Query Letter Format

This post is all about query letter format, a perennially popular topic that won’t quit! While there isn’t just one query letter format or query letter template out there, I’ve developed a handout that I’ve used over the years to really streamline and clarify the process for writers.

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Click this image to download my query letter format and query letter example PDF!

Query Letter Format

From my recent webinar on query letters, I’ve learned that writers continue to be fascinated with this little one-page document. It’s my most popular webinar by far, and a constant fixture of Google searches about writing.

But what makes successful queries? And can I get a query letter template? Writers are desperate for query letter examples.

When I was speaking at writer’s conferences, I always gave out a handout with a query letter example that I’d written for Twilight. Cue your eye rolls, but it’s a well-known story that everyone has at least glancing familiarity with. (My query letter example is written with Edward as the protagonist because I think Bella is such a wet blanket, ha!)

Now I’m making that handout (only spiffier) available to you, no conference attendance required. Click this link to download the PDF.

Query Letter Template

Writers are also curious to see if there is a query letter template that they should be following for formatting their query letter.  Is there a set formula for writing a query and organizing the information? Not really, unfortunately. Even if I was going to call my query letter template the perfect way to write a query, many writers wouldn’t get the memo and the slush would still be filled with queries that don’t follow this flow.

But I believe very much in my query letter template, which you’ll find in the second page of the PDF. It has a nice flow to it, and is a good way to organize all of the elements of the query letter.

The handout includes a query letter template on the second page. Click this link to download the PDF.

Successful Queries

Here’s something to keep in mind about writing a query letter: IT’S A ONE-PAGE COVER LETTER. Your query letter length? 250 to 450 words. That’s it! Sure, it feels so much more monumental than that, but the query letter only has one job: To get the agent or publisher interested enough to move on to your writing sample or proposal. That’s it. That’s all.

Writers obsess over the query letter. It feels like their “one shot” to achieve publication. Their foot in the door. But believe me when I say that I never offered representation based solely on the query letter, and I have overlooked many crappy queries to then offer on a great manuscript. The query is a means to an end.

While I hope this query letter format tool helps you work on your query writing, I want to make sure you keep your focus where it belongs: on crafting an amazing manuscript.

As a book editor, I work on everything from queries and book proposals to complete novel and memoir manuscripts. If you’d like personal advice on your own pitch or manuscript, reach out!

Query Letter Webinar Registration Is LIVE!

The query letter webinar is coming up! As I posted a few weeks ago, I’m going to be trying a new webinar platform and running some independent webinars. This first webinar is “Writing an Irresistible Query” and focuses on nailing that oh-so-elusive document, the query letter. Registration is now live!

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Join Me for a Query Letter Webinar

My first-ever query letter webinar is a test run of the class, as well as a webinar software that’s new to me. If you join me for this first outing, I invite you to participate for FREE! All I ask is that you fill out a short feedback survey after the webinar to let me know how you enjoyed the experience.

The webinar will be held:

Saturday, September 29th, at 11 a.m. CDT

All you need is a computer with Internet access and the capability to play video and audio content. The webinar will feature me, speaking on camera, as well as a PowerPoint presentation.

Once you register, you will receive email instructions for joining the webinar live, or watching the recording after the event.

Please clink the link to register for my first-ever query letter webinar, or fill out the form embedded below:

Register for September 29th Query Webinar

Grab your spot. Seats at the live event are limited. You will receive email instructions for accessing the webinar once you sign up. Thanks!

 

If you can’t make that date or time, please register anyway. As a registrant, you will receive a link where you can replay the recorded program. Please note: Only the first 100 registered attendees will get to view the webinar live, so show up a few minutes ahead of time. There are already more than 100 registered listeners, two days after the link went live. If you really want to hear it live, please plan to be early. If you aren’t able to hear it live, you will still receive the recorded event via email later that afternoon.

Looking Forward

I love speaking and teaching, so I hope to bring you more webinars on topics like character, voice, interiority, queries, the agent submission process, etc. If I like this webinar platform (and this is where I’m especially looking for your feedback!), I hope to do one or two events per month.

In the future, different webinars will be free and paid. Paid webinars will always include critique of any relevant documents. For example, the query letter webinar will include critique of, of course, your query letter. To clarify, this September query letter webinar will not include query letter critique because my focus is on testing out the platform.

