Monday, November 21, 2011

Elements of a Good Query

I've had a few people ask me about queries lately, so I thought I'd give a summary of things I've learned about crafting a query.

First, what is a query for? A query letter is a short, one-page (250 word) reason for an agent (or a publisher) to look at your manuscript and consider it for publication. The agent reads the letter, decides if he or she is interested enough to ask for more, and sends back either a request for a partial manuscript (the first few chapters,) a request for a full manuscript (the whole thing), or, most commonly, a rejection letter regrettably informing you that the agent will pass.

It is better to have an agent pass a work in which she is only mildly interested, than to have her accept a work in which she is not interested. If she isn't excited about it, she won't be able to sell it. So there is a good reason to get rejection letters, and although they may sting, better a little pain now than an unsold manuscript later. Remember, only about 60% of agented words actually make it all the way to being published. And many publishers will only accept agented works.

Okay, now you know what a query letter is, let's cover the parts of a good query letter (tips and tricks I've picked up from published authors, classes, and feedback on my own query):

1. Write it in a standard font (New Times Roman or Courier New), size 12.

2. You need to include your title (in ALL CAPS is standard), wordcount, and genre in your opening statement. Include any important 'elements': romantic elements, time-travel elements, etc., because agents frequently have specific tastes, and they should know up front if they don't like your specific genre. This will save both of you time.

3. Your manuscript should be complete (only exception: nonfiction).

4. The purpose of a letter is only to get an agent to request more. It is not to tell your entire story. Therefore, include your hook, the name of one or two of your main characters, and a short glimpse of the plot.

5. Don't use questions. Most agents I've seen have reported hating questions in a query as a rhetorical device. "Can she save him?" Sure, it looks suspenseful. But of course the heroine is going to save the hero, duh. So don't end the plot summary with a question mark.

6. Use short sentences. They keep the query flowing, and a query needs to have a quick pace. Yep, that's right - just like in your novel, pace is important in your query.

7. Make sure the hook is included in your query. It might be awesome that bats swoop down and steal the hero's sword, but the hook is that the heroine, in refusing to be rescued, ends up having to rescue the hero instead. So make the hook the central plot point of the query, and not the sidequests.

8. Make sure your query is clearly in the genre you stated. Is it science-fiction? Then make sure to mention the science fiction element. Is it romance? Then make sure to mention the romantic element, and not just the adventure that goes on in the background.

9. Include your credentials (e.g., other published works). If you don't have any writing credentials, then don't pad your query letter with "how long you've been writing" or "I work in such-and-such unrelated field and am raising two kids as a widower while juggling bowling balls for cash on the side." (Unless your main character is a widower with two kids and juggles bowling balls for cash on the side.) If it's not related, cut it out.

10. Don't go into details on the subchapters of your writers' organization you're in. "Two subchapters" is sufficient detail.

11. Don't mention that you've paid an editor to edit your work. It should be edited and polished already, so mentioning that it's been professionally edited is redundant (doesn't matter who has edited it.)

12. Do not ask the agent to edit for you, or imply that your work needs more editing. If it does, start editing, and don't query until it's ready to go.

13. Query one manuscript at a time. Just one. Write a different query letter for each manuscript.

14. Do not reply to rejection letters. The agent doesn't want to try to sell your work. That's okay. Everyone has different tastes, and if the agent only likes your query, it's better that she doesn't agent it, because someone else can do a better job. Most agents easily acknowledge that they've passed on brilliant books, just because the plot didn't resonate right with them, so they didn't feel like they could do it justice. And who knows - one day, you might want to query them with something else. Don't burn bridges. After all, agents do talk to each other.

I highly recommend searching the Internet for query formats, and also checking the agency's website for information on their specific preferences. Also look through QueryShark and other query websites to get ideas on how to improve your own query, and if you can, take a query-writing class. You'll probably go through multitudes of query drafts - one good reason to send your queries out in batches of five or less, because that gives you a chance to fix your errors based on feedback.

What tips have you learned about query letters?


  1. I might mention that, according to a very good graphic designer I know, a serif font is more readable while a sans serif font is more legible (and studeis have been done on this). Short blurbs (one or two sentences) are better as sans serif because they're quickly read. Longer blurbs (like a query, I would assume) are better as serif because, though your eye isn't initially caught as easily, they're much easier to read for longer periods of time.

  2. You know, I never knew that. Thanks for sharing! That explains a lot on why those are the fonts agents want.

  3. Thanks for the advice. I think I've made the 'rhetorical question' mistake in my own query letter. Thankfully it has not been sent yet!