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Quick Tips to create better query letters

Fly your flag high for your book

The Bookends Literary Agency posts videos to lead authors through the submission process. The agents at Bookends suggest these to-do’s for your query process.

  • Use your book’s title and a word count range
  • Use the right agent’s name; don’t query “Dear Sir” or “To whom it may concern”
  • Create a bio for yourself with an item that relates to your book.
  • Send your own query, not one that’s been written for you by a service. (It’s fine to have your query reviewed by outside eyes.)

There’s an obvious list of query do-nots

  • Don’t query an agent that doesn’t represent your genre
  • Don’t berate an agent or criticize their clients
  • Don’t query without being well-read in your genre

There’s one more crucial item to consider. A query is an essential in any submission. An agent may or may not ask for a synopsis. They might ask for 10 pages of your manuscript. They might request a proposal. But every agent will want to see a query letter.

Parts of a query

A query is a one-page document. Working from the advice of former agent Becka Oliver, now the director of the Writers’ League of Texas, a good query letter is comprised of

A Connection paragraph, showing how you know the agent’s clients, or any mention of how you chose the agent. If there’s an in-person meeting you enjoyed with them, bring it up here.

A Context paragraph, establishing context for your book by referencing a genre, a writing style, a voice, or the specific author or book that your writing is similar to. “For readers of [            ], my book…” is a good way to go. “In the spirit of” is another good phrase. This shows you know your readership and your genre.

A Compel paragraph, or even two, that highlights the most compelling elements of the book. This is not a synopsis, so beware of “and then.. and then.” The compel section should leave the reader wanting more. End it on a note of uncertainty or danger to increase tension.

A Credentials paragraph, which is often a bio of your life’s events and experiences that relate to your book. If you have something unique in your life, it’s worth a mention here, just to give an agent another handle to remember you by. If you’re writing nonfiction, this is a crucial segment of the query.

Use the Ws

Oliver, who has pitched books for an agency and acquired rights for a press, says a query will always contain the Ws of a story:

  • W for Who, the main characters of the story
  • W for What, the journey of the story
  • W for Where, the setting of the story, which can include a time frame
  • W for When, the starting point of the story

Compel paragraphs are the hardest to write. Creating a one-page synopsis of the book makes creating the Compel section flow more easily. Expect to write many drafts of your Compel section.

How to pitch, and why

Pitching in person can be exhilarating and scary. You’re really at the conference or event to connect in a personal way, though. If this agent is the right match for your work — meaning they can carry the book into submissions and get a publisher’s offer — you’ll have a good sense after a pitch. You’re more likely to get an agent’s request for pages by pitching than emerging from the Unrequested Submissions (slush) pile in an agent’s inbox.

But an in-person pitch is won’t make it more likely to get a deal any more than a query, according to the agents at Bookends. They still want to see that you can write. That moment — seeing an agent pull out a business card at a pitch event, inviting you to submit after a pitch — is thrilling. Presenting your book, via pitch or query, gives you a hidden benefit. Sometimes pitching or querying helps you discover the theme, structure, or tension that your book still needs. Find a pitch event and help your book get a publisher.

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