A query letter is the vehicle authors use to attract the attention of agents (and sometimes editors).
Good queries have three components: a hook (or “pitch” or “logline”), a description of the novel (or other work) for which the author seeks representation, and a biography paragraph telling the agent a little about the author and why the author believes the agent would be a good fit for the author’s work.
None of the parts is optional.
That said, Part 1 – the logline/hook/pitch and Part 2 – a brief description of the work – are definitely the most important.
The hook is a one sentence logline, intended to spark the agent’s interest in your book. The hook is not:
- The first thing that occurred to you when you woke up this morning.
- A rambling sentence starting with “Four generations before [protagonist's name] was born…”
- A hypothetical question.
Don’t believe me? Here’s the reason: What would you do if your Rabbi was kidnapped by aliens masquerading as your wife and boss? When I see this question I think three things. 1. I’m not Jewish, so I’d probably just wish him a pleasant trip. 2. I’m a female heterosexual, so I’d probably spot an alien masquerading as my wife before (s)he was able to abduct my Rabbi in the first place. 3. I’m self-employed, which means the aliens either look like me or don’t know much about my business structure. Either way, I’m not fooled.
The hook should be one to two sentences (at most) and should actually explain something about your book.
By way of example, if I tell you I wrote a mystery about two friends who must find a killer and save a woman’s life, I’ve told you nothing. That’s Generic_Mystery_Novel_001.
By contrast, if I my novel features a master ninja and a Jesuit priest who have just three days to find a samurai’s killer and save the beautiful geisha accused of the crime – now you have something to sink your teeth into. (And yes, that’s the premise of the first SHINOBI Mystery, due Spring 2013 from Thomas Dunne Books.)
The summary builds on the logline – and it, too, needs enough details to tell the reader what actually happens in your novel.
The Internet abounds with good (and bad) advice about writing query letters, but some of the best resources are:
2. AgentQuery. This industry website not only offers an excellent (linked) article on query writing, but also contains volumes of information about specific agents to help authors find the representative and/or agency that best suits the author’s style and needs.
3. Bookends Blog. Although Jessica Faust stopped updating the blog as of April 2012, her Workshop Wednesday series offers valuable insight into the way agents review and interpret authors’ queries.
4. Miss Snark’s First Victim. From Secret Agent Contests to Logline critiques, the Authoress’ blog offers a wealth of industry information (and lurking agent commentary) to authors at all stages of the submission process.
Most authors write and send queries that aren’t ready and don’t function as intended. Take your time. Read widely. Write slowly, and revise that query like it’s your one and only chance at catching the attention of an agent. Put it away, let it age, and revise again. Send it out only when you’re certain it’s the best that you can do.
Writing queries is a different skill than writing a novel, or even a work of nonfiction, but it’s a skill that published authors need to acquire. The ability to describe your work quickly and concisely will be necessary throughout your writing career. The earlier you learn it, and learn it well, the better it will serve you in years to come.