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How to Write a Query Letter

Query letters? Do literary agents really read them?

Agents take queries very seriously, and yes, they really do read them. It’s not some universal rumor that agents have perpetuated because they all have a secret fetish for being bombarded with mail. Sure, agents make it sound like digging through the slush pile is the last priority of their day. Some agents even relegate the ambivalent task of reading unsolicited queries to an assistant or intern. But the fact of the matter is that most agents do read queries. Even more importantly, agents actually respond to ones that spark their interest.

So write a professional, intelligent, concise, intriguing query and not only will you entice an agent to ask for more, but you’ll move yourself one step closer to a book sale.

Query Letter Basics

A query letter is a single page cover letter, introducing you and your book. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s not a resume. It’s not rambling saga of your life as an aspiring writer. It’s not a friendly, “Hey, what’s up, buddy. I’m the next John Grisham. Got the next best selling thriller for ya,” kind of letter. And for the love of god, it is NOT more than one-page. Trust us on this.

A query letter has three concise paragraphs: the hook, the mini-synopsis, and your writer’s biography. Don’t stray from this format. You won’t catch an agent’s attention by inventing a creative new query format. You’ll just alienate your chances of being taken seriously as a professional writer. A query letter is meant to elicit an invitation to send sample chapters or even the whole manuscript to the agent. It’s not meant to show off how cute and snazzy you can be by breaking formatting rules and going against the grain. Keep it simple. Stick to three paragraphs. The goal is to get the agent to read your book, not to blow you off because you screwed up the introduction.

Paragraph One—The Hook: A hook is a concise, one-sentence tagline for your book. It’s meant to hook your reader’s interest, and wind them in. The best way to understand how to write a hook is to read the loglines of the titles sold by agents in our free searchable AQ database.

Here are a few examples of hooks for well-known novels:

House of Sand and Fog
When Massoud Amir Behrani, a former colonel in the Iranian military, sinks his remaining funds into a house he buys at auction, he unwittingly puts himself and his family on a trajectory to disaster; the house once belonged to Kathy Nicolo, a self-destructive alcoholic, who engages in legal, then personal confrontation to get it back.

Bridges of Madison County
When Robert Kincaid drives through the heat and dust of an Iowa summer and turns into Francesca Johnson's farm lane looking for directions, the world-class photographer and the Iowa farm wife are joined in an experience that will haunt them forever.

The Corrections
When family patriarch, Alfred Lambert, enters his final decline, his wife and three adult children must face the failures, secrets, and long-buried hurts that haunt them as a family if they are to make the corrections that each desperately needs.

The "When" Formula: As you can see, we’re a fan of the when formula: “When such and such event happens, your main character—a descriptive adjective, age, professional occupation—must confront further conflict and triumph in his or her own special way. Sure, it’s a formula, but it’s a formula that works.

However, be warned...everyone and their grandmother who reads this site will try using our "when" formula, so we recommend simply using it as a starting point. Write your basic hook, then try spicing things up as you get more and more into the groove of "hooking." And don't worry, it's legal in every state, not just Nevada.

Be sure to check out these very simple, yet very non-"formulatic" fiction hooks:

The Kite Runner
An epic tale of fathers and sons, of friendship and betrayal, that takes us from Afghanistan in the final days of the monarchy to the atrocities of the present.

The Da Vinci Code
A murder in the silent after-hour halls of the Louvre museum reveals a sinister plot to uncover a secret that has been protected by a clandestine society since the days of Christ.

Everything Is Illuminated
With only a yellowing photograph in hand, Jonathan Safran Foer—both author and meta fictional protagonist—sets out to find the woman who might or might not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis.

Here are some non-"formulatic" hooks for a few nonfiction books:

Into Thin Air
On assignment for Outside Magazine to report on the growing commercialization of the mountain, Krakauer, an accomplished climber, went to the Himalayas as a client of Rob Hall, the most respected high-altitude guide in the world, and barely made it back alive from the deadliest season in the history of Everest.

The Perfect Storm
The true story of the meteorological conditions that created the "Storm of the Century" and the impact the Perfect Storm had on many of the people caught in its path; chiefly, among these are the six crew members of the swordfish boat the Andrea Gail, all of whom were lost 500 miles from home beneath rolling seas.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
The memoir of Dave Eggers, who at the age of 22, became both an orphan and a "single mother" when his parents died within five months of one another of unrelated cancers, leaving Eggers the appointed unofficial guardian of his 8-year-old brother, Christopher.

