You’ve written a novel! First, take a moment and congratulate yourself for making it to the end. After you’ve edited, revised, and gotten critical feedback from critique partners and beta readers, you might be thinking: What’s next? For anyone considering a career in traditional publishing, the next step is querying.
Querying is the process of finding an agent to represent you. To have your manuscript considered by any of the Big 5 publishing houses, you typically need a literary agent. The querying process typically requires three parts: a letter to the agent, a one- or two-page synopsis of the plot, and a short writing sample — typically the first five to 15 pages of your novel, depending on the agent. This guide will break down each of the three components of your query, plus resources you can use to identify the right contacts and attract the attention of a literary agent.
Writing the Perfect Query Letter
Your query letter is really your first introduction to an agent. It should be concise, professional, and above all, catchy.
When I queried my first novel, I didn’t know how many resources were out there or how high the standards were. I assumed the query letter would be like most pitch emails, and as a result, my query letter was only a halfway decent elevator pitch with a few vibes and comparable books thrown in.
I was lucky to get one full and one partial request. That is, one agent requested to read the full manuscript, and another requested to read a more significant portion. These requests are positive signs of interest, because even a partial request — say, asking to read 50 pages or more — requires a significant time investment by the agent. It’s not something they can afford to do for the hundreds of queries they regularly receive.
These requests are also why it’s essential for novelists to finish the book before submitting to an agent. They often come in sporadically: One agent might request more pages in two months, and another agent might request them within the hour. Either way, you need to be prepared, because an agent won’t thank you for wasting their time.
In retrospect, I believe the two requests I received were because of my opening pages, not my query letter. The majority of agents, however, sent rejection notices or chose not to reply. That stung, but when I did more research to understand what a query letter should have in it, I understood why those requests ended in rejection. I wasn’t able to summarize my story in a quick and compelling way because the plot wasn’t focused enough. For my current novel, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel I chose to follow a well-established formula, found my voice, and have received eight full requests and a partial so far.
The Hook, the Book, and the Cook
Ideally, your query letter should fit on a single page if it was printed. It should be short—no longer than 400 words total and the story element of your query should be no longer than 250 words. Literary agent Eric Smith has a fantastic “recipe” for a compelling query letter. He summarizes the letter into an easy three-part recipe: the hook, the book, and the cook. On his website you can also find more than a dozen query letters that prompted him to request the full manuscript and eventually offer representation.
The hook is just what it sounds like: It’s where you want to draw in the agent. Your opening sentences need to convey a lot of information without data dumping. You want to include your book title, genre, comps, and a sharp elevator pitch. If you have a way to personalize your query — for example, if they liked your pitch on Twitter or previous requested your work — this is where you do that. The book offers more information relevant to the novel’s positioning, like word count. The cook is where you leave a quick blurb about yourself. If you have writing credits or information about what makes you the perfect person to write your book, this is the place to include it.
Resources You Can Use to Improve Your Query Letter
You absolutely want to take the time to read successful query letters and dissect what made them work. There are examples all over the internet, but here a few that helped me. Jane Friedman’s website breaks down the query letter in finite detail. This helped me understand exactly what each section needed, what it didn’t, and she has plenty of examples to make everything understandable and replicable.
Reedsy is another amazing website with a ton of resources on writing and they break down the query letter into seven easy steps, complete with a downloadable checklist. They include videos in their explanations along with examples from famous books. It’s easy to see the formula each query follows and they highlight what made each section successful.
Another fantastic resource for all things writing, querying, and publishing is agentquery.com. Their query letter pages help you understand how to write a fantastic hook with well-known books as examples. They go through formulaic and non-formulaic hooks, and give different ways you can structure your one-sentence hook to perfectly match your book. They also include complete query letters and access to a community of other writers who can help with feedback.
Finally, if you really want to study the art of the query letter in detail, head over to Query Shark. This website is run by literary agent Janet Reid. It has over 300 query letters spanning almost 20 years and breaks down what works, what doesn’t, and her very specific suggestions to fix it. You can even submit your own query letter for a chance to be critiqued. Her website is often described as a bootcamp for querying writers and if you read through her posts, you will learn a ton about how to write a query letter.
It might feel like adhering to a formula will guarantee you don’t stand out, but the opposite is true. Agents want to know that you understand publishing, and writing a solid query letter is the easiest way to convey this to them. It shows them that you can capture the essence of your book in a few paragraphs, which means they can take that snappy description and sell it to an editor. A lot of back cover descriptions and marketing log lines come from successful query letters, so getting the tone exactly right is crucially important.
The Dreaded Synopsis
It’s hard enough writing your novel, but now you have to somehow condense everything into fewer than 500 words. Unlike the query, where voice matters, this is meant to be as direct and forward-moving as possible. Not many writers enjoy writing a synopsis. They’re hard to write, even for authors who have been doing them for years. But if you want to be traditionally published, this is an inevitable process that you’ll eventually have to do.
