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How to Write a Query Letter (Updated)

Updated: Jun 16, 2023


Typewriter

Queries differ between the US and UK, but here is the general structure I go with:


Beginning

Dear Agent,

I am a British Author living in France seeking representation for my first novel XXX. This is a crossover mystery of around xxxx words, set in the Australian outback. I believe the story would appeal to backpackers, students and readers who like an element of mystery. It was inspired by a real event I heard on the news whilst in Australia.

Short synopsis of 1–2 SHORT paragraphs introducing most, if not all, these elements:
  1. The main character(s) and where/when they start the story;

  2. The main dilemma/conflict incurred and the ensuing story goal;

  3. The main obstacle to that goal;

  4. How they PROPOSE to tackle it;

  5. What they risk losing (or what needs protecting/saving);

  6. An idea of where the character arc starts and where it might lead (E.G. Suzie is an angry teenager out for revenge of her family's massacre>> Suzie must control her anger if she intends to resist the lure of the dark side of the force.)

  7. The hook.

How those elements are presented very much depends on what type of story you've written. In my example, it's a mystery (though not in the conventional 'detective' sense) so I've had to structure it in a way that demonstrates that and makes it sound mysterious:

Seven young tourists take a tour in the Australian bush (1), but only six make it back out. (2 & 7 - conflict and hook.) Local park rangers treat the disappearance with suspicion (2 -implies finding the culprit); the tour operator involved has a history of disasters in its past and, amid racial prejudice, furious rivalry, and unrequited love, everyone in the group has reasons to despise each other. (3 - the myriad of motivations creates obstacles to finding the culprit.) Was it just a hapless accident, or did something more sinister occur? (2 & 5 concretes the dilemma and puts the truth - and possibly justice - at risk.) Through Meredith, an American tomboy running away from a claustrophobic home life, and Ben, a party loving Brit out to prove his manhood, the events surrounding the tragedy unfold. (1, 4 & 6 - proposes to use these two characters to find out the truth; The arc implies that the truth will eventually prevail).


But let's say you're writing a magical adventure. It might look something like this:


Maggie is a witch who is never taken seriously. Everything tends to go wrong in her spells, or bump into her when she walks. Still, she has worked harder than anyone else in her season and is on the cusp of a hard-won graduation at Witch Wind Academy in the land of Sparkmoore (1). Disastrously, her magic abilities have suddenly taken flight. (2) If they don't return, she will be forced into a life of serfdom at the King's castle instead of the chance to rise through the ranks of Sparkmoore's most prestigious covens and become advisor to the most powerful lords and ladies of the land. (5) When it becomes apparent that one of the chimney sweeps appears to have stolen her powers, Maggie must find a way to capture the little boy and wrestle them back from him. (2 & 4) All well and good, except that he keeps disappearing into thin air! (3) Forced to use her intuition, commonsense and detective skills - things she is even worse at than magic - she haphazardly manages to track down his whereabouts (6 - she is forced to use skills she is not in the habit of, implying growth = arc). But all is not as it seems. Chimney sweeps apparently come from other, alien worlds. (7 -the hook)


As you can see, both synopses are short and offer the setup of the story before all the major plot stuff occurs, implying the main chunk of the story that follows and maintaining intrigue. They are also in two distinctly different voices in accordance with their genres, tone and potential age groups.

Something About the Author

A brief paragraph about yourself, your writing and publishing history, or anything that is pertinent to your ability to market yourself or suggest you are serious about your writing and a career as a novelist, such as:

‘I am very active in the backpacker community and have a gazillion followers on BackpackersRUs.com SM platform.’

‘This MS was long-listed in blah-blah comp.’

‘This is my first completed novel, but I have drafted and am revising three more.’

‘I’ve got a creative writing degree/taken classes with XXX reputable writer’s guild.’

‘Been to xxx pretentious retreat.’

(Or whatever.)

Something About the Agent

A brief paragraph as to why you think this agent is a good fit for you — i.e:


‘Your titles are exactly the type of portfolio I am looking to sit alongside with’ (as in, because your MS is similar in taste/style, not because you want to say you have the same agent as J.K. Rowling).

OR

‘I’ve read many of your titles and I think we’d be great together for xxx reason,’

OR

'I met you at xxx lit fest and you said you were interested to see my MS/you gave a talk that really resonated with me about xxx.'


Or anything else that shows you are seriously considering who would best represent your interests and you feel you could work with.

End

Simple and brief:


I look forward to hearing from you.

All the best,

Me.

Ensure youor contact details are featured somewhere. I usually put mine in the header, in slightly paler font than the main body of text.


A couple of explanations: I used the opening line to convey my residence and mentioned my trip to Australia, so the agent knows upfront I live overseas. Also to show I’ve travelled quite a bit and so have some insights to the market I aim to target. You might need to put something like: 'I work for Ferrari and my novel is set in the racing pits of the Monaco Grand Prix', but you don’t have to, so don’t get too screwy about doing the same. Mention the extensive research you have done and the journey it took you on, if you feel you need to provide some kind of proof of your familiarity with the subject. Or mention if it's a longstanding hobby that makes you an expert. It's not necessary, but if you feel it is needed to justify why your story holds more authority over others (FREX, in historical or scientific fictions) then say so.

I have identified my target market (backpackers and students; people who like mysteries). This might not be an entirely correct identification, but it shows I have considered who might buy the book, even if it is off-par.

The synopsis at this stage does NOT need to explain exactly what happens in your book nor how the main dilemma is resolved, it simply needs to explain the setup, the dilemma, the obstacle and the proposed method of overcoming it so the agent can gauge what kind of character shoulders the story, that the premise is interesting enough to intrigue, that the plot will potentially stand up — the emotional arc, too — that the stakes of the story have been considered for the purpose of narrative tension. All this to let them know you are confident in your skills as a storyteller. But, most importantly, your aim is for them to WANT to read more by having to solicit the sample chapters from you (and then hopefully the full MS), so giving away the ending might dampen that.

If they ask for your sample chapters and accompanying synopsis, that is the time to provide full disclosure on the plot and the story arc. Basically, get them on the hook first, as with any reader.

Don’t do anything too quirky or weird, even if you think it makes you sound unique — don’t run the risk of sounding like a fruitcake. Your book synopsis should sell the idea for you. You want to sound like someone they can work with for the next ten or twenty years. And don’t mention cats, unless you keep a pet lion and it's relevant to your book. And don’t boast that your MS will be the best thing they'll read this year — that’s just tacky and likely not true. And don’t admit to stalking them!! (Joke — just don’t stalk them.)

I think that’s about it. If I have anything more to add, I’ll come back.

Good luck — let us know how you go!

Charlie


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