If you’d like personalized help with your query letter without the wait, consider hiring me as your query letter editor today!

Describing Plot in a Query Letter

Describing plot in a query letter can be tricky. Many writers stumble over the “meat” of the pitch. One of my favorite notes to give because it make so much sense to me is “A situation is not a plot.” (Though Stephen King is quick to absolutely disprove me by giving the opposite note here, ha! Proving once and for all how subjective writing advice can be. As the author of a book of writing advice, I’ll be the first to admit it.)

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Fill this page with your query “meat.” Sounds gross, but I’m about to rock your world. Get your mind out of the gutter!

This note applies especially to queries and I wanted to remind everyone to concentrate on specific plot points in their pitch letters as 2013 and all the make-your-dreams-come-true querying gets underway.

Are You Listing or Are You Describing Plot in a Query Letter?

Here’s an example of a query letter that relies overly on situation instead of plot:

Emma wants to be normal so badly, but she can’t. Between a cheating boyfriend, an abusive father on his way out of the family, and a rivalry with the most talented softball player in school, she has no time at all to discover that the tattoo she got over spring break is giving her secret powers.

Sorry for the lame example, but I rather like the idea of a tramp stamp giving you a little more than you bargained for. Maybe it’s my childhood memory of that one episode of the X-Files when Scully gets that snake tattoo and all hell breaks loose? Wow. Blast from the past. Anyhow…

Sell the Reader on Your Query Letter

This query is fine and I see it a lot in the slush. But it’s not the best it can be, and that’s why I’m calling it out here. What’s missing? A specific sense of plot. This query gives us a fine idea of everything that’s going on in Emma’s life, but it doesn’t really do any of the heavy lifting to connect the dots. It’s like dumping the jigsaw puzzle of your plot in front of your reader and saying, “Well, there it is.”

In a pitch letter, you’re not just selling the reader on the hook of your story or how marketable it might be, you’re also selling them on your story itself.

Here, we don’t know if the father is going to be the main secondary plot (giving it a darker, more contemporary realistic shade despite the tattoo element), or the boyfriend (giving it a more romance flavor), or the softball rivalry (making me think it’s going to be a school-heavy story). If I’m left to reassemble the pieces of Emma’s situation in my own head, I could find three very different books in there.

Structure the Pitch, Don’t Ask the Agent to Do the Work

That’s a problem. You want to not only give us the elements of your story but arrange them in such a way that your plot shines through, guiding the reader even more into the specific world and events of your unique novel. Something that’s more specific would go like this:

Just as her abusive father is on his way out of the family, Emma discovers an uncomfortable secret: that tattoo she got over spring break is giving her the ability to see people’s futures. And she doesn’t like what it forecasts for her relationship with Rufus when she predicts his cheating on her at prom. From there, it’s one catastrophe after another, especially as she races against time to best her softball rival before the last game of the year determines who gets a coveted scholarship. As her power predicts doom and gloom for everyone around her, Emma has to do everything she can to secure her own future.

Okay, now I know that the father isn’t really going to be a big part of it, and the boyfriend’s cheating is more of an incident for the first third. The main thrust of the plot will probably be the rivalry, ending in a championship at the climax. The story feels much clearer to me now that the query is guiding me along instead of throwing me in the deep end of situation. This is a nuanced distinction, but an important one.

I spent five years as a literary agent, and I saw tens of thousands of queries. Hire me be your query letter editor, and I’ll help you avoid common traps and rise above the slush.

Simultaneous Submissions and Duplicate Submission to Literary Agents

I was at the Northern Ohio SCBWI conference in Cleveland, and I got several questions about simultaneous submissions (sometimes called a duplicate submission or a multiple submission). Just as I was thinking of crafting a post about it to remind writers that it’s not only okay but recommended to query multiple agents at a time, I found the following excellent post from Chuck Sambuchino on Writer Unboxed. There must be something in the air!

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Pack ’em up and ship ’em out … today we’re talking about simultaneous submissions!

Defining Simultaneous Submissions

When you want to send a duplicate submission, meaning the same submission to more than one literary agent at a time, that means you’re sending simultaneous submissions or multiple submissions. (This does not mean querying multiple projects at a time.)

