10 Steps to Writing a Successful Query Letter

Querying is not for the faint of heart. Contrary to popular belief, most authors find writing a query letter harder than writing an entire manuscript. I’m right there with them. There’s nothing as mindblowing as having to narrow down your entire storyline until you’ve found what’s truly important, and then putting it in two or three paragraphs.

In this post, I’m going to talk about what makes a successful query letter. These are just general guidelines. If you want advise on your query letter personally, I suggest posting it in the AbsoluteWrite community. The people there are amazing and have a great grasp of the industry. They can give you personal advice on your query letter.

1. Does the agent represent the kind of novel you’re querying for?

Although this has little to do with your query letter perse, it’s the most important question you have to ask yourself. There’s no use querying a non-fiction only agent with a fiction novel. If the agent doesn’t represent young adult novels, then why are you sending him your YA manuscript? Agents will not miraculously change the type of books they do and do not represent overnight. They will not make an exception because your book is so brilliant.

The first thing you have to do when targeting an agent or publisher is finding out if they represent/publish your book’s genre. If they don’t, then don’t waste their time or yours. Go query another agent.

Believe it or not, but most queries are ignored or rejected because the agent just isn’t suitable for the type of manuscript. Do your research, or you’ll make yourself look like a fool, and that’s never a good thing.

2. Do not praise yourself or your book in your query letter

I can’t emphasize how important this one is. If your query letters holds paragraphs like: “My book is a masterpiece which will earn at least $10,000 to one million” or be as preposterous to assume your book will sell 100 billion copies, while in fact there are only 7 billion people on this planet, you’re not making yourself look good. Yes, those are real queries, people.

While I don’t think you should be shy about your work, and I’m glad some people are confident enough about their manuscript to compare it to the Bible, the Koran or the next Harry Potter, it’s not doing you any favors. Also, please don’t mention how much your Mom/neighbour/cat likes the story.

3. Address the agent personally

If you want an agent to take the time to read through your submission, then you better well make the time to browse through their website and find their name. “Dear Mr. Agent” will make you look amateurish. Even worse is “Dear Mr./Madam“. It takes about five minutes to figure out if the agent you’re querying is a man or a woman. Figure it out.

Some authors make the mistake of contacting hundreds of agents at once. I personally have trouble keeping track of queries when I’ve contacted two agents. Don’t just spam mail hundred or more agents at once. Even if you want to submit to ten or more in one run, then contact each of them personally. Nothing makes you look worse than calling your prospective agent Mr/Madam or just Dear Agent.

4. Don’t start your query with a hypothetical question

While some sources say that a hypothetical question, like “What would you do if the world came to an end?” or “What would you if you suddenly ran out of breakfast cereals?” are a great way to draw an agent’s attention. Maybe. But I’ve seen these questions do more right than wrong. Whereas the first one may even sound remotely interesting, the second one is boring. A bit funny, perhaps, but boring. It’s better to jump straight into the action: “The world came to an end” or “We ran out of breakfast cereals. It was catastrophic” both sound better than the hypothetical question.

People get the idea that they have to start with these questions because online articles tell them they have to write a “hook”, something that grabs an agent’s attention. However, you can just as easily get the same effect with writing a regular sentence.

“Today, the world ended.”

Well, if that hasn’t gotten your interest, then what of the following?

“When Lisa discovered she was a ghost, she didn’t feel particularly happy about it.”
“Killing your best friend during science class does something to a person.”
“The plot bunny felt sick and tired of being constantly abused by uninspired authors.”

These type of ‘hooks’ can have just the same, if not a better effect than asking a hypothetical question as a hook.

5. Don’t tell the agent that he/she is the 100th agent you’re querying

Even if you’ve already queried fifty agents and you’re feeling pretty desperate by now, don’t go telling your agents how much agents you’ve queried before, and how they all rejected your manuscript. Also, there’s no need to tell them about that mortgage you need to pay off desperately, how you quit your job to become a full-time author or how you’re a college student who needs every bit of financial support he can get. Don’t. The agent, most likely, doesn’t care. And even if they care, this will not put you any step closer towards that agent contract you long for so much.

