You've just spent months agonizing over a manuscript of 50, 75, or 100,000 words and now you're expected to reduce that down to a succinct, attention-grabbing pitch of just 250 words? No wonder writers stress out about it!
There are many blog posts and articles out there about how to write a good novel* query, including:
- "The Complete Guide to Query Letters that Get Manuscript Requests," by Jane Friedman
- "How to Write a Query Letter," by agent Rachelle Gardner
- "Example of a Good Query Letter," by agent Nathan Bradford
- The entire Query Shark blog (yes, read the whole blog) by agent Janet Reid
- "The Complete Nobody's Guide to Writing a Query Letter," by Lynn Flewelling
- "Ask a Literary Agent: What Do You Look for in a Query Letter," by Lauren Sharp
- and for you visual learners, "How to Write a Query Letter," video by writer Emily Lowrey
With so much information, it can be kind of overwhelming. Today, to ease some writer anxiety, I'm going to try to break it down as simply as possible.
Take the time to research the agents you're querying and open with "Dear [insert agent name here]:"
2. PERSONALIZATION [if applicable]
- IF you have a referral from another industry professional whom this agent knows personally...
- IF you met the agent at a conference or other event...
- IF the agent has requested materials from you for a prior manuscript...
then put that information here. Otherwise skip this and dive right into telling them about your manuscript.**
3A. Your main character & their goal
The first paragraph should tell the agent who your main character is and what s/he wants at the beginning of the novel. I find it useful in the "pitch" section to write this information in the absolute simplest form first and then add more detail.
- SIMPLE: Emma wants to be a matchmaker.
- DETAILS: Twenty-year-old Emma Woodhouse doesn't mind a life of spinsterhood. She has a loving father, plentiful wealth, and finds great pleasure in bettering the lives of her neighbors and friends. After successfully finding a husband for her beloved governess, she sets her sights on helping the others in her life find their perfect marital happiness as well.
3B. The inciting incident & conflictYour inciting incident (which should take place in the first chapter or two of your novel) should create some sort of conflict for your main character.
- SIMPLE: Emma tries to set up Harriet with Mr. Elton, BUT Mr. Elton likes her.
- DETAILS: When she meets Harriet Smith, a plain girl from unknown parentage, Emma decides that Harriet is the perfect match for the village rector and sets out to ensure that they fall in love. To do so, she must keep Harriet from the humble farmer who's already begun to win her affection and introduce her new friend into higher, more worthy society. It all seems to be falling into place, until Emma discovers that the rector whom she intended for Harriet has taken a liking to her instead.
3C. The stakes
The stakes are what the characters stand to lose, what they will miss out on or what will be destroyed if they do not achieve their goal.
- SIMPLE: Emma must admit her mistake or they all will be unhappy.
- DETAILS: As her attempts at matchmaking only cause more and more awkward misunderstandings between the pair of women and the men whose affection they've won, Emma must give up her matchmaking and admit her errors, or there will be no happy endings for anyone involved.
Here's where you want to put the "business details"
- category (MG, YA, NA, Adult)
- word count (rounded to the nearest thousand)
- any relevant biographical information (membership in a national writers organization, participation in a major writers' workshop such as Clarion, education or experience relating to writing)
Include your contact information here
- your legal name ("writing as [pen name]," if applicable)
- your mailing address
- your phone number
- your website (if applicable)
Once you've got your basic structure, you're ready to add details, polish it up, and get some fellow writers to critique it. Check in tomorrow for my checklist of query dos and don'ts!
*queries/pitches for nonfiction and children's literature follows different formats
** Some agents prefer the "bookkeeping" info up front; others prefer it last. If they say one way or the other in their guidelines, then follow their guidelines. If not, then it can go either place. For the sake of this simple outline, I include it at the end.