There’s a general structure for query letters, but there are also specifics about which literary agents may have differing personal preferences. In this post, I draw on what I’ve learnt from giving feedback on an estimated thirty queries, and reading a similar number of successful ones, to provide structure and advice on specifics (with tips on how to identify literary agent preferences 😉.)
Beginning Your Letter
The Greeting Yes, you want your greeting to be professional, but the formal “Dear Mr/ Mx/ Mz etc” may sound distancing, requires you to check a female literary agent’s marital status, and runs the risk of misgendering a literary agent. As a literary agent is a potential partner in bringing your book into the world, I prefer just Dear First Name, as do a few literary agents in this thread. If you’re not sure how best to greet an agent, you might like to do a Twitter search of their @, #AskAgent and ‘greeting’ to see if they’ve tweeted a preference.
If you Prepare Queries for Multiple Agents At Once -make sure you have their name right! Have a system to ensure you fill details like names and personalisation correctly- every submission. I fill in the email subject line for all first, name for each, personalisation for each, then copy the pitch, sometimes altering the bio to suit the agent, then paste my sign off and contact details. Is spelling an agent’s name wrong cause for rejection? Not for Kortney Price -just don’t call her “Dear Sir” 😉.
I never begin with ‘I am seeking representation for…’ If your query is by email, your subject line will probably read, “Query, TITLE, Genre, Audience Age” -so the agent will know what you want. If you’re submitting via Query Manager -again, they’ll know and can you imagine getting a few hundred (or thousand) queries a month all beginning with the exact same phrase? 😬
There is a lot of advice saying that the title, genre, audience age, wordcount and comp title paragraph goes after the pitch. I’ve come across agents wanting to read the pitch first (eg. Carrie Howland & Pam Phonomena ), and agents who don’t mind (eg. Anne Rose), while Query Shark insists the pitch goes first. But I’ve also seen advice to put the manuscript title and word count upfront (eg. Susan Dennard). I include my title, genre, audience age and word count with personalisation. That way, the agent knows my genre (which could be Scifi or Fantasy from my pitch) upfront, and my word count shows straight away that my manuscript isn’t in dire need of editing and isn’t a hard pass on those grounds. (My comp titles go in a separate paragraph after my pitch.)
Personalisation -What Does it Mean and Why Does it Matter?
For some literary agents, a polite greeting by name is enough for personalisation (eg. Maria Vicente, Naomi Davis ). Other agents like to see indications you’ve done your homework about them, or their agency (eg. KT Literary). To see if a particular agent has a preference beyond being greeted by name, do a Twitter search of ‘@(whomever)’ and ‘personalisation’ with ‘#AskAgent’. If you’re lucky, the agent you’re querying will dislike personalisation sentences altogether (like Jessica Alverez), and you won’t need to bother with it.
If You Add Personalisation, What Should it say?
Don’t be weird -eg. don’t tell them the dream you had about them. Or gush about how wonderful they are. If you’ve had prior contact, via a conference for example, or if an agent liked your #Pitmad or other pitch, that’s worth opening with. (If they liked your pitch -embed it or paste its text and a link to it above your query pitch). If you’re keen on a particular agent and want to take time researching their clients and books, you might want to mention how an author or title they represent is similar (yet also different -your work not being a double up of theirs). Alternatively, you may google literary agent interviews or profiles to see if you have a similar taste in books or films with an agent (as Peter Knappe appears to like), or other shared interests which impact on your writing.
What if you don’t fancy researching 50+ agents?
I personally don’t look at interviews and sometimes not even at Twitter at the query stage, because it’s a time consuming investment which I suspect is unlikely to pay off. I check the agent’s long Manuscript Wishlist, and their MSWL tweets, filtered on this site and usually make a connection between my novel and the agent’s MSWL. If the agent doesn’t have MSWL, I make connections to particulars on their agency or personal website. If that doesn’t turn up much, you might just jump straight to the pitch -the most important part of the query- as Mandy Hubbard and Naomi Davis appear to advocate.
Something concise, which packs a punch about your MC (who ideally is a hook in and of themself) or something unique about your premise/ story, is an ideal way to begin your pitch. You want your hook to say “this book is interesting, original and you want to read my pages.” If you struggle, it may be easier to write and revise your pitch first, then single out what your hook should highlight. Writing a Killer LogLine by Graeme Shimmin may help with that.