Chuck’s points are all valid. He encourages writers to submit to batches of 6-8 agents at a time. I would even say 10-12 is a good number. If you get no requests at all, there’s something wrong with your query or your writing sample. If you get no good feedback or full requests after sending out writing samples or partials, your work isn’t quite there yet. Critique helps here, so will your writing partners. The one thing I’d add to this post is that exclusive submissions do have a place … but only in one or two instances.

When a Duplicate Submission Isn’t Appropriate

One is if you’ve been working with an agent on a manuscript and they’ve given you several rounds of revision notes or if you’ve corresponded a lot. If an agent has invested serious time in you and your work and you feel it’s the right and professional thing to do, you can grant them an exclusive to consider the latest version of your manuscript. But do limit the exclusive — two weeks to a month is fair — so as not to leave it open-ended. The other scenario is if the agent requested the exclusive and you’ve agreed to grant it. You can’t fairly do simultaneous submissions in this case because you agreed to honor an agreement.

Agents like exclusives. They let us consider things on our own sweet time. But this is a competitive business. If you have a hot manuscript, it doesn’t behoove you to have just one person sitting on it. Honor agent relationships that you’ve already nurtured and exclusives you’ve already granted, but, beyond that, you can and should submit duplicate submission queries and writing samples to well-chosen batches of multiple agents. Simultaneous submissions are just a part of the game, and anything else could be unfair to you and waste your time.

Hire me as your query letter editor before you go out on submission and boost your chances with feedback from a former literary agent!

Should You Mention Using Freelance Editors and Hiring an Editor

Today’s question about hiring an editor and mentioning using freelance editors from Zoe is a quick one:

If a writer decides to have an MS professionally edited by a reputable editor known in the biz (I dunno, think freelance editors like Alan Rinzler or a Lisa Rector perhaps), should the writer ever mention it in the query? How do I go about hiring an editor?

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Hiring an editor is a great way to get a second set of eyes on your project, but do freelance editors belong in your query letter?

It’s totally up to you whether you choose to mention hiring an editor in your query letter. There are a few thoughts that spring to mind for me when I read in a query that a manuscript has been worked on by freelance editors. (Note: I have worked as a freelance editor for the past five years, but this answer is largely colored by my five years as a literary agent.)

Agent Reactions to Freelance Editors

On the good end of the spectrum, I think: Oh, great! This writer is used to working with someone else in an editorial capacity and has probably had to revise this manuscript quite a bit. They may be more savvy that some others in my slush about the whole process. I’m about to read a polished piece of fiction.

On the not so good, these are the thoughts that can also come up: Freelance editors always improve a manuscript, but how much did this one improve and, more importantly, at what level did it start? Did the writer hire an editor to put some professional polish on the project, or because it had gotten rejected all over the place and they needed serious help? Does this writer belong to a critique group or do they rely solely on freelance editors?

I know that lots of writers work with freelance editors. There are pros and cons to this, as well as to mentioning it in your query. (You can read some more freelance editor thoughts from me here.)

Hiring an Editor, But Make Sure It’s the Right Editor

If you’ve managed to work with big name freelance editors, my ears might perk up, of course. The bigger the name of your editor, the more selective they can afford to be. They tend to vet their projects and pick the most promising writers to work with. But this is not always the case. So while a freelance editor’s name may trigger good associations for me, or lift my hopes, it’s not going to be the deciding factor in whether I want to represent you or not.

It always comes down to the work. And, in the back of my mind, I always want to know that you have arrived at your work in large part because of your own writing craft. So if you have used or continue to use a freelance editor, I will want to know about it at some point, whether it’s in the query or later, as we’re discussing representation. I’ll want to make sure that you actually have the chops to create a great, skillful manuscript on your own, as well.

If you’re thinking about hiring an editor, let me make my case for my editing services. Learn more about my services now that I’m on the other side of the desk and helping writers toward their goals every day.

How to Write a Picture Book Query

There’s a picture book query question that comes up a lot. All of your query letter for picture book questions, answered here!

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All of your picture book query questions answered here, so you can write great children’s books for these kiddos!

Melanie phrases the question quite well:

I have a query letter for picture book question about the slush piles. Due to the extremely short nature of the manuscripts do you always read the entire manuscript for picture books or do you base it on the picture book query letter with them? It’s my impression that since whole manuscripts are sent for picture book queries the letter is more of a cover letter, rather than trying to hook interest with a bit of the plot because the entire thing is there with the letter.

