Hey everyone! I know it has been FOREVER since I last blogged, which is totally my fault, and while this entry won’t be about any books, it’s been something on my mind. I’ve been querying a bunch of agents lately for my latest book (no spoilers about it yet!), which means I’ve been following a lot of them on Twitter. And I’ve been surprised with how many of them . . . complain about simple things in the query letters they are receiving that are simple to fix, or just not included in the first place. Every agent seems to have their own horror story about the worst query letter they have ever received, and trust me, you do NOT want to be that author. It is NOT the recipe for success.

Especially if you are just starting out querying, I hope I can give you some helpful tips. The first query letter I ever wrote/sent was one paragraph long without even an explanation of my novel. I was in the 7th Grade and I was lucky enough that the first agent I sent to emailed me back and sent me some polite pointers. Agents are backlogged with queries, so much so that most agencies will say on their websites that if they aren’t interested in your material, they just won’t get back to you. You don’t want that! And the best way to spark their interest is to have an awesome query letter.

NOTE; I can’t guarantee that even have an awesome query letter will get you an agent. No one can, cause that’s not how the world works. You can have the best query letter and story in the world and the agent still reject you. It just might not be right for them.

Another note; When I was first crafting query letters, I read the book How Can I Find A Literary Agent? And 101 Other Questions Asked By Writers by Chip MacGregor and Holly Lorincz, which gives some really helpful tips about query letters. Also, the book Guide to Literary Agents (which is updated yearly, and 2020 is already out), gives some super good tips and examples of some of the best query letters agents have ever received. If you are serious about getting an agent, I recommend these two books. Also, there are probably several other blogs, posts and websites you can read that will help you craft a better query letter. Another thing; there are a lot of writers’ conferences where they usually have classes just on writing query letters. The conference I’ve been going to for the past five years is through the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association and they always have a class on query letters. That’s another thing to go to if you are serious about getting an agent.

And, a disclaimer; I’m writing from the perspective of a fiction writer. I’m not really sure what changes are required when you write a query for a nonfiction book, or even a graphic novel. But the books mentioned above can help you with that.

Let’s get to the good stuff. First, let me show you the query letter that got my book, The Amazing Imagination Machine, through the door. Here it is, in a screenshot;

My first query letter . . . it feels like I wrote this a million years ago!

Let’s just talk about the general outline of what a query looks like. It should be one page; I have never seen an agent anywhere request a query letter that was longer than one page. For us writers, that can sometimes seem daunting, but believe me, a one-page synopsis is much harder to craft than a query letter. A synopsis is the hardest thing for me to write, and if you talk to anyone else, they’ll probably agree that a synopsis is really hard.

But I’m rambling. Let’s talk about the first paragraph.

The Introduction

This is an introduction and should be 1) why you are querying them, and 2) what you are trying to sell them. In this query for The Amazing Imagination Machine, I had the privilege to meet my editor, Shannon Raab, during a Pitch session at the PNWA conference. That’s where I talked with her face-to-face for four minutes, and she requested my material after that. Not all of us will have that opportunity, though if you can go to a writing conference where there are pitch sessions, I recommend attending.

For my latest book that I am querying right now, I haven’t had the opportunity to meet these agents in person. But I still like to give them an inkling about why I have decided to query them out of all agents. This requires that you do some research on the agent. Not enough to freak them out and think you are a serious stalker, but some kind of tidbit that shows you did some research on them. It personalizes your letter.

For example, in my latest query letter, I’ve been writing things such as this; “I first heard about you from the book, Guide to Literary Agents 2020, where I quickly went to your agency’s (and I would say what the name of the agency is) website and read more about you. After reading that you represent a lot of books with ‘magic and spaceships,’ I think you would enjoy my novel.” If the agent of choice has a Pinterest board or blog look through it and find something specific that applies to your book. Then you can use something such as, “Your Pinterest board especially interested me, and I feel my story can relate to some of the images I saw there.”

Continue that paragraph by saying what your novel is. In the case of The Amazing Imagination Machine, it’s a 65,000 word YA horror novel. You MUST include these things; word count, genre, and title. Word count is more important than page number, because what your page number is in Word is probably different than what it’ll end up being. And I can’t think of a single agent/editor out there who doesn’t want to know this information.

The Pitch

This is why you are querying the agent in the first place–you want to sell your book! And this is what your book is about. Be aware, this isn’t exactly a synopsis–if you did paste the synopsis right here, it would make the query letter much too long and you want to hook their interest here.

And if you thought a synopsis was hard to write, you’re probably not going to think the pitch is much better. If you were to read this paragraph out loud, it should take you about thirty seconds to a minute. It’s supposed to encompass everything about your book. In one paragraph. Scary! You may have heard the term “elevator pitch” before, and that just means it should take about as long as a few stories elevator ride to get your point across. You really have to narrow your story down, but make it sound super intriguing, for this paragraph to work.

Here’s what you got to consider when writing this paragraph; 1) who is the protagonist, 2) what is the conflict, and 3) what are the stakes? Stakes as in, what’s going to happen if the character doesn’t succeed? Even if you are writing a contemporary romance, if the stakes don’t feel like the world is going to end for this main character, it won’t be compelling enough.

