Query letters are hard!
Sure there’s plenty of sites that give you some advice*, and often agents have blogs where they explain what thye like or don’t in a query letter. Often though these contradict, and what one agent recommends another despises. Sometimes the same agent will advise against something in early posts and change their view over time. Other times there’ll be a query letter that breaks all the ‘rules’ and yet gets the desired attention.
So here’s my (humbly submitted) take on query letters:
They have one purpose – get you to the next step.
This sounds simple (I hope), but it sometimes gets lost in the minutiae. Query letters are a tool with a purpose. That purpose is to intorduce yourself and your work and get someone interested enough to want to read more. That doesn’t make them simple to produce, but it needs always to be the guiding principle. All the other rules and recommendations support this goal, but they are subservient to it. If you break all the rules and yet someone is interested enough in your letter to want more, then it’s a good letter. If you follow all the rules meticulously and get a dozen rejections before someone wants to see more, it’s still a good letter; it’s served its purpose.
They need to be honest.
I think query letters are a case of don’t try to please everyone. If your query letter does a good job of introducing you and your work then consider it a success. If it gets rejected that doesn’t mean the letter’s not a successful letter. It might mean that the agent or publisher you queried is not a good fit for you, or for your work. There’s nothing to be gained from a query that represents you or your work as any way other than truthfully. If an agent does make a request based on that query they’ll soon find out that your chapters or your manuscript aren’t exactly what they were looking for anyway. That’s another rejection and back to square one. All you’ve gotten is false hope and it’s cost you time when you could have been finding an agent that wants to work with you.
They need to show your talents.
It’s not just about your work; it’s not just about your bio. It’s a combination of both, and it’s also a kind of demonstration piece. Being able to explain your novel succinctly shows you have a plan, and a structure. Being able to attract interest shows that you have the hook, or point-of-difference, that will make your work marketable. Being able to discuss your work as a product shows that you consider yourself a professional. Being able to write an engaging and interesting letter shows that you have the command of the language to write engaging and interesting prose.
I found that breaking the query letter down into these three focus points helped me cut out a lot of unnecessary plot synopsis and really hone in on what was important. I don’t know if it will work yet, but I’m a lot happier with what I have now than what I first sent out.
This is a query letter I had for a while and submitted to a couple of agents. It relates to my novel Exile, and it was not successful. I’ve changed it because it’s not honest. Reading it I get the wrong impression about who is the protagonist of the novel (Duc Abastille isn’t introduced until about a third of the way through the novel).
I was too focussed on exposition of back-story that I barely introduced the characters which my novel is about. I think it’s an engaging query (but I’ll let you judge that), and some of it I’ve retained for the revised queries, but it is not an honest one.
As a young man Gerard Abastille was an acclaimed hero of the Battle of Three Fords. His victory brought peace to the warring families of Alterre, and brought him the noble title of Duc… but that was seventy years ago. Now Duc Abastille is old and the peace he won is worn and brittle. When his sons are killed in suspicious circumstances he is left without an heir, and his legacy is threatened. He suspects his old enemy Jarl Blodax, but in the internecine politics of Alterre no one can be fully trusted.
Jacqueline, only daughter of Duc Abastille, has been disowned for her love of the commoner Selwyn. Together in exile, they have raised a family beyond the borders of Alterre, but their past is not so easily left behind. When become victims of a broader conflict their children are thrust unprepared into a brutal world. Rymon must conform to a role demanded of him by his birth, Marianne must find her place in a world that treats her as chattel, and Jolyon must somehow overcome his guilt and perhaps find a way to bring his family back together.
EXILE is a Fantasy with minimal, ambiguous references to magic and non-human races. The morality is gray, and while the setting is epic in scale the plot is focussed on the narratives of Selwyn and Jacqueline’s surviving children, not the fate of the world. It is complete at 241,000 words.
* Some of the linked sites here are for cover letters, not query letters. Cover letters are usually either for short fictions (and therefore you’re sending the whole story so a synopsis is, in a sense, redundant), or will accompany a synopsis and/or sample chapters. There’s plenty of other sites too. Google ‘how to write a query letter’ and you’ll have more to options than you know what to do with.