Fiction Query Letters: How to Write One

Last week, we talked a bit about fiction query letters: what they are and why you need one if you’re going to approach literary agents. This week, we’re going to go the next step: How to write a fiction query letter.

Fiction Query Letters and Literary Agents

But before we do that, I’ll be honest with you again: I’m not an expert in this subject. I don’t have any successful query letters of my own to share with you. I’ve not yet acquired an agent of my own to represent me. This is simply the next goal I’ve set for myself as I build my writing career, the next horizon toward which this adventure in indie publishing is taking me.

But I worked in publishing for a long time and learned a few things along the way. I’ll share with you what I know, what I’ve learned, and the steps I’m taking toward that goal. Follow along, and you’ll also learn about the mistakes I’ve made, so that maybe you can avoid them yourself.

Fiction Query Letters: How to Write One that gets a Literary Agent's attentionWhy Do You Need a Fiction Query Letter?

The answer may seem self-evident, but for the 0.001% who don’t know: The fiction query letter is your announcement to a literary agent that you have an intellectual property available for sale, what that property is, and who you are. At the end, it’s wrapped up with a request for representation by the agent. The agent (if your query is successful) then agrees to shop your work around to publishing houses who might be interested in buying such a property as yours. If you don’t send a query to the agent, they don’t know about you or your work, and they’ve got plenty of better things to do than search you out.

If you need more information than that, I recommend you have a look here at last week’s post, where I address this question in more detail.

How Do You Write a Fiction Query Letter?

If you’re hoping to secure a literary agent for your personal rendition of the great American novel, you’ve got to write the best rassinfrassin muffinluvin query letter that’s ever been writ. Simple as that.

The query letter stands between you and your dreams, and the marketplace is full to overflowing with writers dreaming the same dreams. All of them want an agent, and all of them will be writing a query letter.

So what does it take to write an effective query letter? Let’s take a look.

The Format of a Fiction Query Letter

literary agentYou have one page and 300 words (or less) to woo a literary agent into falling in love with your story and then requesting your manuscript. This letter is short, sweet, and to the point. Your goal is to squeeze the essence of your 80,000+ word book into approximately 300 words.

Format with your address at the top of the page, right justified. Next, type the agent’s address, this time left justified. Use a personalized greeting where you acknowledge the agent by name. Keep the body of your query letter to three to five paragraphs.

  1. First Paragraph: This is your opportunity to hook the literary agent. Share any connection you have with the agent (you met him or her at a conference, or you’re a fan of specific authors that he or she represents). If you don’t have a specific connection with the agent, you should get immediately into the action. The job of this first paragraph is to keep the agent reading. In this paragraph, share the title and genre of your book. This is also a great place to include your book’s word count.
  2. Second through Fourth Paragraph: It’s time to summarize (100-200 words) your story. Discuss your main characters, what happens, and what choice they must make now. But don’t give away the entire plot. Leave the agent wanting more by structuring this summary as a cliffhanger.
  3. Third to Fifth Paragraph: Add your bio, but keep it relevant to writing. Your agent doesn’t need to know how you spent summers at grandma’s house selling ice cream cones. Impress your would-be agent with your writing awards and credibility, or other writing-related experience. Keep it short (no more than two sentences).

A Few Query Letter Guidelines

Fiction Query Letters: How to Write One that doesn't end up in the trash.Be Concise. The query letter is not the place to demonstrate your verbosity and linguistic cunning. Keep your paragraphs short and your sentences shorter. This is a business letter, addressed to a busy business person. Agents aren’t reading your query letter; they’re skimming it. If it’s not crisp and easy-to-digest, they’re going to throw it in the trash.

Address the agent by name. Nothing screams, “n00b!” like, “To Whom It May Concern.” Even if it’s true that the first person who reads your letter is the agent’s assistants, even they aren’t going to pass you through the gate if you haven’t shown the least amount of respect and courtesy by learning their boss’s proper name. And for heaven’s sake, get the spelling right, and use an appropriately business-like title, such as “Mr.” or “Ms.” For the gender-sensitive, I haven’t seen any guidelines on the use of “Mx.” to address a person who might identify as other than male or female, or who disdains traditional gender identification. My gut feeling is that you’re as likely to offend someone as not by using such a term of address, but your mileage may vary. Robust research into your would-be agent should provide a guide in this regard, and your niche genre might also offer a clue.

Follow the submission guidelines. Agents have guidelines for a reason. Mostly because they want to see if you followed them. If you don’t follow them, they can assume you don’t care enough about their time and process to learn their guidelines, and therefore, aren’t worthy of their time and process, and therefore, they can save themselves time and trouble by throwing your query in the trash. See how that works? So learn the guidelines, love the guidelines, live the guidelines.

ManuscriptDon’t oversell it. Every author thinks their book is the best thing since Ulysses. Every agent knows that every author thinks their book is the best thing since Ulysses. It needn’t be stated outright, it’s implied. Why else would you be querying the agent if you didn’t have confidence in your own work? But aside from that, such self-aggrandizement is tacky. You risk sounding like That Guy in Your MFA. Get over yourself.

Don’t undersell it. I know, it’s a fine line.  How much is too much without being too little? As a general rule: Don’t be self-deprecating, don’t put yourself down, and don’t belittle of your own accomplishments. Statements like:

  • “I know you’re busy but…”
  • “I’m sure you have better things to do but…”
  • “No doubt you’ve read better but…”
  • “I know it’s a risk to take a chance on a first-time novelist, but…”

Don’t give agents the reason they need to reject your query letter. They are professionals at finding reasons of their own, they don’t need your help. Statements like these are nothing but loopholes that will allow them to gracefully slip your otherwise carefully-woven net. And they can use your own words to do it: “You know what? I am too busy to look at this high-risk manuscript from a first-time novelist when I can better spend my time with more lucrative clients.” Trashcan. Don’t give them the chance. Be confident, and have the courage to ask for what you want. Because no one else is going to do it for you.

Then What?

So, you’ve done your research, found your short-list of agents, written your query letters, and put them in the mail. What happens next?

Alas, the first thing is: You wait. Work on another book, take a vacation, whatever. But you put the query letter out of your mind, and you wait. Good literary agents get hundreds, if not thousands, of query letters each year. It will take them a while to get to yours. How long? Six to nine weeks is a good rule of thumb. If you haven’t heard back in that time, a brief and politely worded inquiry into the status of your query letter might be worthwhile. It might also be a waste of time. It really depends on the agent. Most are at least courteous enough to send a form rejection letter within that time-frame.

Beyond waiting, one of two things will happen. The more likely result is a form rejection letter or, if you’re lucky, a personalized rejection letter. If you’re really really really lucky, you might even get some feedback to explain why you’re being rejected. But don’t expect the feedback. Making you a better writer isn’t really the agent’s job, unless they hope to make a commission from your work.

The shadiest possible thing is that you’ll get recruited into a scam. Caveat emptor.

And the least likely outcome is that the agent will request a book proposal.

But Mike! What on earth is a book proposal?

Tune in next week, and I’ll explain. Until then, stay groovy and write on!


A Merchant's Tale, by Michael E. Dellert













Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

Posted in The Business of Writing, Writing Life

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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