Orienting the Reader in Your Story
If you’re querying SFF, Historical Fiction or any book in which your setting is crucial to its plot, and it isn’t contemporary Earth (or you’re querying in America but your novel is set elsewhere) -orient the reader at the outset. Begin with a clear indication of time and or location. Example, ‘It’s 1923 at the Bermuda Triangle…” If you don’t state your genre until after your pitch, you may like to suggest it by including genre specific clues (eg. referring to airships for steampunk), within the pitch.
This isn’t just an introduction. This is your chance to tell a literary agent what makes your MC different to the many other MC’s in your genre and their inbox. It’s your chance to show off some of your MC’s personality in how you describe them and their job description, or their wants or goal in the first line of your query. In introducing your MC, you want to show an industry professional a character they want to spend time with, so they want to follow that character’s journey throughout the story. Try and show something about your MC which is relatable, and which invites a reader to make a personal connection to and to root for your MC.
The MC’s introduction is also a place to begin showcasing your novel’s voice. To help develop your voice, consider how would your MC describe themself? What would they want others to know about them? What would their friends or family say about them? Is there a key sentence of dialogue or narration you can adapt from your MS into your MC’s intro?
This may not be a sentence of its own. It might follow on from the MC intro or even combine with it.
Eg. “College student Lizzie didn’t plan on receiving her education by distance, but when a loan shark’s fists show up wanting the money her absentee uncle owes them, life on the run is suddenly appealing.”
You might also want to include how the inciting incident makes the MC’s initial goal or want harder.
“Lizzie thought balancing part time work with completing a dissertation was hard, but meeting assignment deadlines while dodging armed thugs is a whole new project.”
Conflict & Stakes
Clarity & What’s Unique
At this point, it’s crucial to remember that a literary agent has no idea the “government” your “rebels” are rebelling against are aristocratic werewolves, who enjoy hunting unsuspecting plebs at every full moon. This section of your query isn’t just about making your conflict clear, it’s about showcasing what’s unique about your conflict, and how the protagonist and antagonist (or contagonist) interests clash. SFF writers, if you name anything in your pitch which doesn’t exist outside your story world (or has a different role in your world) -tell/ show the reader what it is. I’ve critiqued a few SFF query pitches where the “whatever-that-thing-is” is crucial to the plot, and it makes for frustrating reading.
I’ve critiqued pitches where there’s a big external conflict, and the draft query doesn’t actually say what role the main character plays. No matter how elaborate your external plot and story world may be -character is key and you’ve got to sell your MC at every stage of your pitch. Further, don’t stop with “MC joins the rebel fight against the evil empire.” Say what drives your MC . If you can, include something unique you’ve already introduced, which they draw on in fulfilling the role only they can play in combating the evil empire.
“Or the world be destroyed” might be your stakes. But the reader doesn’t know much about your world, or its rebels. They’re just vague entities and faceless people the reader has no emotional attachment to, so why should we care if either dies? But if the evil empire decides to demolish the suburb where dear old grandad, who inspired your MC to join the Justice League lives, and he’ll die and your MC will be devastated, well then we might care. So while ‘stakes’ can mean external stakes, if you want your stakes to have an emotional impact on the reader -make them personal to your MC too.
Sure, my MC is only 16, the uncle he loves dearly -his mentor- is dead, his parents have been abducted and he’s under siege by a vastly more powerful enemy, but, what if there’s something else in your story which amps up the stakes? Speeds up the ticking clock? There’s already a war between two kingdoms in my novel, but both sides are humans. Until a monster horde unleashed by a third ruler with an unknown agenda rocks up, and the entire continent is threatened. If in fleeing for her life, and completing her college dissertation, Lizzie discovers that not only are loan sharks after her for her uncle’s money, but her uncle has indebted himself to the mafia to pay back the loan sharks, or the rebel learns the aristocratic werewolves have struck an alliance with vampires to dispose of their political opponents -you might want to mention how the complication threatens your MC (and their dog 😉) and makes their role in the conflict even more difficult to fulfil.
