…really shouldn’t be all that dreaded, because it’s just a formula. And, honestly, writing a query letter is is a very beneficial exercise: it forces you to boil your novel down to it’s very heart and soul.
Participating in the fabulous #WriteMentor as a mentor has helped me, as I’ve been trying to help others. It’s also been a great way to fill my time as my debut contemporary YA novel All the Walls of Belfast (Turner Publishing, March 2019) is locked away for edits. And, as I was prepping feedback for all the authors who submitted to me, I did notice a lot of common problems across entries. So, I’m launching a summer series with some tips around getting your submission materials query ready.
So, let’s start with the dreaded query letter. This is a struggle for most writers, because it is SO DIFFERENT from writing that novel, or even that synopsis. It takes a different part of your brain. Tons has already been written about query letters. I’m not going to reveal anything earth-shattering or re-write what experts have already written—I’ll provide some resources at the end. I’m just going to give you my personal thoughts, for whatever they’re worth. Because, who knows, it may work for you!
I think, first and foremost, it’s helpful to conceptualize it as what it is: basically a cover letter for your resume or CV you use when applying for a job. It’s a formal business letter, and it’s purpose is to give an agent or editor a tease about your book and leave them hungry to know more, while also revealing more mundane details like word count, genre, and a tiny bit about yourself. The ultimate purpose of the query letter is to highlight the uniqueness of your story and make the agent/editor sit up and want to read your pages. Because, the hard truth is most agents get hundreds of queries every week, and that’s in addition to all the hard work they’re putting in for their clients. Not all agents read beyond the query. So you need to make sure your query grabs their attention. It should be the unique concept of your story itself that grabs their attention, not fireworks or cheap tricks. Also, do NOT use rhetorical questions. General consensus is recent comp titles are good to have, as it helps categorize your book and is very useful in marketing and shelving it.
Your main goal in the query letter is to introduce the main character(s), central conflict, and show us what the main obstacle/barrier/antagonist. We need a strong sense of what’s at stake if they fail. Why should we care?
At the core of the query are these questions:
1) What does the character want?
2) Why do they want it?
3) What obstacles are in the way?
4) What’s at stake if they don’t get it?
It should also show how the character’s agency, their choices, will be what drives the plot. Focus only on the most essential characters and the main plot line, otherwise it gets convoluted and confusing.
A query differs from a synopsis in that it DOESN’T tell us the ending, just gives us a taste of the story. The synopsis lays out blow-by-blow what happens all the way to the end. The query shows the reader with the heart of the story, lays bare the central conflict, then teases the reader with an impossible situation, an impossible choice that must be made. The query should leave big questions in the air about what’s at stake and what’s going to happen, so the reader is desperate to know more.
In terms of the bio, it doesn’t have to be huge—just a few sentences if you’ve never published anything. Do mention any writing organizations you’re a member of, such the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Romance Writers of America, or the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. This shows a level of commitment to the profession of writing. If you’re not a member of some kind of writing organization, consider it. They can be great ways to learn about trainings, get critique partners, or find other professional development opportunities. If you’ve been selected as a mentee in any writing programs (like PitchWars or WriteMentor), consider mentioning that, as that shows a commitment to craft. Other than that, otherwise just briefly state your educational and current professional experience, and perhaps if there’s anything that might even tangentially qualify you to write this book. Like I always mention I’m a school psychologist with a professional focus around supporting children who have been exposed to trauma or toxic stress, as the books I write tend to incorporate elements of both.
We DON’T need to know every training you’ve ever attended or book on craft you’ve ever read or even how many books you’ve tried to write. We DON’T need to know that you’re in a critique group. Now, if you’ve organized one, particularly a large one, that could be relevant. DO NOT advertise that you just finished this book up in NaNoWriMo a few months back; this will suggest to agents that you may not have taken the necessary time to send your novel through critique partners and properly edit it.
Then there’s there obvious stuff like grammar and typos, being consistent with capitalizations. Again, this is a professional business letter. And if you can’t get it right in the query letter, it’ll leave agents and editors wondering about the editorial quality of the rest of your work.
Really, there’s a formula for writing a query letter. Here are a few resources about that formula:
For me personally, my writing tribe has been critical in helping me finally master my query back in the day; query letters are definitely instances where we as writers are too close. Having a set of objective eyes is essential. They can make sure it’s stream-lined, focused, and makes sense. As with all things writing, I think critiquing others can only help you develop your skill for your own work as well, so exchanging query letters and helping one another will always be mutually beneficial 😊
Look for another craft post on the beastly synopsis soon. Happy writing!