“Querying is like dating, interviewing and auditioning all rolled into [one]. Sending that first query will be one of the most vulnerable moments of your … life. …The first rejection (and the next twenty…) will make you question your determination, your fortitude and your talent. …But even if you don’t get “the call” on this manuscript, querying will leave you with a better sense of self, a greater awareness of your strengths and weakness and, yes, perhaps the need for a good therapist.”
– Emily Bleeker, author of When I’m Gone (2016) and Wreckage (2015), represented by Marlene Stringer of StringerLit.
My name is J.E.Cearlock, and like many of you, I am an aspiring author. First and foremost, let me thank Caleb J Hicks for the opportunity to write for his blog and impart what little knowledge I can spread to all of his readers.
Today, I am sharing information on every writer’s absolute most favoritestest topic EVER: query letters. Today’s topic will focus on writing a query letter for FICTION. Non-fiction and academic writing require a different set of rules of which I have little experience.
If you are reading this, you are probably a writer. This post will be blunt. I will not sugarcoat the querying experience. As an author, thick skin is mandatory. If the querying phase scares you, traditional publishing is not for you.
What is a query letter?
Excellent question! Let’s K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Stupid.
First and foremost, a query letter is a business letter. It is a formal introduction to you and your work. The purpose of a query letter is to showcase your writing skills while giving a brief overview into the plot of your novel. The end result is to entice an agent or a publishing editor to request more of your work. It is formal, it is well-written, and it is grammatically correct.
What a query letter is NOT.
A query letter is not a letter to your best pal.
It is not a therapy session (agents don’t care why you write.)
It is not an opportunity to ask questions like, “What can you do for me?” or any other display of pompous douchebaggery.
It is not a chance to say, “My mom loved my book so I thought I would send it to you.”
It is not riddled with mistakes and typos.
It does not reveal the final twist or ending of your novel.
How to structure a query letter:
Before I advance any further on this topic, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: writing a query letter has few mandatory rules. The sole requirement all agents agree on is simple – entice the agent. But make no mistake, there are guidelines query writers are expected to follow.
- Queries are limited to ~250 words, but an absolute maximum of 300. Any more and it’s a guaranteed rejection.
- White space is crucial. No blocks of text. None. Ix-nay. Break the paragraphs every three to four sentences.
- Personalize every query you send to the agent you’re sending it to.
Do: Dear J.E.Cearlock
Dear. Mr. Cearlock
Do Not: Dear Agent
Hey, buddy, how ya doin’?
Dear Mr./Mrs./Mr. No Name
Additionally, an agent will be interested in learning where you found their name. If you found their name through an interview or an article about them, mention this. It shows you have done your research.
- The query needs to be roughly 95% about your book. This one. The one you have finished. Not the one you plan to write in the future or the one you have sitting on your shelf from three years ago. The other 5% should be about yourself, relevant publishing or academic credentials, and maybe where you found the agent’s information.
- A general consensus among querying authors is to focus on events in the first 1/3rd of your novel. But this is not always necessary if you can create a working query otherwise.
What should my query contain?
Another excellent question! And I’m here to tell you, less is more. But these following things are mandatory for the query. How you present the information is up to you.
- Who is your protagonist?
- What does s/he want?
- Who is the antagonist?
- What does s/he want?
- What is stopping them from reaching their goals?
- What are the stakes? What will the protag lose if s/he does not succeed?
Simple, right? No matter what genre you write, no matter if it’s middle grade, young adult, new adult, or adult, all of these categories will follow this same guide. Some authors break these “rules” and do so with success. I believe you must first learn the “rules” before you can break them.
Crafting the Query.
So how should a query look once it’s been written? Well, each author has his own way to write these. However, most beginning authors start with the basic “Three Paragraph” form.
First the subject line of the E-mail should read this style: Literary Query – Author: Title (Category and genre).
Subject: Literary Query – J.E.Cearlock: AN UNGODLY CASE OF THE FEELS (Adult Romance)
Paragraph 1: The Hook
“Frejya is the Norse God of Love, which is hilarious because her own love life sucks.”
Something like this to set up who your main protagonist is, and possibly what their central problem will be.
Paragraph 2: The Dilemma
“Frejya believes no one will ever love her like her old husband Odin. Until she meets a human names Geoffrey, that is. The only problem is, Geoffrey is engaged, his wedding only three days away. Humans are not allowed in Asgaard but this doesn’t stop her from showing him the life they could have together, by her side for all eternity. But when his fiancée Valerie discovers Frejya’s intentions, the God of Love will need a God of War to stop the human’s wrath.”
Here we’ve set up the dilemma, the antagonist, and what both of the characters seek.
Paragraph 3: The Stakes
“Frejya has violated millennia-old laws by bringing a human to Asgaard, but she doesn’t care. After all, what could compare to true love? Certainly not an immortal life of loneliness. But Valerie has made it clear she won’t give Geoffrey up without a fight. Now Frejya has a decision: either cast down a human and face banishment from Asgaard for her own true love, or fulfill her divine duties and bless the couple with wedded bliss. Either way, she loses either a happy heart, or her position of power amongst the Gods of Asgaard.”
We as the reader now have a sense of the stakes for both the protagonist and the antagonist, but remember, a query doesn’t reveal the ending of the novel, only the choices and the cost of each of those choices.
Paragraph 4: Book info, bio, and agent research
“AN UNGODLY CASE OF THE FEELS is adult romance, complete at 75,000 words with series potential. My name is J.E.Cearlock and I am the author of (book) and written articles for (magazine/publication). I saw an interview you gave with Writer’s Digest and thought my book might send your heart to Asgaard.”
Here I have the title, category, genre, and word count. All of this is necessary. If you don’t have it, an agent won’t reach out. But word of warning: when it comes to previous publications, you cannot use self-published works as credentials un you made around $50k+.
Paragraph 5 – Salutation
“Thank you for your time and consideration.”
This. This line. Verbatim. Every single time. Without question. Nothing else is needed.
Final – Author signature and information
Website or blog (NO Twitter or Facebook)
Other pieces of advice:
- Voice is key. Your query must be captivating and enticing. It must be enthralling and flow naturally.
- The tone of the query MUST match the tone of the novel. If you pitch a horror novel but your query sounds like it was written by a drunk Chelsea Handler, chances are it won’t appear before an agent.
- No cursing in queries except for the occasional “hell” or “damn” and only if it fits in the query.
- Queries are … queries are hard. They’re harder than hard, they’re brutal. They’re The Hunger Games created by Loki with Voldemort as the main judge. They will make you question everything about your life choices and as Emily Bleeker said above, possibly seek out therapy. This step is the single greatest reason many great writers stop writing and give up their passion.
- YOU CAN DO IT. No matter what you think, you can. You have resources galore at your fingertips. QueryTracker.net and agentqueryconnect.com are forums designed to help you write and polish your query letter.
Good luck, my fellow writers. Don’t let the daunting task of querying scare you away. We all hope to see your work on bookshelves one day.