Some people learn better by looking at examples. Why shouldn’t learning what makes a query right and what makes a query so very, very wrong be any different? It should be noted that writing a good query letter is a constant learning process. In fact, even some famous writers can’t write a query to save their life. There’s a reason: queries are hard.
Correct query letter:
Dear Ms. Correct Agent’s Last Name:
I am seeking representation for THE LAND OF ICE AND SNOW (70,000 words) a YA urban fantasy. (1)
Everybody in Fairsburg is freezing to death. (2) And only Michael Rollins can stop it.
When Michael moves from his cushy life all the way into the far reaches of the north, he thinks his life is over. Surprisingly, he finds new friends and fun where he thought he never would. (3)
But now all that is dying. A cold snap more bitter than any that has ever been seen before has settled over the town, killing residents, turning the town into a winter wasteland, and awakening things better left forgotten. (4)
Michael discovers that some weatherworkers with a grudge have brought this eternal winter to Fairsburg and he, along with his new best friends and love interest, are the only ones who can stop it.
I have some incredible writing credentials that I will list here (or I don’t have any, which is great, too, I just don’t need to say as much here). (5) I queried you because I saw your agency sold this comparative title and that comparative title. (6)
Thank you for your time and consideration, (7)
Obviously this letter is very basic.
(1) This jumps straight in to why you’re writing, what you’re writing, what length it is and then moves on. The word length is also accurate to the genre, because of course you’ve done your research on that kind of thing.
(2) A hook. Again, this is very basic. Just something to get the reader interested. And please, please don’t start your letter with a rhetorical question. “What would you do if you woke up and everybody was suddenly a dog?” No. No.
(3) This paragraph sets up why your character is where he is, what he’s doing and most importantly, why he’s doing it. This was the weakness in my first query: the character had very little conflict and motivation to do what he was doing. Don’t let that happen to yours.
(4) Establish the stakes of the story. Even if you as the author love your characters more than anything, your readers aren’t going to, simply because they don’t know why they should care about them. Give them a reason to worry about them.
(5) You don’t have to have any writing credentials to be published if your work stands on its own. It doesn’t hurt to have credits, but if you don’t have any, just don’t mention it.
(6) Hopefully you’ve done your research on the agency you’re querying. Hopefully that agency has sold other books similar to yours. Hopefully.
(7) Always thank the agent. They don’t have to take the time out of their busy day to read your letter, but they want to, because they hope and pray that every new query is something stellar and new. This line might seem contrite, but it goes a long way in establishing a good relationship.
Bad Query Letter (Oh boy! This’ll be fun)
Dear Oh Esteemed Literary One/ Sir or Madam/ To Whom This May Concern, (1)
I am the Messiah. (2)
I have written to you with the task of delivering my 500,000 word (trust me it goes by fast) Cyborg coming-of-age romance, CY-CHO LOVE. (3)
What if you were X-J867? (4)
Created in a top secreret lab X-J868 now wants to find love. But can love pass the boundaries of metal and steel?
When x-J865 meets Jenny, it seems like he has finally found the love to start his eclectric hart. (5)
But will she love him back? (6)
I saw your agency had no books even remotely similar to mine, but I think you’ll change your mind when you see my idea and masterful grasp of proose prose. (7) My mom, dad and cat Mr. Nubbins all love it so I know it will be a bestseller. (8)
Send me the contract deal and movie rights as soon as possible. (9)
(1) How an agent would respond:
- Trust me, not everyone thinks I’m as esteemed as you do, Oh Pathetic One.
- If you don’t even know the gender of the person you’re querying, then there’s very little hope.
- Thanks to that opening, this now concerns No One in our Rejection Department.
(2) Sigh. It’s going to be one of those days, isn’t it?
(3) A novel really shouldn’t be more than 100,000 words, and that’s pushing it. And the genre? A Cyborg coming-of-age romance? If you don’t know your genre, don’t make one up. Please. And the title…
(4) What if you wrote an opening that wasn’t a question?
(5) Steel is a metal. And this line gives no motivation as to why X-whatever wants love in the first place. Character motivations are a very important thing to get across in a query.
(6) STOP ASKING ME QUESTIONS I DON’T KNOW THE ANSWER TO!!! THIS ISN’T JEOPARDY!!
(7) Obviously no research was done, and it doesn’t help to toot your own horn unless you have actual writing credentials to back it up. Awards and writing accomplishments count, but you can’t just say, ‘I’m a good writer’.
(8) Please tell me you didn’t show it to the cat. I wish I could have saved Mr. Nubbins the torment. And yes, your mother and father will tell you you’re novel is the most incredible thing since sliced bread. They’re supposed to. When they signed their parental agreement that came tied to your big toe when you were born, it explicitly stated they must praise and encourage all writing pursuits, regardless of how horrible they are. Friends and family are not the best judges of your work.
(9) Research the process of getting a book published. Agents don’t just grab your book, give it to a publisher and VIOLAH! receive a published product. Not even close. Publishing is a waiting game, and the more you are aware of how it works, the better relationship you’ll have with your agent.
A little over the top, but you get the idea. I’m in the process of crafting my own query for my own book. Eventually I’ll post where it started and what it ended up as.