Deconstructing a successful query letter

So you have your completed and polished novel. But the writing isn’t over yet.

Now it’s time for your query letter. Its purpose? To entice an agent into requesting your work.

To illustrate how to do this successfully, I’ve tapped my friend and fellow author Kate Strawther who recently signed with Mark Gottlieb of Trident Media Group.

Let’s take a look at her query.

Dear Mr. Gottlieb,

I hope you will be interested in my first novel, BACKWATER. Set in the swampy river bottom separating Texas and Louisiana, BACKWATER is an 82,000-word work of women’s fiction that explores the idea of trading worldly success for the unexpected joy of the path less traveled. The manuscript recently received an honorable mention in the 2016 William Faulkner Literary Competition.

Small-town girl Sunday Frederick has finally escaped her backwater roots. Thanks to Houston entrepreneur, Jeffrey Frost, Sunday has a sparkling diamond ring and big dreams for her family’s large, rural estate. However, Sunday’s plans are interrupted when she is called away on a special work assignment. Not only is she plunged into the swampy, mosquito-infested river bottom of East Texas, she has to live among the poor souls of Devil’s Pocket.

To make matters worse, hometown rebel, Eli LeBlanc, is tasked to host Sunday at his dilapidated houseboat. With his crude manners and outlaw ways, Eli hasn’t changed a bit since high school and Sunday has better things to do than answer his prying questions about her personal affairs.

But as the days pass and the balmy night air is filled with the sound of crickets and softly rushing water, there’s a stillness and freedom to river life that can alter a girl’s priorities and open her heart. With her wedding to Jeffrey only weeks away, and the future of her family’s estate resting on her shoulders, Sunday finds herself torn between everything she thought she wanted and everything she can’t live without.

Told in an authentic Southern voice, BACKWATER draws from my family’s generational experiences of thriving in the woods of East Texas for the past 148 years. I grew up sitting around the campfire absorbing tales of hunting, fishing, working, and struggling to carve out a life in a place where nothing comes easily. With eccentricities ranging from humorous to gritty, East Texans are a unique blend of cowboy and Cajun culture. Through my book, I hope to share these unforgettable characters with the world.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Kate Boudreaux Strawther

So as you can see there are four basic elements of Kate’s query, and these should be present in every query letter – including yours! Let’s dive a little deeper.

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Opening & Personalization

Your first lines should lead with your strongest selling points. Kate’s are her unique setting, popular genre, and award.

But there are several different ways you can start a query letter. Maybe you were referred by an existing client or met this agent at a conference. Mention that here.

Personalization can also speak volumes in your opening paragraph. Why are you querying this particular agent? Do they represent an author you feel is comparable to your work? Did you read an interview where they mentioned their wishlist and you feel your novel fits? Show that you did your research. It will impress them and set you apart from others.

A few other necessary items in those first few sentences: your novel’s title, word count and genre.

Hook/Blurb

This section is probably the hardest 100-200 words an author will ever have to write, and it’s the one where you sell your story. Just like your overall query, there are a few elements that every hook needs. Take another look at Kate’s…

[1] Small-town girl Sunday Frederick has finally escaped her backwater roots. Thanks to Houston entrepreneur, Jeffrey Frost, Sunday has a sparkling diamond ring and big dreams for her family’s large, rural estate. [2] However, Sunday’s plans are interrupted when she is called away on a special work assignment. Not only is she plunged into the swampy, mosquito-infested river bottom of East Texas, she has to live among the poor souls of Devil’s Pocket.

[3] To make matters worse, hometown rebel, Eli LeBlanc, is tasked to host Sunday at his dilapidated houseboat. With his crude manners and outlaw ways, Eli hasn’t changed a bit since high school and Sunday has better things to do than answer his prying questions about her personal affairs.

[4] But as the days pass and the balmy night air is filled with the sound of crickets and softly rushing water, there’s a stillness and freedom to river life that can alter a girl’s priorities and open her heart. [5] With her wedding to Jeffrey only weeks away, and the future of her family’s estate resting on her shoulders, Sunday finds herself torn between everything she thought she wanted and everything she can’t live without.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

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[1] For genres like women’s fiction, introducing the main character right off the bat is key. For science fiction or fantasy, you may start with the world or stakes, but you will segue into your protagonist pretty quickly. After all, they’re who we’re rooting for!

[2] Next is the novel’s inciting incident, or the start of the action. Prior to this we see Sunday in her normal world – her sparkling ring and rich fiance. But now something has happened to shake things up.

[3] Without obstacles, Sunday’s adventure would make for a pretty boring book. Show a few things your character must overcome to be successful. Could be an army of insectoid drones or just one extremely grumpy redneck.

[4] Now I know from reading Kate’s novel that what really sets her work apart from all the other women’s fiction out there is her setting. She captures that swampy river bottom perfectly, bringing it to life until it’s almost a character of its own. Make sure that whatever makes your book sizzle is included in your query.

[5] Kinda like obstacles, a book just isn’t going to work without stakes. What happens if your hero fails? What’s at risk? By including these in your query, you show that your novel is plotted correctly and has the potential to keep someone turning the page.

To put it simply, follow this formula and you’ve got the building blocks of your hook. Then you just have to make it sound pretty.

When [INCITING INCIDENT OCCURS], a [SPECIFIC PROTAGONIST] must [OBJECTIVE], or else [STAKES].

Oh, but don’t reveal the ending. Save that for the synopsis (which we’ll talk about next time).

Author’s Bio

What makes you the best qualified person to have written this book?

Past writing credits? Self-published books? Writing-specific profession? Educational background? Awards or competitions?

For Kate, her background and family lend an air of experience to her chosen topic. Whatever it is, give the agent a little insight into your writing chops and your personality.

Conclusion & Appreciation

So this should be the simplest part of your query, but you’d be surprised how often authors get a little carried away.

Don’t promise them your book will be a best seller, don’t beg them to request your work. Don’t ramble or ask to meet in person.

A short and sweet thank you is all that’s needed; let your story speak for itself.

A few more details…

  • Your query should be one page with standard formatting: block paragraphs, black text, no weird font or underlining.
  • To make it stand out, capitalize your book’s title (i.e. BACKWATER or STATE OF GRACE). You will do the same thing with your characters’ names in your synopsis.
  • Some agents ask for specific email subject lines, but if not, I typically stick with “QUERY: Title + Agent Name.” This helps submission inboxes sort more easily.
  • Please do not start your query letter with “Dear Agent” or “To Whom It may Concern.” Personalize your salutation with the agent’s actual name.
  • Put the requested material in the body of your email. Agents will not open attachments, and some even block emails that include them. Once they have replied asking to see more, they will typically ask for the full manuscript in a Word document. But in your initial query, keep it all in the email.
  • Include your full contact information after your conclusion, including email address, phone number and author website if you have one.

Last piece of advice:

“Let several people – who know nothing about your work – read your query. If they seem confused or disinterested, you have a problem.”

– Kate Strawther

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I second this. In my experience, a successful query is usually one where at least five people have torn it apart and helped rebuild it. I did this with Kate’s query, too. Sometimes, you can be too close to your work to see areas of concern, but by listening to and implementing other feedback, your submission will be that much stronger.

For more examples, check out Writer’s Digest’s Successful Queries series!

5 thoughts on “Deconstructing a successful query letter

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