Tag Archives: Query Letter Checklist /

Before You Hit “Send”: The Three Essential Elements of a Successful Query Letter

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checklistToday I’m gearing up for one of my favorite annual events—the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference this weekend. I love writers conferences in general, but this one is extra special because it’s in my backyard—which means a reunion with lots of friends and colleagues, and a chance to meet writers from Colorado and all over the country. Hooray!

I’ll be giving a workshop about query letters and landing an agent, so I thought this would be a good time to share a snapshot. Here’s the million-dollar question:

WHAT ARE THE THREE INDISPENSABLE, MUST-HAVE ELEMENTS OF A QUERY LETTER? 

Answer:

  • It grabs the reader’s attention in the opening paragraph (and preferably, the very first sentence). A query letter is a single-page, one-shot opportunity to impress an agent. You can’t afford to waste a single line. Whether it’s a provocative tagline or hook, or a reference to a personal connection with the agent (“We met at the RMFW conference last month and you expressed a lot of interest in my contemporary YA novel, XXXX…”), make sure your opening lines pack a punch. As in good fiction writing, don’t get bogged down in background information (“This is my second novel but the first one I’ve submitted. I think I’ve reached the point where I’m ready to take my career to the next level. Blah, blah…”).
  • It shows off your writing style and personality as an author. One of the best ways to show an agent you are a good writer is to give a taste of your writing style right in the query letter. I don’t mean grabbing the first paragraph of your novel (or a random chunk) and plunking it into the opening of your query—that’s hard to pull off and can be a major turnoff. Instead, try to convey a sense of your writing voice—if the novel is funny, sprinkle some of that same humor in the query. If it’s a light-hearted YA, let the agent hear that. If it’s a macabre mystery, give a sense of the darkness and suspense your story contains.
  • It intrigues, amuses, or shocks your readers—makes them want more. The worst thing you can do is try to tell the entire story of your novel. A query letter is a sip that makes the reader want to chug the whole glass. A good way to master this technique is to go to your favorite bookstore or online bookseller and read the back cover copy of novels similar to yours. What is the tone? At what point does the blurb cut you off, leaving you to wonder what’s next? What questions does it plant in your mind as the reader? Try typing up a few of these blurbs on your computer—not to plagiarize, of course, but copying them will help internalize the kind of rhythm and flow that captivates readers.

Want an example of a query that encapsulates all of these elements? Read this story of a successful query from my wonderful colleague and friend, agent Sara Megibow. It’s about her client Stefanie Gaither, whose debut YA novel FALLS THE SHADOW comes out this fall from Simon & Schuster. I’d have to agree with Sara—this query is pitch perfect. 

Need help with your query letter? I offer a double-pass critique (including a look at your second draft once you have revised) for $45. Email your query, or any questions, to anitaedits(at)gmail(dot)com. I look forward to helping you break out of the slush pile!

Checklist: Is Your Query Letter Ready for an Agent’s Eyes?

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ChecklistSorry it’s been a while! I’ve had a busy month at Mumm’s the Word, for which I am so thankful. Gosh, I love my job. And since query letters have been a major focus of my critique work this month, I figure it makes sense to carry that  over to Word Café. Here’s a question that keeps coming up for my clients and  readers:

I’ve finally written the dang thing, but how do I know it’s ready to go?

So here it is…

The Whoa-Nelly-Before-You-Submit-That-Query-Letter Checklist:

  • Has someone you trust read through it and given you honest feedback? I’ve seen so many queries that could have been saved by this simple step. A second pair of eyes would catch the fact that you didn’t explain what a “circumspectrometer” is, and that without this information we can’t understand the plot premise.  (This is an argument for showing the query to someone not familiar with your book.) Or they might notice that you spelled “sincerely” wrong—a single typo won’t deter most agents, but why tarnish your first impression? True, it’s scary to share your writing, even a query letter. But it’s also darn good practice for the day when thousands of readers and reviewers could be scrutinizing your published work. (Yoiks!) So take a deep breath and dive in.
  • Is your manuscript 100% polished and ready to go, should you receive a request? You may think writing query letters is a form of torture, but it doesn’t stop a lot of people from putting the cart before the horse. There’s nothing wrong with starting your query letter when the book is still in its early stages; some writers find that helps them gauge whether the plot is on track. But whatever you do, don’t send it out until you’ve been over your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb. That’s because if an agent thinks your project is hot, the last thing he wants to hear is “I’ll have it for you as soon as I finish this final draft.” In that scenario, there’s a good chance his interest will have waned by the time you’re ready.
  • Have you checked the agent’s website and social media for updates? This can help you get the timing of your submission just right—and that could make a difference. An agent will often mention on her blog, Twitter, etc. if she’s about to head out for a conference or book fair (e.g. Bologna Children’s Fair, coming up next month). That’s your cue to hold onto your query for a couple of weeks. She’ll have no time to read submissions while she’s gone, and her staff will be doing their best to minimize the workload when she gets back. Translation: fewer queries making it past the gatekeeper. Oi! Another thing an agent might say on her platform is that she has decided to close to submissions for a period of time. When that happens, it’s disappointing but she means it. Rather than risking a sure-fire rejection, make your submission count by turning to the other dream agents on your list.

Go for the gold, my friends!

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Need a little more help? There’s still time to take advantage of my query critique special through the end of February. I’d love to give yours a read!

If you’d like to additional tips and publishing news between blog posts, please visit my Word Café Facebook page.