Hello! Today’s blog post is all about how to structure query letters, both to agents, and if you are a writer applying for Pitch Wars.
I’ll be using my own query letter for a shelved adult manuscript from a few years ago as an example. I chose this letter because, out of the 33 queries I sent to agents, it netted me 20 full requests, so I consider it a success. (The manuscript not so much, but luckily that’s not the focus of this blog post, haha).
I’ll paste the query below and label its working parts in bold. There’ll be a breakdown of each part after it. Let’s go!
THE QUERY LETTER
Dear [agent’s name]: (Personalized salutation)
I saw on your #MSWL that you are looking for xxxx. My manuscript, SAVAGE, might be a good fit. (Personalized opening)
During a routine mission, Embassy agent Calla Forsythe discovers a murdered spy—and rumors of a serial killer. (Hook) Tensions run high in the impoverished colony where the spy was killed. An independence movement is gaining traction with angry citizens, who claim the serial killer is an Embassy agent using his position to get away with murder. (Context)
Calla has strict orders to return to base, and investigating the killer risks drawing the Embassy’s attention to her own dark past. But the spy wasn’t the first to report the killer to the Embassy, and if she doesn’t do something, he won’t be the last. She tracks the killer through winding medinas and bustling bazaars, anxious to find him before anyone realizes she’s disobeyed orders.
But her past comes roaring back to haunt her when a woman waylays her hunt for the killer, begging Calla to help find her kidnapped sister. Plagued by survivor’s guilt over the childhood murder of her own sister, Calla agrees. (Body) But the killer is getting away, and with rising anti-imperial sentiment, the Embassy will do anything to stop her from investigating one of their own. Calla must find the girl and the killer—before the Embassy finds her. (Stakes)
Set in a futuristic world inspired by the Middle East and complete at 100,000 words, SAVAGE is a speculative thriller in the vein of Jason Bourne meets No Country for Old Men. It is a standalone book with series potential. (Manuscript’s details) My experiences as an Australian woman of Middle Eastern descent informed its writing. My speculative fiction has appeared in xxxx and was awarded the xxxx. I live in Sydney where I work as xxxx. (Author’s biographical details)
As requested, I have included the first 10 pages of the manuscript below. Thank you for your time and consideration. (Closing)
The Personalized Salutation
I’ve written at length on why personalizing your query letters is so important and how to do it in this blog post. To keep it brief here, never start a query with “Dear Agent”. Always use the agent’s name, for example, Dear Mr. Surname. Do your research to find out the agent’s pronouns and preferred way of being addressed. If you’re still uncertain on how to proceed, you can simply address it to the agent by their full name.
The Personalized Opening
Again, I’ve discussed this kind of opening in this post. I must stress that opening a query letter with this is personal preference. I wanted to show the agent why I was reaching out to them specifically with my manuscript. You can nix this part if you prefer and move on to the next.
The hook is your book’s inciting incident phrased in an attention-grabbing way. What is an inciting incident? It’s the moment in your book that drives your protagonist into the main action of the plot. In the Hunger Games, the inciting incident is when Prim is chosen in the reaping—and the twist is that Katniss volunteers in her place.
In my manuscript, the inciting incident is when my protagonist discovers her dead co-worker—and the twist is the clues he’s left behind about a serial killer operating in the colony.
The hook is your first and major chance to capture an agent’s attention. It doesn’t have to be a sentence like mine. It can be longer than that, but just ensure that you’re opening with it. Resist the urge to start with biographical details about the protagonist unless they are relevant to the plot. It’s not so interesting if your character is a mid-thirties banker who lives in Sydney—unless they also moonlight as a bank robber.
Give us the protagonist and their problem, which would be the inciting incident.
Remember, you have limited space (between about 200-400 words) to convince an agent your manuscript is worth requesting and reading, so don’t waste words on any details unless they’re relevant to the hook and stakes.
This is where I frame the hook. This section is especially important for fantasy and science fiction books where world/setting needs to be established.
So my protagonist has found a murdered spy and indications they might’ve been the victim of a serial killer. What’s the big deal in the context of her world? Well, the actions of the serial killer are fueling rising political tensions that could destabilize the empire, not to mention the fact that this serial killer seems to be freely using the colony as his hunting grounds, and the Embassy knows about it.
Show us the ramifications of your hook. When Prim’s name is drawn at the reaping, Katniss volunteers in her place. What’s the context? Now she’ll have to battle to the death—and win—on public television if she has any hope of ever seeing her family again.
Now we know the hook and some context, tell us what happens next. What must your protagonist do? What are the challenges they face in solving the problem you’ve identified in the hook?
This section ties closely with the Stakes, and for some queries, the body and stakes will be in the same paragraph. You can move from the body—‘this is the action my protagonist is thrust into in order to solve their problem’—and then the stakes—‘but oh no, this thing happens, and now if the protagonist doesn’t do ABC, then XYZ thing will happen.’
