How to Write a Query Letter – The Urban Writers

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Query Letter Mastery: Crafting a Letter That Opens Doors

Added: Query Letter
by The Urban Writers

The perfect query letter will open all the right doors. Well-crafted letters can also be difficult to write. So much depends on them.

If you want to publish traditionally, you need a literary agent. For this, you need to master the craft of the query letter. This is your only chance to make a memorable first impression. It should convey you and your work in the best possible light. 

Owing to how short it is, there's a lot of pressure on your query letter, which can make it difficult to get it right. This blog showcases some advice and important things to consider when crafting effective query letters. 

What is a Query Letter?

A query letter is a short letter to a literary agent. It explains the plot of the book, its genre, and potential market and has a bit about the author. 

It doesn't need to be long, but it does need to be informative. Your letter should be no more than 400 words in length. Literary agents don't have time to read long emails.

Are Query Letters Important?

A successful query letter is an introduction to you and your work. You have a maximum of 450 words to make a memorable first impression. Literary agents are looking for authors who want to make writing their career. 

Books are an industry, and literary agents need to know that the writer they have just added to their books is worth their time and emotional investment. Your query letter is an opportunity to do just that. 

What Should a Query Letter Include?

You should include the following:

  • A greeting along the lines of, "Dear [Agent Name].
  • The hook for your story, what makes it unique. 
  • A synopsis of the story, important events, and characters.
  • A brief summary of you as a writer and author.
  • A closing statement along the lines of "I look forward to speaking with you about [Title of Book]," followed by, "Kind regards, [Your Name]."

Proper Query Letter Format

Is there such a thing as a query letter format for authors? Let's use a real-life example, a story we all know and love: the Percy Jackson series. If we were writing a query letter for the first book in the series, The Lightning Thief, it would look something like this:

Dear [Agent],

I am writing to query my book, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, which is complete at just over 87,000 words. It is the first installment in a young adult quintet, where a young boy discovers that he is the son of Poseidon. 

When his English teacher attacks him on a field trip, Percy Jackson is whisked away to Camp Half-Blood, where he enters the world of Gods. When Zeus's master lightning bolt goes missing, it's up to Percy and his friends Annabeth and Grover to recover it. Along the way, they encounter Medusa, Lotus Eaters, and many more horrors from Greek mythology, which coexist with our world. By the end, they recover the master bolt, only to discover that one of the allies has betrayed their trust. 

I was inspired to write this book based on my son's experience with ADHD and dyslexia. The story evolved as a means of turning them into superpowers rather than being a hindrance to his education. 

Thank you for your consideration. I sincerely hope that you enjoy my book, and I look forward to hearing from you. 

Kind regards,

R. Riordan

What Should I Consider When Writing My Query Letter?

Writing to agents is a craft. While the letter is simple in concept, there's a level of difficulty to it. It needs to be the right balance of intriguing, humble, and concise. 

Here are a few things to keep in mind when writing your query letter. 

The Elevator Pitch

An elevator pitch is a short, 20 words or less summary of your book. Whether it's nonfiction or fiction, it needs to be short and snappy and sell the idea in as few words as possible. Some examples:

  • An orphan boy goes to wizard school. (Harry Potter)
  • Stranded on Mars, an astronaut must use his wits to survive. (The Martian)
  • James Bond for kids. (Alex Rider)
  • An eclectic group of people experiment to save the world from climate catastrophe. (The Ministry for the Future)
  • A restauranteur is the prime suspect in a murder investigation. (Arsenic and Adobo)
  • A clown terrorizes a small town. (It)

Your elevator pitch does not need to mention any major twists, turns, or plot points. It needs to tell the agent, the acquiring editor, and the potential reader what your book is about and pique their interest enough to read it. 

What Not To Include

While it might be tempting to include reviews from your friends or beta readers, these are beneficial to the writer, not the literary agent. A literary agent cares only about what they think of it, not your friends. 

To that end, when writing the section about yourself and your experience, don't make it too long. A maximum of 60 words showing who you are as a writer and how marketable you are. When publishers buy your book, they are also investing in you and your image. 

