How to write a great query letter

A great query letter isn’t particularly hard to write. Most of it is formulaic in structure, but requires getting a few key things just right, while keeping everything short and to the point.


I like to describe a query letter as a sales pitch combined with a CV. First you want to pitch the book to get the agent interested in reading it, then you want to give them a little detail about yourself and specifically why you’re sending the book to them.


The hardest part for most authors is taking a step back from their book and treating it as a commercial product rather than a work of art. Plus, the closer you are to something, the harder it can be to describe it to someone who isn’t. So let’s break down the query letter into the three parts you need to include: the introduction pitch, the story details and the personal info.



The Introduction Pitch


There are a few ways to begin a query letter. Some authors like to start it by addressing the agent and why they’re sending the book to them. Others will jump straight into the pitch. I say do whatever you think is more appealing to the agent, but on the whole starting with the pitch works well.


The pitch is your elevator pitch for the book. Introduce it in one to two sentences. What you want to do is set up the main character, the problem they face (or triggering situation), and what’s at stake. Here are a few examples:

  • When Agnes meets Matilda she thinks she’s finally found her best friend. But Matilda is hiding something that could destroy everything Agnes thinks she knows about her family.

  • Venture 5000 blasted off from Earth two hundred years ago, carrying what was left of the human race to a new planet. Or so they thought…

  • Chloe expected a hamster for her birthday, but a mix-up with the pet shop means this will be a birthday she’s never going to forget!

You can follow this with the title, genre of the book, who the book is for, or even the word count, e.g.:

  • “Agnes vs Matilda” is a 30,000-word middle grade horror novel with echoes of “Coraline”.

  • “Venture 5000: The Landing” is the first book in an epic sci-fi trilogy.

  • “A House Full of Hamsters” is a 600-word picture book perfect for ages 3-5.


The Story Details


Now you want to get into the story a little more, but remember that a query letter’s summary is not a synopsis of your book. You should only set up the plot like a movie trailer – don’t give away the ending. For instance:


  • Agnes has always lived a boring, suburban life, in a neigbourhood without a single kid her own age. But then Matilda and her family move in next door. At first everything is perfect – they like all the same things and play all the same games – until Agnes begins to notice things going missing. First it’s a hairbrush, then a toothbrush, but then her treasured picture of her grandma, who died last year. Little does she know Matilda’s family didn’t move here by chance. They’re here to replace her whole family, all for a chilling reason to do with something mysterious her grandmother was involved in.

  • As a deadly fire sweeps over the remaining inhabitable land, the last civilization on Earth is forced to flee to the only planet known to be able to support life. After two hundred years on board, they land and begin to establish their settlement, only to soon discover there’s another settlement not far away… and it’s inhabited by humans who arrived hundreds of years ago. While trying to establish good relations, they discover the cult-like behaviors of the other humans, all linked to a human-eating alien species they hadn’t been told about. Now the survivors of Earth’s apocalypse have to figure out how to survive this deadly new planet – or face extinction.

  • Chloe has always wanted a hamster, but it seems the pet store misunderstood her request and didn’t send her just one hamster – they sent her one hundred. Now there are hamsters everywhere: in the bath, in the laundry basket, even in her birthday cake! How can Chloe possibly live – let alone have a birthday party – with hamsters popping out of every nook and cranny?


Now give a little more info about themes the book covers, who it’s for, etc. This is where you really want to show some market awareness. If you didn’t mention word count or who the book is for previously, make sure you mention it here. You can also compare your book to something, if you have a suitable comparison title.


  • Not for readers who are faint of heart, “Agnes vs Matilda” is Jordon Peele’s “Us” for 10 to 12-year-olds.

  • This 60,000 word sci-fi, which follows five different characters to cover themes of religion, politics, family and survival, will appeal to readers of Hugh Howey’s “Wool” and Anne Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice”.

  • A laugh-out-loud story, perfect for toddlers that will appeal to toddlers who have always wanted a pet.


The Personal Info


Then finish off the letter with a bit of info about yourself, maybe what inspired the book or any experience you have in writing (it’s ok to say this is your debut). And then explain why you’re sending it to this agent – you’ll always have a better response if you personalise it!


So let’s pull one of those letters together:


Example Query Letter


Dear Agent Z,


Chloe expected a hamster for her birthday, but a mix-up with the pet shop means this will be a birthday she’s never going to forget! “A House Full of Hamsters” is a 600-word picture book perfect for ages 3-5.


Chloe has always wanted a hamster, but it seems the pet store misunderstood her request and didn’t send her just one hamster – they sent her one hundred. Now there are hamsters everywhere: in the bath, in the laundry basket, even in her birthday cake! How can Chloe possibly live – let alone have a birthday party – with hamsters popping out of every nook and cranny?


“The Cat in the Hat” meets “Too Many Carrots”, “A House Full of Hamsters” is a laugh-out-loud story, perfect for toddlers who have always wanted a pet.


This is my debut picture book, inspired by the time our hamster got out of his cage and I was thankful to only have one of them to track down. I work in marketing, but in my spare time am part of several writing groups and am a member of SCBWI.


I’m sending this manuscript to you because I’m a huge fan of Author McAuthor’s work, and your current wishlist requests humourous picture book texts. I hope you’ll enjoy “A House Full of Hamsters” and I look forward to hearing from you.


Best wishes,

Me



See? Not so hard! But I’ll confess it’s a lot easier to write a pitch for a book that doesn’t even exist than it is when you know the book quite well.


So if you need an objective opinion on your query letter, please get in touch. Query letters are one of my specialties, and I offer several query letter review packages depending on what you need.

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