This is my definitive No Rules series on novel queries. It's meant particularly for writers who are new to the query process. (A series on nonfiction book queries will come later.)
THE 5 ELEMENTS OF A NOVEL QUERY
Every query should include these 5 elements (but not necessarily delivered in this order):
- Personalization (where you customize the letter for the recipient)
- What you're selling (genre/category, word count, title/subtitle)
- Hook (100-150 words is ideal)
- Bio (sometimes optional for uncredited fiction writers)
- Thank you & closing (plus any important notes)
What's in the very first paragraph of the query?
This varies from writer to writer, from project to project. You put your best foot forward—or you lead with your strongest selling point. This might involve:
- A referral from an existing client
- Met at a conference or pitch event (your material may or may not have been requested, but if your material WAS requested, you're not really writing a query any more; you're writing a cover letter)
- Compelling hook that matches what an agent recently expressed interest in
- Personalized intro that smartly and genuinely identifies why your work is a good match for this particular agent or editor
- Excellent credentials or awards (e.g., MFA from a school that an agent is known to recruit clients from, first prize in a national competition with thousands of entrants, impressive publication credits with prestigious journal or New York publisher)
Many writers don't have referrals or conference meetings to fall back on, so usually the hook becomes the lead for the query letter.
Other writers start simple and direct, which is fine: "My [title] is an 80,000 supernatural romance."
Does personalization really make a difference?
Yes, if it's done well. If you're vague in your personalization (faking it), then you'll appear insincere or lazy.
Remember, your query is a sales tool, and good salespeople develop a rapport with the people they want to sell, and show that they understand their needs. Show that you've done your homework, show that you care, and show that you're not blasting indiscriminately.
EXAMPLES OF GOOD PERSONALIZATION QUERY LEADS
In a January interview with Guide to Literary Agents, you praised The Thirteenth Tale and indicated an interest in “literary fiction with a genre plot.” My paranormal romance MOONLIGHT DANCER (85,000 words) blends a literary style with the romance tradition.
I read about you in the July/August Poets & Writers magazine and found your comments encouraging, savvy, and full of brass tacks optimism that moved me. I hope you will consider representing my 82,000-word novel, BACK IN THE WORLD.
My YA paranormal romance, I WOULD HAVE LOVED YOU ANYWAY, is complete at
95,000 words. I follow your blog and know you are currently looking for
paranormal romances—without vampires or werewolves—and want to offer my
novel for your consideration.
EXAMPLES OF GOOD STRAIGHT-FORWARD QUERY LEADS
I’m seeking representation for my YA novel, SEND. Complete at 76,000 words, it’s a story about Daniel Clements, a former cyberbully trying to live with the consequences of his actions.
82 DAYS is a novel about a young man discovering that the Hollywood version of the Army differs from the reality of service.
QUERY LEADS THAT SHOULD BE IMPROVED
The enclosed sample of my commercial fiction,THE SPIRIT OF ST. CHARLES (73,000 words) tells the story of a young woman overcoming personal tragedy to rebuild her community, ruined by a catastrophic hurricane.This story shows how a natural disaster changes a young woman from living like a victim to a person with determination and emotional strength. It is 73,000 words in length.
[I recommend cutting this descriptive line because it is repetitive, and delays getting to the real hook.]
Vampires are everywhere. They are in our books, on our televisions, at the movies, even on our breakfast cereals. We no longer fear them as the monsters we used to know. They are sex symbols and objects of envy and adoration. What if this is all according to plan?My novel, GRAVE SHIFT, is a 90,000-word dark urban fantasy.
[When it comes to selling fiction, don't talk about trends. Sell the story.]
“Wow! You guys have got to write a book!” is the hilarious outburst individuals have and continue to give to my sisters and me on a daily basis as we relate the adventures of being IDENTICAL TRIPLETS.
[Your query should never mention that your friends & family absolutely love your work–or told you to write a book. Never.]
Next up in the series: the 3 elements of a novel hook
Looking for more great query letter advice? Check out the Writer's Digest official guide to queries, which includes examples and instruction by genre.