After you’ve identified WHERE to submit by researching literary agents, it’s time for HOW to submit: writing a query letter. Your query letter’s job is to introduce potential agents to your book—what it’s about, who its readers are, and how it fits the agent’s interests.
Though I’ll be sharing tips and suggestions for this stage of the submissions process, I also want to note that the most important element of any submission is the work itself. Many authors of fantastic books struggle with writing query letters, synopses, and other descriptive copy; your ability to write a great story has little bearing on your ability to write a great query. Every type of writing—from fiction to nonfiction to academic essays to speeches—requires practice and utilizes different creative skills.
So while it’s worth taking the time to craft a solid query letter, the end goal is to give agents a better sense of your manuscript and to make them want to read more of your work. As such, minor differences in phrasing, formatting, or similar details aren’t likely to be deciding factors between an offer of representation or a pass. With that in mind, let’s dive into the specifics!
Generally, query letters have five main sections:
- Salutation: Dear Julie Scheina, Hello Julie, etc. (as I mentioned last week, I recommend addressing agents by their full or first name to avoid potential honorific mistakes)
- What: your manuscript’s title, word count, audience (e.g. picture book, middle grade, young adult, adult, etc.), and genre (e.g. contemporary, historical, mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, etc.).
- Why: why you chose to query this agent and think they’d be a good fit for your manuscript (this is where the agent spreadsheet from last week’s letter comes in handy)
- Pitch: a brief description of your book’s characters and plot
- Who: a line or two of biographical information, relevant writing credits (if any), and contact information
Most query letters include these details in one form or another, but there are as many variations as there are books and authors. Some published authors share the query letters they sent before signing with a literary agent on their personal websites or on sites like Writers Digest. Websites like agent Janet Reid’s Query Shark can also help to give you a sense of the range of query letter styles and formats, as well as an agent’s perspective on what makes an effective query.
Reading and analyzing others’ queries is one of the best ways to learn how to write a query letter yourself. As such, for the purposes of this series, below is a sample query letter for a fictious project.
(Salutation) Dear Julie Scheina,
(What) I am writing to submit my 55,000 word contemporary middle grade novel, MY CAT THE EVIL GENIUS, which will appeal to readers of My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish. (Why) I chose to query you because you represent Felina Furr and Rufus Barks, and because of your interest in humorous middle grade stories, quirky animal characters, and unexpected friendships.
(Pitch) When she wakes up to a flooded bedroom on the first day of sixth grade, twelve-year-old Julie blames her little brother’s rogue plumbing experiments. But as a soggy carpet turns into fish-flavored lunches, half-digested homework, and a backpack filled with litter, Julie soon realizes that she’s facing a much hairier problem: her wicked cat, Mushu, who will stop at nothing to keep her stuck at home as a full-time cat servant.
Miserable and desperate for help (not to mention an industrial strength lint roller), Julie manages to recruit her skeptical neighbor, Natalie, and her wannabe-scientist little brother, Chris—but can three elementary schoolers really take down the most diabolical cat of all time? Hijinks, hairballs, and hairbrained plans ensue in this rollicking adventure that pits three unlikely allies against one truly devious feline.
(Who) I live in Virginia with my family and occasionally evil cat. My work has been published in Cat Fancy and Highlights. MY CAT THE EVIL GENIUS is my debut novel.
Thank you for your time,
In next week’s letter, I’ll unpack each section of this query letter a bit more.
Your Editor Friend,
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