Writing the Query Letter

queryAh, the query letter – dreaded by writers everywhere second only to the synopsis. They’re a pain, but are vital to getting an agent.

First of all, there is no one right way to write a query letter. They are a lot like cover letters when you’re applying for a job. They are meant to give an agent an idea of what the hook of your book is, introduce the basic plot (but leave the agent wanting to know more) and introduce you.

I recommend following a basic 3-4 paragraph formula. I’ve included parts of my query letter for my first book as an example. It is by no means the only way to do it.

In the first paragraph, you establish what makes your book different from all of the others out there and try to catch the agent’s attention. They read hundreds, if not thousands of queries each week, so yours has to grab them right away.

She is one of the most famous legendary queens, but Guinevere has long lived in the shadow of Camelot’s old boys club of King Arthur and his knights. Not anymore. Guinevere of Northgallis, for which I am seeking representation, is an historical fantasy set in late fifth-century Britain that reveals, in Guinevere’s own words, her hidden life before she meets her famous mate.

The second and possibly third paragraphs are where you give a brief account of the plot. Think of it as the copy on the back of the book. You want to get the agent interested, but don’t give away the ending. Make sure you introduce your main characters, antagonist and the central conflict of the plot. That conflict is what will make the agent want to know more.

But she is not the fading wallflower of previous legend. Trained in the arts of battle, eleven-year-old Guinevere has just survived a violent attack and now faces a choice: remain with her family in war-torn Northgallis or join the sacred isle of Avalon to learn to control her burgeoning gift of Second Sight. She chooses Avalon, where she develops a lifelong animosity with an enigmatic student named Morgan, becomes a priestess adept at the magical arts, and falls in love with a young warrior named Aggrivane, an affection that will complicate her future relationship with Arthur.

When tragedy forces her to leave Avalon, Guinevere struggles to adjust to a world rapidly abandoning her religion and caught up in the tumult of political transition. Eventually exiled from her home, she is thrown together with Isolde, an Irish princess whose fate is tied to her own, and Elaine, an eccentric, young noblewoman with dreams of grandeur. Under the watchful eyes of men with intentions both noble and nefarious, she and her friends navigate a world of political intrigue where unmarried women are valuable commodities and love can have unintended consequences, even for a future queen.

Finally, end with a brief paragraph about yourself. This is usually the hardest part. If you have publishing credits, mention them. If not, don’t worry. A brief mention of degrees related to writing or relevant professional or personal experience will suffice. If you’ve done something that makes you an expert in your area, mention it, but keep this section brief.

This is my first novel. I hold a B.A. in English, a B.S. in business, and an M.A. in media communications. I am a proud member of the Historical Novel Society and the St. Louis Writer’s Guild. My free time is devoted to writing and researching Arthurian legend, Celtic Britain and the various peoples, cultures and religious practices that shaped the country after the withdrawal of Rome. 

Always include the word count of your book. Because my book is part of a series, I included some additional optional information about it. When you have a series planned, keep in mind that you’re really only pitching the first book. But it’s okay to give the agent some context about the rest of the series.

Guinevere of Northgallis is complete at 80,000 words. I recently completed a first draft of the sequel, Camelot’s Queen. A third book about Guinevere and a freestanding book about Tristan and Isolde are in outline form.

Don’t be afraid to revise your query letter. I revised mine six times before I finally landed on what you see here. If you have the opportunity to get your letter critiqued (paid or as part of a contest), do it. The more professional eyes on it, the better your chances for success.

Next week, we’ll talk about the dos and don’ts of querying. (This post is part of a workshop I recently presented for the St. Louis Writer’s Guild. Here’s the handout I gave to all participants.)

Writers, what do you think of this advice? Have you written a query letter? What was your experience? What are your tips for success? What are your query questions?