The Art of the Query Letter
by Michael Mohr (originally posted on ryanlanz.com)
I want to talk for a fast minute about query letters. For those of you who don’t know what they are, or for those who know very little, this should prove to be a helpful post.
Query letters are the first professional handshake between an aspiring author and a literary agent. The first hurdle you must pass through in the writing world is an agent; once you snag a good one, you will usually have them guiding you for the rest of your career. Of course, it’s not unheard of to run with a certain agent for a decade and then move on for myriad reasons.
But either way: A query letter is what gets you there. Sans query letter, you have virtually no chance at making substantial contact in the literary world with someone who can get your work to the next level. Unless of course you’re a social media God and you want to self publish; that’s a whole other blog post. Or, you know, you’re very wealthy and/or you have ‘connections.’ (Kind of sounds like the Mafia.)
Query letters are, in their simplest form, a letter, like a cover letter, that demonstrates the who, what, when, where and why of you and your book. You have to remember: Agents in 2016 have to sift through hundreds, even thousands of these puppies a week. This is why they often employ assistants or find college interns to help them push through the interminable Slush Pile. I was an assistant in this area and believe me, there is a LOT to go through in order to find that gold nugget.
The truth is, there are a million different ways to write a query letter, but really, in general, only one way that most often works. The idea is simply to get the agent’s attention and make them want to read your book; that’s it. Here are the main things to remember:
• One page long, no longer (250-350 words max)
• Three solid paragraphs only: Hook (including the genre and word count); mini-synopsis; and author bio
•Don’t compare your book to major titles (some agents like this but most don’t); simply demonstrate what the book is (i.e. the stakes, the character motivation, the basic plot) and why you are the best person to write it
•Show your narrative voice [of the book] in the query but also stay formal and be respectful.
•Do your research: Mention in the first paragraph why you chose the particular agent, even maybe mention one of their titles; let them know you’ve researched their website and know their preferred genre, etc; make it clear you’ve done your homework.
The whole thing should be—to repeat here for clarity—three paragraphs and 250-350 words long. It should be clear, simple, concise, to the point. Clip the fat off the bone. Think Hemingway: terse does the job. If it’s 350; cut it down to 300. Three hundred, try to cut it down to 250. They love a short, concise query; believe me. Read these:
The point is to get your idea across. The agent will be looking for clarity, logic, and a great plot that makes their heart skip a beat when they read the letter. Everything about the idea should pop off the page and make them want to read your book; make them want to request materials.
So do your homework, make sure you have a one to two sentence ‘logline’ hook that you place first before anything else in the query, then the genre and word count (‘This is a New Adult suspense novel at 80,000 words…’), and then get into the mini-synopsis.
Read some of the examples online from the websites I listed. Also simply type ‘How to write a query letter’ into Google: Much will pop up to read and explore. Don’t try to be the exception; be the rule. Yes, there are examples on those websites that run 477 words, or have an unusual format: Those are the rare ones. Stick to three paragraphs, 250-350; trust me.
Also, use the ‘when formula’ for your hook/logline. Example: ‘When John meets Jane B. in the elevator at Nike in downtown Portland, he wants desperately to tell her there’s a bomb strapped to the inside of his backpack; but he can’t.’ See how this is simple, concrete, to-the-point and also elicits the reader’s interest? That’s what you’re going for.
In addition to having a query letter ready, you’ll want to have a one- and a two-page synopsis ready for when an agent is interested. Sometimes they’ll directly request material. The agency I interned with did that often. But a lot of the time they will instead ask for a synopsis first, sometimes a one page, sometimes two. I’ll save the synopsis for another post. Follow the directions I’ve given and you should at least get a chance at having your work read.
Guest post contributed by Michael Mohr. Michael is a Bay Area writer, former literary agent’s assistant and freelance book editor. His fiction has been published in: Adelaide Literary Magazine; Bethlehem Writers’ Roundtable; Fiction Magazines; Tincture; and more. His blog pieces have been included in Writers’ Digest; Writer Unboxed and MASH. His writing/editing website and blog is http://www.michaelmohrwriter.com .