by Michael Cristiano
Writing a query letter is an art, they say. What they really mean is that it’s really gosh-darn hard. It seems that everyone and their sister thinks they can write a query letter, but out in the real world, it fails. Miserably.
That’s what happened to me. I thought writing a query letter was easy. I composed one in a couple hours and unleashed it onto the world. Little did I know, it was crap and yielded no return. It wasn’t until I joined the Absolute Write and participated in their forum that I was able to learn how to write a query letter properly.
Now, I shall bestow my knowledge upon you.
Step One: Write a Manuscript
A given, right? Wrong. I am a big advocate that writers complete their entire manuscript before they attempt to write a query letter. Yes, I know querying seems exciting for you right now. Yes, I know you think you’ve struck gold and you absolutely NEED to tell someone. But you need to finish. And when I say finish, I mean beta-read, edited, spit-shined, and all.
Why? Well, how can you write a clear, concise, pristine query letter if your manuscript is not clear, concise, and pristine. So, get back to writing, grasshopper! Your day in query letter hell will come.
Step Two: Learn the Anatomy of a Query Letter
A query letter is generally broken into three parts:
- The Hook
- The Story
- The Credentials
This is the basic structure that writers follow. Yes, there are little variations to this structure, but they generally only occur if a specific editor or agent requests said variations (and they will make such requests and other specifications on the submissions page of their website). Otherwise, it’s safest to stick to this model. Remember, you are writing a proposal for your product (ie. your novel), not taking over the world with your revolutionary literary prowess.
Step Three: The Hook
The Hook is just what it seems: it is a small paragraph, normally one to three sentences, that will draw in a reader, hold tight, and make them want to read more. Think of it like the deep, intense voice that begins movie trailers. A lot of writers will use a When-clause, but it’s not always necessary. Here is an example of a When-clause:
“When Harry Potter discovers he is a wizard, he enrols in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and uncovers a dark magic, one that threatens to take over the wizarding world.”
With that hook alone, it’s easy to identify three things: the main character, the location, and the gist of the plot. In theory, this should be enough to force the reader to read the remainder of the query letter, but don’t forget to make it sound pretty. You’re selling your amazing writing skills, after all.
Step Four: The Story
The Story is, again, just that. It is the plot of your novel, concise and juicy, giving away just enough to entice. It is important not to overwhelm your reader with too many details. That generally means that you should stick to your main character, no more than two supporting characters, and the chief antagonist. Also, it is essential to stick to the MAIN PLOT. Again, the OVERARCHING PLOT. I know you love your subplots, but those do not belong in your query letter. They will overwhelm the reader and crowd your query letter.
Reading your query letter shouldn’t feel like trying to find a small child in a crowd.
Now, I’m not one for outlines. I very rarely outline a story and when I do, it’s such a loose outline that it’s barely an outline at all. But the query letter is different. You absolutely should consider an outline. Why? Well, let’s try a little experiment. Take your current novel and try to sum it up in 150 words or less. Hard, right? Even if you were able to do it, I bet I didn’t sound beautiful and I bet you left out details that you’re dying to include.
The outline will help with that. To outline, I normally use the Three Question Method. This helps writers to focus their query and be sure not to forget the most important elements of the plot. Each query letter should strive to answer these three questions (taken from the Absolute Write forums):
- What does your protagonist want?
- What does s/he have to do to get it?
- What happens if s/he fails to get what she wants? (the stakes)
Once you’ve answered these three questions, you have the bare bones for a query letter. Essentially, you want this paragraph to read like the blurbs on the back of books. You want it to entice and you want to detail the plot, but leave it open-ended.
Step Five: The Credentials
This is the part where you talk about yourself. What other work have you gotten published? What qualifications do you have? Don’t have any of that? That’s really okay, but what inspired you to write this story and what makes YOU the person who should tell it?
Also, the second part of this paragraph should cater to the person you’re sending it to. Why did you choose said agent/editor/publisher as a candidate for your work? This will include some research. Look at other titles your agent/editor/publisher has worked with. Look at their blog, Twitter or Facebook pages. This is the part where you personalize your letter and don’t go skimpy on this part. They will know if you’re lying or if you haven’t done your research.
Lastly, do NOT forget to include the title of your manuscript, the genre and the word count. This is generally done in the first sentence of The Credentials paragraph.
Step Six: Get Feedback
This is perhaps the most important step. Have a writer friend? A beta-reader? A brutally honest friend who likes to read? Have them look it over. Does it entice them? Are they able to understand the main pillars of your plot? If you answer no to these questions, an agent or editor will to. Revise, revise, revise, and if you send it out to prospective literary personnel and get no bites, revise again.
Finally, don’t be discouraged. Querying is a long, labouring, and often fruitless process, but all writers go through it. Besides, all it takes is one yes.
Guest post contributed by Michael Cristiano. He works in editing and acquisitions for Curiosity Quills Press, and his freelance work has appeared on websites such as Nexopia, FluentU, and BlushPost. Check out his blog for more of his work.
This is great! I’m going to have to print this off and refer to it in about, oh, a year when I’m finally done with my revision!
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Thanks for the tips! My novel is already done and I’m really struggling on how to describe it. I need all the help I can get with query letters and such.
Ironically, I’ve always found the idea of writing a query letter way scarier than writing a novel. Maybe because I don’t spend enough time reading them. But the prospect of writing one feels a little less intimidating now. Thanks!
Michael, thanks for the summary, timely for me as well. I suspect “it’s an art” could be reworded as “I don’t know how it’s done, but I know what I like when I see it.”