August 11, 2010

What Agents *Really* Want in a Query Letter

Question mark on book

First of all, if you weren’t at the RWA conference, check out my contest for a free book from the RWA registration bags. The deadline to enter is midnight, August 16th.

So my new RWA-buddy, Roni Loren, posted a great article on her blog about the QueryFest workshop.  When I kept finding myself wanting to chime in, I knew I needed to do my own darn post rather than take over her blog!  But everyone should check out her post for her tips on how writers should structure their query letter, which you send to agents/editors to get them to request your manuscript.

Should you open with your Hook or with your Book Stats?

As I started trying to explain in the comments on Roni’s blog (sorry, Roni!), although the agents during QueryFest were very adamant about putting your genre upfront in your query, I think the answer is…it depends.

Because of the nature of the workshop—the agents listening to vs. reading the query letters—it was harder for the agents to follow storylines, characters, and details.  Yes, with a tangible query in front of them, agents can glance to the bottom of the letter to discern the genre and then return to the top of the letter.  But why would you want to make an agent read your query letter that way?

However, there are many queries where the genre is probably apparent from the hook or first couple opening lines.  If your hook has the word “vampire” in it, it’s perfectly obvious you’re describing a paranormal.  In that case, I think it’s fine to open with your hook and story description and save the book stats with word count and genre for the end.

On the other hand, if your opening sentences read like, oh say, women’s fiction, and the paranormal element isn’t introduced until the second paragraph, you’re just asking for agents to be confused when they get to that part.  Trust me on that.

As soon as an agent starts reading a query, they build a list in their head of which editors might be interested in this story.  If your query switches tone mid-way, they need to rebuild that mental list from scratch.  And making them work harder might piss them off.  Not good.

How long should a query letter be?

Another point that amazed me was just how short query letters should be.  In one of my queries, the story blurb was about 250 words.  That’s not that long, right?  Wrong.

As Roni mentions in her post, the audience started internalizing the same “stop” mentality as the agents.  And I’d say any story blurb over 150 words started feeling long and anything over 200 words was just obnoxiously excessive.

Agents don’t want the plot of your story (too “plotty” was a common complaint).  They want only the gist of your story, I’d say about 130-150 words.  Just like QueryShark recommends, focus on these things:

  • Character Introduction: Give the agent 1-4 sentences about the main character, just enough to establish them as someone to root for and care about.  Don’t go into their circumstances beyond what’s necessary to give the reader a reason to care about them.
  • Set-up: 1-4 sentences about the direction of the story, the obstacles the main character has to face.  This should not be about specific plot points.
  • Dilemma: 1 sentence to state the choice the character must face.
  • Stakes:  1-3 sentences to expose the consequences of their choice.

If you’ve successfully sold a book from a query letter, could you share it with us below?  And if anyone wants feedback on their in-process query letter, feel free to share it in the comments.  And lastly, don’t forget to enter my contest.

Comments — What do you think?

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Roni @ FictionGroupie

Great points and glad my post sparked some conversation! 🙂 I think you’re right, as with most things–it depends. But like you said, why make an agent skip down to find the genre when you can easily put it in the first sentence?

And as for the length, I agree, my mind started to wander quickly when they went on too long. However, brevity is the most difficult part for me when I write my own queries, lol.


Great post!

Lucas Becker
Lucas Becker

You made a few excellent points there. I did a search on the topic and barely got any specific details on other websites, but then great to be here, really, thanks.

– Lucas

Joe Harris
Joe Harris

I always inspired by you, your views and way of thinking, again, appreciate for this nice post.

– Joe

Kerry Meacham
Kerry Meacham

Great blog Jami,

Being new to writing novels, I don’t even know what I don’t know. This is very helpful information for when I get to the query stage. If I can see a good/great item in addition to reading about it I am much more likely to understand. Therefore, do you have examples of great query letters?

Thanks again,



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