Query Writing for Beginners
- The world of publication is always changing but the thing you need to remember more than anything else is that It’s a Business. These people make their livings on writing- it’s not a hobby and they are only interested in words that are going to sell and sell a lot. You are providing a product to them that they can change, package, market and distribute. With that in mind, you have to convince them that your story is worth investing in because in the long run it will make money.
- You should finish your story because it will annoy agents if they ask to see your work and it isn’t finished. There is some debate as to whether the piece should be “publish ready” edited and free of error but most writers agree that if you can afford to invest and pay an editor you should but many agents will not hold it against you because they understand that the story will likely undergo many revisions and changes anyway. If you can, just have the query letter and first chapters reviewed before submission.
- With your finished manuscript the first thing to do is research agencies that might be interested in your work. Check writer’s forums and websites like Writers&Artists.co.uk and Writer’s Digest.com or writersmarket.com. These website and more are resources that often have articles and pages devoted to listing agencies and agents you can query. The important thing to look at during this stage is general genre- Will they accept your fiction, historical, fantasy etc. book. Once you have a handful to work with you can move to the next step.
- Research an agency before submitting to them. In the age of the internet it takes mere minutes to find reviews from other writers about the quality and intent of potential agents and agencies. Look into what other books they’ve managed and the types of writers they represent.
- Research the submission requirements of the agency. And follow their directions. If they are taking to time to tell you what they want you should be giving it to them.
- Once you find an agent or agency that looks promising research them some more. Their site will likely have instructions on how and when they accept submissions. I repeat “FOLLOW THEIR DIRECTIONS!” If they take the time to tell you they expect you to give them what they ask for. They might not even read your wonderful best seller worthy novel if it isn’t something they represent or if it isn’t formatted correctly.
- Sit down and write the actual query letter. This is often difficult and tedious but very important. You want to be memorable, professional and brief. In 400-500 words describe yourself, your story and the market for your story. Be clear. Think of this like an application letter for a job. You might want to talk about why you would like to work with this agent/agency and only mention writing accolades if you’ve done something great or that gives reference to other writing samples.
- In the Query letter: giving a word count, genre, and letting the agent know who you think the writing sounds like (famous authors), who you think will read/ buy it (audience/market) and your contact information. You can also mention why you would like to work with them.
- Don’t rush– the Query is a piece of literature all its own give it the same time and thought as you would a short story.
- Practice the “elevator pitch” of your story and include it in your query. Imagine you are on an elevator with the agent you get on at the 1st floor and you have until the 10th floor to convince them to talk with you further. What can you say about your story that makes someone what to read it?
- Include the first 1-3 chapters of your story… If you can’t hook the agent in the 1st chapter—hell the first paragraph, then you can’t hook a reader and they won’t continue reading. Make sure the action of your story starts close enough to the beginning that the reader will stay engaged and thus the agent will see its potential to grab readers.
- Most readers in a book store will pick up a book and read the back cover (elevator pitch) the prologue or 1st chapter and the last paragraph—make yours count.
- Your point of query writing is to impress the agent with your writing so put your best foot forward, try to make sure the letter is free of errors and typos.
- Query a lot..The more you do it the better chances someone will say yes and the better your query letters will get.
- Query A lot but do not carbon copy a query… The more you submit the more likely you will hear something back but each query letter should be written with the agent in mind. No copy and paste. Address the agent by their name. And don’t bother attaching a doc to an email, your query is more likely to be read if you copy the letter and chapters into the body of the email.
- Don’t wait by the phone. These people get a lot of submissions and it could be months before they even get to your piece.You must also understand that these people get a ton of query letters. You will probably not hear anything right away. The process a query goes though is extensive Because of the volume of letters agents receive. In larger agencies it is likely your letter needs to get through several people before it even gets to an actual agent. Someone will initially read it and decide if it gets forward to the next person who will review those submissions and decide which handful actually get to the agent, the person who can make the decision that they want to pursue working with you.
- If and when you start talking with a potential agent remember that they have decided that they like you too. You have to decide through your dealings with them if you want to work with them. Your agent will have a huge impact on your writing career. Choosing the right representation for yourself, your talent and your story can mean the difference between selling millions of copies or just selling online to a few hundred.
- If/When an agent reaches out be ready to discuss your story in detail and the terms of any contract you’d be willing to enter with them. You have rights, its your work and who you choose to manage you is very important. Research and know your rights as a writer and what you want. Are you ok will selling movie rights? Do some reading about the types of contacts writers sign A Letter of Agreement might be sent detailing what the editor expects from you. You should read it carefully before signing. Pay attention to deadlines, fees and payments schedules. There are freelance contracts where they are not signing you as a writer but are contracting your work..Google “writer’s contracts” for examples
- Beware an agent that charges you or asks for subscriptions fees
- Be aware of agencies that ask for money, subscription fees or ask you to sign anything without having read your entire manuscript. These aren’t always scams but you should be more careful when any money is involved.
