Over on tumblr, a wonderful human asked:
"Does anybody have any tips or examples for writing a query letter pls help
(I’m looking at you @jpolish-writes-queer-ya-fantasy)"
Hi there @smellbig -- thank you for such an important question! And it just so happens that I do!
Now, before I dive in, you should know that there are a lot of fabulous query letter resources out there. A quick search will find lots of amazing resources, and I encourage you to dive into that, with specifications for your genre. That said, a few general query letter tips:
1. Research, Research, Research
Have I mentioned research?
For each and every agent you submit to -- yes, every one -- you should be reading way, way more than you will ever write in your query letter.
First and foremost, you want to make sure that the agent you’re querying (a) works on your age range and genre; (b) is accepting unsolicited submissions; (c) seems like they’re a good fit for you and your novel.
What does a good fit mean? Well, check their Twitter if they have one, and Manuscript Wishlist (#mswl). And that’s the easy part.
Because then you should dive into interviews with that agent. These are crucial; I will tell you below, for example, that it’s often important to tell the agent briefly why you’re querying them before diving into it. Some agents, though? They will say in interviews that they don’t want personal flourishes or an explanation, they just want to hear about your book. Many interviews will explicitly ask what agents like to read in their query letters, and what they don’t. Those are always super helpful.
More importantly, though, interviews will tell you more about what the agent’s style is; what kinds of books they’ve sold in the past; what they’re looking for moving forward. Remember that you’re looking to get your book represented, sure, but you’re also looking to form a relationship: so this kind of information is very important.
2. Make Yourself a Database
Okay, this isn’t about writing the letter exactly, but before you do, please keep track of it! Make yourself a spreadsheet with name, agency, email, relevant links, notes about why you want to work with them, specifications they/their agency have for query letters, how long they say it takes to get back to you, the date you sent your query letter, etc.
You want to send maybe 5-10 letters in one go, max. If you get no responses, you might want to tweak your letter! Remember that it’s always a work in progress, and that’s okay. Keeping track of agents you’ve sent to is hugely important during this; it can help you improve your letters, and it will help you avoid industry no-nos (like, for example, querying two agents at the same agency at the same time).
3. Structure It
Generally speaking, there’s a three-paragraph structure to your basic query letter. (You want to cater to each specific agent, as discussed above, but hey, we gotta start somewhere, right?)
Greeting (Dear xx -- please make sure to get the agent’s name right! You’d be surprised how many folks don’t.)
Very briefly introduce your novel and why you’re querying this agent: always include your genre and word count. So, for example, “LUNAV, a YA fantasy complete at 89,000 words.” It’s important to include that it’s complete, and it’d better be: never query with an incomplete novel! And, the ‘why I’m querying you’ should be short and sweet: “I read your interview on x site, saying y”, so your novel would be a great fit for them, etc. This is also the paragraph where you can have comp titles; titles that your book is similar to/would attract readers of. Don’t use industry things like Harry Potter, and don’t do the “I’m the next xx author” thing: if there’s one thing agents seem to unanimously agree on, it’s disliking that intensely.
Your novel: this part isn’t a summary, and you don’t have to include the ending. You do, however, have to “hook” your reader, and quickly. Most agents want to be compelled by your main character immediately; and, the assumption will be that your book is complex, with more than two or three characters, but you really don’t want to mention more than that. You also really don’t want to mention side plots. Stick to the central focus, which -- yes -- is so, so, so hard when you’ve written a whole darn novel! But you’ve gotta. To help you, read a lot of dust jacket copies (the blurb on the back of paperbacks and on the inside of the hardcover dust jacket) in your genre. How do they hook readers? Are there similarities in how the stories and characters are presented? Familiarity with your genre is important, and it will show in your brief, brief, brief (read point below) hook for your novel.
Author bio: This is where you give information about yourself that is relevant to your novel; if your novel is a detective novel, it will help to mention that you were a cop for x number of years. If your novel is a high fantasy with dragons and such, it probably won’t help to mention that. It will never help to mention that your best friend loves the book, etc. Keep this short and sweet; you want to give the agent a picture of you and why you’re qualified to write the book you have, not your whole life story.
Closing: Some people include their Twitter handle and such with their signature, and that’s alright. But again, keep it simple.
Sample: Many agents ask for a short sample of your novel along with the query letter; sometimes it’s the first five pages, sometimes it’s ten, sometimes it’s the first two chapters, sometimes it’s more or less. Whatever they request along with query letters (this info will be on their agency site), send that and only that under your signature. Copy-paste the text; never send unsolicited attachments.
4. Keep It Short
You’ve written a novel! Congratulations. Truly. It is an amazing feat, and you should be so proud of yourself.
Now you have to get someone to want to read it in less than 300 words. And that includes the whole letter, not even just the part about your book. Remember that agents are massively busy and receive an overwhelming amount of queries weekly; your letter’s length is almost like a form of respecting their time. Please do that, just like you’d want someone to respect yours.
5. Example Time
My query letter has changed a lot over time, but this version (with some comments from me in brackets) elicited several requests for full and partial manuscripts from agents, and ultimately helped get me a publishing contract with @ninestarpress.
Dear Nine Star Team,
I hope this finds you enjoying the season. With excitement, I invite you into the world of my literary novel [this part is not typical: usually you wouldn’t say “literary novel,” you’d just say YA fantasy novel; but NineStar has specific querying requests on their site, so I followed them!] LUNAV, a YA fantasy. As a nonbinary lesbian author writing queer characters (including a lesbian protagonist, a main FF romance, and several genderqueer characters), I hope that you will find my novel to be a good fit, especially as you grow your collection of YA offerings. LUNAV is complete at 89,000 words and will appeal to readers of the SERAPHINA duology and OTHERBOUND. [Note that the industry standard is to all-caps book titles.]
They don’t have dragons where half-faerie Sadie was born – not living ones, anyway – but in the Grove, everyone knows that dragon eggs grow on trees like leaves and need dreams to hatch. Without faerie dreams, the dragons won’t survive. And neither will anyone else.
Brash, boyish sixteen-year-old Sadie thinks she can stop the worst from happening, but as a half-human, she looks far too much like the enemy. So she’s been using her looks to spy on the human monarchy. But spying is a risky business: it, like dreaming, is punishable by death. Slow death. Still, Sadie thought she was a pro. Until they sent a new human magistrate to the Grove. Evelyn.
Evelyn might be the most beautiful girl Sadie’s ever seen, and Sadie might be betraying her family by falling in love with the ruthless leader who locks them up. But that’s not even the biggest obstacle between them: Evelyn is leading the charge against dreaming, and there’s something she doesn’t know. Sadie can still dream.
I run a Tumblr blog dedicated to queer women fandoms, and in the past four months alone, I have developed a following of over 5,000 people through my fan fiction writing (I continue to gain around 40 followers each day). Additionally, I teach writing at CUNY LaGuardia Community College. I have both published and forthcoming academic articles on dis/ability in YA fiction, and I occasionally write for GayYA (a blog dedicated to queer YA fiction). I’m currently a PhD candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Attached, please find my manuscript and synopsis. [They requested it, which is the only reason I attached anything.] Thank you so much for your time and consideration.
So. You should know that the novel part of this query, I originally wrote in the first person. My novel is in the first person, from Sadie’s perspective, and it was so much easier for me to craft an authentic letter in her voice. I edited it for third person before sending it.
Aaaand that’s all I got for now. Please feel free to follow up on this with further questions or more specific queries (see what I did there?).