How To Write A Query Letter That Stands Out In The Slush Pile (my actual query letter included)
Have you completed and polished your book and want to start trying your hand at traditional publishing?
Below is my own query letter which won me a publishing contract. It’s been checked by 3 literary agents where one said she would receive this letter well and perhaps ask to read more material, the 2nd agent said it was fantastic, and the 3rd agent requested to see my whole manuscript. Here’s the letter:
Dear (agent’s name),
THE WAR QUEEN for my completed new adult fantasy romance novel at 108,000 words, is a misleading title, because the people dethroned the last king and queen three hundred years ago. To avoid another tyranny, the people instead nominate a State Head every three years and Altarn is the first female to hold the position. She’s used to tolerating the biases of men but Kaelin, the State Head of his territory, has declared her incompetent and has even, according to Altarn, threatened to steal her land – she believes he wants to make himself king. Believing she must “dethrone” Kaelin, Altarn rides to her last ally to ask for aid in the war against Kaelin she knows is coming. But in her absence an army launches an attack… and it’s not Kaelin’s.
Taking advantage of the startling situation, Kaelin kidnaps Altarn so he can take her land without her in the way. Soon realizing he needs her help to fight this army instead, he releases her and, since Altarn’s army is too small to win the war alone, she is forced to accept his help, but payment for his help will be her land. No one believes Kaelin is secretly trying to make himself king, so after the battle is won, alone in her knowledge and lacking allies, Altarn must become the War Queen of legend to dethrone another king… though she unexpectedly dethrones his heart instead.
THE WAR QUEEN centers on the minority class of females in positions of great responsibility. I compare Altarn’s position to our current day President where Americans are facing the reality that females can and are running for President. Female heroes are also rising in comic books and Disney has recently revamped some old favorites with independent females. With the 2016 elections approaching and females voicing their intent to run, I believe THE WAR QUEEN would impress some well-timed interest upon the market. I am female with the rank of Staff Sergeant in the United States Army so I have a very personal view of what it means to be treated with biases due to my gender in a position of great responsibility. However, having conquered those perceived biases, I have emerged as a better leader with gained respect from my male peers, just like Altarn has done.
I am an emerging author with one young adult and five adult fantasy novels to carry my 16 years writing experience. My full manuscript is attached to this email. This is a multiple submission. Thank you in advance for considering my manuscript and I look forward to your response.
Now, let’s dissect this top to bottom so I can show you what the agents loved about it:
- GENRE AND WORD COUNT: I started off with the book’s genre and word count because agents love this. Agents only represent certain genres and if you pitch to them a horror when they only represent fantasy, you’ve just wasted their time with your horror query letter. Agents like to be warned at the start what book they are getting into and how long it is because word count matters. Why does word count matter? Read this POST.
- THE HOOK: I was able to squeeze my hook in at the same time as my genre and word count. My hook is “The War Queen... is a misleading title because...” and that motivates the agent to read on because they want to know why in the heck the title is misleading. The hook MUST be at the very beginning of your letter, to hook the agent to read the rest of the letter. No matter how you word your hook, you’ve got to have one. Just like you’ve got to have a hook in your first chapter to motivate people to read the next one.
- THE BODY: hint hint, every query letter goes into a “slush pile” because agents get 500 query letters a month (approx.) If your query doesn’t “stand out” in some way, agents will toss it. Agents don’t have time to read a 3 page query. They barely have time to read a 3 paragraph query. Someone who worked sorting out the “slush pile” for an agent told me that the best queries are always 2 paragraphs. They are short and the agents like things that are short but brilliant. Keep in mind that the tone of your query letter should mirror the tone of the novel you are pitching in the query letter. If you wrote a horror story, don't have a humorous query letter. If you have an epic fantasy novel, don't have a frilly, lighthearted query. Now, if your story IS humorous, yes, have a humorous query.
- HOW CAN MY BOOK BE MARKETED? WHAT EXPERIENCE DO I HAVE TO WRITE THIS BOOK? Now, you notice that my query is longer than 2 paragraphs. I tell the STORY in 2 paragraphs. The 3rd paragraph I snuck in there because agents also want help in knowing how to market your book (where might it fit in? Why are you the person to write this book? What experiences do you have that have helped you write this book?) So this paragraph is optional, but my experience says it has helped me. Agents are only human. They don’t know everything about the world, so a little nudge to them saying, “Hey, 2016 elections are coming up and females are running for president and that closely associates what my book is about so now would be a really really good time to publish my book,” helps you and the agents like to have an easy break since they didn’t have to figure that out for themselves.
- PERSONAL BIO: Agents want to know if you are self-published. If you are, list it. If you’ve won any writing contests, list it. Do you have experience writing for newspaper, magazine? List it. If, however, you're like me and grew up under a rock and you’re only claim to fame is you have 2 likes on your poem you wrote last year, then you word it like this: "I am an emerging author with one young adult and five adult fantasy novels to carry my 16 years writing experience." Hint, there are literary agents who WANT people like me, who have no claim to writing fame. EMERGING AUTHOR is your key word and list how many books you’ve written and how many years you’ve been at it. Because though you don’t have claim to fame, you have experience, and that still counts.