- Some self publishers like i-publishing will charge you a lot to edit, package, and produce your book but do little in the way of marketing and you will pay for the whole process, often thousands of dollars.
- There is a whole industry of ego or glory publishers that charge you to see your book in print. If you want to publish this way you certainly can but be aware that these companies are a business too.
- Don’t take it personally when an agent rejects you. Don’t be discouraged. It’s part of the business of writing. Often it doesn’t mean that the story isn’t good but maybe it just isn’t right for them. Don’t be discouraged by rejections– some of the most famous stories were rejected many times before someone said yes.
- Tips for Query Writing
Example of a agencies submission instructions:
Briefly: What we’re looking for in a query
First thing: You’re going to write the main content of your query letter and send it to the very people you want to look at, and be impressed with, your manuscript. The people you are trying to convince to pitch it to the actual publishing industry on your behalf. The people who routinely see the very best from some pretty amazing authors. That’s exactly who we are.
So. What you need to do is prepare your query letter with at least as much care and skill as you put into your magnum opus. Pay just as much attention to the grammar, spelling, pacing and so on in your query.
When submitted by post, the query letter is written on its own page or pages, and should be on the very top of the rest of the content. When submitting an email, the query letter must be in the body of the email: it must not be contained within an attachment, or the query will be discarded.
Next, don’t go long. Make it one page-ish. Within that constraint, use your writing skills to get the following across to us:
- A brief synopsis of the plot of the work
- The length of the work in words
- What genre you believe the work falls into
- Any publications of yours that are not self-publications
- Any other writing experience
- Samples of published author’s names you feel write in a style similar to yours
- Any related workshops you have attended, etc.
- Any publicity venues worthy of note, such as an author’s web site
- Any awards you have won
- Any significant endorsements you have collected
- Any co-authors, current or past, we may be familiar with
- How we can contact you without ending up in a “spam” folder
- Attach (email submissions) or include (postal submissions) a sample of your work as detailed below
Further, you need to work the above list in such a way as to seriously impress us within the context of the query itself. Every word you write matters, as does how you write.
Dictation, grammar- and spell-checking software can all introduce problems. Spell-checking software does not pick up errors when those errors are the wrong word, spelled correctly. It is also far too easy to select the wrong word to replace a word the spell-checking software has highlighted for you. Your intention is, of course, to type or dictate the correct word, but — particularly in the case of a dictation program — if a homonym is available, it can end up in your manuscript.
Queries and submissions should not be sent out to an agent or an editor without a thorough reading, not only by yourself but (at least) a first reader and even better, a second reader as well.
Next, for all email submissions provide just a few pages of the work you are asking us to represent as an attachment. For postal submissions, include the same as hard copy. They don’t have to be the first pages, either. Something you think will catch our interest. Attachments should ideally be in plain text form. Send this to us with the query; don’t wait for us to ask. If your query is well written and your subject matter interesting, we will look at the attachment or printout, and what we find there will most definitely count towards whether you hear back from us, or not.
Finally, you need to understand that we get a lot of queries. A lot. This means that there exists a long line of hopefuls ahead of you who got their work to us first. The only way we can really be fair is to examine each submission in the same order it came to our attention. So be patient. Craft your query with as much loving care as you can muster, send it along, and then… find something else to do and try to forget you sent it. If your work is really good, you may be assured you will hear from us: we’ll be wanting to see the whole thing. Which will then call for another period of patience.
Hopefully you’re getting a feeling for the process now. Nearly every step typically involves waiting — and then waiting some more. Waiting for the query process to produce results, working through any changes required, waiting for submissions to publishers, waiting for actual publication, and then waiting for the book to earn.
We wish you the best of luck.
Format For Manuscripts
Printed and Electronic Manuscript Requirements
- Paper: manuscripts must be one-sided, on 8.5×11 sheets, with minimum 1″ margins.
- Electronic: print a few pages. Make sure the pages come out as described in 1.
- Lines: double-spaced.
- Font: preferably Times New Roman, 12 point minimum
- Paragraphs: indent the first line five spaces.
- Italics: indicate by underlining.
- Hyphenation: don’t. The publisher takes care of that.
- Blank lines: center a # character in the line.
- First page top: your real name, e.g. “Jane Deering.”
