Shooting Star, Pawel Kadysz

How to write a query letter

I’m usually pretty good at writing query letters. I have a fairly good track record with them, meaning that I have a decent enough percentage of getting full manuscript requests from a query letter. The last two novels that I queried had a 35% and a 27% manuscript request rate, which I consider pretty dang good. None of those full requests have translated into an offer of representation, however.

So I felt pretty good when I finally sat down to write the query letter for my most recently completed novel. But then I ran into a block. This query letter was harder than previous ones. Which then made me question what that means.

And then a whole host of other questions came to mind …

  • Does my inability to write 3 sharp paragraphs in summary of my novel mean the novel is too complicated?
  • Did I pack too much “quirky” stuff into the novel in the hopes of having that impossible-to-reach “hook” that agents are looking for?
  • How can I show the exciting and important parts of my book in just a few sentences without leaving anything out?
  • What can I actually leave out without ruining my chances to get an agent’s attention?
  • What if I leave out the one thing that really makes the novel stand out?
  • How much of the plot do I give away when there are a few things that happen that I know should be surprising?
  • What’s the most important plot or character piece that absolutely needs to be in there?
  • How do I juggle this many characters in a query even though the book is 1st person POV?
  • Why is this one so much harder than all my other ones??

All right. I don’t have answers for any of those questions. Basically, I stuffed everything I could into one query letter and then I sat back and stared at it a while. Then I pulled it apart line by line and plot element by plot element. Then I focused on my protagonist and where she is in the novel and what she’s doing and how she grows (which then made me question, again, all the revisions I’ve done and whether I’ve actually done enough).

The formula for a great query letter, in my opinion, is this:

  • Paragraph #1: Introduce the book with its title, word count, genre, and a one-liner that describes the overarching theme, mood, tone, or issue the book deals with.
  • Paragraphs #2-3: Summarize the book with concise, descriptive text, evoking the same emotions the book itself conveys.
  • Paragraph #4: Put the cap on the book summary, rounding everything out with how the novel picks up pace and gets to an ending. Note, you don’t have to (and maybe you shouldn’t) reveal the ending. That’s more what a synopsis is for, if someone’s asking for a synopsis.
  • Paragraph #5: Short bio of who you are, what you do, what you’ve done, and why this book came out of you. Don’t over-kill this part.
  • Paragraph #6: Wrap everything up with a note of what else is included (synopsis, sample pages), a thank you, and then you’re out.

Now, obviously, I numbered the paragraphs 1-6 but here’s the deal: This isn’t any longer than one page. And that one page includes your header, your salutation, your thank you, and your name. That’s it. No more than one page. I’m serious. Even though this is probably going through email, I still stick to the one-page rule (or, okay, as close to one page as I can make it).

Going through all that is painful. Draft after draft of finding new, shorter ways to say the exact same thing. Rather, to say the same thing better. That’s what it takes to write a query letter. It takes revision and editing. It takes the giving up of some plot point or moment that just has to wait until someone reads the book. It takes time.

It’s not like I can’t revise my query. In fact, I always do that. I send it out to a few agents, maybe one or two, and if I get passes then I take another look. Sometimes it’s not your novel that’s the problem, but the query letter. That’s what I have to keep telling myself whenever someone passes without requesting my manuscript. The query didn’t work out. It’ll work out for someone else. And it always does.

Despite all the complications that arose from writing the query this time around, I’m not giving up quite yet. I need a 0% request rate before I give up entirely. I’m sure that even before that happens, I’ll be re-working this query a few times over until it’s molded and shaped into something that makes an agent want to read the book just as much as I wanted to write it.

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