What is a Query Letter — and When To Write It

Before we can talk about how to write a query letter, we need to talk about what it is and when to do it. Depending on where you are in your journey and how much of your soul you’ve devoted to the internet, your understanding of a query letter can be anywhere from “what the spetz is a query letter” to “the query letter and I have a long inglorious history of mutual destruction and loathing.”

Note: This is Step 5 of the 17 Steps to Writing and Publishing

So if you’re at this step (or peeking ahead), you’ve already gotten your book as good as you can get it.


What IS a Query Letter?

A Query Letter is proof that you can write. It is a one page email that you send to literary agents and try to convince them to love, read, and ultimately represent your book.

It goes a bit like this:

  • One or two sentences that hook the reader.
  • A paragraph or two that give the following:
    • Who the character is
    • What the character wants (premise)
    • What is standing in their way (conflict)
    • The difficult choice they face and the terrible outcome of both choices (stakes)
  • A sentence or two giving the data on your book (title, word count (rounded to the nearest 500), whether it’s a standalone or has series potential)
  • A small paragraph with your bio (your name, occupation (if you want to share), writing credits (if you have any), and anything witty or compelling you think will endear you to agents)
  • A sentence that proves you read their submission requirements (as listed on [Agency Name’s Site], I have included the first XX pages below)
  • Signature (Sincerely, Your Name; add contact details: phone number, email address, blog (if you want to share), Twitter handle (if you want to share))

The end.

That’s the query letter.

BUT that’s not the only thing you include in the email. As mentioned above, you must THEN include in the body of the email, the first X number of pages that their submission requirements ask for, if they ask for any. Sometimes they also request a synopsis, which you’ll add to the body of the email as well.


When Do You Write a Query Letter?

Best advice: before you write the book. A query letter, as you’ll see from the Query Shark link below and the bullet list above, is basically the back cover of your book. It’s what entices an agent to read your pages and hopefully become so enthralled with the character and premise that they request to read your full manuscript.

Straight up truth: The query letter gets you to the heart of your story. It gives you that marketing pitch that makes people perk up and take notice. And sometimes, sad as it is, we can write entire books without ever truly getting to the heart of the story.

Writing your query letter first will provide a LOT of guidance for when you actually start writing.


When Do You Start Querying?

When you’re reading to start sending query letters to agents, that’s called “querying”. How do you know when you’re ready to query your book?

That’s a tough question. My best answer is: after you’ve already done it once and realized you weren’t ready. And yes… I might be speaking from personal experience. Very yes.


I, like many many other writers, queried my book too soon. And I eventually realized that the first book I wrote wasn’t going to be the first book I published. I thought I would be more devastated by that. I’d spent so long working on Book One (even jumping into Book 2 and Book 3), that I figured the failure would crush me. But it didn’t. I knew that I wasn’t the type of person to write one book and be done. I knew my life would be filled with books, OVERFLOWING WITH BOOKS. I knew I would get better in time.

The moment I knew I was ready to query was when I realized I was close to the limit of what I could achieve through revisions. I knew my next step would be to query it, and if no agents were interested, I would move on.

So how do we answer the question of when do you query? When you reach the end of your revisions. And if it’s still not ready, it’s time to move onto the next project and double down on your efforts. Somethings, like most things, just take time.


How do You Write A Good Query Letter?

Good question. I’ll walk you through writing a basic query letter in an upcoming post, following the bullet list above.

Until then, learn how NOT to write a query letter by reading The Query Shark Archives. Seriously. Read it. All of it. I did. Twice. And it really helps. Because there’s nothing better than learning by example (except learning by experience, but the goal is to limit the number of times you facepalm because of a silly mistake you made).


5 thoughts on “What is a Query Letter — and When To Write It

  1. Pingback: Compiling A Query Letter | words — and other things
  2. Pingback: Write the Query Letter BEFORE the Book | words — and other things
  3. I’ve done that. I queried way too soon. That novel was the first one I ever wrote. Looking back at it now, it’s kind of embarrassing that I tried to show it to agents, lol.

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