All About The Query Letter (Or Email!)
A great query letter or email can make all the difference to your writing career. It can mean hooking an industry pro with your writing … or having to shelve the screenplay or novel you have worked so hard on. Eek!
But do not worry, we got your back. Let’s go!
1) Get Them Hooked
Bad query letters often miss that extra ‘oomph’ that is supposed to intrigue agents in your writing. So how do you hook them?
- Mention if you have ever met the agent at a conference or a similar event. If not, try to mention some writers you know personally. If that’s not you either, mention you are a fan of that agent’s clients or their work (but don’t lie about any of these!).
- Clearly define the genre of your work. ‘Supernatural romance’ is good. ‘A story of the meeting between a spirit medium and a ghost’ is not.
- If you have any, mention any certified credentials, awards or certificates.
Fortunately, employment in book publishing has equalled stable 50,000 people from 2011-2019. Whilst screenwriting has not been quite so stable in the Covid era, it is getting better. If your query letter hits the spot and your writing is good, there is no doubt you will find a suitable agent.
2) Write a great pitch
The story summary is the main focus of your query letter. However, summarising a complex story in 25-50 words can be a tall order. This is why a great, clear logline is a MUST.
Always mention a very specific point that makes your manuscript interesting. Here are some examples of what could distinguish your work from others in the pile.
- A conflict between a character and a fundamental idea (e.g. religion).
- Characters confronting their fears and traumas.
- A unique point of view on something well-known to the general public (e.g. a historical event).
Example of the above, after the jump.
Learning from bestsellers
Love it or hate it, The Da Vinci Code sold a whopping 80 million copies. How? Well, Dan Brown managed to combine all three of the above examples into ONE manuscript!
Of course, matching Brown’s record may be a bit of a tall order, but it won’t hurt to try. So, what about the things that you want to avoid in a good story hook?
- Avoid mentioning characters other than the protagonist, the antagonist (and *maybe* important secondaries, eg. a possible love interest).
- Do not focus on any minor story beats and, instead, paint a larger picture.
- Do not discuss your creative process or what obstacles you faced when writing the book.
HERE is a free cheat sheet to help you write a logline. You got this!
3) Avoid dissuading the agent from picking up the manuscript
Remember, the ultimate goal of the query letter is to hook an agent’s interest and make them want to represent you. No more and no less.
But what are the key mistakes writers make that deter agents from responding to their query letters?
- Don’t send to the wrong people. Check submissions guidelines. Create relationships with agents relevant to your genre. This is easier than ever on social media. Be sure to reach out to agents AUTHENTICALLY (to find out how, CLICK HERE).
- Yes, you do need to sell yourself and your work. However, using phrases such as ‘this book or script is the best thing since XYZ’ or saying your writing is ‘better than [ANOTHER WRITER’s]’ is unprofessional and is considered bad practice.
- Self-bashing. Believe it or not, some authors start their query letters with a variation on ‘I know I am still a novice writer but…’! Just as you don’t need to blow your trumpet too loud, don’t hide your light under a bushel either. You are giving the recipient a very good reason to throw your query letter in the bin!
- An over-detailed CV/resumé. Stay on point. Even if it is true, you should not mention that your teenage years involved lion-taming in Africa while simultaneously fire juggling. (Unless, of course, your manuscript focuses on exactly that!). A brief account of your specialisation with key skills and achievements, like those in PhD Centre’s writer profiles would look professional.
- Send it at a GOOD time. Mondays are not a great day to send queries; Fridays can be hit or miss too. Avoid August (everyone is away!) and holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving, too. If you are the organised type, try Spark Email. This is one of the best email clients for mobile devices. The ‘schedule email’ feature is particularly useful if you need to send query letters during a particular time frame.
- Make sure you SAVE your documents! If you are not sending emails but actual letters via snail mail, try Foxit PDF Reader and Editor. It is tool that allows saving documents in a .PDF format.
Don’t forget you also need motivation: querying is a marathon, not a sprint! Keep polishing your query letter. Keep on keeping on and you are sure to become a published or produced writer.
BIO: Catherine Smith is an online Marketing Manager at PhD Centre, specialising in PhD thesis writing. She is passionate about researching and writing on various topics, including Education, Marketing, and Technology.