How to Compose a Captivating Query Letter that Gets an Agent's Attention

Tracy Stengel

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It’s taken a year, maybe five or more, but you’ve done it! You’ve written a novel! The writing and editing took longer than you expected, but who cares? You’ve written a novel!

Okay, so it’s sitting pretty in a file on your computer. Now what?

First of all, pat yourself on the back and give yourself the kudos you deserve. Writing a novel is a huge achievement. A lot of people plan to do it, but don’t. Through cramped fingers and brain sprains (you know what I’m talking about), you persevered and soldiered through. Way to go!

Then you realize if you want to get published through the traditional route, you’ll need a query letter. One that makes agents sit up and take notice. The point of a query letter is to spark interest and lure the agent to request pages. Ultimately, you want an agent to read the entire manuscript, fall in love with it, and offer representation. Top agents receive hundreds of queries every week. I’m going to show you how to make yours stand out.

As a freelance fiction editor with ten years of experience, a large part of my job includes helping my clients craft a killer query. I continue to research what works and what doesn’t. I pay attention to what agents ask for in a query. Let’s give them what they want!

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There’s a recommended formula I use to structure the letter. I don’t stray from it. An important part of the formula is remembering a query should not go over 300 words. 250 words is the sweet spot. I’ve never been accused of being a rule follower, but in this case, I’m a stickler. Why? Because this formula has the best success rate and I want the odds to be in my client’s favor.

One of the most crucial pieces of advice I give my clients is the hardest to follow: DO NOT query until your manuscript is polished. When you think it’s perfect, edit it again. Get other people to read it. Join a writing group. Find a mentor. If you can afford it, hire an editor. Do whatever you can to give yourself the best opportunity to achieve your goals.

Too often, writers are so relieved and excited they’ve finished the novel, they throw it into the world too early. It’s riddled with typos and awkward sentences. The beginning is all wrong. It lags in the middle. The character’s mother started out a tall brunette, but somehow by chapter fifteen she’s a petite redhead. Rushing to query a manuscript leads to bitter regrets. I don’t want you to go through that.

Structure of a Query

The First Paragraph is Your “Hook”

Get the agent’s attention right away with one or two short, snappy sentences. Use the hook to get them to care about/be interested in your main character (MC). Draw them with as few words and as much pertinent information as possible. The hook should include the MC’s name, age, and touch on the conflict. Try to convey the MC’s personality.

If your MC is a minor (under the age of 18), give the exact age. If your MC is an adult, there’s no need to specify the age, but hint at the range. For instance, you can say the MC is in college, a lawyer, a father of five, an avid bridge player, middle-aged, nursing home resident, etc.

Here are some examples of a hook:

Claire Madison, pampered housewife and member of the Garden Club, spoils herself with top-shelf vodka — until she’s hammered by consequences of her addiction.

We can guess she is middle aged (not many Garden Club members in their 20s), well-to-do, and is used to getting what she wants. Seems like that self-indulgent lifestyle is skidding to a stop and that’s what makes this hook compelling. The agent can assume this manuscript is contemporary fiction, women’s fiction, or maybe suitable for a book club.

Thirteen-year-old Hailey Chapman, kidnapped in a mall parking lot, becomes just like the bikini in her shopping bag — an item for sale.

Clearly this is not a romance. The subject matter is human trafficking, so this book is probably dark. Could be YA or Adult thriller, mystery, or suspense. The paragraphs that follow this hook need to clear up any doubt.

For Carly Monroe, single parent moonlighting at the local watering hole, it’s raining men — and she doesn’t have time to find her umbrella.

She’s an adult juggling a lot of responsibility and maybe a few men. Sounds like contemporary romance. Light-hearted rom-com, maybe?

Jeremey Langford’s always known he’s a badass. When he turns fifteen even he’s surprised streetlights explode every time his temper flares.

He’s a confident, hot-head and it sounds like that may get him into trouble. With his age and the streetlights exploding, the agent can assume this is a YA (Young Adult) Fantasy or Sci-Fi.

2nd and 3rd Paragraphs

Use this space to make the agent care about the MC and the conflict. The query should remain laser-focused on the MAIN conflict throughout. Don’t stray off into the weeds. If the MAIN conflict of your book is your MC traipsing through a jungle and trying to avoid getting attacked by wild animals, don’t mention that his brother and sister-in-law are heading for divorce court.

Remember, the query letter shouldn’t go over 300 words (that doesn’t include salutation or closing). Get the most out of the precious real estate.

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4th Paragraph

This is where you set up the stakes. Show what the MC risks in order to solve the conflict. Don’t minimalize the consequences the MC faces if he or she fails. Not every book’s conflict is life or death, but if it’s important enough to write a whole book about, it’s important.

Example: If Anna can’t convince Jeff she didn’t cheat on him, it means an end to her marriage and an uncertain future for her and her unborn baby.

5th and Final Paragraph

This is the “business” portion of the query letter.

Anything past this point that refers to the plot or conflict of your novel DOES NOT belong. DO NOT use this paragraph to, in a last-ditch effort, say how great the book is or what a thrill-ride it is or how the reader will feel after reading it. If you haven’t conveyed that information in paragraphs 1–4, you need to revise them. Use paragraphs 1–4 to show the agent this novel is funny, dark, sad, scary, etc. Be sure to show it. Don’t tell it.

If you were referred to the agent or met them at a conference, put it in this paragraph or at the very top.

State the title, genre, and word count. Put your title in all caps. Round your word count to the nearest thousand. DO NOT say that the manuscript is complete. That’s a rookie mistake. If you haven’t finished your novel or it’s not edited to the best of your ability, you have no business querying.

Example: MISTRESS OF MURDER is an 80,000-word mystery.

If you want to mention books that are similar to yours, do it here. In my opinion, if an agent’s submission guidelines don’t require comps to be included in the query, don’t put them in. I’d rather see my client’s query letter using the valuable word space to shine the spotlight on their manuscript. Opinions on this vary. Use your own judgement.

Your bio goes here, toward end of your final paragraph. Include any education, awards or experience that is relevant to writing or your manuscript. Mention any writing-related awards. If you have publishing credits, list them here.

If you do not have any publishing credits or a degree that relates to writing or your manuscript, you DO NOT have a bio. Don’t despair. This is not the end of the world. Forget the bio and use the extra space to pitch your book in paragraphs 1–4. You’ll have more room to elaborate on the main conflict.

DO NOT, under any circumstances, attempt to “fill in” a bio with frivolous information so as not to look like a newbie. Examples: “I have been writing my whole life.” (Yeah, that’s great. You just lumped yourself in with every other writer querying.) “It has always been a goal of mine to be a published author.” (No kidding! An agent will be impressed! Not.) “I’m an avid reader.” (If you want to be a writer, you better be an avid reader.)

Wrap this paragraph up with, Thank you for your time and consideration.

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Final Thoughts

Be sure to check submission guidelines for each agent you query and follow their instructions. Querying can be an exciting and nerve-wracking time. Due to high volume, many agents don’t respond unless they are interested in seeing more pages. For others, response time varies, anywhere from the same day to six months. In my experience, average response time is 4–6 weeks. Sometimes agencies will tell you when you can expect a reply on their websites.

In order to stay sane and not wear out the refresh button on your email, start writing your next novel. You won’t regret it.

Good luck and keep at it!

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Tracy explores the world with a positive eye, an open heart, and a sprinkling of humor. Without laughter, she would be lost.

Onsted, MI
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