Query Letters – Everything You Need to Know

reblogged from Amber A Bardan, who will soon be published with our parent company Harlequin Australia, originally published on the Melbourne Romance Writer’s Guild blog on 12/9/15. You can find the original post here. Thanks to Amber and the MWRG for allowing us to share her brilliant post.


‘Mastering the dreaded Query Letter’ by Amber A. Bardan

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I’ve been looking forward to this post on query letters. Not because I love query letters (I don’t, they’re pure evil) but after about two years of querying, and researching every agent blog, every query letter resource, when it was finally time to query again, it seemed like I’d cracked the query letter code! Instead of an endless stream of impersonal form letter rejections, I was getting requests—and offers.

Most agents receive hundreds of submissions per month, and they’re not going to be tempted to read past a terrible query letter. The good news is there’s a fairly standard set of guidelines you can follow to get yours on the right track.

Here’s a basic run down of what should make up your query letter.

No 1. Business letter format

Yep this is a business letter. So before you start writing here are some rules. FORMAT IT PROFESSIONALLY!

  • Set 1 inch margins.
  • Select a professional font. Some choices are Times New Roman, Arial, Courier, Verdana or Calibri. If in doubt choose Times New Roman. A “special” font won’t make you stand out and look unique—it’ll hurt the agents brain.
  • Set font size to 12point.
  • Put the date in the top left hand corner

  • Under the date, type the name of agency or publishing house. Under that type “Attention:” and the name of the agent/editor or if specifically instructed “Query Department”.
  • Under that type the address, first the street address, then on the next line the state and post code. (If emailing queries an address may not be supplied, in which case just put the date, agency, and agent name.)

But you can be creative right? The agency specifies a one page query letter so if you use 8 point and set margins to narrow, you can make your two-page query letter fit! Right? Right?

Nope.

They’ve seen it all before. Don’t bend rules, follow guidelines. Not following instructions is a great way to get your query rejected without even being read.

No 2. The introduction
Start by addressing the letter to the agent you are querying. The only exception is if the guidelines demand that you address it to the queries department.  There is no good enough reason to address a query with “Dear Agent”. I promise you will be starting off on the wrong foot if you do.

  • The opening paragraph MUST include; the title of your book, the word count, and the genre (You need to nail this down; Speculative, Urban Fantasy, Romance, with Steam Punk elements, is not going to do).
  • Nothing else. Don’t clutter this section. You want to give the agent/editor the essential info then hook them in with your blurb.

No 3. The Blurb
In the end it all comes down to this! 2-3 paragraphs of awesome hook to snare the reader!
Blurb checklist

  1. Who is your protagonist/s? How can you sum up who they are in a few lines?
  2. What do they want?
  3. What are the obstacles/challenges?
  4. Most Importantly! What are the STAKES? (What is at stake if they don’t overcome the obstacle?)
    Include all that in as few words as possible with personality!  

Writing the blurb

  • If you don’t know where to start try the ‘When’ approach. eg. When Ariel the mermaid bargains with the Sea Witch for human legs…

  • Identify your character by name and age group immediately.
  • Don’t open with a rhetorical question. eg. “Have you ever wondered…?” You don’t want this answer to be no!
  • Keep it as concise as possible.
  • Don’t include every sub-plot and twist, just the central plot elements.
  • Only talk about the primary characters; don’t bombard the reader with secondary characters.
  • Finish with a hook! Examples; A question; Will she get there before the sun sets and break the spell?  OR re-iterate the stakes; If she fails it will mean the end of her kind.

(Editor’s Note: We have an article on writing a killer blurb, based on a presentation given by Ainslie Paton and Kate Cuthbert at RWAus15.)

No 4. Closing paragraph
Include any pertinent information.

