Updated: Nov 1
Originally, we had planned to rotate through these so that it would be writing advice one week, then reviewing advice, then publishing, etc. But we've received the most writing related questions, and it's just recently been pitch event season -- so we decided query letters would be a good follow up to last week's post about cover letters.
They're similar, but they're also very different. Today we're going to walk through the basics of what they are, and offer suggestions on how to write a good one.
What is a Query Letter?
Last week we talked about cover letters, which are the letters you send in to accompany a short submission of your work. A query letter is similar in premise, but they are typically sent into editors and agents along with a full length manuscript.
A key difference to note in your approach to querying is that these letters typically require more introduction of the project. When writing a cover letter, you're typically submitting to a magazine or an anthology, where the burden of knowing the appropriate types of themes and vibes to send to a press falls on you, and hopefully your story aligns with that. The letter is more of a formality.
When submitting single-author work, you still need to take the style and preferences of the press into consideration, but there is less of an expectation established about the file you've sent them. A query letter is less of a formality, and more of an opportunity to truly sell your work.
The Danger of Giving Query Letter Advice
Unlike cover letters, which are more standardized, a good query letter is going to be in response to where you're submitting. If you're sending a manuscript to a press or an agent, their listing, call, or website is usually going to be pretty specific about what information they do and more importantly don't want.
This means that there's no one-size fits all answer to writing a query letter. We have a template and example coming up that would be appropriate if there are no guidelines for the query letter listed, but usually the market is going to tell you what they're looking for, and it will be your job to adapt to it.
Objectives of a Query Letter:
The stakes are a little higher with a query letter, because it's expected to do a higher percentage of the heavy lifting than in a letter where the connected work is more likely to be attached in its entirety. It's easy to feel pressured or overwhelmed, so we're just going to boil it down to a few key points.
A good query letter should:
Show that you've done your homework on the press/agent/editor you're submitting to.
Sell your story (including hinting at what happens in the story after your sample ends so that the editors will need to request the full.)
What Not to Include in a Query Letter
A lot of our advice for this is just going to be to read the guidelines, but read those guidelines.
Do not send anything in, or attached to your query letter that they have not asked for. Specifically, do not send your entire manuscript if they are asking for a sample only.
Usually a press will ask for a specific number of chapters, or a specific number of words. If for some reason you absolutely have to round up/down, it's usually okay, but I would make a brief mention of it in the letter and explain why you had to round up/down.
Whenever possible, it's best just to follow their instructions as closely as you can.
Tips and Tricks for the Query Letter:
Other than following the guidelines, here are a couple common sense tips to writing a query letter that we shouldn't have to say... but we're going to say them anyway.
Address the editor/agent like they're a person.
Don't act like you are entitled to their time.
Don't be rude, and definitely don't include anything racist/sexist/homophobic/misogynistic/etc.
We mentioned these all for cover letters as well, but it's doubly important here. This isn't just a few emails back and forth about an anthology inclusion. Publishing an entire book is more like a partnership. If you are rude and getting blacklisted by editors, it is not going to matter how great your writing is.
**We're just going to drop this disclaimer again, but it can't be overstated. This template works great if you've never written a query letter before and the press hasn't asked for anything specific, but querying is different across all markets, so take all of this with a grain of salt and always defer to the press and their guidelines.
INTRODUCTION: First line should include a personal note, wordcount, 1-2 subgenres/adjectives, genre, type of manuscript (novel/novella/etc.) and TITLE. Finish with how you found the call or why you think YOU would be a good fit for the press.]
FULL PARAGRAPH PITCH OF YOUR BOOK:
Pitching a book in a single paragraph is harder than writing a book, and worthy of its own post. For now, enjoy this list of super basic things your pitch should ideally include: When and where your story takes place, who it involves, what their biggest obstacle is, and a dramatic hook of a question to cap it off.
TECHNICAL INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR BOOK: Is it a standalone book? A reprint? A debut? Do you have experience publishing in this particular niche/length of book? Is it being considered by any other presses/agents/venues at the moment?]
RELEVANT PUBLICATION HISTORY:
Brag about yourself a little bit, but not too much. If you don't have much of a publication history, that's totally fine. If you have a lot of publication history, trim it down. Even if you're the most prolific author in the world, this is not the time for a whole long list. A general rule of thumb, I list 3 short publications and my most recent book through a press. When I've gotten up to the magic number of press releases, I intend to switch over to my 3 most recent books, and my next upcoming book. You don't have to use this exact formula, but reel yourself in at some point. Ideally this paragraph is shorter than your pitch.
RESERVED SPACE TO ANSWER ANY QUESTIONS THEY HAVE ASKED YOU If it's already information that has come up in the letter naturally, you don't have to include it a second time. Brevity is key.
Posted with permission, this is pretty much verbatim the query letter that got me my first publication. The one change I made was to my publication experience. This was my second email to the press so I had already introduced myself. I wrote an example paragraph in the gap where that would have been. You can look for the little asterisk to mark that section.*
I am very excited to share my 32,000 word found file horror novella REVENGE ARC with you. I was encouraged by your preference for unusual formatting and request for horror as a speculative genre. I wrote previously to inquire about potential serialization for this as it is a longer project, and was told there would be interest in looking it over.
In 2021, chaos and conspiracy erupt online in the chat rooms, private messages, and fan sites for the indie webcomic RED. A killer has become inspired by its contents and obsessed with its writer. One body has already been found. Riley Langdon, the controversial creator and outspoken activist takes an internet hiatus to avoid commenting on the crimes inspired by her work, but it may already be too late. Her crazed fan has not forgotten her, and neither have his other victims.
REVENGE ARC is presented in the attached document as a stand-alone novella, but I think it could break up easily into a serialization if you are interested in the story as a whole. It is previously unpublished, and would be my first public project of this length. It is still being considered by one press and one agent.
*This would be my first publication of this length, but I have been featured in several anthologies including OOZE: LITTLE BURSTS OF BODY HORROR, THAT OLD HOUSE: THE BATHROOM, and DIVERGENT TERROR: AT THE CROSSROADS OF QUEER AND HORROR.
Thank you so much for your time and consideration looking over the work, as well as for your correspondence with my previous inquiries.
My Experience Querying:
We're going to get weirdly personal here for a moment. This was the query letter that got me my first publication, but it was far from perfect. Even the ones I write now are far from perfect. There are people way more qualified than me to give advice, and I'm always learning new stuff.
The further we get into this series, the more you're going to realize that I am pretty far from having all the answers. The tips and advice and guides are all the bits of advice that I wish I'd had when I had started out. There was a time where I didn't even know this much, and the 101 series is basically the information that would have made my life easier back when I knew nothing.
In that vein, I'm going to try to be as transparent as possible about what my experience is at all these different stages. These query letter tips and tricks are all general rules of thumb that I genuinely use every time I query. I have found they have brought me the most success, but it's not like I'm a super famous writer or constantly booking big deals and new agents.
I have had five manuscripts accepted by four presses in the last year. I only had to formally query three of those. Out of those three manuscripts I got a lot of rejections. So, so many rejections. I also got a lot of full requests from presses I believed at the time were way too big to ever consider me. I can't say that it's all because of the query letters, but I am fairly confident this method doesn't seem to be working against me.
If I get to a point where I find systems that work better, I'm going to share those systems too. If you have tips and tricks of your own, or questions for how things work, please don't feel afraid to comment below. We're all blindly figuring this out together, and that's okay. All this stuff gets easier as you get practice.