A big thanks to our friends over at Writer’s Relief for this post on how to optimize your query letter. Writer’s Relief has been working with authors since 1994, and knows a thing or two about what to do (and what not to do) in query letters to agents. Here they share five tips of the trade to improve your odds when querying.
Query letters seem simple: A one-page letter that starts with an opening, continues with a book synopsis, and ends with a brief author bio. What could go wrong? As it turns out, plenty, if you’re unprepared! So read on for a list of our top tips for query letters.
- First things first: Start with a great opening line!
Many authors think the first line of their query letter must razzle dazzle and leap off the page with its wild creativity—but this isn’t necessarily true. In fact, a first line that’s jam-packed with too much information is likely to turn agents off. In most instances, a simple first line that presents your book’s crucial info will do just fine: Title, genre, and word count. For example: Please consider my 85,000-word romantic thriller, Killing Lolita.
If your book lends itself to quick summary, consider opening with a logline, which boils the plot down to its main elements as succinctly as possible: Please consider my 85,000-word romantic thriller, Killing Lolita, the story of a picturesque tragic heroine who must choose between evading her murderous stalker and living happily ever after with the love of her life. Successful loglines stay away from vague or disconnected facts about the story (the story of a picture-perfect girl, heartbreak, and saving lives), generalizations about theme instead of plot (a story of independence, romance, and impossible choices), and lengthy rambling.
- Make sure your book blurb, or mini-synopsis, is on point.
Many authors have difficulty summarizing their books in a couple of pages—let alone a couple of paragraphs! Unfortunately, that’s exactly the desired length of a winning book blurb, so it goes without saying that the best blurbs use precise language to say a lot in few words. Think of your book blurb as the text on a book’s back cover or inside jacket flap: A successful blurb introduces only the few main protagonists and antagonists. Likewise, your blurb should introduce only the main plot and perhaps a crucial subplot, as opposed to getting caught up in the finer details of your book. You should also be sure to focus on the action of the story—skip thematic explanations. And finally, don’t give away the ending! You want to leave a prospective agent wanting more.
- Don’t lose the agent’s attention with your bio.
An author’s bio should be even more succinct than the book blurb—one paragraph at most. Though your bio should, of course, give a taste of your personality, agents will first want to see what makes you author material. First, the bio should list any previous publication credits, writing conferences attended, and interesting writers you’ve worked with. You can also add information on any degrees or areas of study you think are relevant (perhaps you have a degree in gothic literature, which leaves you perfectly educated for penning a book like Killing Lolita).
- Stay away from hubris at all costs.
If literary agents had a nickel for every time they read something like, “My book is the next Harry Potter,” they would surely all be rich. So don’t be that writer, especially in your query letter. Inflated promises are sure to annoy a literary agent before they’ve even read your book. Even poorly-placed adjectives (my riveting romantic thriller; my book that you won’t be able to put down, etc.) can work against you.
- Don’t presume your book is the exception to these rules.
Ultimately, every author has one goal in a query letter: to get an agent interested in representing their book. Though the tips above may seem too regimented or plain frightening to apply to your book, think twice before bucking the system: Certainly, a daring move with your query letter might make your book stand out, but it could also make a literary agent toss your query onto the circular file.
Writer’s Relief is an author’s submission service that has been helping creative writers make submissions since 1994. Their work is highly recommended in the writing community, and there are TONS of freebies, publishing leads, and writers’ resources on their website. Check it out!