- First page, top right: reasonably accurate word count.
- First page, dead center: Story Title.
- Immediately after title: “by Janette Doe” — pen name can go here.
- Omit copyright notice and rights statements.
- Begin the story one blank line under “by Janette Doe.”
- On subsequent pages, last name and page number at upper right: Deering/2
Last page: Center the word “end.”
Sample Query letter
Dear Ms. Kole,
 According to your agency’s website you’re actively seeking middle-grade fiction, so I’m pleased to introduce my novel, A Smidgen of Sky.  This novel won me a scholarship to attend the Highlights Foundation Writers Workshop at Chautauqua. It was also awarded honorable mention in the Smart Writers W.I.N. Competition.
 A Smidgen of Sky is the story of ten-year-old Piper Lee DeLuna, a spunky, impulsive dreamer, whose fierce devotion to her missing father is threatened by her mother’s upcoming remarriage.
 Everyone else has long accepted her father’s death, but the fact that his body was never recovered from his wrecked plane leads to Piper’s dream that he might one day reappear and free her from the secret guilt she harbors over his accident. Her stubborn focus leaves no room in her affections for her mother’s fiancé, Ben, or his princess-like daughter, Ginger.
 Determined to stop the wedding, Piper Lee schemes up “Operation Finding Tina”—a sure plan to locate Ben’s ex-wife and get the two of them back together. But just as Piper succeeds with step one of her plan, a riot breaks out at the prison where Ben works, and suddenly nothing seems sure.
 Since middle-graders care deeply about things and people and love to daydream about their future, I think readers will identify with Piper Lee and find her an appealing heroine as she learns that you can both cherish the past and embrace the future.
 This story, set in the coastal region of Georgia, runs about 33,000 words and is somewhat similar in tone to Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie.
 I’m a 1990 graduate of the Institute of Children’s Literature and my work has been published in U*S* Kids, Child Life, Columbia Kids, True Love, Guide and StoryPlus.
Thanks very much for your time. I have included the first ten pages and look forward to hearing from you.
Agent Comments on Query Letter Example
 This is pretty basic personalization, but it shows me that Dianna did her research. In your query, make it clear that you’ve done your homework and are querying this particular agent with good reason. Agents like to see signs that you’re a savvy writer who is deliberate about the submission process—that bodes well for your working style, should we partner with you in the future.
 It’s unusual to lead with accolades, but in the children’s world, the Highlights Chautauqua workshop is a big deal, so this got my attention. If you have similar achievements, by all means, shout them from your opening paragraph! If not, just dive right in and start telling me about your novel.
 In setting up your story, you absolutely must convey a sense of what your main character wants most in the world, and of what’s standing in her way, as Dianna does here. We care about Piper Lee right away
because we know what she cares about, and this is key.
 We get a good sense of Piper’s character here; it’s important that your query not just flatly tell us about your characters, but show us who they are. The conflict (another essential element of all compelling fiction) rises when the fiancé and future stepsister are introduced. Dianna does a great job of establishing her protagonist’s denial, and she’s already built a lot of tension when she hints at what will soon shatter it. This further demonstrates that her story is driven by strong character motivations—just as any good page-turner should be.
 This gutsy scheme teaches me even more about Piper Lee. It’s also bound to have some disastrous consequences, and that’s exactly what agents want to see in a novel: strong actions, strong ramifications, and lots of emotions tied to each.
 This is a bit of self-analysis that I wish writers wouldn’t indulge in when writing queries. Dianna could’ve easily left this paragraph out (especially the vague “since middle-graders care deeply about things and people”) and let the strength of the story speak for itself. Of course you think the book is thematically resonant and that readers will love it—you wrote it! So refrain from editorializing. That said, this still makes this letter a great example to show here—because it’s proof that even a query faux pas won’t result in an instant rejection. If you sell your story well enough, agents will overlook small missteps.
 This simple sentence is a great and concise summary of necessary information. When you query, be sure to include the stats of your manuscript (genre, target audience, word count, etc.) and any relevant comparative titles—with a caveat: Be sure to highlight a comp title only if it helps the agent get an accurate picture of the style of your story and if it doesn’t smack of delusions of grandeur. Claiming you’re “James Patterson meets Dan Brown” is useless. Dianna’s comparison here was quite apt and, again, made her seem savvy—and realistic.
 The bio paragraph and sign-off are short and sweet, and that’s really all we need. If you’ve hit on the basics well and conveyed the essence of your story and why it’s a good fit for that particular agent, you’ve done all you can to entice us to request the full manuscript.
at agency or what they are looking for at that time.