Publishing U: What Is a Query Letter — and How Do I Write Mine?

Publishing UOur readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. In the second post of our Publishing U series, agent Suzie Townsend offers her take on a commonly asked question—and her client, Alexis Bass, explains how she wrote the query that caught her agent’s eye.

 

Suzie TownsendSuzie Townsend: Whether I meet writers at conferences or out in the wild, I get a lot of questions. One thing everyone wants to know is the secret to writing a good query letter. I talk to writers who have successfully written and revised and polished their manuscripts, only to get stuck writing a few paragraphs in a query. They want to know how to write the words that will get an agent to read the book they’ve written.

I get it.

The query is what agents are judging when they decide whether to read a manuscript or to pass. Most agents get an average of 200 queries each week. On a good week, they might request five of those manuscripts. That means the query has to stand out. It has to hook the agent and make her feel that she simply has to read more.

Query writing is a very different skill than novel writing.

It’s tough to make that happen, even if you have a great book. Writing a 300-page manuscript can sometimes feel like it was the easy part, once you have to start writing a query. It’s only one page—it should be easy! It’s not. Query writing is a very different skill than novel writing.

In a query, all of that characterization, world-building, backstory, and plot has to be boiled down to about 250 words. Too little information, and the agent won’t be hooked. Too much information, and the agent might be confused or bored. It has to be just right. But don’t despair, Alexis Bass wrote a query that I requested immediately, and she has a few tricks of the trade to share.

Alexis BassAlexis Bass: My favorite query advice is actually to write a mock-query before the novel is completed—when the idea is fresh in your mind and the characters are still simple sketches, before it’s had time to develop subplots. I did this for Love and Other Theories (2014), and it proved very effective for weeding out the excess information. It was bare bones: no names, no specifics, and very short. But the main idea behind the story was there, providing a base for me to focus on when adding layers and beefing it up.

If you’re already at the point where you’ve written and revised (and revised and revised), and are suffering from Goldilocks Syndrome when drafting your query, the following can be a good approach for breaking down the plot and focusing your content:

  • The first paragraph introduces the character and his/her situation—but only includes information that can be built upon in the second paragraph.
  • In the second paragraph, you lay out the problem, which pertains entirely to the information provided in the first paragraph.
  • The third paragraph talks about what the main character is going to do about the problem introduced in the second paragraph, hinting at why this will only make things worse.

If you think of your query like building blocks you’ll notice that the subplots are usually unnecessary. This will also help you narrow down the number of characters mentioned in the query. One of the biggest struggles I had when writing the Love and Other Theories query was attempting to include a character named Trip. He’s a huge part of the book, but because he couldn’t be connected in the three-paragraph plot-setup formula, it was clear he needed to be left out.

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Alexis Bass grew up in Washington, went to college in Arizona, and spent her early twenties in Seattle. She currently lives in Northern California with Dylan McKay, her gorgeous and rambunctious golden retriever. She is the author of Love and Other Theories (2014).

Suzie Townsend is a book lover, former teacher, science fiction and fantasy nerd, and a literary agent at New Leaf Literary & Media. She represents children’s and adult fiction (middle-grade through adult). She lives in New York with two dogs who know that chewing on books is not okay.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

2 Comments on "Publishing U: What Is a Query Letter — and How Do I Write Mine?"

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  1. An SCBWI posted on the Blueboard that you’re only supposed to reveal the first third of your story in a query. I hadn’t come across that in my query writing research. The structure laid out here in your post supports that. And, the guidance here is specific, so helpful. Thank you.

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