How I Got My Agent (Part 1: The Parts of a Good Query)
So, it’s been a while since I signed with Nancy Coffey Literary & Media Representation, and I’ve yet to explain how it all happened. One of the main reasons I waited was to prevent hurt feelings or coming across as rude, but… Enough time has passed now that I think the rejected agents have forgotten all about me.
I started querying on October 6, 2010. But before that, I spent a loooooooong time honing my query letter. Like, I took workshops, read books, and got feedback until my eyes bled.
But it all paid off! Out of the 12 agents I queried, 9 requested a full or partial manuscript. WEEEEE, right? (Note: part of my success rate has to do with my research, but I’ll talk about that tomorrow in Part 2: The Prep. Nonetheless, a good chunk of my success was thanks to my kick-booty query.)
The thing about query letters is that there is a general standard for what should be in a query and how it should be presented. Above all else, you must include a summary of your book — you must show your book’s plot. Next, you need to keep the query professional. This is a business letter — remember that!
A few other rules to keep in mind:
- Be brief, be brief, be brief! Your goal is to snag the agent’s attention immediately and only share enough information so they want to read more. Keep the story summary under 250 words.
- Do not tell the ending! The purpose of a query is to show an editor/agent that you can tell a story from beginning to end, but you want to leave the end unknown. This is much like the back of book – you want to sell your story and entice them to read more.
- You must lay out,
- the MC’s goal,
- why the MC is choosing to act,
- what’s at stake if the MC fails.
The Parts of a Good Query
Below, I have written out the building blocks of a strong query letter. I’ve filled the formula in with my own query, and I hope you find it useful!
Opening lines — Why are you contacting this agent/editor? What is the title, genre, and word count of your novel?
(I’ll get into this more tomorrow and explain why I suggest starting here.)
I read in an interview that you seek strong female leads as well as steampunk. As such, I thought you might enjoy my 90,000 word young adult novel, THE SPIRIT-HUNTERS.
Hook — What is a one sentence zinger that introduces the MC, sets up the stakes, and is (most importantly) concise?
After her brother is kidnapped, Eleanor Fitt – a sixteen-year-old with a weakness for buttered toast and Shakespeare quotes – must leave the confines of corsets and courtesy to get him back.
Summary Paragraph 1 — Briefly describe the ordinary life of the MC. Follow this with the inciting incident and why the MC must pursue it (i.e. what is at stake?).
It’s 1876, and Philadelphia is hosting the first American World Fair, the Centennial Exhibition. It’s also hosting rancid corpses that refuse to stay dead. When one of those decomposing bodies brings Eleanor a hostage note for her brother, she resolves to do anything to rescue him. But to face the armies of Dead that have him, she’ll need a little help from the Spirit-Hunters.
Summary Paragraphs 2 & 3 — List/show in 2-3 sentences what the MC must do to solve the problem before him/her. What choices must he/she make? Be sure to end these paragraph with a sentence explaining what will happen if he/she fails. You want to leave the agent with a perfectly clear idea of why this story matters.
The Spirit-Hunters, a three-man team hired to protect the Exhibition, have a single goal: return the Dead to their graves. Yet, what began as a handful of shambling bodies has escalated beyond the team’s abilities, and time is running out. Whoever rules the Dead is losing control, and when the leash finally snaps, Philadelphia will be overrun with ravenous corpses.
Now Eleanor must battle the walking Dead and deal with her growing attraction to the team’s inventor, Daniel, an exasperating but gorgeous ex-con. From the steampunk lab of the Spirit-Hunters to the grand halls of the Exhibition, Eleanor must follow the clues – and the bodies – to find her brother and stop the Dead before it’s too late.
Conclusion — List your qualifications as a writer (societies, publications) in one sentence. If you can, try to find 2 works similar to your own (this shows the agent what audience you believe will read your novel). Then thank the agent for his/her time. Sign off.
Though the novel has been written as a trilogy, it can stand alone. I believe it will appeal to fans of Libba Bray’s GEMMA DOYLE trilogy or Cassandra Clare’s CLOCKWORK ANGEL. I’m an active member of RWA, SCBWI, the Online Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop, and YALitChat. I live in Germany and am working full-time on my next YA novels. You can learn more about me at https://susandennard.com.
So there you have it: a simple way to start building your query. Again, I hope you can use it. Tomorrow I’ll be back to talk about The Prep — or all the preparations needed prior to actually mailing your queries.
November 29, 2010 @ 7:03 am
Thanks for sharing this! =D I know it will be a long time before I consider myself reading for querying, but I`ll make a note of this so I can go back and use to the tips you wrote to write my own query.
