Let's Write A Query Letter Together

Greetings and happy New Year!  As a kid from the thirties, I expected to make my first million long before 2016.  I'm way behind.  Luckily, I'm a writer with a great novel to sell!  I can't fail to make bank soon, right?  ...Right?

That's the hitch.  If I want to make money at this gig, I have to get my work out there.  I have to publish somehow so that people will pay me to write.  Publishing, however, isn't as easy as combing Fury's hair.  We need a plan.

Before I can get published, I need an editor.  Before I can get an editor, I need an agent.  In order to get an agent, I need a query.  A query is a letter that tells an agent why they should represent your book.  What makes me awesome?  Usually I answer this question by flexing-- this time, I'm going to answer it by flexing my literary muscles instead.

First step: Research

Who are you sending this letter to?  That's the first line of this letter, so we'd better handle it quickly.  A couple of websites are good for this: AgentQuery is one, as is QueryTracker.  The Literary Rambles blog has some excellent agent interviews, and an entire sidebar of agencies and agents.  Between these resources (and the ever-handy Professor Google), you can find an agent that fits your genre, has represented books you like, or that you seem to like as a person.  Do your research before you query.

You've done your research!  The first step of actually writing this letter is addressing it:
Dear [agent's name here],
Ta-da, you've begun!  Don't hit SEND just yet.

Second step: Talk

Who is the main character?  What does s/he want?  What is keeping him/her from getting what s/he wants?  What must s/he sacrifice to get what s/he wants?  In a nutshell, what is your story about?

Before you start this step, make sure you have checked off the following list.  If you haven't done each of these, go back and do it.
  • Finish your story.  (The agent can't sell it if you haven't written it!  Make sure you've written THE END even before you research agents.  If you start researching before you finish, they could be gone by the time you're ready.
  • Edit your story.  (Agents don't want to see a raw first draft.  Once it's had a bath, its hair combed, and its little buttons all buttoned up, clean it up again.  Make sure it's the best it can possibly be before you start sending it out.  If you send it out and get rejected, you can theoretically edit and send it to the same agent again, after a good amount of time.  Don't bombard the agent with a million queries all in a row.)
  • Know all the answers to the questions you're answering.  (If you don't know already, you can't answer to someone else.  Even if you have a million main characters, narrow it down to the most interesting or the most prominent.  They can want a million things, but again, narrow it down.   We don't need to know the backstory, or the magic system, or even very much about the villain.  If you include it all in the query letter, they won't find anything new in the actual novel.  Leave yourself room to work.)
I'm breaking my own rule already, because my query letter is about a novel I've written, but haven't edited.  (But I'll edit it before I send out the query, I promise.)  Let's see how these guidelines work.
Tessa thought stupid magicians were the worst of her problems.
For the last nine months, Tessa has run her parents' clothing shop for magicians.  Her powerful, entitled customers appreciate her ability to take their nonsense in stride.  Her senile, penniless tenant appreciates her ability to pretend that yes, the rent was up-to-date, not almost a year overdue.  Tessa, in turn, appreciates her punching bag's ability to absorb her frustration; it dies a thousand deaths after close of business each day.  Life is manageable. 
It doesn't last.  Tessa soon learns her city business license will expire in a month if she can't renew it.  Her father's lack of records makes mundane paperwork a scavenger hunt as she searches the city for people who knew her parents well.  Her punching bag lacks power against the mounting stress-- however, a young magician, entitled as they come, arises to bear the brunt of her wild emotions. 
As Tessa struggles along, one of her customers falls dead at her feet-- rather, hanging upside-down in the air by magic no one understands.  The police, with few options, pinpoint Tessa's shop as one of their only leads.  Tessa must close down.  Faced with an expiring license, unhappy customers, and a murder investigation side-eyeing her, Tessa can give up and accept the consequences, or fight to stay afloat, innocent, and sane. Excellent!  It's not perfect, but I think it's workable.  Does it sum up the novel?  No, of course not.  It sums up Act I, the setup of the novel.  That's the part that's going to hook the reader, not the twist ending you have planned.  Remember, a query letter is not a synopsis; it's a hook.

Third step: Pinpoint

Now we know what the novel is about.  We know the main character and the setup of the story.  What more do we need?  Well, what does the story look like on the shelf?  We've sketched the back cover blurb and the cover art, but how does anyone sell this book?  How big is it, where does it sit in a bookstore?  Story is the most important, but these secondary concerns must be acknowledged.  Also, we need to know a little bit (a teensy bit) about you  Answer the following questions:
  • Who are you?  (Doesn't have to be much, just a sentence or two.)
  • What is the title?  (ALL CAPS.  No need to say "working title" or give other versions of the title.  One will do.)
  • What is the genre?
  • What is the age range?
  • How many words?  (Round to the nearest thousand.  Say "complete at [words]" to show you're finished writing it and ready to send.)
  • Any publishing credits?  (You don't have to have publishing credits to sell a manuscript, but they help.)
Don't be cute with this.  Give the information quickly in as few words as possible.
I am a first-time novelist who has been a superhero long enough to know the workings of crime detection, the trials of bureaucracy, and the importance of a good super suit.
THE TAILOR'S SONG is a young adult Fantasy, complete at 72,000 words.
If you have publishing credits, add them succinctly in that first paragraph.  I have none, and examples are so different that I won't try to give any rules on that.

Third-and-a-half step: Personalization

You should always start with story, in my opinion.  Your letter is about the story.  If you see something you like on the website, however, and want to include it in the query ("You said you like spunky stories about dragons, so here's a dragging story about punks..."), go for it.  That sort of thing should go in the paragraph with the title and the wordcount.  It's a chance to show the agent that you know who they are and what they like.

Fourth step: Leave

Now that you've said your piece, time to get out before they start throwing things.  Be brief, leave your contact information (including social media), and sign off professionally.  Close with something like "Thank you for your time and consideration."  (It's polite and nice and generally just a good thing to do.)  You're done.

On the topic of social media: only mention it if you're ready for an agent to look at it.  If they're interested in you, they'll look you up.  If your Twitter and Facebook author page are messy, clean them up.  If you'd rather they not see Twitter or Facebook page, don't mention them.  Finally, don't include live links in the query.  Say "Twitter: @YAvengers" or something like that.  Example:
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Stephen Rogers
Twitter: @YAvengers
 You can put your street address and phone number if you like.  I didn't, for reasons concerning my spandex outfit.  If I actually send this query to someone, I'd probably put that stuff on there.


Ta-da!  You're finished!  Now that you've written this, don't send it off just yet-- give it to a couple of friends and see if they want to read the story now.  Query Shark, a blog run by an active agent, is another great place to check the strength of your query.  (This post also has a lot of excellent guidelines for writing queries, including miscellaneous tips you should look over.)  Make sure to go over the query letter again and again for typos and anything else you don't like.  If your query letter is really solid, make sure the book you wrote is just as good.

Otherwise, I think you're set!  Do your research, know your story, and don't be afraid to be blunt.  This is nothing less than a business letter.  Don't be afraid to sell your story.

Good luck!

~Captain America