Write a Query Letter that Gets Agent Attention
Updated: Jan 6
You finished your manuscript! Congratulations! I hope you took some time to celebrate that huge accomplishment.
Now you're ready to send your book baby out into the world - but first! You need to research agents and prepare your submission materials which include some combination of a query letter, a short synopsis, and opening pages.
I'm going to focus on query letters in this post. I have read and written a lot of queries and let me just say. These. Are. Hard. Distilling the characters, plot, and hook of your story into something concise and compelling takes a special kind of skill that feels so different than creative writing. This is a marketing document! (See mine at the bottom of this post.)
Agents expect to see:
The hook (what your book is all about)
Housekeeping (the title, genre, word count, and comparable titles)
Bio (a short bio about you and your writing credentials)
The order of these components can vary. Lead with the most compelling one for you. Do you have a connection to this agent? Lead with that. Are your comp titles attention-grabbing? Use them! Beginning with your story is also a great option, so let's start there.
This is where you tell agents about your story.
Who is your main character? (Character)
What do they want? (Goal)
Why can't they get it? (Conflict)
What happens if they don't? (Stakes)
This section should be 150-300 words. Remember, agents sometimes receive hundreds of these a day. You want this snappy!
I've seen this structure be successful for many authors, including myself:
Who is your main character?
What is their goal? (Often a direct result of the inciting incident)
What's standing in their way?
What will they lose if they don't reach their goal? (Personal stakes)
Who is your other main character?
What is their goal? (Often a direct result of the inciting incident) (Bonus points if it conflicts with the other main character's goal)
What's standing in their way?
What will they lose if they don't reach their goal? (Personal stakes)
Hint at the wider story. Tell us a bit about the fun and games and the promise of the premise with specifics to make your query memorable.
Especially for a Romance, it's important to show how the relationship deepens, ultimately complicating their goals.
And finally, the story stakes. What is the Big Choice* they will have to make and what are the consequences?
*Both of their options should be mutually exclusive and hold equal weight so the choice isn't obvious to the reader. You don't want to give away the ending in the query, but you do want to show there is enough conflict to support the whole story.
This is where you tell the agent the high-level details about your book.
Title. You don't need to mention if yours is a working title. Ultimately, publishers have the final say, for better or worse.
Genre/sub genre. Yes, your book might not fit perfectly in a genre. Pick the one that feels closest and use comparable titles to describe the nuance.
Age category. If you're on the cusp, research reader expectations. For Romance and Women's Fiction, adult characters are expected to have some life experience. There are gray areas, but I'd say 25+ is the range you want to be in. "New Adult" is not reliably acquired by most major publishing houses right now, so you'll want to age your 18-24 year-old-protagonist up or down depending on your story.
Word count. Each genre has its own word count ranges that would be acceptable to agents, but 80,000 words is a great "safe-zone" for most genre fiction. Specifically for romance, anything over 100,000 will probably get you an immediate rejection. I felt nervous querying at 94k. This is a great article that dives deeper into word count ranges.
Comps. A good comparable titles should be a book traditionally published in the last five years, but really three.
You don't need to comp for plot! This was the biggest lightbulb moment for me. You're already telling the agent all about your plot in the hook section. Use comps to show similarities in voice, tone, tropes, or themes.
But how do I even find comps?! Goodreads has lists to get you started and this Book Finder is extremely helpful, if you're writing Romance.
You want mid-list books (not the biggest Best Sellers ever but something agents have reliably heard of). Goodreads reviews are correlated enough with sales to tell you if it's mid-list. Emily Henry's books have hundreds of thousands of reviews. Plenty of books have hundreds. Use something in the middle.
You can use TV shows, movies, etc., but this works best with big titles (and if you in fact deliver on this promise).
Keep this short and sweet (50-100 words)! Some things that can be in this section are:
Writing credentials such as relevant education, your profession if it's applicable to the story, professional writing organizations, workshops, or events
If you don't have any of these things, that's okay. Mention something about where you live or your hobbies. Remember, agents want to represent you to sell your book. If you've written an excellent story, you won't be penalized for not having an MFA.