November 29, 2010 @ 8:19 am
You are incredible. If I was an agent, I would reach into my computer, grab your query, rub it against my face lovingly, then possibly make out with it. Seriously. Thanks for the awesome tips darling, as per usual, your invaluable advice will feature on my Stuff for Writers page!! 😀
November 29, 2010 @ 8:32 am
Hm. Must check the generations (there are six now) of Singular queries to see if they follow the guidelines. I think I can be rambly. Do you think I can be rambly? Aw, shucks. 😀
November 29, 2010 @ 9:26 am
Aekubo: I’m glad you could use it, and whenever you do reach the querying stage, feel free to ask me for help! 🙂
Caitlin: That’s some real query love (or lust?). And thanks for sharing my link on your page!!! 😀 😀
Kat: You’re not rambly… 😀 But I do want to read your Singular query. Heck, I want to read Singular — PLEASE?
November 29, 2010 @ 1:13 pm
This is fantastic! Thank you for sharing this. My query needs A LOT of help, so this was perfect timing. 🙂
November 29, 2010 @ 1:43 pm
Awesome, Meredith!! Good luck with your query, and if you need any help, feel free to ask! (I love writing queries!) 🙂
November 29, 2010 @ 2:03 pm
Hey Susan…once again valued your sharing…you are a gift to many who are pursuing their writing dreams…you are like a crisp, orange carrot dangling ahead…so appreciate your blog
November 29, 2010 @ 3:01 pm
Kris: Thanks!! What a sweet thing for you to say. 😀 I hope this comes in handy for you.
Catherine: Ah, the elevator pitch. I had one all prepared, but thank heavens I never had to use it! Stage fright is definitely something from which I suffer.
November 29, 2010 @ 2:18 pm
Love your hook! The hook, or elevator pitch (called that because you have about five seconds to pitch before your floor) is a super-important element to the query. Not only that, but by forcing yourself to boil down the core of your novel in two sentences, often your story is newly revealed to you.
November 29, 2010 @ 3:01 pm
Oooh, really?? I would love to have another set of eyes look at it and completely tear it apart for me. Cuz it kinda blows. Can I email it to you?
November 29, 2010 @ 3:16 pm
Absolutely, Meredith!! Send it on! 😀
November 29, 2010 @ 3:32 pm
I need this week to be over so I can actually sit down and *read* THE SPIRIT-HUNTERS. Is it Friday yet?
November 29, 2010 @ 7:03 pm
Hahaha, sorry, Sammy… It’s most definitely not Friday yet.
November 29, 2010 @ 10:17 pm
Great post, Susan with awesome examples. If this batch of queries gets me nowhere, I’ll come back to this and see what I’m doing wrong. ;D Thanks for sharing!
November 30, 2010 @ 10:24 am
Thanks, Victoria! If you ever need another eye to look at your query, feel free to ask me! 😀
December 4, 2010 @ 5:11 pm
Goodness – Now *I* want to request a partial. ;D Great post! And the snippets from your own query only make it better!
December 8, 2010 @ 10:19 pm
I had no idea how I missed this, but this is one of the most clear and concise posts on writing queries that I’ve read. Thank you so much!
*goes revise query based on post*
December 8, 2010 @ 10:24 pm
Fantastique! I’m glad I could help!! 😀
December 13, 2010 @ 6:39 pm
Thank you so much. I finished my book weeks ago but just can’t get the query letter nailed down. Now I have two more books well on there way but still need to get the first one read. Hope your tips are the boost my letter needs. Thanks again.
December 13, 2010 @ 7:38 pm
You are so welcome, Cynthia. Good luck! 🙂
Anne Severn Williamson
January 25, 2011 @ 3:54 pm
Thanks so much for all your helpful information! This is the best query outline that I have found on the Web. Your careful breakdown with examples is terrific. Would you have the time to look over my query in the future? I am getting great feedback on my website, book trailer, and writing, but the query is still holding me back. Thanks so much for your posts! Anne
December 31, 2011 @ 6:09 am
I know this is from 2010, but this article along with your article on writing a 1-page synopsis were some of my “favorite things of 2011”. Check it out here –
June 7, 2014 @ 3:06 pm
Sometimes a great query doesn’t necessarily do it for the agent. You can spend countless hours drafting the best query in the world only to come back with countless rejections. Most often it’s to do with the agent and the agent’s needs at the time.
December 7, 2017 @ 6:23 pm
Hey Susan! Thanks so much for this guide, it’s incredibly helpful. Do you have any tips for cutting down word count? My query is currently 258 words, and I feel like shaving anything more off will make the query unclear, or the voice not come through enough.