Other Great Ways to Start Your Hook:

  • Give era and location: Three Different Examples:
    1. Set in modern-day Jerusalem...
    2. During the summer of 1889 in a rural Texas town...
    3. Taking place in turn-of-the-century New York City...

  • Set up your main character: Three Different Examples:
    1. The tale of Una Spencer, wife of Melville's legendary fictional whale harpooner Captain Ahab...
    2. A chatty cozy mystery starring 50-something college professor Bell Barrett...
    3. Narrated by Cot Daley, an Irish peasant girl kidnapped from Galway and sent to Barbados...

  • Variations on the "when" formula: Three Different Examples:
    1. Following a botched circumcision...
    2. While defending a drug-addicted prostitute accused of murder....
    3. After years of abuse at the hands of her alcoholic mother and step-father...

    There are literally scores and scores of hooks listed in our database, specifically in the past & present clients section of our agents’ profiles. We encourage you to read as many as possible, and learn what captures your attention in a single sentence. Then try to emulate a similar hook for your query letter.

    Paragraph Two—Mini-synopsis: This is where you get to distill your entire 300 page novel into one paragraph. Lucky you. We’d like to offer advice on how to do this, but really, it just takes practice, hard work and lots of patience. Then, like we said before, get your friends to read it and if their heads hurt afterwards, go back to the drawing board. We don’t envy you. We really don’t. Summing up your entire book in an intriguing single paragraph is worse than a root canal.

    So think of it this way. You had trouble writing the gist of your book in one sentence, right? Now, you get a whole paragraph. About 150 extra words. Here’s your chance to expand on your hook. Give a little bit more information about your main characters, their problems and conflicts, and the way in which adversity changes their lives. Read the back flaps of your favorite novels and try to copy how the conflict of the book is described in a single, juicy paragraph. You can do this. You really can. You just have to sit down, brainstorm, then vomit it all out onto the page. Afterwards, cut, paste, trim, revise, and reshape.

    Paragraph Three—Writer’s bio: This should be the easiest part of your query. After all, it’s about you, the writer. Okay, so it’s a bit daunting, especially if you’ve never been published, never won any awards, hold no degrees from MFA writing schools, and possess no credentials to write your book. No problem. The less you have to say, the more space you have for your mini-synopsis. Always a plus.

    If you do choose to construct a writer’s bio (and you should), keep it short and related to writing. Agents don’t care what your day job is unless it directly relates to your book. Got a main character who’s a firefighter, and that’s your day job? Be sure to say that. Otherwise, scrap it. Education is helpful because it sounds good, but it’s only really important if you’re offering a nonfiction book about A.D.D. children and you hold a PhD in pediatric behavioral science. If you’ve published a few stories in your local newspaper, or a short story in a few literary magazines, or won any writing awards or contests, now’s the time to list the details. Don’t go hog wild, but don’t be too modest either.

    Your Closing: Congratulations! You’ve finished your query letter. As a formal closing, be sure to do two things. First, thank the agent for her time and consideration. Second, if it’s nonfiction, tell them that you’ve included an outline, table of contents, and sample chapters for their review. If it’s fiction, alert the agent that the full manuscript is available upon request. And in case you still don’t believe us, we want to reiterate: don’t query agents until you’ve finished your full fiction manuscript. Agents will want to read the whole novel before they offer representation to you and your book.

    Need to see an ACTUAL query letter before you'll know how to write one?
    We've been getting a lot of email from some AQ users who believe that they must see a query letter before they can write one. And you've been relentless in your requests for examples of REAL, L-I-V-E query letters. Some of you have even offered us shiny trinkets in exchange for a glimpse at the elusive QL beast. Well, it ain't the ivory-billed wood pecker, but here you go: examples from agents, industry-insiders, and writers with agents. You can't get a better view than that.

    • Check our our "Examples of Successful Queries" group in our social networking community, AQ Connect. It's updated with new, successful queries almost on a daily basis!
    • Chuck Sambuchino's "Guide to Literary Agents" blog offers successful query examples from agents and their clients.
    • Query Shark blog, in which literary agent, Janet Reid, gives snarky advice on how to write a query letter to brave newbie participants willing to swim with The Shark.

