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How to Write a Fiction Novel Query Letter

Self-pub or trad pub, it doesn’t matter. Everyone needs a query letter.

“Not me,” some will say. “I’m my own boss and CreateSpace doesn’t reject anyone! I don’t need your Big 5 (4… 3… 2…) Hegemony!”

Okay, cool. But what are you going to write for your book’s backmatter? What do you want to put on your cover? What do you say when you meet Adam Savage in an elevator and he asks you what your book is about?

The query letter is the mission statement of a book. You have to take it seriously, whether you’re sending it to agents or self-marketing. It’ll inform you about your differentiators, help set the visual tone and create a strong sense of your identity as an author.

You’ll need every part of a query to market your self-pub. Paragraph 1 contains your log line, paragraph 2 contains your synopsis and paragraph 3 contains your bio. You already have to write it, so why not start out right?

The letter detailed below is my take on a fairly standard formula.

“But if it’s so standard, how will I stand out?”

Write a good book, I guess. The standard format is a delivery method that stops agents/editors/you from focusing on the query, and helps them focus on the content. People expect to see information flow at them in certain ways, (User Experience Principles, software people!) and structuring your information into those schema will help you get your message across.

Paragraph 1: The Point

Dear Agent,

I’m seeking representation for my 80,000-word crime novel, OCTAN CITY. Only one resource matters in the city of racers: clear red bricks. When a minifig finds himself in control of a huge cache, all hell breaks loose.

Everyone in publishing wants you to get to the point. Who cares about your urban fantasy if you just queried a cozy/mystery agent? Your opening paragraph needs the following relevant information:

  • What are you seeking? This one is always the easiest: “I’m seeking representation for my <words><genre><medium><title>.”
  • How long is your novel (in words)? If you’re shooting a 60,000-word fantasy (short) to an adult house, it won’t work. If you’ve got a 320,000-word high school epic… I’m impressed. I didn’t know anyone could talk about high school that much.
  • What’s the hook? In one or two lines, tell us the main idea of your book and what it means if we keep reading. Feed us the story to come.

DO:

  • Keep it short and to the point.
  • Use language that’s thematically related to your subject matter. I cannot stress this enough, and you should use it throughout your query. If you’re writing about fluffy bunnies and you’re using murder language, it’s probably not helpful.

DON’T:

  • Say your name. Unless you’re somebody important, people will be able to figure out who you are from the signature at the bottom. If you’re famous, yes. You may lead with your name.
  • Use phrases like “it’s the story of” or “a tale of.” We’re aware we’re going to read a story. No need to tell us that.

Paragraph 2: Your Plot Synopsis

Oh dear lord, this paragraph. This is going to be one of the trickiest things you’ve ever written, so strap in.

“Control the brake bricks, and you control the cars.” It was a rule race car constructor Emmett McMinifig knew all too well. When he assembles a plan to gain monopoly over the clear red bricks, Emmett’s life snaps into place: money, power, women. But no one gets to the top of Octan City without disassembling a few enemies, and soon Emmett finds himself crossways with the OCPD and no instruction book to guide him. After the one-handed police detective, Cop Stopscrimes, rips Emmett’s best friend in half, it’s not a matter of money anymore; it’s a matter of honor. Can Emmett build a better future, or will he wind up pieces in a box?

There are essentially four parts to my second paragraph:

  1. The flavor statement. I like to start with something to set the tone of the book. The difference between two similar plots is often the flavor you give them. Your opening line should be something that gives us a picture of the world.
  2. Everyday life. What’s interesting about your character’s normal world? What fun things can we expect before the first big plot point?
  3. The inciting incident. Why do things change for the main character, and what does this person lose?
  4. The twist/differentiator. Every conflict has at least two sides, and that’s straight-up boring. Explain how your conflict is different, and give us the unpredictable dimension to look forward to. At some point, there’s no turning back–often, that moment fits well here.
  5. The stakes. What happens if your character succeeds or fails? I like to use a question here because it creates an implicit call to action of “FIND OUT!”

Again, I stuck pretty strongly with the flavor of the story through the use of words like assembles, snaps, disassembling, instruction book, etc. I combined those with some noir-sounding phrases like “gets to the top of Octan City” or “finds himself crossways.” You want one element of story seasoning in each sentence, if it doesn’t sound too ridiculous.

Paragraph 3: Special Information

When I was a child, my father stepped on a Lego piece and was killed instantly. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to shed light on what people considered to be a peaceful toy. Itinerant floor Legos end thousands of lives each year, and I’ve spent much of my adult life as part of Shoes Against Sharp (Corners), a non-profit dedicated to providing shoes to children living in at-risk Lego areas. As an author, I’ve been published twice in Toy Crime Magazine, and won the Crooked Sprue Award in 2013.

Why were you the person to write this book? What unique qualifications do you have as an author?

Let me be blunt and say that some of you reading this section are bummed out or concerned, because you think there’s nothing special about you as an author. You haven’t published any books, and you’ve never won any awards. You don’t have any special qualifications, at least not on paper.

I have never won a contest, (Ever. Not kidding.) but I do have a book contract. There are ways to focus on your qualifications, even if it appears to the untrained observer that you have none.

Consider, for starters, that you’ve probably spent more than a year writing this novel. Why? What other books inspired you? If you’re crazy enough to write a novel, you’re crazy enough to be a big fan of something. Go ahead and say that. And if you’re writing novels without reading any… you may have a bigger problem.

Sure, you may not have won any contests. Were you a finalist in any of them? Go ahead and list that.

Thank you for your time and consideration, blah, blah, blah.

There. Now you have a real, actionable query that you can send to agents. Or, if you don’t want to do that, you’ve still written your log line, synopsis and bio. Now, when you go to fill in those fields in Amazon, iBooks or Smashwords, you’ve got something to say!

And when you’re at a con and you meet an agent who wants to know more about you, you’ll be ready.

4 thoughts on “How to Write a Fiction Novel Query Letter”

  1. re: qualifications – it’s also worth noting that they are absolutely not necessary. It’s fine to just close with the “thank you” and the “this is how you can reach me” part – agents and editors aren’t going to reject you based on that unless you’re writing memoir or non-fiction (for which you need a platform).

    Also – I’ve certainly heard a LOT of agent say they skim the query (if they read it at all) and skip down to read the first few pages of your book first. A lot of times it’s pretty obvious when an author isn’t ready for publication yet. If they like what they see, THEN they’ll go back and read more than your genre and word count.

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