Writing Query Letters: fiction edition

The goal of the query letter is to pique interest in your writing and get the agent or editor wanting more material. There are many formulaic descriptions out there on how to write the perfect three or five paragraph query letter. Well, I assure you that while agents want organization, thoughtful articulation and great descriptions we also want to find someone with the character, spunk, and wit to stand out from the crowd of queries in our inbox. Our agency asks for a query letter alone–no sample material unless we request it–so the query letter is your way to show us that you have genuine writing chops.

If you don’t have writing credentials, that’s okay. You don’t need to justify this or be self-depreciating – every writer was a debut once.

If you don’t have your novel finished: Do. Not. Query.

What you do need is a personalized query pitch: have you read the agent’s blog, twitter feed or client’s book? Tactfully mentioning this goes a long way. A greeting of ‘Hello to whoever is reading this’ simply will not do (yes, this has landed in my inbox).

What you do need is an original hook, a word count in tune with your genre, a concise synopsis with intriguing plot highlights and a character that is relatable and/or sympathetic. The reader must connect with these points and feel compelled to request more.

What you do need is a query that reads like back cover copy, not a long synopsis filled with secondary characters and minor plot details that distract from the point of the query letter in the first place: attracting and holding the reader’s attention.

What you do need to know is who your market is, comparable book titles and how you fit into this market and why. Tip: do not mention Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling. These overly ambitious claims discredit your knowledge of the industry and your place in it, which means agents will not take you seriously even if you are the next bestseller. If your writing is up to those standards it will prove that for itself and you won’t have to spout it.

What you do need is to share how you are active in marketing your author brand already.

What you do need is to include a brief author bio that is funny, witty, or fits your genre’s mood. Rachelle Gardner has a great post here.

Most important to me: What you do need to remember is that your query letter writing is a direct reflection of who you are as a writer. If you query is bland then the reader is inclined to think your sample material will be equally as bland. Spice it up with your literary taste and express yourself! The query ‘standards’ are there as guidelines, while agents and editors appreciate you following basic structural ones (like I’ve laid out here), they are malleable to your literary flair.

My biggest piece of advice is research, research, research and then put your notes in a drawer so you can write yourself into the query having learned what is expected in a query, your place in the industry and the genre you are writing, while providing a unique angle for your reader that makes them see the professional writer you are and ultimately crave more material.

Q: What is the most difficult part of writing a query? How do you overcome it?

Similar Post:

Query Letter Template

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

8 thoughts on “Writing Query Letters: fiction edition

  1. My writing friends and actually crowdsource and beta read our queries. A query (and the dreaded synopsis) shouldn’t get short shrift on the content just because they’re so much shorter than the manuscript. The hardest part of a query for me is to keep it from sounding both too formal (yea, verily, forsooth and well met!) and too Madison Avenue (like a kick in the face with spiked boots made of AWESOME!).


    1. I agree, Ian. The query is so important because it’s a first impression of the manuscript you’ve been working so long and hard on.

      The balance is hard, but what comes through is your voice as a writer–that’s what I suggest people strive for.


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