Melanie is completely right. Since most agents ask that the picture book manuscript be included in the submission, writing a really meaty query letter for picture book, especially for that short a manuscript seems a bit silly. When I see a picture book query done well — and when I write my own picture book pitches, in fact — it’s usually very simple.

Picture Book Query Sample

I’ve had a book by Katie Van Camp and illustrated by Lincoln Agnew called Harry and Horsie on my recommended reading list for a while. It’s an example of a great picture book with an outside-the-box friendship hook. If you haven’t picked it up yet, I’m sorry for you, because you’re missing out.

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The basis for my picture book query sample.

If I were writing a query for HARRY AND HORSIE, it would read something like this:

Harry and plush toy, Horsie, are the best of friends. One night, Harry is trying out his bubble-making machine when one of his bubbles swallows Horsie and hoists him into outer space! Harry has to rescue his best friend — and go on a wild space adventure — before returning safely home.

A quirky picture book with a great friendship hook, spare text and retro-style illustration, HARRY AND HORSIE is sure blast your imagination into the stratosphere! This is a simultaneous submission. You will find the full manuscript of XXX words pasted below. I look forward to hearing from you and can be found at the contact information listed below my signature.

Easy peasy. No need to write an elaborate picture book query letter. Just present the main characters, the main problem, and the resolution, then work in a hook (“great friendship hook,” above), and sign off like you normally would with a novel query. This is the perfect query letter for picture book formula.

How to Get A Picture Book Literary Agent

The picture book query should be short and compelling. Then just paste the picture book manuscript. If you are an author/illustrator, include a link to an online portfolio where the agent or editor can browse your illustrations. Do not include attachments unless the agent requests to see more illustrations or to see a dummy. Be prepared to show additional picture book manuscripts, because agents will frequently want to see more than one. (More thoughts on writing great children’s books, including read aloud picture books here.)

If you’d like personalized help with your own picture book query, or your entire manuscript, hire me as your picture book editor.

What Literary Agents Want When Evaluating Full Manuscripts

Written during my agenting days, this post details what literary agents want. This past year, I’ve built up a great client list and sold some great books. What are literary agents looking for changes often, as I mentioned on Alice Pope’s blog a few weeks ago. For example, once they have a great base of clients and don’t feel the same frenzy to grow their lists, they get more selective. But they will always want strong work. Here’s how to give yourself top consideration.

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What literary agents want when evaluating a full manuscript.

What Literary Agents Want

And as publishers have tightened lists and as my own experience with editors and published books and writing and marketing grows, my standards have risen even higher. It’s more difficult to catch my eye now, as I’ve seen more, and, more importantly, gotten sick everything that’s tired and flat and been done hundreds of times before. There’s still, of course, room on my list. Lots of it. But those slots are harder to grab, and those worthy writers are harder to win over, as they tend to have lots of offers. (I find that, if a project has me really excited, more often than not, a handful of other agents are also about to offer or already offering on it…more on that in a future post.)

So now that I’m entering my second year as an agent, I’m finding myself being more exclusive about what I want to take on, but I’m also finding myself in more competitive situations with bigger agents. It’s a tough position to be in, and it doesn’t always let me go through my entire manuscript consideration process (which was supposed to be the point of this post). Still, while this is happening more and more, I wanted to let you in to my regular manuscript consideration process, since my slush consideration process post seemed to get a good response. This is how it all goes down on my end.

What Are Literary Agents Looking For: A Good Query Letter

First, a query letter catches my eye. Because I want to be completely sure of my judgment and rule out chances of slush psychosis, per the post linked above, I put it in my Maybe Pile. Since this is a fantasy scenario, let’s just say I dutifully return to my Maybe Pile the very next day (instead of a week later, after I realize that life has gotten away from me) and request those manuscripts that still sound good. For any batch of slush, I end up requesting one or two manuscripts at a time.

Once I get the manuscript from an author, I put it in my queue. At any point in time, I may have between two and ten full requests in line. And I get to them depending on how much time I have and in order of request date. It usually takes me two weeks to a month (this summer was slow because of the move) to respond to a full (unless, of course, the writer has other offers or I’m very interested in something, right after the query, and need to read immediately…and this doesn’t happen that often, even with full requests).

