How to Query 101
I doubt anything induces anxiety for writers more than querying. Let’s face it, writing and editing are much more rewarding. Many writers find the continuous stream of rejections chips away at one’s confidence.
But if you approach querying properly and with the right attitude, you will increase your chance of being successful.
The query letter is like a resume. You may have great work experience but if your resume is poorly drafted, you may miss out on job interviews. Similarly, weak query letters put you at a huge disadvantage.
Who To Query?
Traditional publishers do not normally accept submissions directly from authors. Their editors work with literary agents who submit on your behalf. Consequently, if your goal is to sign with a traditional publisher, you need to be querying agents.
Because of their size, traditional publishers are looking for books that will be commercially successful. You may have an excellent manuscript, but publishers may feel it has a limited audience.
Fortunately, there are smaller, independent or hybrid publishers with different expectations and criteria. They also accept submissions directly from authors.
I’m not going into the merits of these two publishing routes in this post. You need to decide which better suits your manuscript. There’s also nothing wrong with querying literary agents and indie publishers at the same time.
My only advice is that you research agents and publishers to find those that would be a good fit. That will cut down on the number of rejections you receive, and the frustration associated with the process.
So, if you are a romance writer, stick to agents and publishers looking for romance novels. This is not much different than job hunting—if you apply for a job requiring an accounting designation and you don’t have one, you can be guaranteed you’ll be rejected.
What Goes Into A Query?
Typically, the querying process has three components – the query letter, a synopsis and a number of pages or chapters from your manuscript. Some agents or publishers only ask for one or two of these components.
Make sure you only submit what is requested. You don’t want to be rejected because you didn’t follow their submission guidelines.
I’m only going to cover the query letter and synopsis. How do they differ? The best way to describe it is, the query letter shows while the synopsis tells.
The Query Letter
A query letter is the way to get your foot in the door. It needs to stand out over other submissions because the average agency receives 10,000 submissions in a year. You want to seduce the agent to read more. That’s what makes the hook so important. I’ll describe the hook shortly.
1. The Salutation
Your query letter should be no longer than one page. Remember, the reader is receiving hundreds each week and will not be motivated to read long letters. Personalize the salutation to show that you researched the agent or publisher and know something about them.
For example, I’m submitting to you because I know you enjoy young adult fantasy novels. Avoid saying something that might annoy the reader, such as insisting they will love your book or that you’ve written the next bestseller.
2. The Description
After the salutation, get right into providing your manuscript’s basic information to confirm that it falls into one of the types of novels that they seek to represent. You will state the title, the genre, whether it is a series or standalone, and the word count.
It will look something like this, MY LIFE ON PLUTO is a standalone, adult fantasy novel, complete at 78,550 words.
I suggest including comparable novels (or "comps") to help the reader understand what type of a book you’ve written. This isn’t critical but can be helpful. So, for example, My novel would appeal to fans of Gone Girl and Girl on a Train.
Agents like to see comparable book titles. I don’t always limit it to books and have used films and TV shows. For example, I’ve compared a manuscript to the film Fargo.
3. The Hook
The next section is the hook. I feel it’s the most important part of your query letter. The hook is one to two sentences that summarize your book at a high level and entices the reader to want to know more about it. It should set the tone for your novel.
Dix Jenner, a self-proclaimed slacker, is the first chef to live—and maybe die—on Mars.
4. Character Motivation And Conflict
That should be followed by a paragraph or two describing the character’s motivation and conflict and how the conflict is resolved, without giving away the ending.
The description you provide should be between 100 and 200 words. This is not intended to be a synopsis. This description should not mention any more than two or three characters.
Generally, I would make only mention of the protagonist and antagonist, but there may be a compelling reason to name someone else like a love interest.
5. Your Bio
The next section would be a writing-related bio. Include here your publishing background, if you have one, or related accomplishments. E.g. if you’ve successfully won a writing contest, be sure to mention this.
End the letter with a basic closing, Thank you for your time and consideration.
Some Querying Do’s and Don’ts
- DO research agents and agencies.
- DON'T waste your time sending mass or blind emails.
- DON'T use alternative emails. Use only the ones listed in the agency’s submission guidelines.
- DO always include genre.
- DO include word count.
- DO be mindful of spelling and grammar. Proofread carefully.
- DO include comparable book titles (film and TV titles are okay too).
- DO highlight only major characters.
- DO keep your bio brief and limited to previously published works, any former agent representatives, writing contests won, etc.
- DO include your social media handles. (A word of advice, avoid politics and controversy. Use your social media only for writing.)
- DO respect the submission guidelines of the agencies you query.
- DON'T send anything not requested.
- DON'T mention money.
- DON'T make demands.
As I’ve mentioned already, some agents and publishers will ask that a synopsis be sent along with the query letter. The query letter is intended to be a hook to get an agent to want to read more. A synopsis is a story map of your manuscript.
A synopsis is typically about 500 words. Agents and publishers don’t want to read anything longer. Remember, they are reading a lot of submissions, so you need to sell your manuscript in a page or two.
Start with the premise of your novel.
You will describe the world, setting, and key characters. Use your own voice, even if the book is in first person.
It’s important to highlight the conflict in your story, what’s at stake for your protagonist, and what hurdles they have to overcome, including the climax. Walk through the plot and show how your character changes or grows over time.
Finally, you will be expected to give away the ending of your story. An agent or publisher needs to see how conflicts are resolved.
Some Synopsis Do’s and Don’ts
- DO tell the story in your own voice.
- DO write your synopsis in third person, even if your manuscript is told in first person.
- DO be more detailed than in the query letter, but focus on what’s important.
- DO describe the protagonist’s successes and failures, emotions and feelings.
- DO be sure to describe the protagonist’s growth.
- DO tell, but DON'T neglect your creativity.
There are some excellent online resources around outlining how to query literary agents and publishers. If you use an editor to polish your manuscript, have them review your query letter and synopsis. There are many reasonably priced editors out there.
And good luck!
Willie Handler is a member of the Canadian Author Association – Toronto and the Writers Community of York Region. He has published two satirical novels, The Road Ahead and Loved Mars Hated The Food.