How to Write a Query Letter

Today I'm going to take a detour from my book tour updates to discuss a very important topic: writing the perfect query.

I'm a member of a debut novelist group called '17 Scribes. On Monday we did a Twitter chat all about the query process, taking questions from aspiring writers as well as our moderator. The chat ended with a challenge, which I accepted--post the query that landed your agent! 

First, let's rewind, in case you're asking, what's a query? 

A query is the cover letter a writer sends to a literary agent in hopes of finding representation. Agents are entirely necessary if you plan to approach traditional publishers, even smaller indie presses--none of them will look at unsolicited manuscripts. Submissions must come from agents. And to land an agent, you write a query letter. Typically, the query includes your book's hook, a brief teaser paragraph (what you might call "cover jacket copy"), a bit about why you'd like this particular agent, and a brief author bio. They're usually sent by email.

I used to read queries for an agency, actually; before I moved to Boston to get my MFA from BU, I lived in New York and worked for Sheree Bykofsky Associates, Inc. Part of my job was to read about 800 to a thousand queries each week, rejecting almost all of them. This was incredibly demoralizing for an aspiring writer, and I couldn't do it for long, but it did help me when the time came to write my own query. 

Without further ado, here's the query that landed my agent, Shannon Hassan at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. This letter led to a request for the full manuscript, which led to a life-changing phone call with Shannon. I will admit I pared it down just a bit to eliminate spoilers in the pitch paragraph (and warning, there are still a few spoiler-y details), but this is essentially what I sent:

Dear Ms. Hassan,

I’m very impressed with your agency’s client list and would love to have you as my agent. Thank you for considering my historical novel, FRÄULEIN M., which I believe will appeal to fans of Jennifer Robson or Renée Rosen.

After the Nuremberg Laws pass in 1935, a young woman named Anita—the eponymous FRÄULEIN M.—flees Germany with three Jewish children, posing as their tutor.

Thirty-five years later a mysterious letter arrives for Anita at her South Carolina home, but it is intercepted by her teenage daughter, Janeen, who is pregnant and planning to run away with her draft-dodging boyfriend. Through the letter—and later, her mother’s memories—Janeen learns of Anita and Berni, free-spirited, androgynous cigarette sellers, as well as Grete, a hearing-impaired housemaid to a Nazi family, with whose son she forms a complicated bond. Janeen and Anita must navigate the past in order to heal their relationship in the present, and ultimately, after a former SS officer resurfaces in America, they must travel to find Grete in search of justice.

FRÄULEIN M. abounds with hidden identities and family secrets. With its vivid descriptions of Weimar cabaret culture and lush Southern landscapes, this novel is designed to attract readers of both literary and commercial fiction.

I teach fiction writing and freshman composition at Boston University and the Boston Conservatory, and I have an MFA in Creative Writing from BU. My fiction has been published in Slice Magazine (the editors of which nominated me for a Pushcart Prize), LEMON, and 236, BU Creative Writing’s Literary Journal. I also served as editor-in-chief of 236 for issues 3, 4, and 5. As a teenager I published a book of ghost stories, Haunted Delaware, which received praise as a self-publishing success story in The Village Voice, Writer’s Digest, and other publications. Haunted Delaware taught me a great deal about author-driven book promotion, which I look forward to doing with gusto throughout my career.

Thank you again for considering my work. I would be happy to send you my manuscript. I look forward to hearing from you!

Sincerely,

Caroline Woods

It was interesting for me to return to this letter. It's like opening a time capsule. The book I describe here is somewhat different from the one that was published last month, especially the line, "her teenage daughter, Janeen, who is pregnant and planning to run away with her draft-dodging boyfriend." You'll know if you've read the book that Janeen is not pregnant and that there is no mention of a boyfriend. My Janeen subplot, at the suggestion of several editors we pitched the book to, was significantly reduced from about a third of the book to a frame story. You can tell from this letter that Janeen's story used to be closer to the center of the plot. The query pitch kind of revolves around her. But in the end, I think it was definitely the right decision to shift the focus. The heart of the book was always in Germany. 

Also, did you notice the line "FRÄULEIN M. abounds with hidden identities and family secrets?" That one made it all the way to the back cover of the finished book! See tip #4 below to find out why I find this such a satisfying victory. 

Now that I've shared my letter, I'll offer a few general tips on writing the best query letter for your project. 

1. If you have a personal connection to this agent, lead with that. You may have friends who are already represented by literary agents. By all means, ask them if you can drop their names when you query, and don't bury this information. Begin your first paragraph with, "[Author name] speaks very highly of you and suggested I contact you about my novel..." et cetera. Remember that whoever is sorting through these emails first is reading dozens at a time. If you make it clear that you have a mutual acquaintance, it's much more likely your query will receive further consideration and a prompt reply. 

2. Follow the agent's instructions. I can't stress this one enough. Almost every agency includes detailed querying instructions on their website; follow these to a T. Sometimes they even vary for the different agents in the office. Some will want the first five pages of the manuscript pasted in the body of the email; some will want an attachment. Some will want only the query. If the agency will only take snail mail queries, do not hunt down an email address and email them anyway. And by all means, do NOT call to "discuss" your book. You wouldn't call a potential employer to discuss your career options. You'd send a cover letter asking for an interview, then wait. That's what the querying process is: your letter lets them decide whether they want to request the manuscript, and their review of the manuscript is the equivalent of the interview. 

3. Personalize your letter. Why are you approaching this agent? Is it because she represents authors of historical fiction and you think you'd be a good fit for her list? Does she represent authors you admire? Did you just love the welcoming message on her website? Say why you're querying him or her, and make sure you get the name at the top of your email correct. Mass emails or cookie-cutter messages labeled "Dear Agent" will get you nowhere. An exception to this is contained in my second tip: there will be a few agents who don't want you to waste any time, who specifically say they only want to hear about your book and you, no fluff. There aren't many who say this, though, and I think it's best to generally personalize your letter. 

4. Read the backs of your favorite books to help you shape your pitch. Professional book designers and editors know exactly how to draw customers in with a few salacious lines. This is exactly what you need to do to get an agent's attention. Go back to your favorite books, or the ones that took you from the New Releases table to the checkout line in Barnes & Noble, and carefully dissect the copy on the front and back covers and inside flaps. Then try to replicate the same kind of language about your book. Still stuck? Ask a friend who is familiar with your work to help you boil it down to the essentials, the few details that make your work unique and would leave an agent wanting more. 

I could probably keep going, but I'll leave it there. I am always happy to hear from writers and will take query questions (is that redundant) anytime on Facebook, Twitter, or the contact page of this website. 

Good luck with your query!