Query letters are widely hated by writers. I understand this hatred and used to feel it too, but I got over it and actually respect the process. Query letters are important for a lot of reasons. Chances are, the fact that you are reading this means that are already ahead of other query-ers out there. Most don’t structure their query right, and a ridiculous long or weirdly structured query can do a lot of harm.
How to Structure a Query Letter
There is a well-known structure for query, and a great way to start with your first draft of a query letter: PERSONALIZATION, HOOK, BOOK, and COOK.
I’ve talked about personalization before, and I still recommend putting it at the front. That way the literary agent knows right away that you’ve done your research.
Here’s how you do it:
“In your interview with Writer’s Digest you expressed an interest in gritty, dark contemporary YA. As such, I thought you might be interested in my 75,000 word novel, LIV ON FIRE.”
Your first paragraph should be the hook of your book. Something that conveys the whole concept clearly, quickly, and in a way that will make an over-worked literary agent (or literary agent assistant/intern—the ones eagerly learning about the process, but for free while they are working maybe one, probably two other jobs) stop and take notice instead of scanning through the rest of their query pile.
Think of it like your elevator pitch.
Here is an example of a hook:
“Eighteen-year-old Liv Ashwin is just learning to cope with the death of her twin brother when the serial killer “Agni’s Fire” starts burning through her hometown.”
That’s the whole concept of the book. Liv is struggling with the death of her twin, and a serial killer comes and complicates the whole situation. That’s the book, right there. In one sentence.
After that, you dive into the book. In one to three paragraphs (do not go over 250 words), talk about what the book is about—try to stick with what happens in the first 2/3rd of the book, since that’s easiest. You want to end it on a choice.
Here is the rest of the query for LIV ON FIRE. (Note, after some major revisions, anything after the first paragraph is no longer a true representation of the book.)
The media goes crazy over the elaborate killings, each staged in homage to the Hindu god Agni. When Liv discovers a girl tied to a burning stake in the woods, she fails to save her and runs before the inferno consumes her, too. Agni’s Fire broadcasts her failure online, like all his other killings, but this time with a message: Be my Svaha?
Liv wants to hide and pretend the sick proposal never happened until another video surfaces — one of her brother’s death. Seeing it ignites a maddening need for her to find Agni’s Fire, no matter the consequences. When she gets too close, her best friend is kidnapped and a new message from Agni’s appears: Be mine and it will stop.
Liv’s done running. She won’t let another person die or her brother’s killer go free, even if it means swapping places with her friend in a final sacrifice.
See that last part? The choice: she can save her friend, but only by sacrificing herself. It’s high stakes, and it’s a tough choice. It gives agents a pause—do they want to read to see what happens, or don’t they?
Over 30 agents did.
And the final paragraph is the cook, where you talk about the book. Also this is where any comp titles go.
“With blog posts, texts, and news articles imbedded in the story, fans of NIGHT FILM by Marisha Pessl and LIAR SOCIETY by Lisa and Laura Roecker will enjoy this book. I’m a member of HWA, SCBWI, and a former intern at P.S. Literary.
Thank you for your time and consideration.”
Quick, easy, and to the point. Do not go all braggy here. Saying you are going to be the next big thing is pompous and not going to do yourself any favors. If you don’t have comp titles, don’t worry about it. Comp titles are good, but only if you have the right ones.
Don’t ramble on about yourself. If you have relevant credentials, put them there. If you don’t, don’t worry. If you are writing fiction, it doesn’t matter at all if you have no credentials. It is all about your book. Not about you.