The Perfect Query Letter

Hi everyone! This blog post is dedicated to the writers who are out in the query trenches, who are this close from finishing their third revision and who are thinking of participating in Pitch Wars. This is for the writers struggling to write the best query letter that ever was or ever could be. 

Because, dang, it's super hard to get the query right. When I was about to enter Pitch Wars, I went through several upon several rounds of writing the query letter for SEA OF RIVALS. I switched around sentences, scratched whole paragraphs and wrestled with each word. Because each one has a job to do. With limited space to work with, every word has to count. 

I wanted to break the query letter down into sections with the hope that it will be helpful! Feel free to ask me any questions you'd like in the comments section. 

But let's back up first: what exactly is a query letter? 

Quite simply, a query letter is a first impression. It's the chance to showcase your book, personality and strengths as a writer. The query letter is your best-foot-forward, a one page letter that gets sent to agents. For some agents, a query letter is the only thing they'll request to read. If they like what they see, they might request the first ten pages, or a partial, or even better, the full. 

A lot hinders on this one page query letter. No pressure, though. ;P

For the purpose of instruction, I will be posting my own query letter, which I'll break down for everyone. My comments are in italic—they weren't in the original query. :) 

The year is 1715, the dawn of the golden age of pirates. Cordelia Rivera's father—the pirate King of Nassau—is a mean bastard, but she still craves his approval. She'd welcome his love too, if it wasn't out of the question. Longing for the day he’ll finally explain her mother's disappearance, she does whatever he demands—even when it means torturing and killing the Merfolk.

The first paragraph should be an introduction. Set up the world, introduce the main character and their big desire. What do they want more than anything? What's driving them? Once you have that, you can include something that stands in their way. In the above paragraph, the agent learns: the setting and year, "Rivera" is a typical latino last name so the agent might pick up on the race of the MC, and what Cordelia wants: she wants his love and approval and information detailing her mother's disappearance. Lastly, the agent sees that her father is ruthless who withholds love and affection and the truth from his daughter. 

All of this tied together set ups the next paragraph. I've introduced tension, which makes the agent interested enough to keep reading. 

When Cordelia falls into the sea during a battle, she’s yanked beneath the surface by one of the murderous creatures her father warned her about. But instead of killing her, Marius, the “fish,” inexplicably spares her life and helps her back to the Estrella Del Mar. Surprised by his mercy, Cordelia begins to question her lifelong belief the Merfolk are monsters.

The second paragraph is meant to highlight an event in the story that drives the MC into their journey. It's the event that kickstarts everything else. It's hard to decide what to include in this paragraph since, obviously, so much more happens than Cordelia falling into the sea. But the point is to get to the heart of the conflict. In this case, the agent learns that the father she's looked up to and trusted all of her life has been lying to her. This is a catalyst for Cordelia's questions about her father. What else is he lying about? Why is he lying to her? The second paragraph is the place to showcase the brewing conflict in the story. In this paragraph, I've also introduced another character. This would be a great place to do that. 

With the pirate king declaring war—on Spain, England, and the Merfolk—Cordelia uncovers a lifetime worth of his lies. United by a desire to dismantle her father’s hold over Nassau and save a race from extinction, Cordelia and Marius form a frail alliance. But to defeat Captain Rivera, Cordelia has to abandon any hope of discovering the truth about her mother and sever all ties with the only family she has left. As war laps at Nassau’s shores from above and below, Cordelia must choose which side she’s on once and for all.

Third paragraph is stakes stakes stakes! If the worst happens, what does your MC stand to lose?  In the above, the agent learns that Cordelia and Marius have to work together to stop her father from destroying the Merfolk. But if she stands against her father, she might never find out the truth about her mother. Stakes are what make the reader/agent care about your MC's story. Make sure to drive the point home: If MC doesn't get X, then X, W, and Z will happen. 

SEA OF RIVALS is a 76,000 word Young Adult Historical Fantasy. It was written to stand alone, but has series potential and will appeal to fans of the TV show Black Sails, Erika Johanson’s Queen of the Tearling and Juliet Marillier’s Shadowfell.

Typically, a query letter will have three to four brief paragraphs. The last couple of paragraphs are what many call the "housekeeping" info that an agent must know before requesting. Some like to put it in the first paragraph but I like to put it on the bottom. It's a matter of preference but my thinking is that I want to throw the agent into the story as soon as possible. There are many examples on the interwebs of both styles (which are both accepted). 

Do list your title (in ALL CAPS), any comps you'd like to share and the genre, word count and if it's a stand alone or a series. A word about comps: don't use anything too mainstream. If you say your book is the new Harry Potter meets Game of Thrones meets the Hunger Gamers, you're shooting your own foot clean off. Manage expectations, choose a title that displays your knowledge of the industry and the market. 

I graduated from the University of Central Florida with a Creative Writing degree. Currently, I write, design and print greeting cards for my company 9th Letter Press in Winter Park, Florida. This book is a finalist in the Pitch Wars contest held by Brenda Drake.

And lastly, the bio. The little bit about yourself that showcases any awards, contests, etc. Keep it brief and to the point. I mentioned the Pitch Wars contest, my degree in Creative Writing and my company. Agents will google you and if you have some kind of following on a social media channel, it might be a good thing to throw that in there, as well. (Mind you, mine isn't huge, but I thought it couldn't hurt!). 

A word about personalization: it's the best thing you can do to stand out in the slush. If an agent gets the impression that you've carefully researched him/her, it goes a long way. Some agents receive an average of 300 query letters a day. ALWAYS address the agent by name and if you met them at a conference, etc., make sure to put that in first. Then start your "intro" paragraph after that. 

And that's it! Again, if you have any questions be sure to reach out. I'd love to help! 

WHO GETS YOUR QUERY LETTER

There are many, many agents in the world and each one has a particular style and taste, or a genre that they represent. If you're writing a Fantasy novel, don't send a query to someone who only reps cookbooks. They won't forward your letter to another agent who reps your genre. Do your work and research. The best resource I like to use is the Guide to Literary Agents  that comes out every year. 

It helps to make a spreadsheet detailing the name of the agent, what they rep, which agency they work at, and their submission guidelines. Some only want a query, some want a synopsis along with the query, etc. Start building your list! 

As for how many to send, I like to work in rounds. You don't want to send a query letter to everyone on your agent list. Figure out a number you're comfortable with and send that amount out first. And then wait. No, seriously. Wait. You'll get bites or rejections and usually, if your query letter isn't working, you'll know from the first batch. This gives you time to fix your query letter for the next round of agents you send it to. 

Most agents also let you know what their turnaround times are! Be sure to add that to your spreadsheet. This is SO helpful because you will lose track. 

GIVEAWAY!

In honor of Pitch Wars approaching, I'm going to offer three query critiques! All you have to do is share this post on twitter and I'll pick three from those who do! Make sure to use hashtag #junegiveaway so I can find your tweets! I'll pick a winner on Friday. 

Thanks so much for taking the time to read! 

Besos!