves as proof that we can deliver the book we’re pitching to agents.
As authors, we are both creatives and business people, even if we choose to go the traditional publishing route. The query letter is the perfect combination of these two sides of our author personality. We need to think strategically and be professional, but we want to employ our core talent, our creativity, when pitching the book. Stories sell, not vague claims of greatness, so put those storytelling skills to work.
Answer these key questions in your hook.
Your hook, also known as the book description or pitch, is the core of any query letter. This is where you convince agents that your novel is worth reading. But it’s not easy. How can you boil down an entire book into a compelling pitch that clocks in around 300 words? If you want to avoid confusion and unnecessary details, use a combination of these questions as your guide:
- What does my main character want and why?
- What are they willing to do to get it?
- What will happen if they fail (the stakes)?
- What tough choices will they make along the way?
If you can answer these questions while infusing your unique voice, even better. Essentially, agents need to know who your story is about, what happens, and why they should care.
Identify your “why.”
This question of “why” comes up a lot when crafting queries. There’s the specific question of why an agent should invest in your characters and plot, and the broader question: Okay, but why this story? Why now? That “why” may center around a unique perspective, an unexpected plot twist, a compelling character journey, or any factor that makes your story feel fresh. This isn’t your time to turn marketing expert and start spouting numbers about why your book will sell. Instead, focus on one unique thing, whether big or small, that makes your story stand out.
It may be something as simple as an unusual setting that hasn’t been seen before in your genre. If so, bring that setting to life in the query. This was the case for my friend Ginny Myers Sain when she was pitching her debut YA thriller, Dark and Shallow Lies.
Even though La Cachette, Louisiana, is the “Psychic Capital of the World,” nobody there has a clue what happened to Elora Pellerin.
Notice how she introduces the main story hook along with a nod at the unusual setting, something she went back to touch on again later in the query. This twist on the typical YA thriller is part of what made her book stand out to agents.
Maybe your story happens in a normal setting, but it has rarely or never been told from your chosen point of view. If so, highlight why this perspective matters and why you’re the best person to write it.
Your “why” doesn’t need to be huge or groundbreaking. As mentioned, it can be an unexpected plot twist, an especially strong character journey, or a story that hasn’t been told for your audience before. In pitching her middle grade novel, Oddity, author Sarah Cannon described it as Welcome to Night Vale for middle grade. In the same way, your “why” might focus on marrying two concepts that have never been paired before.
No Query Ever Wasted
In my opinion, no query letter is ever really wasted. We are all doing our best to succeed in this creative journey using the knowledge we have at the time. But when we know better, we do better. So if you’ve lamented over “wasted” queries in the past, give yourself permission to stop fretting. You may not have landed your dream agent on the first round, but there are always more opportunities.
Move forward using these three tips and try again. And again. We’ve heard it before, but it’s so true: Professional writers aren’t the ones who never fail. They’re the ones who fail and never stop trying.
If you need additional help on your querying journey, check out my new course, Writing a Successful Query Letter.
As a freelance editor, I love helping fellow writers achieve their publishing dreams. I offer a variety of editorial services, including query letter critiques, full development edits, in-depth mentoring, and custom orders. As an author, I write middle grade novels that blur the lines between genre and literary. My most recent book, The Secret Life of Sam, was a 2021 Oklahoma Book Award winner and one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2020.