Thursday, July 30, 2015

Query Letter Basics

Now that Query Kombat and New Agent are over, I thought I'd give a few basics to keep in mind about query letters and how they are generally formatted. I'm not claiming all query letters need to look like this. This is just my opinion on how they might look their best and follow the trends.

Forgive me if you know this already.

I'll do an example query and give a few notes afterward:

Dear Agent: You want to address your query to a specific agent. Do not sent ten or a hundred letters in one press of the button to a variety of agents. Send a single email to each agent. You may address agents as their first and last name or Mr./Ms. last name. But do not leave off their name and avoid misspelling it.

1st paragraph: Set up your main character and their motivation. Tell us something about your character and what they want/motivation. Then last sentence here give the obstacle that arises to stop them. Give your main character's age if the story is young adult, middle grade, or new adult. Age doesn't not need to be included for adult, but can be. Don't forget the hyphens. seventeen-year-old Ramiro 

Often this can be done with two paragraphs with a short sentence or two used as a hook before starting on the set-up paragraph. I never went with hooks but many writers do. Either way is fine. 

Notice there are no indents or tabs in a query letter. A query letter should be single spaced. Your sample pages should be double space (except in a contest). Put a space/hard return between each paragraph.

2nd paragraph: Give more detail about the obstacle and how your main character reacts to it. It's fantastic to end with how the problem gets worse. Show how it escalates.

3rd paragraph: It's okay to put the problem escalation into the 3rd paragraph. That works too. But here you want to iron out the stakes and the choice the main character must make. What bad thing will happen if the main character fails?

There are a few variations on this. Ramiro must do blank or blank bad thing will happen. It looks like this: Ramiro must bring back a witch or his city will burn. 

Ramiro must choose between blank or blank and then bad thing will happen. It looks like this: Ramiro must choose between his dreams of being a soldier or the lives of the people of his city and the wrong choice means losing his head and his paycheck.

Make sure the stakes and choice are specific. Spell them out in detail because that entices a reader.  Don't use cliche phrases like evil, doom the world, or dark secrets without explaining with those mean. You want to keep the outcome of the end choice of the main character secret--Not the choices themselves. 

Word count/genre/comp paragraph: Here's where you list your word count/ genre/ comps. It's a general housekeeping paragraph and can include your bio or that can be a separate paragraph. Do put your title in all caps and keep it simple and clean. GRUDGING is a 94,000 word epic fantasy for adults. Though a stand alone story, it can be part of a series. Fans of xxx book might enjoy it.     

Thanks for your time and consideration,

First and Last Name

email address
phone number
street address

Notice there's is no date at the top for an email query letter. Also notice the contact information goes at the bottom after your name.

A few other things to avoid:

-Do not start a sentence with "My name is ..."  It reeks of newbie.
-Do not use the words "fiction novel." Those two words mean the same thing. It makes agents mad.
-Do not write your query from the point of view of your character. It should have the voice and personality/flow of your character, but be written from your point of view. This is considered a gimmick.
-Do not have more paragraphs about why you wrote the story and its themes than paragraphs showing the story. 

A few things to consider:

-The voice of your query should match the voice of your main character.
-The query should set the same mood as your story. Whether that be humorous or dark. Use words to make it cast a feeling.
-Show us something about the personality of the main character, what are they like?
-A few adjectives won't kill a query letter. It helps illuminate them, but keep it brief.

These are just some tips. Of course a real fantastic concept and sample pages can outweigh a bad query. But it's still better to have a great query to go with great pages.

Hopefully this reminder about query basics helps.


  1. If you're planning on writing under a pseudonym, should you query using that name or should you work those details out later?

    1. Good question. I would go with querying under your real name. It's not like the agents are going to spread it around, and you'll need to sign any contract with your real name. Plus, I'm sure agents are used to pen names and would have no trouble using that when they sub. This is just my opinion, truthfully, I'm not sure it matters which you use. Either is probably fine as long as you tell your real name when you talk during the Call.

    2. Thank you so much for the advice! :)

  2. Since i'm in the process of writing a query for my new MS this is really great to read. Thanks. Confessions of an Ex-Ballerina

  3. Any advice for a Multiple POV query? I know it's generally a no-no, but if it's well written will it open doors?

    1. I've seen dual POV query letters quite often. Usually it's romance, male and female prospective. It's best to alternate paragraphs in the query letter one for each Pov, then sum up from both in the 3rd paragraph.

      For my multiple POV fantasy, I focused on the most important character and put the query all in his POV.