      In addition, here are a few AQ success stories of newbie writers — just like you — who used our AQ query letter advice to draft their query and snag their agents, who snagged them book deals with major publishers!

    • New York Times Best-selling author and AQ success story, Allison Winn Scotch's query letter for her debut novel, DEPARTMENT OF LOST AND FOUND.
    • New York Times Best-selling author and AQ success story, Heather Brewer's query letter for her vampire series, THE CHRONICLES OF VLADIMIR TOD.
    • Published Author and AQ user, Catherine Delores's query letter for historical epic, THE MISTRESS OF THE REVOLUTION.

    JUST FOR NONFICTION WRITERS: Truth be told, much of our AQ advice is geared towards fiction writers, which is kind of silly considering that there's a bigger market for nonfiction than fiction these days. And nonfiction writers have the added benefit of needing only a proposal—rather than a completed fiction manuscript—before seeking representation from an agent. So we've trolled the web and asked our nonfiction friends to recommend books, web links, and tips for writers seeking information on how to write a stellar nonfiction proposal. Here's what we came up with:

    Other Random Query Letter Tips:

    The Do’s:

    • Do address your query specifically to an agent.

      Nowadays, more and more agencies prefer email queries. Great for you, right? After all, email queries are free, fast and easy-peezy to send. Just the click of a button. Well, here's the downside: Ri-DIC-ulous amounts of email queries are being received by agents every day. Like, over 100 queries a DAY. And that's average for the more popular agents.

      So if your query is addressed to "Whom it May Concern" — even if the agency's submission guidelines state "send all email queries to" — guess what is going to happen to your precious 1 little email out 100? Yeppers... The big ol' DELETE.

      For this reason, always, always, always address your email query to somebody... even if it's the intern's name (and sometimes it is the intern or assistant screening those 100-email queries-per-day). Always address it to a specific agent.

      As far as salutations, there are lots of greetings from which to choose. Here are your options in order of best to worst:

      Attn. Ms. Shermanstein:
      Dear Adrian Shermanstein:
      Dear Ms. Shermanstein:
      Dear Ms. Shermanstein,
      Dear Adrian,
      Yo Adrian,

    • Do state the title of your book.

      You wouldn't believe how many wanna-be writers sweat for weeks and weeks over their query's hook and mini-syn, only to totally forget to include the title of their book in their query.

      The title of your book should be included in at the beginning of your query — preferably in your hook — but at the very least, in the very first few sentences.

      For some whacko reason, (and we have no idea why), newbie writers who don't completely forget to mention their book's title in their query, instead, do this really weird thing: they bury it at the end of their query. Like deep in the closing paragraph. Like it's some big reveal.

      Don't be weird. Phhhhlease. State your book's title somewhere in the beginning of your query. You've been warned.

      BTW, if you're sending an email query, include your title in the subject line: QUERY: AN AWKWARD FORM OF PROSTITUTION. And yeah, the catchier your title, the better chances your query will be opened and glanced over before those other 99-email queries.

    • Do mention the word count and genre of your book.

      Novels should be 80,000 to 100,00 words. Young adult novels can be significantly less: 40,000-60,000 words. Suavely insert word count and genre at the end of your first “hook” paragraph.

      If your novel is a 200,000 word Weight Watchers candidate... our advice? Cut it down before you start querying.

      Agents hit DELETE on a proposed first-time novel over 110,000-120,000, so you have two choices. You can either omit your word count (which is going to circle back to bite you in the bum when they request a partial, so we don't advise this...) or you can cut it down. Unless your first novel is an family saga historical or a science fiction battle epic, agents have little tolerance for chubby debut novels because major publishers simply don't buy them. Too expensive to print and distribute. Too risky of an investment.

    • Do mention exactly why you’re approaching Ms. Agent.

      Well, this one is more of a "Try-Your-Best-To..." Try your best to compare your book with other books that Ms. Agent has represented in the past. Or, at the very least, let her know that you've done some research, looked at her website, read her blog, checked out her submission guidelines and reviewed what she says she's looking for, blah, blah, blah.

      And we'll admit, this "try-to" is one of those things that newbie writers do for the first 20-30 queries, and then it quickly gets dropped in favor of the numbers game. But if you met the agent at a conference or respond to a specific call for submissions that Ms. Agent posted on Twitter or her blog, then definitely mention it.

    • Do adopt the "proper" tone for your query letter.