Arguably the most important part of the query. Right here is the reason why an agent needs to read your story. Show us what is at risk for the protagonist if they fail. In my query letter, my protagonist needs to catch the killer and save the sister before the Embassy can stop her. Because if the Embassy stops her, the serial killer will keep on killing, and the sister will be lost, just like my protagonist’s own sister was lost.
Ask yourself, what does my character stand to lose? I’ve seen others describe the stakes as the ‘decision’, and that’s also a handy way to think about it, depending on your story. What impossible choice must your MC make?
Using the Hunger Games example: if Katniss doesn’t win the Games, she dies—but if she is to win, she must kill innocent people.
It’s the exact kind of impossible decision that makes me want to read more.
When writing your stakes: be specific! Tell us EXACTLY what’s at risk. I’ve seen a lot of “or everything will be lost”. This only works if the rest of the query has told us what ‘everything’ is. But if it hasn’t, this is way too general to leave a lasting impact on the reader. So again, be specific about what your character stands to lose. Their family? Their soul mate? Their career? Their integrity? The last chance to avoid the break out of war in their world?
Whatever it is, tell us. These details are what make your manuscript stand out from the rest.
The Manuscript Details
Some people prefer to put these details at the beginning of the query, and that also works. I lean towards putting them at the end, so that the agent can get to the story quicker, but it’s up to you.
You must include:
- Your book’s title.
- The genre and age category. I didn’t mention that my book is an adult speculative thriller because I felt it was obvious from the query, but I would add it if I revisited the query today.
- The word count of your manuscript.
- Whether the book is part of a series. In my experience, when querying a series the standard phrasing is something along these lines: “At 100,000 words, SAVAGE is a standalone book with series potential” or, “This book has strong series potential, but is a complete story on its own.” This tells the agent that this manuscript has a beginning, middle and end. Even if you intend to make this manuscript the first in a trilogy, it still needs to be a satisfying read. Publishers don’t always buy whole series, but rather one book with the intention of seeing how that book performs first, so readers are going to want to read a book with a proper ending, even if some parts are left open-ended. I think this phrasing also shows that you are aware of how the market works, and helps keep the focus of the query solely on this manuscript.
- I like to mention that the manuscript is “complete”, but this is personal preference. In any case, you shouldn’t be querying a book that isn’t complete.
Things you can put in if you want:
- Comp titles, usually two, sometimes three (no rules against four, but it might be a mouthful). Ensure at least one of them is a book that is relatively recent (last few years) to show the agent that you read within your genre and know where your manuscript fits. You can also comp to movies, tv shows, video games, anime, whatever media you like—so long as you’ve also comped to a relevant book. You can also comp to authors whose style matches yours (for example, “My manuscript will appeal to readers of THIS AUTHOR”.) Again, comp titles are optional. If you’re struggling to come up with some, or just don’t want to include them, don’t feel pressured to.
- Other marketable/stand out details about your manuscript, for example, its big diverse cast, unique mythology, magic system, technology rooted in real science, etc. I chose to include that my book is set in a world inspired by the Middle East because the manuscript is #ownvoices, and that’s a big part of the story for me.
The Author’s Biographical Details
I’ve seen some questions about how long the bio part of a query should be. I’ve always kept my bio to 1-3 lines. In some queries, I didn’t include that I had short fiction published before. If you don’t have writing credits, DON’T WORRY. What matters is the manuscript you are pitching right now, not what you’ve written before. If you do have writing credits or awards, mention them if you want. Ultimately, the pages you include (per the agent’s guidelines) will speak for themselves.
Some ideas of details you can include here:
- What you do for work
- Where you live
- If you’ve graduated from school or are currently studying
- Your memberships in writing groups
- Writing credits
- Some personal detail that might be relevant to the book (for me, it was my ethnic background) (This is not compulsory. If your book is #ownvoices, you do not have to list your marginalizations).
- Hobbies, pets, or other fun things about who you are!
My guiding advice for this section is: do what feels most comfortable, and keep it succinct. Only say what you want to say. I’ve finished some queries with a single line: “I live in Sydney, where I work as xxxx”, and had full requests with that.
Depending on the agent’s guidelines, you may be including pages with your query. I like to mention that I’ve included them, just to give the agent a heads-up, but also to show that I have understood and followed their guidelines.
I finish off with a polite close and my full name. Below that, I include my contact details for the agent’s ease of reference. I would usually put my address, my mobile number and email. Check the agent’s guidelines as to contact details. Generally I think so long as you have one or two points of contact, you would be fine to list whichever.
And that’s it!
Please do remember, this is just my way of writing a query letter. There are other structures and I don’t purport that this way is best, only that it worked for me. It’s my hope that by sharing what worked for me, it might help others too.
If you have any questions or thoughts about how to set out a query letter, leave me a comment below or reach out! Thanks for reading.