End with Tension and or an Impossible Choice
The rebellion needs your MC’s help to fight the vampires who threaten everyone’s families, but it’s the full moon, and a werewolf aristocrat (mistakenly) suspects your MC’s best friend is the one who joined the rebels, is after said friend’s blood. There’s no-one to defend said friend -unless your MC abandons the rebels. In other words show how, to fulfil their goal and save the day, the MC must risk or sacrifice something precious to them. Or mention the complicating threat your MC can’t see, which is charging at them sideways, then end with that tension.
The Rest of Query
As said above, your title, genre, audience age and word count (if you didn’t share them above) go here. Different literary agents may hard pass on the basis of differing word counts for the same genre and audience age range. This thread by Kelly from Rees Agency gives an indication on certain genres and ages, and this post by the Manuscript Appraisal Agency gives word counts from shorts to novels, and explains why they matter to readers and traditional publishing.
How many do you need? Two seems preferred, as indicated by former Literary Assistant Christina Kaye here. The most common advice I’ve seen on these is published within the last five years, with variations being within the last three. Choosing two such titles shows there is a market for your book and that you know what it is.
If you struggle to find a title of a similar style book to yours, you can cite major elements in common.
For example, one of my titles is to comp a complex political and military conflict, while the second is for friendships and mentoring relationships. If you want to use older comps, it’s worth checking if a particular agent is ok with them, as three agents on this thread were.
I google (genre), (audience age), top 20/50 books of (2020/ 2019 etc), sometimes including ‘Goodreads’ or ‘Amazon’. Local librarians can be a great help, as they tend to be avid readers, so I’d describe your novel to them and see what potential comps they can recommend. If you’re struggling to find a comp (most of us do and it can be time consuming), bear in mind that vague or ill-fitting comps can be worse than none, as Jim MacCarthy warns. For more information about comp titles and advice on how to find them, see this post by An Willis.
Put it last -you’re pitching a novel, not yourself. So keep your bio brief and highlight why you personally are qualified to write this book, including any publishing credits or writing qualifications, but also life or #OwnVoices experiences which relate to your MC, their situation, or your book’s audience. For example, I write YA and my bio mentions that I’m a teacher.
If you’re a debut author (I wouldn’t state so), and you have participated in a mentorship (eg. #PitchWars or Author Mentor Match etc) I’d include that, as it demonstrates dedication to your craft and your willingness to grow as a writer. I’d also mention if you’re a member of a writers society, example Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators, for the same reason.
If you don’t have writing qualifications, or publishing credits, you might just mention other qualifications, your day job, having a family, being a cat’s slave etc. As James Gowan says -simple is fine. Furthermore, this isn’t just the “Why I’m the right person to write my book and a professional writer” paragraph, it’s also the “here’s an insight into what I’m like as a person you may want to work with paragraph,” so you may also want to include a fun fact and or show some personality in the style in which you write your bio.
I wouldn’t worry about, “I have attached x in accordance with your guidelines”. For an email submission -they’ll assume you have, unless you aggravate them by not following their guidelines. But do thank the agent/ acquiring editor for taking the time to consider your work.
I’m not going through Query Shark’s archive to find and link the blog in which she said not to include the words ‘phone no.,’ ‘email,’ ‘twitter’ ‘website’ ect because literary agents can recognise such things. I’m just going to say, save words in the precious query letter word count by just stating each of your contact details -on a new line.
The Query Letter Feedback
I can’t say enough about how important it is to get other writers, with no idea what your novel is about and fresh eyes, to take a look at your query letter. If you can’t see the wood for the trees, seek feedback from writers you know, tweet offering to trade it, or join a Discord Server where writers can trade query feedback. If you’d like to join mine (which is open to all writers, but largely a querying writers support group), let me know by replying to this tweet.
As with your manuscript, judging when your query letter is ready to submit is a difficult decision -and premature querying is common (tips on avoiding that here). Circumstance with critical readers and my editor prevented me from premature querying not once, but twice.
Author bias can you blind you to ‘obvious’ mistakes or unclear sentences etc. Critical readers have an important role to play in helping ensure your query package is truly the best you can produce -prior to receiving a literary agent or editor’s assistance with editing.
Patrick Bohan’s Mad Libs Formula Blog Post uses humour in a fictional pitch to accentuate everything your query letter needs to get right, while Susan Dennard’s successful query letter is annotated with what to do for each section.
If you’d like to read more about the pitch, see my pitch crafting post.
For a list of resource links spanning Query Letters & Synopsis to Finding and Communicating with Literary Agents, see this post.