Query letters are the bane of many a writer’s existence. Whatever joy authors get from writing is often tempered by the frustration of writing a query letter. For any authors struggling with their queries, hopefully my simple 5-6 paragraph format will take the sting out of query writing.
Paragraph 1: Introduction
This is a 1-2 sentence introductory paragraph that provides the agent with your book’s title, genre, and word count. This is also a great place to briefly explain why you thought the agent would be right for the book. Maybe you read on the agent’s Manuscript Wishlist page that she was looking for middle grade books set at summer camp, or maybe you feel your book is similar to another book the agent has done. You might also briefly describe the hook or themes of the book. And I mean briefly. This paragraph really shouldn’t be more than 1-2 sentences. Or you might compare your book to another book or two on the market. Here are some sample introduction paragraphs:
“I would love to send you STACKED UP, my 88,000 word narrative nonfiction book that reveals the hidden lives of hoarders.”
“I am looking for representation for my young adult psychological thriller that I’d describe as Sharp Objects meets We Were Liars—I’ll Never Tell (75,000 words). You mention being a big fan of both books on your MSWL profile, so I thought you’d enjoy it.”
“Given your interest in otherworldly historical fiction, I present to you my historical magical realism novel that addresses race, power, and what it means to belong—THE HARVEST. It is complete at 68,000 words.”
Paragraphs 2-3: Plot
Your plot may seem like the most straightforward part of your query, yet I see authors continually struggle with knowing how much of their plot to describe. Some authors believe that they’re supposed to describe the entire plot of the book, which isn’t the case. (Save that for the synopsis.) Other authors focus more on abstract themes than physical action, which is too vague and doesn’t give me an idea of what actually happens in the book. So how much plot is enough?
The kind of plot description I’m looking for in a query sets up the primary conflict and/or the protagonist’s primary goal, shows the stakes for the protagonist, describes some of the rising action around that conflict/goal, and hints at the climax. I don’t need to know about every battle your protagonist wins, or every clue he follows. The plot description should remain focused on the primary conflict and the things that directly complicate it.
Most plot descriptions I see are made up of two paragraphs. Generally the first plot paragraph sets up the conflict and stakes, then the second shows the rising action and hints at the climax. Some authors sum all this up in one plot paragraph, which works too. It doesn’t matter whether you use one paragraph or two so long as you cover all the important elements.
If you want to briefly touch on the themes of the book, that can be a nice addition to your second plot paragraph. (Or if you just have one plot paragraph it can act as your second plot paragraph.)
Paragraph 4: Comp Titles/Audience
Comp titles are published books that you consider similar to yours in some way. (I wrote a blog on comp titles a few months ago that you can read here if you’d like a more in depth look at the various ways of using them.) Even if you mentioned comp titles in your introductory paragraph, you can mention other comps here if you have them.
The main purpose of this paragraph is to show the audience for your book. Your audience may be readers of a certain book, author or genre. (Hence the need for comp titles.) It may be viewers of certain TV shows or movies. It may be readers of certain blogs or magazines. It may be members of certain associations or fellowships. Or it may be even more specific. For instance, if your book is a self-help book on parenting autistic children, then clearly your audience is parents of autistic children, though it may also be psychologists, teachers and others who work with autistic children. Whoever your audience is, be sure to identify them in this paragraph.
Paragraph 5: Author Bio/Publications/Platform
The kind of bio information I’m looking for is something that relates to your credentials for the writing the book. It could be previous publication credits if you have them, such as published essays, short stories or books. It could be writing prizes or honors you’ve received, like being nominated for a Pushcart Prize. If you’re writing prescriptive nonfiction, then this is the place where you explain why you’re qualified to write the book and what your platform is.
If you want to add a cute line about your cat figurine collection or your teaching job, that’s fine, but the focus of this paragraph should be on your writing career and/or your career that relates to the topic of the book (if applicable).
Paragraph 6: Closing
Your closing paragraph should be simple and polite, perhaps thanking the agent for their time or showing how you followed their submission guidelines. Something along the lines of:
“Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.”
“As per your submission guidelines, I have pasted the synopsis and the first two chapters in the body of the email below. Please let me know if you’d like me to send you the complete manuscript.”
Bam! Done! See, that wasn’t so hard!