We’re in the real world. People won’t give you money because you beg for it. Agents won’t give you a contract because you beg for it. No matter how many rejections you’ve had so far, no matter how much you need the money or how much you want your manuscript published, keep all of that out of your query letter. Complain about it to your friends, your Mom, your family, your psychologist as much as you want, but don’t complain about it to your agent.

If I mail you and ask you “will you look at something 70 other people already rejected”, will you look at it?

Didn’t think so.

6. Don’t introduce us to all your characters

The first time I wrote a query, I made this mistake as well. This book happened to have a lot of characters, and some of them had quirky names, so I decided to add them in the first draft of my query. Wrong. For me, it all makes sense, because as the author I’m used to these characters. I know who they are. The agent who reads my query for the first time, doesn’t. So you can’t mention all your characters in your query.

What you have to focus on, is your main character. What does your main character do? Why does he/she do it? Who is the villain (and I’m using this term widely here, it doesn’t have to be a person, but can also be a circumstance, illness, whatever you want) and how can the main character defeat the villain? These are the things you have to focus on. How does your main character go from A to B, and why. You don’t have to focus on your ten support characters. Focus on your main character only.

7. Don’t forget to mention the basics: genre, title, word count

You would be surprised how many people type out a successful query letter and then leave out one or all three of the above. Also, don’t mention these in the middle of your query letter. Put them either at the beginning or at the end. Be brief about them as well.

“The Sleeping Kingdom, a YA fantasy novel, is completed at 75,000 words.”

That’s enough. You don’t need to add more. Mention title, genre, word count. Also, please mention if the manuscript is completed or not. Unless you’re querying non-fiction, most agents will only look at a completed manuscript.

8. Only mention relevant credentials

If you’ve been published before, even if it’s short story publications, then it can make sense to put those at the end of a query letter. Don’t ever start with them. Start with your story. But at the end, you can mention that you’ve been published by X and Z. The only question you have to ask yourself though is if it’s relevant.

College educations are irrelevant, unless you’re querying non-fiction. If your query is a romance novel, nobody will care about your bachelor degree in mathematics or science. If however you’re querying a math textbook or something similar, then people will definitely care. If you’ve won writing contests, think about whether or not they’re really that important. If you won a local contest, that’s good for you, but chances are the agent probably has never heard of it.

It’s important to figure out which credentials the agent will care about and which ones they won’t care about. If you add too many credentials that don’t sound important, you risk coming off as presumptous or elitist (for example, you have three degrees and mention them all although they have nothing to do with your novel whatsoever).

9. Make sure your query is completely error-free

The last thing you want is for agents to find any spelling or grammar errors in your query. Believe me, it’s bad enough when they find them in your manuscript. A query isn’t just something you can put together in five minutes. Write it. Step away from it for a couple of days. Post it on a forum to get feedback. Go back to it when you feel you’ve received sufficient and helpful feedback. Revise your query. Repost it. Do this until you feel your query is good enough.

Your query is your calling card. You make or break your novel by writing this one single page. Don’t rush on it. Take whatever time you need and make it as perfect as it can be. Let other people read through it for you. Make sure your query is completely error-free before you send it to the agent or publisher.

10. Don’t forget about the agent/publisher guidelines

Some agents/publishers want you to use a specific font in your query, or to add some sample pages. Some want you to add these in a seperate file, while others want you to copy/paste them into the body of an email. Read their guidelines carefully and do exactly as they say. You don’t want to miss out on an excellent opportunity simply because you didn’t take the time to read their guidelines or follow them.

Well, now you’ve got all the ingredients to write a successful query letter. Will a successful query letter bring you that publishing deal? Chances are slim, but at least a good query letter might persuade agents to ask for your full manuscript, or a partial. Your query is your first impression. Make a good one.

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