Pitch Perfect: What the Heck Is a Query Letter?
This post is a part of our services overview series, “What the Heck Do We Do?”.
Picture this: as you type The End on the last page of your manuscript — the project you’ve poured bottomless buckets of sweat and tears into for the past weeks, months, and maybe even years — you’re buoyed with an unforgettable sense of accomplishment. You did it! You wrote a whole heckin’ book! Time to break out the bubbly and scream, “Hot diggity dog!” from your balcony, all memories of struggling with plot points, character development, and crafting a story that makes actual sense (not just to you, but to your trusted beta readers or critique partners) temporarily forgotten. This is your moment of glory, your time to bask in the glow of your brilliance, so please celebrate accordingly.
You may think this is indeed The End, and you should … for a while. Take a break from the author grind and focus on all the things you neglected during the feverish time spent obsessing over your story, like bathing and watching trash TV. (Both qualify as equally vital forms of self-care.) But once you’ve come down from the much-deserved high of completing, revising, and polishing your manuscript, it’s time to decide what to do with it.
If you feel compelled to yeet it into the traditional publishing void, your journey is only just beginning. This part will require some extreme elbow grease and bootstrap pulling because you’ll need to learn how to craft a succinct, effective, voicey (but not too voicey) query letter to send to literary agents and editors.
But qu’est-ce qu’une query letter?
Pardon my French, but I’m glad you asked. Let’s dig in!
WHAT’S IN IT?
A query letter is a one-page (ideally between 250–350 words) pitch of your manuscript for literary agents, as well as editors of indie/small publications and presses. The purpose is to entice them — to pique their interest enough that they’ll have no choice but to read your opening pages. This is your opportunity to stand out in the slush pile and showcase what makes your story special. We like to use the oft-quoted Hook, Book, Cook method, which sounds more like a recipe for fish than a query formula, but trust us — it works!
Allow us to break it down:
There are some differences of opinion as to how to order a query letter, but we’ve found starting with the hook paragraph makes the most sense. This section acts as an introduction of your manuscript and should include:
- A brief explanation of why you’re querying this person — this sentence isn’t mandatory, but it can be helpful to personalize your query based on an agent/editor’s Manuscript Wishlist or mention if you’ve met them at a conference. If you don’t have a specific or relevant connection to them, feel free to skip this part.
- Your story’s metadata — title, genre, age category, and word count. Traditional publishers tend to follow word count guidelines for specific genres, which are easy to find with a quick Google search! Don’t get too hung up on exact numbers (general estimates are fine), but if your manuscript is too far outside of these ranges it can deter literary agents from offering representation.
- Comparison titles — 2–3 books/shows/movies, ideally released within the last 5 years, and how these titles relate to your story (e.g., “The atmospheric dread of X meets the friendship dynamics of Y.”). Comparison titles convey to agents/editors where your book would sit on bookshelves, who your target audience is, and if there’s a market for the story. (Pro Tip: avoid comparing your work to wildly successful titles such as Lord of the Rings or The Hunger Games.)
This section is your story’s time to shine! It’s usually 1–3 paragraphs long (depending on the structure of your book and how in-depth your worldbuilding is). Think of this as pitchy back-cover copy explaining who and what your book is about. First, introduce your main character(s) (MC), what they want, and what is standing in their way. Then summarize how your MC will solve their main problem. Outline the inciting incident, the struggles that follow, and the price your MC will have to pay if they don’t succeed. In other words, what are the stakes of your story? (Not to be confused with steaks, which is a whole other enchilada.) Also, keep the ending hush-hush — no spoilers. This section should be enticing, succinct, and reflect the tone and voice of your story. (Easy peasy, right? Ha!)
Since you cooked a tasty book, you also get to play the role of cook in your own query! This section is for your brief bio and is an opportunity to brag about your writing accomplishments (programs, degrees, published pieces, accolades, etc.). If you don’t have anything to brag about, not to worry — agents don’t expect you to have a decorated resume or formal education/experience. Instead, focus on explaining why you’re the best person to write this story. Talk about what inspired you, add a fun detail about yourself, and tell them where you’re from.
Conclude the query letter by thanking the agent/editor for their time and sign off with your name, contact information, website, and social media handles (if you have them). Most agents use QueryManager these days, which is an online form that includes a section for the query letter, and often has separate sections for inputting social handles, contact info, etc.
HOW WE CAN HELP
Congratulations on writing a whole book! As writers ourselves, we understand how big of a deal that is. So bravo to you!
If you’re looking for support on drafting a query letter that stands out, we’ve got you. First, we’ll set up a consultation to get to know you and your story. We’ll ask you to provide a brief outline of your plot and we’ll read your opening pages to get a feel for your voice. (If you don’t think your book is query-ready yet, we can help with that too! Check out our post about book editing services.)
Next, we’ll draft your query letter, either on our own or together as a team! This will be a collaborative process — you can be involved as little or as much as you want — and will result in a polished, pitch-perfect query to bait and hook agent/editor interest.
We can also take it a step further with consultation on where to send your query by helping you navigate manuscript wishlists, submission guidelines, and QueryTracker (or your own spreadsheet) to keep your querying stats organized.
C’EST ÇA, C’EST TOUT!
Our team at Writer’s Block Solutions understands what it’s like to be in the querying trenches. We’ve endured the heartache, the euphoria, and everything in between. It can be a gruelling, confusing process and we want to make sure you’re prepared for what may happen. The best advice we can give is to find yourself an author friend who’s also querying or has done it before — someone you can celebrate and cry with. Leaning on someone who “gets it” will make a world of difference, especially since most people you know won’t understand the gravity behind getting a full request (!!) or a form rejection (😕).
Entering the publishing sphere takes courage and tenacity, and arming yourself with an incredible query letter is one of the key pathways to success. Contact us to find out how we can help you craft a pitch perfect query letter — we’re here to support you on this extraordinary journey!