Tips for Better Query Letters

Like you, I have read through the gamut on how to make querying and query letter writing less daunting. But, if you are anything like me, the more I read about querying, the more confused and frustrated I became with the process as a whole. Querying seems to be completely subjective and dependent upon the agent’s taste. And? There are just too many conflicting ideas as to what elements need to go inside of query.

However, because I vowed to myself that I would teach my middle graders not only how to write, but also how to be professionals, I needed to understand how to structure the query letter so they too could be successful in their quest for publication. It took analyzing drafts of my own, and speaking to agents about it, but I finally narrowed down a template that would work for all writers.

Behold my very basic template for middle grade querying:

DEdirkkUwAEO95_

Query Ettiqute

Before writing a query letter, it is absolutely important to remember that the person reading your query letter is just that: a person. And like any person, an agent deserves your utmost respect and patience. Before querying, please consider the following:

  • Is the agent you are querying accepting queries within your genre? 
    • If the answer is no, then do not waste their time querying. If they don’t read sci-fi as a genre, they most certainly will not read your sci-fi novel, no matter how much you believe it is the next NYT Bestseller.
    • Additionally, if you don’t know your genre, then you need to read what is available in the current market and find books that are comparable to yours.
  • What are the submission guidelines, and are you following them?
    • Submission guidelines aren’t put into place to stifle your creative process, submission guidelines make going through the slush pile more efficient.You wouldn’t purposefully submit the wrong forms for a job application, would you? Of course, not. Treat the submission process with the same respect. Since the complaint most agents hear is about time and efficiency, take note of the requirements and submit accordingly.
  • Are you being condescending or hostile in your letter?
    • Before writing your letter, and promptly after, it is good to self reflect and understand your mindset and tone of voice. Agents do not enjoy reading hostile letters that bully them into making decisions, or letters where the writer makes condescending remarks about others’ work. Have the courtesy and respect for yourself as well as others within the field.

The Bare Bones Structure


The Name

Please make sure that you spell the agent’s name correctly. I know accidents happen, but sometimes using the wrong pronouns, and the wrong spelling can make the agent wary. It doesn’t hurt to double check before sending!

Additionally, there is nothing wrong with beginning with a friendly “hello” or “hi.” I tend to find agents are much more responsive when I am more personable with them.

Personalized Greeting

This is the only paragraph in your query letter that should remain in constant flux. Remember: agents are individuals with distinct tastes. If you are looking to cater to their interests, be sure to read their Manuscript Wish List . 

For example: In my middle grade creative writing classes, I read off a list of genres and stories that I liked. Afterward, my aide also read his list. The students then had to make decisions as to who was the better “agent” for querying, and wrote a small 2-3 sentence paragraph about why we would enjoy their stories. Here is one of them:

Hello Miss Ashley,

I have chose you as my agent because my story is about music and coming of age. Both of which I hear you like.

Of course, you can make yours much more detailed. But do keep it short and sweet, and refrain from writing about how this is the best book they will ever read. Merely explain how it caters to their interests. Here’s mine for further reference:

Hi Andrea!

We chatted during Manuscript Academy’s 10 Minutes with an Expert in mid-March. You provided a great deal of insight and I am forever grateful for the confidence you’ve instilled in me. As requested, attached is the full manuscript.

Title, Character and Conflict

The most important elements should be condensed into 2-3 sentences. Again, querying and the process is all about time and efficiency. Thus, you want to be as succinct as possible, but also entice the agent to keep reading.

Here is another example from my middle graders:

Violet the Pentaped is about a turtle named Violet who has five legs. She lives in an underwater city at the bottom of Lake Superior. Violet must win back the love of her parents and her city.

Again, you can dress this up. Take a look at mine:

LOVE FROM THE BARRICADE is the story of 25-year-old Aijae Cruz, an introverted xennial and avid concert goer who questions her own intentions after a failed attempt at romance permanently brands her as a groupie.

Discuss 3 Major Plot Points

I asked my students to consider the plot structure and choose the three major events that led up to the climax. An agent only needs to know a few key details to understand the premise of your story. So it’s better to avoid writing about all of the details, and stick to summarizing the most important aspects of your story.

When the Colonist Empire takes over Earth, he [Rick] is captured and forced to use his knowledge for evil. After failed rescue attempts, Rick’s nephew, Morty, breaks Rick out and brings him back to earth, but Rick is not done yet. Rick steals a spacepod and races back to the Colonist headquarters and wants to kill his brother, the leader of the Colonist Empire.

Aren’t you intrigued? In comparison, here is mine:

For the majority of her teenage life, Aijae lived in her head, writing fanfiction about boy bands. In college, she meets an eccentric pair of friends who immerse her into the Los Angeles, emo music scene. But when she is noticed by an adorable lead singer, her dream life turns into a nightmare. 

But wait? Where is the rest?!

Resolution and Morale

For the sake of teaching, I made sure to break down each paragraph in order to maintain organization. The next paragraph should explain the resolution of the main conflict, and perhaps what the character must ultimately learn about themselves. But again, write this portion in the most basic terms without specifics. While agents aren’t concerned about spoilers, they are concerned about your ability to show character and narrative arc.

Here is mine:

Determined to work through the heartache, Aijae puts her past behind her and launches into a career as a music journalist. She also finds love again in a drummer for a New York-based indie band. However, Aijae must relinquish her own villainized image of herself and trust again if she wishes to be the person she always wrote herself out to be.

Word Count, Genre and Comps **

What I didn’t teach my middle schoolers was: word count and genre. This was something I didn’t think they’d need at an introductory level. So for you, dear writer, I am suggesting to write yours right before your author bio.

Most genres have a minimum word count, and agents need to see that your word count fits within the genre. Additionally, comps (or comparable titles) allows the agent to see that you are engaging in the market and keeping up with current trends.

Here’s mine:

LOVE FROM THE BARRICADE is an 65,000 word adult commercial fiction novel. The exploration of sexuality in HOW TO BUILD A GIRL meets ALMOST FAMOUS, and resurfaces through the eyes of a Mexican-American woman. It’s time women take back the word “groupie.” Even “fangirl” carries a tremendous stigma, diminishing a woman’s experience and her devotion to music and the people who create it. 

** Does not appear on the middle school template.

Mini Author Bio

This is where you can write a little about your credentials. Again, you do not want to bully or condescend other writers. Instead, tell your agent how long you’ve been writing. About any classes you may have taken, or where you graduated from college. Discuss where your past publications can be found, and whether or not this is your first experience with writing a novel.

But like all other elements in a query letter, keep it short and sweet.

This is my first novel. I have a BA and MA in Creative Writing from California State University Northridge, where I spent most of my career following bands and writing for a freelance music blog. When I am not writing novels, I teach writing at College of the Canyons in Valencia, California, cultivating the next generation of writers through music and pop culture.

Final Notes

True, while I wrote this template for middle schoolers, I modeled it off of my own query letter, which many agents such as, Eric Smith, Melissa Edwards, and Andrea Someberg found successful.

In mastering the bare bones structure of a query letter, I was able to teach querying to young children, and write the next query letter for La Paloma Quedarse without issue. What used to take me 5 hours to write, now takes about an hour to draft, and a few more hours perfecting. By watching my middle schoolers use this template, and use it well (they finished theirs in 20 minutes!) I was inspired to make querying less of a chore. In addition, getting to know the structure and etiquette of the process forced me to get to know my story, the market, and agents more personally.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s