How to Write a Query Letter
Though the formula of a query letter is fairly straightforward, a good query letter not only sums up the premise, characters, and central obstacles of a novel, but also hooks the reader while communicating the category, genre, and tone of the book. Nailing the query letter will also serve you down the road, since these are the same skills involved in writing jacket copy, for example, and in creating pitch materials for editors.
That all might seem obvious. What may be less obvious is how issues with your query letter can also tip you off to larger problems within a text, and for this reason writing your query letter early could actually help you with your revision process. When I used to critique query letters for #DVPit, I often found that the issues with queries turned out to be symptoms of underlying issues in a manuscript. A writer might have trouble laying out the book’s central problem because they haven’t quite worked out the protagonist’s goals, for example, or because of structural issues within a draft. Writing a query might help you realize you have some paring down to do, that the plot meanders, or that you aren’t yet clear on your characters’ voices. If you struggle to articulate why the story begins where it does or what, exactly, your hook is, your readers may struggle as well. Personally, I’ve often found that the most helpful and most difficult thing about query letters is that they push the writer to tell a would-be reader what the problem is, why it matters, and what complications lie just around the bend, and I know from experience that sometimes we need to articulate these things to someone else before we can get clear on them ourselves.
I learned to read for many of these issues via resources like QueryShark and breakdowns of other successful query letters for novels, so let’s go through the structure of a query letter by looking at my query for my debut novel The Map of Salt and Stars.
Dear Mr./Ms./Mx. [agent’s last name]*,
[* Always address your query letter to a specific person.]
Please consider representing my [word count]-word novel, [TITLE].*
[* Next sentence or two: tell them why you’re querying them specifically. Did they ask for manuscripts similar to yours on their manuscript wishlist? Have they represented similar projects in the past, or some of your favorite authors? Did you chat with them at a conference? Ideally, you’ll be working closely with this person over many projects. Let them know that you chose to query them with care and intention, and that you’re prepared for a positive working relationship. How many agents to query at a time and in what order is a discussion for another day, but you should only be querying people you really want to work with. A bad agent, or one you don’t mesh with, is worse than no agent. Be clear about why you’re a good fit for each other.]
[TITLE] is the story of…. [describe the hook of your project here; what is the most interesting thing about it? How would you describe it in one sentence?]. It will appeal to fans of… [list a comparative title or two with similar themes and/or subject matter, ideally recent ones.]
[After the opening paragraph, write a two-paragraph summary of your book. The two paragraphs below are what I wrote for The Map of Salt and Stars.]
In the summer of 2011, Nour has lost not only her father, but New York City and the only home she's ever known. Nour's mother, a cartographer who creates unusual, hand-painted maps, vanishes into her work. Her grief deprives Nour of the one thing she loved nearly as much as her father—her parents’ fabulous tales of medieval mapmakers. Worse, the Syria Nour's parents knew is changing, and it isn’t long before protests and shelling rumble through the quiet Homs neighborhood Nour’s just starting to call home.
[This is the set up, the things that intrigue the reader and connect the reader to the character(s) you’ve introduced. The next paragraph should develop the hook, introduce the main story problem and stakes, and hint at further complications. Moreover, it should leave off with a sense of both the emotional development and concrete problems the characters will face. You’ll notice that these two paragraphs might sound similar to the book’s eventual jacket copy.]
When a shell destroys Nour’s house and almost takes her sister's life, her family is forced to choose: stay and risk more violence, or flee as refugees across seven countries of Southwest Asia and North Africa in search of safety—along the very route Nour’s fabled mapmakers took nine hundred years before in their quest to map the world.
[From there, jump right into your one paragraph bio. If you’re just starting out, it’s okay to say that this is your first novel and leave it at that, maybe adding a bit of info about where you are from or where you live, your day job if relevant to your book, or any info you think is important to include. If you have them, you can also include things like mentorships or fellowships, having attended a writing conference, or that you’ve published even a single short story or been long-listed for a prize. With fiction, the story blurb and the manuscript itself are what matter most; nonfiction is different, and credentials / previous publications / platform may be more important.]
Thank you for your time and consideration. Upon your request, I’d be more than happy to send you the completed manuscript. I look forward to hearing from you. *
[* Having a finished, polished manuscript is generally important for querying a debut novel. You never know—you may get a full request the very next day, so be ready to send it! I also suggest preparing several synopses of varying lengths beforehand for this same reason, in case one is requested along with a partial or full manuscript. And if the agent’s query instructions say to include a chapter or two with your query, don’t forget to include those according to the agent’s guidelines as well.]
[Your physical address]
[Your phone number]
[Your website where links to your work can be found]
[Your social media handles]
- - -
Zeyn Joukhadar is the author of the Lambda Literary and Stonewall Book Award-winning novel The Thirty Names of Night as well as The Map of Salt and Stars, which won the Middle East Book Award. His work has appeared in Electric Literature, Salon, The Paris Review, [PANK], the anthologies Letters to a Writer of Color and This Arab Is Queer, and elsewhere, and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Joukhadar serves on the RAWI board and mentors emerging writers of color with the Periplus Collective.