The purpose of a query letter is to entice the reader, usually an agent but sometimes a publisher, to ask for the full manuscript, which is complete and ready to send at moment’s notice. With your words alone, the idea is to reach right out, grab the reader by the shirt collar, and pull him squarely into your world.
Successful queries come in various forms but they should include these three elements: the hook, the super-condensed version of your project, and your bio. Short letters are more impressive than rambling ones. Cutesy, clever, stiff, or oddball approaches will not get the desired results. Read your query aloud. If you falter on a word or phrasing, rewrite. I know some writers who read things backwards, sentence by sentence, so that they can really hear the clinkers.
The hook is a concise statement of the work that functions both as summary and lure. So often, the battle is won or lost right here. In a few quick lines, the idea is to capture interest and convey the specifics of what you have to offer, including the name of the work.
A great way to study hooks is to read the taglines on published things. What speaks to you? Can you use this format to fit your purposes? Alternatively, try one of these springboards as a means of launching your pitch:
The place and time approach.
Set in Turkey, 1915 . . .
During the last years of the Ottoman Empire . . .
Taking place in Turkey, the last page turned on six hundred years of sultanate rule . . .
The question approach.
Turkey, 1915—could there be a worse time and place for a young Armenian girl to come of age and fall in love?
What if you were sixteen, hard in love, and your beloved disappeared? What if, one by one, everyone you loved disappeared? Would you . . . ? These are the questions that . . . must resolve in my novel [TITLE] . . .
The character approach.
Narrated by the dark-haired, lively-eyed, and headstrong . . .
The “when” approach.
Following a coup that ushered in the age of the Ministers . . .
When the prosperous rug merchant took on the newest weaver, a pauper from the streets, he never dreamed that . . .
While a wider war raged . . .
The “is” approach.
[TITLE] is a love story set . . . and narrated by . . .
Any of these approaches—and a thousand others—will work. Just keep the writing vivid, clear, and to the point.
The 2nd part of the query letter builds on your hook and is your mini-synopsis. Here’s where you sketch out your story more fully. Just who is this protagonist and how does she get tested? What does she want and what is thwarting this effort? Set up the tension and tone. Give the reader something to care about—a reason to want more. Raise the complex issues, but don’t answer them. The book answers them. The letter is just meant to spark interest so that the agent will request the entire work. Try to keep this section to about 150 words
The 3rd part of your query is the easiest: your bio as a writer. Education is helpful but not decisive, unless you are trying to present yourself as an authority on something. Employment is not relevant unless that job at Dunkin’ Donuts is somehow germane to your pitch. Previous publication credits are very nice. Writing awards are very nice. And if you don’t have any of these, simply move on.
Finally, close the letter with a word of thanks. Someone is taking time to read for you. State that entire manuscript of x-thousand words is available upon request.
As for what to send with the query, check the agent’s or publisher’s submission guidelines. For fiction, a one- or two-page synopsis and first chapter are typical—usually no more 15 pages combined. Some agents want less. Some only want the query. Most want it all by e-mail.
Photo credit: Fred R