In last week’s letter, I shared the five main parts of a query letter (Salutation, What, Why, Pitch, and Who), along with a sample query letter for a fictious project. This week, let’s unpack that sample query letter further, starting with a topic that can prompt a lot of debate in the writing world: word counts.
While there are exceptions to every rule, ideally a manuscript’s word count should be within the typical range for its audience and genre. Word counts aren’t an exact science, and telling a strong story is more important than hitting a precise number. However, books in similar genres and for similar audiences tend to fall within certain word count ranges; recently published books that veer from these ranges tend to be by established authors or from well-known series.
A word count that is far out of the norm—like a 15,000 word young adult fantasy or a 125,000 word realistic middle grade novel or a 9,000 word picture book—suggests that there is a disconnect between the story, target audience, and the current marketplace. For further reading, I highly recommend agent Jennifer Laughran’s blog post about word counts. You can also look up the word counts of other recently published books in your genre via the AR Bookfinder, as Jennifer shares at the bottom of her post.
After you’ve shared the basics of your manuscript with What, it’s time for Why. Why have you decided to submit to this specific agent? Or put another way: why is this agent likely to be interested in your manuscript? The sample query I shared does this in three ways, though you might choose to only include one or two of these in your query:
- Mentioning the agent’s stated interests that align with the story (“your interest in humorous middle grade stories, quirky animal characters, and unexpected friendships”)
- Mentioning authors of similar stories who the agent represents or who fit the agent’s interests (“because you represent Felina Furr and Rufus Barks”)
- Listing comparable titles that align with the agent’s interests (“which will appeal to readers of My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish”)
If you completed the initial comp title exercise or prepared an agent spreadsheet, you should already have a list of potential Whys to share in this section. While they definitely aren’t required, comp titles can be a good way to immediately give readers a sense of a book’s genre, voice, or plot. If I say a book is “Jurassic Park from the dinosaurs’ perspectives,” readers will know to expect a certain amount of action and, well, dinosaurs. That said, some books lend themselves to comp titles more easily than others. If the only comp titles you can think of are dated or require a long disclaimer (e.g. “Jurassic Park but set on a farm with semi-sentient vegetables instead of dinosaurs and from the perspective of two vegetarian hogs”), my suggestion is to err on the side of not including any comp titles, rather than including potentially confusing or misleading ones.
If desired, the Why section is also where you can mention anything else that led you to query this agent—such as meeting them at a conference or seeing a blog post, interview, or presentation of theirs that particularly resonated with you. If you don’t have anything like this to mention, that’s totally fine as well! It’s not feasible to mention something like this in every query you send, and it’s not going to make the difference between an offer of representation or a pass.
Next up is the Pitch. As I mentioned last week, many authors struggle with writing brief descriptions of their work. If this is you, my first suggestion is to read 15–25 descriptions of books that are similar to yours (this is another time when your initial comp title research will prove useful!). Reading a variety of recently published books’ descriptions can help to give you a sense of the current conventions in your genre and category. You can also try thinking about the last book you read—what made you want to read it? Can you remember what you’d heard about it beforehand? You might find that your own book buying and reading habits can offer lessons to apply when writing descriptions of your work.
Speaking generally, most pitches introduce the main character (“twelve-year-old Julie”); an inciting event that kicks off the central plot (“When she wakes up to a flooded bedroom on the first day of sixth grade”); the core conflict or antagonist (“her evil genius cat, Mushu, who will stop at nothing to keep her stuck at home as a full-time servant”); key supporting characters (“her skeptical neighbor, Natalie, and her wannabe-scientist brother, Chris”); and a sense of how the plot unfolds (“Hijinks, hairballs, and hairbrained plans ensue in this rollicking adventure that pits three unlikely allies against one truly devious feline”). A book’s copy can also give readers a sense of the book’s voice—in this case, lighthearted and funny—offering a window into what the reading experience will be like.
If you’re struggling with your book’s pitch, try focusing on these key elements—main character, inciting event, antagonist, conflict, etc.—first. It can be easier to start by writing a longer description—maybe four or six paragraphs—and to then work on slowly trimming that description down to one or two paragraphs. Once you have a description you’re happy with, try asking someone who hasn’t read your manuscript to read your query—and then to tell you what they think your book is about. If they are confused or don’t understand part of the description, you’ll know that you need to revise.
Don’t be afraid to be specific about the plot; a query that gives away some of a book’s twists is typically much stronger than a query that relies on vague descriptions or rhetorical questions. To go back to the example query, the pitch would have been much more generic if it didn’t reveal that Mushu was the antagonist (e.g. “Who is behind these attacks? Will Julie be able to stop them? Who will she meet and what will she learn about herself along the way?” or “Julie must work to uncover the source of these attacks before it’s too late.”). Revealing more of the plot is one big difference between the copy for published books (which is often more opaque and works in conjunction with elements like the cover art, blurbs, excerpts, and reviews) and the copy for query letters (which gives a clearer sense of the book as a whole, as well as how the story progresses beyond the sample pages).
At the same time, the pitch shouldn’t read like an outline, listing every plot point, scene, and character. I recommend aiming for a one or two paragraph pitch that is part of a one page query letter (about 250 words total). Effective descriptions are a balancing act of highlighting the most compelling or distinctive elements of a story (often referred to as a “hook”) while also making readers eager to learn more.
Lastly, you can use the closing Who paragraph to mention any relevant biographical information or to simply include your name and contact information. If you are submitting your sample pages as an attachment (rather than through an online form), make sure to include your name and contact information in the attachment as well so that agents can reach you easily.
In next week’s letter, I’ll wrap up this submissions series. As always, if you have any questions you’d like me to consider answering, please feel free to email them to me!
Your Editor Friend,
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