Literary Agency Interns

The other thing I do when I get a full request in is I send it to my readers. Yes, I have readers. ABLit agents work with qualified young publishing enthusiasts on full manuscripts and sometimes client manuscripts. Since we’re scattered all over the country, my colleagues and I have our own networks of readers, although there are some readers that everyone at the agency works with.

I currently have several readers and I also work with one of our agency readers. I have a very rigorous reader screening process and choose my readers very carefully. Though, I don’t always agree with them, I value their feedback. They provide a valuable service to me, as they fill in my blind spots and make sure I’m not missing anything — good or bad — about a manuscript. (I started out as a reader for ABLit, so I love teaching and working with my readers, it’s a great learning experience for both of us. Speaking of which, toxic assistant attitude toward “lowly interns” can get you in trouble, so avoid it.)

What Literary Agents Want in a Manuscript

So anyway. I send the full request to all my readers and read it myself, as well. If the manuscript really catches my eye on a read, or if a reader highly recommends something that I haven’t gotten to yet, I kick the submission into high gear. When I’m interested, I read quickly.

Most submissions, unfortunately, tend to fall apart by page 50 — the first benchmark, when I tell my readers to check their guts and see if they still want to keep reading. If I can put a full request down by page 50, I will not pick it back up again. The issue is usually voice, character, pacing, or plotting. (The voice is flat, the character is one-dimensional, the story crawls along, and we haven’t gotten into the main plot/action of the manuscript yet.) If my readers chime in and say that they put it down as well, it’s a decline. (My readers don’t talk to each other about submissions, nor do I let my readers decide for me. It’s not rejection or offer by consensus. But because I have such good readers, I tend to agree on manuscripts with at least one of them and really do take their feedback into consideration. Still, the final decision is mine.)

Learn to Write a Novel

If a submission is really good, a “kick it into high gear” submission, a “finished it in one sitting submission,” and I think it is especially commercial or might attract other agent attention, I will ask that all my readers finish it and send me a reader’s report. I will also take notes on the manuscript. If I finish a manuscript and can’t stop thinking about it, I know I have a very strong candidate for an offer of representation. I usually give myself a few days to make sure the project is still an I-can’t-live-without-it submission. If I’m still obsessed with it, I let the writer know and then we schedule a call.

Still, not all of my offers end in the writer signing up (more on this, as promised, later). And all of the manuscripts I take on do go through revision, based on my editorial notes from my first read and from the repeat read that I always do after I take someone on. And yes, I have read good manuscripts that were getting lots of offers but that I thought needed work, and I’ve passed on them rather than competing for them.

But high as my standards are and tough as my editorial vision is, I do love the whole process of reading a potential client’s manuscript — from the exciting request to the potential treasure trove of the full to the rare manuscripts that sparks my imagination. And I’m definitely looking for more of this magic, and more successful offers. What are literary agents looking for? In short, good stuff! Keep writing and revising!

Though I’m no longer a gatekeeper, I can bring my literary agent experience to your novel. Hire me as a developmental editor.

Direct Address in a Query

Which brings me to another point. Several queries have come in recently that use this technique:

Dear Ms. Kole,

You are an aspiring garbagegirl in Brooklyn who is allergic to flies. And your mom says you have to go to beauty college when you get out of high school. Your world turns upside down one day when a faerie vampire crashes through your bedroom window…

This is a <sarcasm>fun</sarcasm> new spin on my absolute pet peeve: the rhetorical question query. And the use of second person in general, when it’s not earned or warranted. I don’t understand this technique… and there are several examples of it in my slush. Did some blog somewhere tell well-meaning writers that this was the new no-fail query fad?

I understand it’s meant to be arresting and pulse-pounding, it’s meant to grab me and never let me go and all that junk, but here’s the reason it bugs me: I want to read about you and your work. LEAVE ME OUT OF IT!

The example up there is one I wrote. But it’s not too far off from what I’ve been seeing. And honestly? Instead of thinking “Wow, that sounds cool,” I immediately think: “I am NOT a garbagegirl, my mom does NOT want me to go to beauty college and there’s no way in heck that a faerie vampire is crashing through MY window without picking up the repair bill!”

And you don’t want me to be thinking about ME when I’m reading YOUR query, right? Didn’t think so.