Does And Don’ts of Fiction Query Letters: The Tips No One Will Tell You

Updated February 17, 2021 by Iulian Ionescu | Read Time min.
query letters agent

Let’s talk about query letters for a moment. This is not a “how-to-write” a query letter type of article, but more of a bird’s eye view of some general guidelines you should follow when writing one. This is one of the most dreaded processes for most writers and one that fires up our fear of rejection and claws away at our self-confidence.

Standardization Cures Chaos

Most of the stuff here is based on my own personal research and experience, webinars and direct discussions with literary agents, and, truthfully, a lot on common sense. Writing a query letter is an art form, so it shouldn’t be fettered, theoretically, by too many rules, but the problem is your query letter is up against an ocean of query letters. Whereas all agents want to find the next best writer, they also have to live their lives, making the rules that allow them to do the work. If you don’t understand these rules, your query will sink into that ocean of letters. So, try to stay afloat!

The first and foremost rule, which trumps any rule that you read here or anywhere else, is the following: spend the necessary time to check the agent’s website and guidelines. Anything they ask for trumps anything you know. Spend the extra time to verify that your work agrees to those guidelines. If it doesn’t, adapt it. An agent doesn’t want to work with someone who cannot follow simple rules.

Query Letter Formatting Rules

  • If you mail your query letter, follow this generic formatting: 12 pt Font (Courier or Times New Roman; note that Times New Roman will allow for more text), 1-inch margins, your contacts in the top-right corner, keep it to one page.
  • If you email your query, still write it in your word processor to make sure its length is appropriate, then copy-paste it into the body of your email. Don’t attach your letter to your email. Instead, include the content in the email body. Don’t try to make the email look like a letter. Start it normally with a salutation and end it with your contacts.
  • Make sure your letter has a few paragraphs; leave some breathing room. Nobody likes to read a solid block of text that fills the entire page.
  • Remember that your query letter represents you as a professional. As an author, you are also running a business. So, keep your letter professional. This is not the time to be funny or cute unless, of course, you are trying to sell a funny and cute book.
  • Do not forget to include your contacts, especially if you email. Some agents like to call you back on the phone.

Query Letter Content Rules

Query LetterThe agent wants to know two things: the FACTS and the STORY. The agent doesn’t want to know what you think about your story and what you think about yourself and your abilities. If you’ve heard about show-and-tell in writing, apply it here as well. You must show the agent what you can do through your query. If you succeed, you will then show them more in your chapters and your full manuscript.

Here are the FACTS you need:

  • Word count – are you certain that your word count is appropriate for the genre and this agent? Check!
  • Genre – are you certain that the agent represents this genre? If your novel is a mixture of genres, then too bad: you must still find a genre that defines your book.
  • Audience – who is this book for? Adults, young adults, etc. This is important to the agent and later the publisher.
  • Title – what is the name of your book. Did you research to make sure it’s unique?

Try to lead with the facts. This will allow the agent to quickly qualify your query and understand if it is for them.

Should you mention something relevant about the agent? If you can find it, yes. Research what authors and books this agent represented in the past. Any of them resembles your book in any way? If so, mention that, but be ready to discuss that book if the agent calls and asks you what you liked about it. Anything that shows the agent you researched and you are not just throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks will help you.

Should you compare your book to other books or yourself to other authors? You shouldn’t unless you can find a particular book or an author that falls in the above category. Do not, for the love of God, compare yourself to famous writers. A query that states that you are “a bit like Hemingway and a bit like Jack London, wrapped in a Stephen King style” won’t get you anywhere. Remember, show, don’t tell. You might be the next Stephen King, and I hope you are, but let the readers define you like that. Otherwise, you will sound like a pompous, overly-cocky author, and agents will probably not want to work with you. So, keep comparisons to a minimum.

Your Query Letter Is A Sales Tool

This being said, you must follow the story. In a query letter of one page, you have about 250 words to cover everything. Between the beginning and the ending, you are left with approximately 200 words for the story. So be scarce with your words.

  • Use third person, present tense, omniscient narrator.
  • Use the novel’s voice; the agent should get the same feeling when reading the query as when reading a paragraph in the book.
  • Explain what happens; give a brief explanation of the conflict, a glimpse into the protagonist’s life, and a quick action detail. Keep things moving.
  • Tell the ending. No agent will answer your query if you end it in a cliffhanger. That’s not its purpose. You must provide the entire plot, including the end.
  • Avoid description, inner thoughts, flashbacks, characterization. Simply hint if this is a plot or character-driven story and stick to what happens.

So, the agents want the story and the facts. Do they want your bio? Yes, if it’s relevant. Please do not add a biography of your personal life unless it is directly related to your book. If you are writing the “Beverly Hills Chihuahuas” and you owed a Chihuahua for the better part of your life, you can mention that. But if you enjoy paragliding, keep that to a face-to-face discussion over lunch with your agent. The query letter represents the BOOK, not you. So make it about the book. Note that this is completely untrue for non-fiction queries, but we are not talking about those here.

Query Letter Submission Rules

  • Address your query to only one agent at one agency. Make sure you address it to the proper name.
  • If you mail it, use regular stationery; if you e-mail it, use regular fonts and a standard subject.

Miscellaneous Query Letter Rules

  • Should you ask for representation? I think it’s a waste of words. The purpose of the query letter is to ask for representation, so why would you repeat that in the body of the text? I think it’s understood and redundant.
  • Don’t Query to Query, e.g., don’t send an email to the agent asking them if you can query them. Read their website and if they are open to queries, send your query.
  • Proofread your query for spelling, grammar, and formatting before you send it! Pay special attention when you mass-send queries and edit your document for each agent. Change everything that needs to be changed in all places and check again.

Now, before you go, I have…

3 Questions For You

  1. What is your process for query writing?
  2. What are your biggest challenges with writing query letters?
  3. Have you studied others’ query letters? If so, was there one you liked in particular?

Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!

iulian-ionescu


Tags

agents, publishing


  • Your paragraph at the top says, “Mastering the query letter can make a break a writer’s career.” I believe you meant “…can make OR break…”

    Sorry. Just wanted to be helpful pain in the ass!

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