I was terrified of the synopsis to the point that I originally didn’t query agents who required one. That was a mistake for two reasons:
- I cut my available list of agents in half.
- The synopsis is an effective tool at helping you identify holes in your main plot.
The synopsis strips your story down to its bare bones. It sounds terrible — how will they see all the clever clues, exciting side plots, and emotional character arc? They won’t, but that’s not the point of the synopsis. The point is to follow your main plot and prove that you can not only tie your story together with a nice, neat bow, but that the ending is satisfying and not cliché.
There are a lot of resources on how to write a synopsis, including the websites I listed above. The one that helped me really feel like I understood the assignment was Susan Dennard’s helpful guide. She breaks down the synopsis into easy steps using the plot of Star Wars as the guide. I would highly recommend subscribing to her newsletter, too, because she gives you an inside look into all things publishing in an honest and straightforward manner.
It's daunting, but if you learn how to write an effective synopsis, you can use it as a starting point for your plot and build the story from there. It helps keep you on track and focused and will help guide you back to the core of your story whenever you feel like you might be meandering. I find its particularly helpful throughout the murky middle.
Making Sure Your Opening Pages Are Solid
After you write your query letter and your synopsis, most agents will ask you to include your opening pages. Some will ask for five pages, some for 10, some for 50. Others might want the first chapter or two. The pages you send have to be your actual first pages. This is important because if they request more of the manuscript and you include a prologue or your first pages were actually later in the novel, many agents will auto-reject. If you find yourself thinking that your first pages aren’t the strongest, do not query and fix those pages first.
These are the sentences that will hopefully draw an agent in and leave them wanting more. You want them as close to perfect as possible. While a typo or two won’t detract from a request, too many will. Same with passive voice, too much world-building, info-dumping, or stunted dialogue.
Two books really helped me analyze and evaluate my opening pages (and the rest of my manuscript).
The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman is written by a literary agent with the specific goal of helping writers tighten their pages to land an agent. He covers everything from formatting to evaluating show versus tell, and each chapter has specific exercises to help you polish your manuscript. Even better, he offers the audio version of this book and others for free on his website.
For a more in-depth editing experience, Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave by Don McNair is a step-by-step guide for you to apply to your manuscript. Every chapter is designed to sharpen your prose, tighten your plot, and make every scene and character work harder. It also includes exercises to apply what you’ve learned as you read through the book. While this is intended for your overall manuscript, following these steps will make every aspect of your novel better, including your opening pages.
Have the rest of the book ready
Agents may ask for a limited number of pages to start, but they expect that any book pitched to them is complete. This is one of many reasons that the synopsis is often included. It proves that the pitch is more than just theoretical: It's a sample of a larger work. Given the massive number of queries that agents often receive, it's essential that you have the rest of your fiction work complete prior to submission (nonfiction works differently).
If agents are intrigued enough to ask for the rest of the book and learn that it's not ready, they'll likely either move on or get frustrated with the author for wasting their time on an unfinished project.
Creating the Right List of Agents to Query
Now that you’ve perfected and polished every aspect of your query package, you’re ready to start querying agents. But how do you find them?
My first query list was built from looking at acknowledgement pages and using Google to figure out the agents of my favorite books and relevant comparable books. It was a slow and inefficient process that gathered a short list of names, made shorter when some agents were closed to queries. Finding these resources made the entire process so much easier.
Query tracker is your one-stop shop to keep track of all your queries. Each profile has links to their Manuscript Wish List page, success stories, and direct links to either their email or QueryManager, the online form many agencies use for query submissions. It makes it easy to track your queries and find agents. There are also premium features for $25 a year: You can unlock reports that show how long agents take to reply based on other user information, agents with similar tastes, and the comment feed where you can read other users’ experiences with that agent.
I mentioned Manuscript Wish List, and this is a fantastic free resource to finding out exactly what agents are looking for. Not every agent has a page and they aren’t always updated, but when they are up-to-date this website can offer you incredible insight into exactly what an agent is looking for, specific comps of shows and books they love, and what they don’t want to see in their inbox.
Finally, if you can afford the subscription, Publisher’s Marketplace is your biggest insight to how an agent performs. You can look up an agents deals, looking into which publishers and editors they have relationships with, what type of deals they typically get by genre, and who their clients are. I compiled my agent list using the Query Tracker and Manuscript Wish List, and then paid $25 for a month for Publisher’s Marketplace to conclude my research. Publisher’s Marketplace also offers six month and annual subscriptions if you want to take your time.
Querying Doesn’t Have to be A Mystery
Sending your words into the world can be a daunting task. You’re asking a stranger to make a decision on months, sometimes even years, of your work based on one letter and your opening pages. But there are an incredible array of resources available to help you craft a strong query letter and find a list of agents who will best fit your manuscript. The more prepared you are, the more confident you’ll be, leading to more full requests and eventually getting the email every writer dreams of: an offer of representation.
Featured photo: Brooke Cagle / Unsplash