The middle paragraph of this query letter for The Amazing Imagination Machine is what I memorized and said when I was personally pitching my editors. So, if you write a good paragraph here, it’s a good thing to memorize and put in your back pocket when people ask you what your story is about. And as all authors, I’m sure you’ve heard, “So, what’s your story about?” Write this and you’ll never struggle to answer that question again (but no promises on that either!). If this whole idea still seems daunting to write, I recommend writing your synopsis first. A good tip I’ve heard for writing the synopsis is to look through your book and write one line to describe what happens in each chapter. Then, once you have that basic outline, decide what really needs to be said in your synopsis and go from there. Once you got that synopsis, narrow it down even more until it’s one paragraph that describes the most important elements of your story, thus making a pitch.

If this still seems daunting to you, then I suggest this exercise–try it out on other books! Love Harry Potter? Then pick up the first Harry Potter book, go through it again, and write a synopsis about it. Then, write a pitch about it from the synopsis you wrote. If you do it on other books first, ones you haven’t written, it may become easier for you to write it about your own. Practice makes perfect, after all!

The Biography / Credentials

This is where you kind of brag about yourself–but don’t get too cocky. If you go into this paragraph saying, “It’s going to be the next best seller,” or “You’re reading the next Stephen King,” that will not make you look good. Trust me. While confidence is good, arrogance is not, and if you claim something like that, they will only see someone who thinks they are too big for their britches. And let’s face it–what are the odds that we are really going to hit as big as J.K. Rowling or Stephen King? Would be nice, but highly improbable (but wouldn’t it be cool to have your own theme park or movies made for every single book you write?).

And while this is technically the biography portion of your query letter, you don’t really want to talk about your personal life either. Let’s consider the biography I now have on my website and in the back of my book;

“Bailey Day’s story writing began when she was insulted by a peer in 4th Grade, who told her she was only able to write “girly” stuff. As if a gauntlet had been thrown, that very same day she started writing about monsters and demons and has since filled hundreds of journals with incredible stories and ideas. Bailey has been working on her debut, “The Amazing Imagination Machine” for two years, starting out as a middle grade adventure and, after serious rewrites, coming to fruition as a Young Adult Thriller. Bailey lives in Washington State with her parents, her older brother, and her dog, Smoochy.”

That’s a good biography, isn’t it? Well, if I were to put that in my query letter, I would bore the agents to tears. As awesome as Smoochy is, agents don’t really care about your personal life. It’s nothing against you, but this is a query letter solely about your book–the biography is a time to show them why they should take you on. And no agent is probably going to take you on because you named your dog Smoochy, although that’s one of the best dog names in the world, if I do say so myself.

You should mention any past writing achievements you’ve had. This includes books you’ve published previously, contests you’ve won, bachelor’s/MFA’s you have received in writing . . . if you have any of that. If you don’t, that’s okay–not all of us do. When I first wrote The Amazing Imagination Machine, I had no real writing experience under my belt besides writing for hours each day. Contests? Hadn’t won any. I was a junior in high school when I pitched this book too, so nothing even close to a bachelor’s for me.

But don’t leave this space blank. As you can see from reading my query, I mentioned comp titles–books that are similar to mine. Not all agents ask for comp titles, but some do, and it’s good to have some under your belt in case anyone ever asks. Again, don’t compare your book to Harry Potter or any Stephen King–they are just too big and will make the agent think you are too big for your britches again. But mentioning new books (preferably new, agents know the market and will know the newest books that have come out and how well they have done) that have similar aspects to yours will help. Skeleton Creek and Darkside aren’t that much like The Amazing Imagination Machine (heck, the book The Darkdeep would have been a better comp title, but it wasn’t published when I was pitching The Amazing Imagination Machine), but they have similar enough themes; dark, horror, friendship, family. Kind of works. Granted, we are hoping your book is unique enough so it’s not EXACTLY like another book on the market, but what agents really want to know is where they would find it on the shelf in Barnes and Noble; the thriller section? The science fiction section? Horror? And what else would be in that person’s shopping cart? Patrick Carmen, or Brandon Mull, or some other name like that? That’s what comp titles are for, and in my opinion, it’s a good thing to include if you don’t have a lot of writing credentials.

The End

In general, you should just BE NICE. No one’s going to want to represent you if you don’t come off as professional or polite. If someone was being rude to you in person, would you give them a job? Probably not. Same here. But if you write the query letter with respect, this will at least make the agent feel comfortable reading it, and not like you are trying to force them into something.

Personally, I like to end my queries with “Thank you so much for your time and attention.” Because they have put time and attention into me. And that’s a big deal, because they read hundreds of queries letters. Reading so many must be extremely tiring. Thank them for the effort they have put forward for you.

Also, make sure to leave your name, phone number, and email address. And if you have a website, leave a link to your website. I didn’t have a website when I was first querying, but as you can see by reading this, I now do! I make sure to leave it so agents can look at it if they wish. At least having a website makes them realize how serious I am about this writing thing.

I hope this helps! I may have a book published, but I still feel like a beginning writer myself, but I know that these tips are some things agents will be looking for. If you research the agent (and if they have a Twitter/other social media account, I HIGHLY recommend that you follow them. They’ll probably post more tips then I ever can) and follow their rules, you’ll be okay.

If you have any additional questions, please ask in the comments section! I’ll answer when I can, which may take time because I am a college student. But I will answer all questions regarding queries if you have any (and if I have the answers!)

  • Bailey