How to write a query in six easy steps

Welcome to the third part of my series of articles on literary agents. Over the last few weeks I’ve talked about finding literary agents and researching them. Once you’ve got a few likely names, it’s time to write that query. Here is a very basic overview of the six steps to a successful query for your book.

1. Learn the basic structure of a query

  • The hook: A concise tagline for your book, that sets up the story in an interesting way. It can sum up the basic idea of the story, pull you into the setting, or introduce you to the main character. Here’s the hook for a query for one of my novels:

“Fuck you,” are Nate’s defiant last words. Or so he thinks, until the notorious crime boss Ras puts his weapon away. Instead of spilling blood, he asks Nate to dinner. Nate finds Ras is by turns a tender lover and a remorseless killer, switching with ease.

As far as hooks go, this is on the long side, but I like it because it introduces both main characters and sets up the fundamental conflict of the story.Query

  • Brief summary: Go to the bookstore and pick up several books in your genre. Study the few paragraphs on the back of the book. This summary of your novel should be very similar. You want to distill your plot down to the most important points, and explain it without giving away the ending. And do it all in marvelously clever prose. Simple enough, right?
  • Author bio: Here’s where you talk a bit about yourself. Win some writing awards? Publish some short fiction? Make sure to mention anything relevant. I haven’t done any of those things, so I tend to keep it short, with a sentence or two about what makes me unique. I like to add that as a little human touch, but it’s certainly not necessary.
  • Formal closing: Thank the agent for the time they’ve spent considering your query. A simple “Thank you for your time and consideration” will suffice.

*note: this is a very, very basic overview. I recommend reading some successful queries to get a sense of how it all comes together.

2. Do your homework

Literary agent Janet Reid blogs about how to query, and also runs Query Shark, where people send in their queries to be dissected and improved. Spend some quality time on each of these blogs, and you’ll be ready to write an excellent query.

3. Ask yourself these three questions and use the answers to write the query

What does the protagonist want?

What does the protagonist have to do to get it?

What if the protagonist doesn’t get it?

4. Enter Query Letter Hell

The forums at Absolute Write are one of the best resources out there for writers. They have lots of goodies, among them, (cue demonic laughter) Query Letter Hell. In QLH, writers post their query letters to be critiqued. You’ll need to make an account to get into the password protected QLH forum, but it’s free, and well worth it.

Before you waltz in there and post your query, however, it’s important you take the time to critique other people’s letters. This will do two things: improve your ability to write a good query, and make you look like less of a selfish jerk because you’re giving back to the community you want help from.

Once you’ve done some critiques, take a deep breath and post your own query. The feedback you get will be bracing, at times, but honest and very helpful.

5. Revise and revise

Once you’ve gotten feedback from the good folks at Absolute Write and thanked them for their time, you can revise the letter, and post it again in the same thread. Rinse and repeat until the query is spotless.

6. Send it!

And there you have it, a query ready to face the world. Do you have any query writing tips to share?


Featured photo by Andreas Praefcke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

8 thoughts on “How to write a query in six easy steps

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