      Yes, a query should be a professional business letter, but honestly, writing a query in the same manner as a regular cover letter is a recipe for snoozeville.

      A great query should not only tell an agent what your book is about, but it should also match your book's tone.

      Got a cozy mystery novel with a witty, self-depricating female sleuth? Then, why are you making your query sound like a stuffy academic dissertation? Got a suspenseful thriller with a hard-boiled edge? Then, why does your query letter sound like a bone-dry, business letter?
      Matching your query's tone to the tone of your book is one of those tips that sounds like a "risk," because everyone will tell you to keep it professional. But really, we're not taking about writing your query from the POV of one of your characters. We're talking about showing your voice through your query's tone, and proving to an agent that you really understand your book's genre, and ultimately, its marketability.

    • Do keep your query to one-page only.

      This is "old school" advice, especially since the majority of younger agents who are actively building their client list only accept email queries. A one-page query letter is a luxury. In the age of emailed queries and GenY nano-second attention spans, you've got to hook an agent in half that time. Your limit is 250 words. 300 max. If you really believe you can't distill down your book into a 250 email query, you've either written one of those literary masterpieces in which there's zippo plot, or you need some help learning the art of the query.

    • Do format your snail mail query using standard business letter alignment and spacing.

      That means: Single spaced. 12 point font. Everything aligned along the left margin. No paragraph indentations, but a space between each paragraph. One-page only!

      However, if you're sending an email query, be sure to send a version to yourself--and a few other email addresses--in order to search and destroy all those weird formatting blips. When you start copying and pasting from MS Word into email browsers, you'll be horrified to see how fonts and indentations become all FOOKED up. One of the best solutions is to copy and paste your query into a text editor, like Notepad, strip it bare of any formatting, and then re-edit your query directly in your email's browser.

    • Do list your phone number, mailing address, and email address, but only IF you're sending a snail mail query.
      If you're sending an email query, then don't waste the precious space. Start with Dear Ms. Agent: and then vomit right into your query letter.

    • Do include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) with all snail mail submissions.

      However, if you're looking to streamline the whole snail mail thing, and you don't feel the need to pay for the privilege of receiving rejection letters via your SASE, simply state at the end of your query that no SASE is enclosed, and instead, Ms. Agent can simply email you regarding a request for a partial or full; otherwise, no additional response is required from the agent (like a "form" rejection letter).

    • Do have a pair of "fresh eyes" proofread for typos and grammar mistakes.

    • How many typos have you found thus far? Yeah, exactly. Bet it's driving you nutszooooo.... Since most five year-olds can type and spell better than the AQCrew, be sure to get someone, anyone, even a five year-old, to proofread your query...

    The Do NOT’s:

    • Do NOT start off your query by saying, "I am querying you because I found your name in 'such and such' writing guide or internet agent database" (like AQ!). Not only does this take up valuable query letter space, but it's also the sign of an amateur.
    • Do NOT refer to your novel as a fictional novel. That’s redundant. Just call it a novel.
    • Do NOT sing the praises of your book or compare it with other best selling books.
    • Do NOT send gifts or other bribes with your query.
    • Do NOT print your query on perfumed or colored paper. Use plain business stationery.
    • Do NOT shrink your font down to 9 point so it all fits on one page. 12 point is standard. 11 point if you’re really desperate.
    • Do NOT Fedex or mail your query in a lavish, signature-required fashion in order to make your query stand out. It will stand out, but in a very "annoying, over-zealous, bad first impression" kind of way. Not to mention, it's a friggin' waste of money.
    • Do NOT apologize in your query for being a newbie writer with zero publishing credits and experience. Your goal is to write a tight, alluring, eye-catching query and sound like a professional. If you're worried about your lack of writing credentials, just keep quiet and let the writing speak for itself.
    • Do NOT include sample chapters of your novel with your query UNLESS an agent's submission guidelines specifically SAY to include sample pages with your snail mail query. If you really feel compelled to show an agent your writing style along with your query letter, include only the first 5 pages of your novel. Never send more than the first 5 pages with your query unless the guidelines say, "A-Okay!"
    • Do NOT forget to list your email address or contact phone number on your query.
    • Do NOT forget to enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE)

    Still need more guidance and advice about how to write a stellar query letter? Join our social networking community, AQ Connect, and check out our Query Critique Corner. It's fun and 100% free!