  • Your writing credentials/awards/publishing credits.
  • The details of any standing requests by publishers.
  • Personally address the agent/editor. If you follow their blog, twitter, interviews, and something they do or have said applies to you, or makes you think you would be a fit with them, or have taken a workshop with them, include this here. Keep it professional and relevant.
  • Optional: You can include something like “Would appeal to readers of…” Some agents and editors want this, but many don’t. Also it’s essential that the authors you associate your writing with are not the current bestsellers. Your comparisons will reveal either your ignorance or solid industry knowledge.

No 5. The very tricky personal info
Now this is where people get stuck. Some agents/editors really want to have a little bit of information about you. Many though, find it irritating to read through thousands of queries and get bogged down in unnecessary information like what you do for a living if it doesn’t give you unique qualification to write your book. The best way to handle this is to read interviews, follow the blog of, or twitter account of the person you’re querying and find out how much info they want here. Otherwise, assume they don’t want it unless it is MUST know information. If you are going to include personal information keep it brief; two to three lines. This can be included in your closing paragraph.

  • Unique qualifications to write your book.

This means: You’re a former detective writing crime. You’re a double amputee writing amputee recovery stories. You’re a lawyer writing court based drama. You’re a Greek history professor and writing Greek Mythos which is your area of expertise.

This does not mean: You have researched your book (you’d better hope you have!). You are divorced and your character is divorced. You are a doctor and therefore you are real smarts…

  • You may include a brief line about your ambitions/writing career objectives, but keep it brief. You don’t need to write an essay on “your dreams”. If you’re querying an agent with a finished book, it would be a safe assumption that you dream of being a writer.

No 6. In closing

  • Thank them for taking the time to consider your query. Manners never hurt anyone.
  • Sign your letter. You must include your pseudo name (if you have one and use it in your social media) and you real name. So if you have both sign like this.

Author Fabulous

Pseudo name for Jane Jones

  • Provide all your contact details under your signature as you would in a professional business signature. Include your website and social media accounts.

Query Letter Boo Boo’s
The mistakes that are likely to get you rejected

  • Not following guidelines.
  • Not following guidelines.
  • Not following guidelines and then trying to justify why. “I know you said you wanted a one page query/synopsis but” = auto-pass. OR “I know you asked for one chapter but my book doesn’t get going till chapter five…” = then cut your first chapters and also they will auto-pass.
  • Addressing your query “Dear Agent/Editor.”
  • Spelling the agent/editors name incorrectly.
  • Not understanding the genre of your work.
  • Presenting your query unprofessionally; colour fonts, script font, ALLCAPS, etc.
  • Sending mass generic queries and especially when you include the email chain/forwarding history in the email.
  • Comparing your book to Twilight, Fifty Shades, Harry Potter, The Davinci Code and other Bestsellers.
  • Rambling on about yourself.
  • Rambling on in general.
  • Including too much in your blurb.
  • Failing to hook in your blurb.
  • Including things not requested. Copy of your manuscript, marketing plans, cover designs.
  • Selling yourself short. “My writing may not be the best but I’m willing to put in the work.”    Just don’t put yourself down. It’s not professional. Besides, if you tell them your work isn’t that great they’ll assume you are telling the truth…
  • I’m sad that this needs to be said but I constantly see agent/editor tweets about this. Arrogance/boasting. This includes telling an agent/editor (who receive hundreds of queries each month) how privileged they are to have the chance to represent/publish you. How your book is going to be a bestseller, how much your family like it, how much someone you paid likes it, etc. Presenting a polished professional query and polished outstanding manuscript pages is the only way to impress an agent/editor.

My final tips
Improve your chances.

Research the people you query. Learn their preferences and personalize!

  • Query in rounds so you have a chance to improve your query/pages after feedback.
  • Take feedback graciously and apply it.
  • Get someone who understands queries to critique your query letter.
  • Never send an angry response to a rejection—no matter what.
  • Have someone to proofread your query.
  • Give your manuscript time to “breathe” before querying. You’ll be surprised at how much you can improve with fresh eyes.

Query Letter Resources

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