Your Audience

Consider comparable authors who are popular right now within the genre you are writing. For fantasy, you might want to compare yourself to Brandon Sanderson, Travis Baldree, NK Jemisin, or Sarah J. Maas. 

Literary agents want to get an idea of who is going to buy your book. They pay their bills by taking on authors who they think are going to be successful, who are in it for the long haul. and who understand the current market. 

The Perfect Query Letter

Your query letter should be perfect. In this context, perfection means that there are no spelling mistakes, the punctuation is immaculate, and it doesn't go off on any tangents. 

Although you can perfect the formula, that doesn't mean that your letter is perfect. This is why you should consider hiring an editor to take a look at it. An editor's job is to improve the quality of your writing. 

Although they typically work with books and long-form texts, editors also work with short works, including query letters. Hiring an editor will give you an advantage as they will have an inside eye on the industry. 

An editor will point out flaws in your writing and suggest improvements to make it stand out in your prospective agent's inbox. 

Know Your Genre

There are two markets when it comes to fiction books: literary and genre. Whichever market your book falls into, it's important that you know it inside and out. 

If you would like to query a romance novel, it's important that you read what is being written at the moment in the romance genre. Literary agents are looking for authors who know their genre and are willing to bring a fresh take on the same old stories. 

While it's helpful to read stories that were popular when you were younger or new to the genre, it's not a good idea to treat them as though they are the gold standard. Harry Potter was popular for its time because it resonated with so many. 

However, Harry Potter is considered "old news" in the publishing industry. Publishers who are at the top of the literary foods chain want something fresh and exciting. They want a new take on an old idea, something which reflects the current state of the market. 

A recent example, Skandar Smith, is currently poised to replace the new gold standard in teen and young adult fiction. This is because it's a new take on a popular genre: the young hero with whom the reader grows up, a magic school, and a well-defined threat.

This is the challenge genre writers face, and you should indicate to your potential agent that you understand what the market looks like and where you think it's going. 

If you are interested in learning more about genre fiction and the challenges faced by genre authors, click here.

What to Expect During the Querying Process

You have your query package set up. What comes next? The answer may surprise and disappoint you. After sending everything off, you wait.

The querying process is a long, drawn-out timeline of anxious waiting and heaps of rejections before, hopefully, landing a manuscript request or an offer of representation. You would be forgiven if you thought it was a streamlined process. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you enter the querying process. 

Extended Reply Periods 

Literary agencies typically give a time frame of around 12 weeks to get to your submission. In reality, it can take up to a year. Literary agents receive hundreds of emails every week, and their assistants sit at their desks, sorting through everything they receive. 

Do not be disheartened if you haven't heard back in 12 weeks, they might have just not read your email yet. 

The Waiting Game

This doesn't apply to just literary agents. When you finally land an agent, your agent will present your manuscript to editors. Getting published can take up to two years.

Editors receive hundreds of manuscripts every day, and they will only take a select few to the acquisitions team at the publishing house they work for. If a publishing house is interested, they will take on your book and put it into production. This can take a further 18 months. 

What to Do When You Get an Offer

If you receive an email offering representation, here's what you should do: take your original query email and send it to all of the agents you submit it to. 

This time, the subject line shoulder read, "OFFER RECEIVED," in block capitals, followed by the original subject line. Although literary agents are all in the loop, they are also competing with each other to find and represent the next big name in your genre. 

In Summary

When writing your query letter, it's important to be aware of current market trends. Literary agents have to be on top of current trends, and they have to look ahead to see what the market might look like. 

As the publishing process can take up to three years, there is a lot at stake when it comes to taking on new authors.

Your query letter is your chance to show agents what you and your work are all about, so don't skimp on it. Hire a writer to draft the letter for you, hire an editor to perfect it, and don't be disheartened if you don't hear back after 12 weeks. 

Writing a query letter is a craft, like the art of writing a novel. It has its own intricacies, its own rules and nuances, and some unique pressures that come along with it. The process is a marathon, not a sprint, so pace yourself. 

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