by Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban
A query letter is a business letter. It tells the agent/editor (referred from now on as the ‘Agent’ and assumed to be a ‘she’) how awesome, unique and marketable your manuscript is, how perfectly qualified you’re to write it and, once it has been published, to market your book. Preferably, it does so without adjectives or adverbs. Because it is a truth universally acknowledged that a good writer has no need for them.
A query is the key that will open the door to the Agent’s heart. It must be professional and to the point, yet, at the same time, “as individual as the book it describes and the author it introduces.” (Arthur A. Levine).
Simply put, a query letter consists of three parts: the hook/the book/and the cook.
The hook introduces the story. It states, in one sentence, what the book is about in an enticing way that will force the Agent to read on.
If your mind goes blank when trying to summarize your four hundred pages manuscript in about 20-30 words, try answering the following questions: Who is your protagonist? What does he/she want? Who/what is the antagonist/reason he/she can’t have what he/she wants?, then write the answers in a single sentence.
After a lot of thinking this was my first hook for my YA novel Requiem for a King: Princess Ines wants to keep Nowan alive, but both, her father and Richard, the king’s bastard son, hate Nowan and want him dead.
This is the skeleton of my story, but as is, it is not a terribly appealing hook. Probably your first attempt isn’t either. But now that it’s written, it’s easier to flesh it out.
After several revisions, my hook became: Princess Ines’s love for Nowan, her whipping boy, is put to the test when he is accused of killing the queen and sentenced to death by the king who hates him.
Better? I hope so.
As you see, I have simplified, eliminating Richard, who is a secondary character, and adding the enticing incident that puts Nowan in danger.
Next in the query, comes the ‘book’. The book is usually two or three paragraphs long and may include, among others, the character’s motivations, the story arc, and the setting. It is not a chapter by chapter synopsis and need not include a list of characters, not all the subplots. It is more like the blurb you find on the jacket of a book, a taste of the story to pique the reader’s interest.
Most agents, but not all, say they don’t want to know the ending at this point. But they all agree they want to know the word number, and genre of your manuscript.
The ‘cook’ part of the query letter includes information about you. Make it short and to the point, mention only those credentials that make you the right person to write this story, and, if you have any, list your publications and/or platform.
If you have done your homework, you may want to personalize your query by adding a sentence, here or at the beginning of the letter, explaining why you chose that particular Agent. Did you meet her at a conference? Found out her preferences at her website/blog/interview? Does she represent your favorite author? Agents are human, and will be flattered if they see you took the time to learn about them.
Now that you have written the perfect query, I suggest you leave it for a day or two, or even a week, and read it again as if you were reading it for the first time. And while you do, ask yourself, would I want to read this book?
I also recommend you pass the query to another writer. And, remember, you are not asking for validation here, but for a brutally honest critique.
In my case, I posted my query in the Query Critique forum at the online Children Writers’s conference (WriteOnCon.com). As the critiques started to come, I realized my perfect query was nothing but perfect. So, I rewrote it again and again. And again.
I queried agents with my sixth version and, so far, I got four requests for a full ms and one for a partial. A great success considering that from my previous queries I had received only rejections.
Which brings me to my next piece of advice: Make a list of agents that represent your genre and send the query to ten agents at a time. If you get no positive answer rewrite the query.
And don’t forget that the query is just your calling card. It’s the strength of your story that will get you an agent or/and a book contract. So before you start querying, edit your manuscript to perfection. You must write a powerful story that resonates with your readers, with characters so memorable they stay in the readers’ mind after they close the book. To achieve this, you must pour your soul into the story and that requires courage.
As for the query, that is just plain, old fashioned, hard work.
Note: An edited version of this post appeared in the magazine of the NJ SCBWI (Sprouts (2011/2)