Agent twitter is full of opinions on personalization. In mine, personalization can't hurt, but unless it's a strong connection to their wishlist or you've met them before, it probably doesn't help you that much, either. What is does say is: "I've researched you. I'm interested in you representing me. I'm not just sending this out to a hundred agents hoping one sticks." Except, you most likely are sending your query to many agents hoping one likes your work. Go with whatever feels natural here.
Keep your sign off brief. Thank them for their time and consideration. No need for anything more.
Include your name, pen name (if applicable), and email address
Optional: any other applicable information you'd like (phone number/website/twitter handle/pronouns)
All together, the query should run 250-450 words
Use paragraph breaks between the paragraphs
(See below for my query letter as an example.)
Of course, you can always play with the query structure, but the elements need to be here. Deviating doesn't make you stand out from the crowd, it communicates to agents that you may be inexperienced.
Let your story speak for itself. This is not the place to tell the agent if others have liked/disliked your story, your themes, or what inspired you to write this story.
Addressing agents. I found the decision to address someone as Mr./Mrs./Ms. required a lot of digging and could potentially start things off on the wrong foot if I got it wrong, so I opted for Dear [First Name] [Last Name].
My Query Letter
I'm a visual learner and need examples, so here's my query that got me my wonderful agent.
Dear Jill Marr,
Thank you for requesting KILT TRIP in the Pitch Wars Showcase. I really enjoyed your interview with Lunch Ticket and that you love a setting coming to life—my favorite thing to write, especially when Moody Edinburgh makes it so fun!
Globetrotting travel consultant Addie Macrae envisions a fantasy life in every new city she visits, one where she doesn’t think about the home she lost after her mom passed. Unfortunately, nothing about her new project is a dream…except the owner in a kilt. She knows exactly how to save his sightseeing company—did somebody say Outlander Tour? He would rather jump in the North Sea than allow it, but Addie won’t jeopardize her fledgling firm that feels like home so he can chase “authenticity” over dollars.
Rugged as the land he loves, Scottish tour operator Logan Sutherland’s greatest joy is knowing someone carries a piece of his world in their hearts when they leave. He isn't handing over the reins of his family's business to anyone, least of all a tartan-drunk American his father hired. No matter how dire their financial straits, sacrificing the off-the-beaten-path itineraries of his childhood for big castles and TikTok fodder is out of the question. He has a legacy to uphold.
As they battle for control, Addie agrees to join Logan’s Highland tour, on one condition: if she doesn’t feel the magic, he’ll yield to her strategy—even take tourists sailing to find Nessie himself. But Logan’s gift for connecting people with the rolling hills and ancient legends of his land make it too easy for Addie to fall in love with Logan and his vision. With her deadline looming, she must choose between a much-needed win to secure her company’s future or risk her heart for the chance to put down roots.
KILT TRIP (94,000 words) is an adult contemporary romance blending the adversaries-to-lovers antics of Emily Henry’s BEACH READ and the reflections on found family and belonging in K.A. Tucker’s THE SIMPLE WILD.
I am a Pitch Wars 2021 mentee and a member of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Colorado. When I’m not writing, I wrangle two energetic kids and still daydream about my semester in Edinburgh. Some days more than others.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
(writing as [Pen Name])
Like I said before, query letters are TOUGH! It usually takes me many iterations to settle on something that hits all the right notes.
You can check out Query Shark for examples of query letters and why they work/don't work. QueryTracker has success story interviews you can read to view successful queries by authors you may know.
Before you start querying, it would be in your best interest to get additional opinions. Beta readers and critique partners are great resources because they've read your story and know what you're trying to explain. On the flip-side, they will fill in the blanks because they've read your story and know what you're trying to explain!
For outside opinions, there are facebook groups for Romance such as FridayKiss and The Writing Gals where you can post your query and ask for feedback. CritiqueMatch is another excellent resource for finding critique partners to review your query (and synopsis and first pages!)
If you're looking for one-on-one help, check out my querying services. I love helping writers polish their submission materials to feel confident beginning their querying journey.