How to Write a Query Letter with Claws
If you’ve decided to traditionally publish your fiction novel, you will need a query letter to convince an agent or publisher they need to give your book a chance. A query letter is a key part of your submission packet and is what most agents and publishers use to decide if they even want to consider your book. If you’re writing nonfiction, you need a book proposal, which is very different and will be covered in another article.
What Is a Query Letter and Do You Need One?
A query is the letter you send to agents and publishers to hopefully convince them to represent and publish your book. A query typically has three parts: a pitch, your credentials, and the specifications for your book (length, genre, comparables). You need a query letter if you want to traditionally publish a fiction book.
Your query letter should be single spaced, have an extra space between the paragraphs, and not indent paragraphs. Instead of using italics, put book titles in all caps. You should address the letter to a specific agent or acquiring editor, sign in a professional manner, and include your contact information.
Crafting Your Pitch
A pitch is not a summary! Do not spoil your ending! Think of your query pitch paragraph or two more like the back cover of your book than a synopsis. With this section, you are attempting to convince an agent or publisher to read your book. You want to intrigue them without giving too much away.
Your pitch should introduce your main character(s), conflict, and stakes. If your story is something like science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, or another setting-rich genre, include key points about your world or era as well.
Reveal your protagonist, antagonist, and love interest, but not your favorite minor character. Stick to the main character, their motivations, and their stakes. If you’re writing from multiple points of view, mention the different perspectives and how they are related. Here’s an example of a pitch that landed Jennieke Cohen an agent for her novel Dangerous Alliance:
Seventeen-year-old Lady Victoria Aston wants nothing more than to live a pastoral existence on her family estate in Hampshire. But when her sister escapes an abusive husband, the family starts divorce proceedings—a difficult, scandalous process in 1817. As her sister may never win her freedom, Vicky has no choice but to find a husband of her own who will keep her brother-in-law from laying claim to their lands. Amidst the glittering ballrooms of Georgian London’s high society, Vicky must choose between the boy who broke her heart and the man who loves her now, all while wielding courage and a pistol to protect her family from the masked assassins who begin attacking them when news of the divorce circulates.
Tom Sherborne returns to England after four years in Napoleon’s dysfunctional Europe to a title he doesn’t want, an estate deeply in debt, and memories of a violent father he’s striven to forget. Tom’s only chance to keep his now fractured family afloat is to open London’s first luxury hotel. But as strange accidents start befalling his former best friend, Vicky, her suitors drag Tom into an insidious plot that could ruin everything he’s worked for, and worse, turn him into a replica of his father—something he swore he’d never become. To vanquish the forces allied against them, Tom and Vicky must work together to save themselves and the lives of everyone they hold dear.
This pitch reveals the inciting incident (Vicky’s sister fleeing an abusive marriage), the era (1817), the two point of view characters (Vicky and Tom), the main conflict, and what’s at stake for each character. Vicky needs to marry to keep her land and family safe. Tom needs his hotel and Vicky’s help to avoid becoming his father. This is about as long as I’d recommend for a pitch. If you can go shorter, do.
To land an agent, you need a pitch that makes your query reader so curious they are compelled to read your sample pages immediately after.
What to Put in Your Author Biography and Credentials
Many authors I work with hate the biography section because they don’t have a bunch of literary credentials, but literary credentials aren’t the only type of credential. Are you an RN writing about a nurse for vampires? Your medical experience is a credential. Are you writing about the town you’ve lived in for the last twenty years? That’s a credential. Your life experience is a credential and can mean more than a list of literary publications. It adds an element of realism to your piece.
That said, if you having writing credentials, definitively include them. List any writing related degrees, paid writing gigs, publications, and awards. These don’t necessarily need to be the same genre or style of writing you are pitching. Don’t put contests you entered but didn’t place in (yes I’ve seen this) or self-published books that only sold a handful of copies. Same goes for platforms: only mention them if they are impressive. If you’ve been published in a bunch of short story magazines, pick the most prestigious ones to list instead of spending half of your letter listing publications. At some point, the agent’s or publisher’s eyes will glaze over.
The most effective biography/credential parts of a query letter show why an author is the best person to tell the story they are pitching. If you’re a plumber, but your pitch doesn’t reveal your villain is also a plumber, say something such as “Like the villain, I’ve been a plumber for over a decade.” Show how your credentials inform your story.
Comparables, Genre, and Other Details
There are some basic details agents and publishers want upfront about your book. This is a quick way for them to identify if an author did their homework.
Agents and publishers don’t represent every genre or age category, so when you say your book is a young adult fantasy or adult cozy mystery, the agent or publisher will know immediately if you are querying the type of book they represent. Genres are a way to categorize books for marketing and readers. Not fitting into any genre at all is usually a bad sign to them. It means you wrote something an agent or publisher doesn’t know how to sell.
Comparables further narrow down how to market your book and whether or not it is the right novel for a particular agent or publisher. Comparables are books your novel is like. Things like “The main character from such-and-such story meets the world of such-and-such novel” are what you should shoot for. Compare your story to books that sold well in your genre but aren’t knockouts even people who don’t read that genre know. This means don’t compare your book to Harry Potter or The Girl on the Train. Agents and publishers want to know you are familiar with the market and your target readership; knockouts don’t show them this.
Your word count also reveals whether or not you did your homework. If you’re pitching a debut novel, it needs to fall within the standard word count range for your genre. If it’s too short, agents and publishers wonder if there’s enough story, plot, and characters. If it’s too long, they wonder if it’s filled with unnecessary information, tangents, and points of view. You have to earn the right to write outside this range, not just from agents and publishers but from readers as well. Once they trust you to deliver a thrilling, gut wrenching, or haunting tale, they won’t care as much about word count. As an untested author, you don’t have this trust yet.
This is the paragraph where you state any connection you have to the agent or publisher and why you believe they are the right person to represent your book.
Query Letter Advice from an Editor
These are general guidelines. Every agency and publisher is different, so read their querying guidelines. Some agents want your pitch in the first paragraph; others want your genre and word count. Some agents want to read the first ten pages; others want the first three chapters. Follow their guidelines to the letter. Tens of thousands of query letters are sent every year. Don’t make it easy to reject yours by not following the guidelines.
Also, don’t rigidly stick to three paragraphs or a specific order. Your query letter should flow just like your story. Organize your query to shine the best light possible on your novel. To write a successful query letter, read successful query letters. You can Google these, but I’d start with Writer’s Digest’s collection. Use your pitch, credentials, and comparables to craft a query letter with claws and Ignite Your Ink.
Do you have a successful query letter or a favorite from another author? Share it in the comments below. For more articles on submitting your writing and a free Submission Checklist, subscribe to Ignited Ink Writing.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.