How to Write a Killer Query Letter
by Ellie Alexander
You finished your first manuscript—congratulations! Now what? How do you start the process of finding an agent and how do you write the (gasp) dreaded query letter?
My first piece of advice for writers beginning the querying process is to take a minute to celebrate the success of writing a novel. It’s no small feat. You should feel proud of your accomplishment. Go ahead and toast with a glass of champagne or take yourself out to dinner. After you’ve reveled in the moment, the real work begins.
Step One—research. It’s time to hit the bookstore or library. Spend an afternoon perusing the shelves to see where your book fits best. Nothing will get you a rejection faster than sending a query letter to an agent who doesn’t represent your book’s genre. Is your book fiction? Nonfiction? Where does it fall within sub-genres? For example, if you’re writing a mystery is it a traditional mystery, true crime, noir, historical, or cozy? Figure out exactly where your book will be shelved once it’s published. Believe it or not, this is one area where many new writers stumble. I recently reviewed a query letter of a writer who opened by saying, “My book appeals to all readers in all genres.” She was surprised when she got rejected by every agent she had queried. Publishing is a business and agents and editors need to know how to position your book in order to sell it.
Step two—complementary titles. While you’re on your research mission, pick a handful of titles that are similar in tone and style to your book. Read them! Don’t skip this step. Trust me. If you find that the books you’ve chosen aren’t a good match, go back and get another stack until you find five to six titles that are complimentary. Scour the acknowledgments section. Did the author thank their agent? Wahoo! You got lucky. Make a note and move on to the next book. If not, you’ll have to use some sleuthing skills online to see if you can find out who represented each author.
Step three—your dream list. Using the information you’ve learned, begin compiling a dream list of agents. This should include the agents who represent similar titles. It can also expand to agents you’ve met at a writing conference, discovered on Twitter, or who were recommended by a friend. Agent query (www.agentquery.com) is a great resource to find agents who are actively seeking new clients. You can search by genre and keywords. Your dream list should include fifteen to twenty agents to start.
Step four—cyberstalking. This is the one time when a little cyberstalking is acceptable. Visit the website of each agent on your dream list. Read their profiles. Learn what kind of books they’re interested in and what their submission requirements are. Some agents accept email queries. Some want sample chapters. Some request book proposals. Take extensive notes. Do NOT send agents perfumed packages or promises of chocolates and your first-born child. This “stalking” exercise is to ensure that each agent on your list is a good match for your project and that when you’re ready to start the query process you’ll know the exact requirements for each agent.
Step five—time to write. Start with a one to two sentence introduction that includes why you’re querying this agent, the title of your book, genre, and word count. Something like this, “I know that you represent one of my favorite writers, Author X, and I thought you might be interested in my 76,000-word cozy mystery which is similar in tone and style, but different in that it is set in the world of craft beer.”
After a brief intro, write three to four paragraphs summarizing your book. Make sure you include who your protagonist is, the hook, and why you think it will resonate with readers.
Include a final paragraph about your writing experience. This can be that you write for your community newspaper, a magazine, or a blog. You can talk about any professional writing organizations you belong to or the fact that you’re active on social media.
Close the letter by thanking the agent for their time and consideration.
Step six—important notes. Personalize each query letter. You’re going to need to go through your dream list one letter at a time and address each agent personally as well as re-write the introductory paragraph to reflect your research. This attention to detail and professionalism is going to set your query apart from the slush pile.
Keep your query letter to one page. Short and simple is the name of the game. Use your query letter to entice the agent to want to read more.
Track your queries on your dream list. Make note of when you sent each letter. Then, make additional notes when you receive responses from each agent.
Good luck and happy querying!
Ellie Alexander writes the bestselling Bakeshop Mystery series and the Sloan Krause Mysteries for Macmillan Publishing.
Ellie is a Pacific Northwest native who spends ample time testing recipes in her home kitchen or at one of the many famed coffeehouses nearby. When she’s not coated in flour, you’ll find her outside exploring hiking trails and trying to burn off calories consumed in the name of research.
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