Five Things You Can Do To Improve Your Query Letter

photo 1Make sure you’ve sent your query to someone who wants to read it. Does the agent to whom you’re submitting represent the genre that you write? You’re wasting your time (and the agent’s) if you write YA fiction and they don’t represent kidlit. Just because you’ve “done your research” and you think Perfect Agent For You is really cool, they like the same things you like, they have a neato online presence that you love to follow, they say funny things on Twitter, does not mean they are going to throw their stated preferences of what they’re looking for out the window and offer you representation on your vegan, gluten free, Wiccan cookbook for healing cancer, when they only represent fiction. Really. You’re not the exception to the rule.

photo 2Start with a strong hook or log line. Nothing makes me want to continue reading a query and take my finger off the delete button more than a great first sentence or paragraph. Your query letter is a sales tool. Think of it as an infomercial to sell your manuscript. If you start out boring, you’re setting up whoever’s reading the query to be bored (and to move on to something more interesting). If you start out fascinating, riveting, unique, or even funny, you’re inviting whoever’s reading your query to read the rest of it in that mindset. And the name of the game is getting that someone to read the whole query letter and be interested enough to read the manuscript.

photo 3When giving a short synopsis or recap, don’t go into too much detail. Don’t give away the baby with the bathwater. You don’t need to name every character and every situation, and you don’t need to retell the whole storyline. Tell enough about your story to pique the interest of the reader. Is your story about identical twins named Romulus and Remus, left on the abandoned Mars colony to die, who are raised by a Mars native that the Terrans don’t know exist? Excellent! Please don’t tell me how it all pans out. It’s enough to say that some of your story follows the Roman foundation myth, but that it’s just the starting point for your 95,463 word YA space opera. You can mention the key plot lines and themes, but please don’t tell all. Part of enticing someone to read your manuscript is leaving some questions unanswered.

photo 4Only put relevant information in your bio. If you are an award winning microbiologist who has spent the last 10 years in Borneo doing research to find a cure for a rare disease, don’t include that information if you’re submitting a picture book about an aardvark who prefers bananas to raisins in her morning breakfast cereal. Even if you’ve found the cure to the rare disease. Why? Because it just doesn’t matter. It’s not relevant to your task at hand. And that task is to convey information about who you are as a writer. Are you a stay at home mother of three children, who likes to knit, volunteers 20 hours a week for your church, and has an awesome organic garden? Cool! If you’re submitting a legal thriller set in New Orleans in the 1920’s your kids, knitting, church and garden just aren’t relevant. Leave it out. It’s enough to say that you’re a graduate of UCLA, a member of Mystery Writers of America, have attended writing conferences for many years, and that this is your first novel.

photo 5Make sure you’re findable and that what’s found doesn’t scare people away. That is to say, include your contact information at the bottom of your query letter (email, mailing address, phone number) with links to your online presence. Agents and editors will click the links you include and/or Google you if they’re interested in your work. Make no mistake, if you’re someone who’s bashing agents and whining and complaining online, we will see it. We really will pass on a manuscript if you seem like a nutjob on Twitter or elsewhere.

Bonus advice: Don’t use as many italics as I did in this blog post and keep the number of exclamation points to a minimum!!!!

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Five Things You Can Do To Improve Your Query Letter

  1. Kevin A. Lewis

    It also helps to remember that this is, first and foremost, a whim-driven business; by all means make your query the most hook-barbed lure in the lake, and everything else, but don’t have any emotional or even logical expectations. Exhibit A: all the agencies around town who passed on the BOOK THIEF, or query letter thereof. Happens all the time. By the way, it’s a relief to find a real-time agent blog that doesn’t consist of a few blowing tumbleweeds and cattle bones from a year or two ago. I’ll drop in occasionally now that I’ve discovered actual signs of life…

  2. One thing I’ve done is give my query letter to someone else and ask, “Does this letter make my butt look crazy?”

    It’s so tempting to include anything and everything that could possibly make you look as good as possible. One fears leaving out That One Vital Bit of Info that would Catch the Agent’s Eye.

    Why can’t we simply say, “I’m good, my book’s brilliant, how do I convince you of that?” After all, that’s the purpose of the query letter.

  3. I was glad to see #2. Many resources (I’ve done a lot of research on the querying process) suggest starting off a query with the manuscript specifics, like “Dear Linda, LALALA is my YA novel, complete at 148,000 words, winner of three first-chapter contests.” But when I’m asked for advice, I always suggest starting off with the hook and making it so good that the agent just has to read one more sentence just to see.

  4. Cecilia

    thank you

  5. R.L. Saunders

    I’m so glad I left out the part about my dachshund-shaped door draft guard knitting business. SO GLAD.