I feel like every single agented writer on the internet has, at some point, written about what you should put in the queries you’re sending to literary agents. like most things when it comes to writing and, for that matter, querying, advice is, to some extent, subjective. what one writer (or one agent) says works won’t work for everyone! that said, here’s what I’d say about writing and sending queries!
what to include in a query
a lot of what I have in this list won’t come as a surprise to you, but here’s a list of the main ingredients you want to make sure you include in your query:
Opening – what are you submitting and why are you submitting to them?
of course you’ll always start with ‘Dear…’, but for me, I always tended to address queries to people using their first name. I never ever wanted to assume the title anyone uses, so I’ve never sent a query using Ms or Mx or Mr or anything like that. I think the general advice people give is to use first name and surname in your address, but I always preferred using first name because it felt more personal. a little more like I was writing to a potential future colleague and less like I was writing to a complete stranger. I know people have different approaches here, though, so address your queries however feels best to you.
I also included a sentence or two about why I was querying them specifically. For my query to Jill (below), I had queried her previously on this project, but had to retract when I got into PItch Wars, so I thanked her, again, for her understanding and reminded her that we’d previously talked about this project. you could also include anything you’d seen on their manuscript wish list (MSWL), a tweet they’d posted, something on the agency website… it doesn’t have to be some big thing, just one little connection that says why you’re reaching out to them specifically. I found it helpful to add this into the notes column on my tracking spreadsheet when I was doing agency research.
Project pitch – what is your book about?
who are your characters and what do they want? what is the catalyst that’s about to send everything spinning? what’s the hook?
writing a one sentence pitch, while a bit painful, was actually really helpful in figuring out the hook of the story. to write a one sentence pitch, you have to boil the story down to its essence and that was really helpful in sorting out how to frame the hook.
I also found that, once I had the conflict clear in my book, it came through much more clearly in my query and made the query that much more successful. it should be absolutely clear what your characters want, what’s stopping them from getting it, and what’s at stake if they fail. I found this really difficult to articulate in early queries, but that’s because the conflict wasn’t clear in my book. Once I sorted out the connections between what Dylan wanted from work and the way that that pushed her relationship with Jack in a more complicated direction, the easier it became to write that conflict into the query.
in terms of character, I think general advice is to avoid naming more than three characters in the query. for me, writing romance, I stick to just naming the two main leads.
Details – word count, comps, your personal connection to the story (if relevant)
word count is one of the big things that agents are going to be looking for because they want to make sure that a) you know what the ranges are for your genre and b) your book is within those ranges and, thus, more easily marketable. for romance, and romantic comedies specifically, I’ve heard that anywhere from 80,000-95,000 is ideal, though you’re better off in the 85-90k range. having a slightly larger number won’t necessarily deter agents (as long as you’re under 100k), but it seems that you will lose some people if your story edges too close to that 100k mark. these numbers will definitely differ for other genres (fantasy, for example, tends to be way longer), so if you write in another genre, have a look around for those numbers.
I struggled with comps for a long time, but I think that adding them in (especially for email queries because most query manager submissions will ask for them) helped me give agents a better idea of how I see this book in the market. by providing comps, you’re giving agents a frame to think about your book and helping them envision what the future bookstore shelf could look like. if you were imaging your dream shelf, what books would be sat next to yours? why?
the ‘personal connection’ bit isn’t going to be relevant for every story, but if it’s relevant for you, it’s another important piece to include. for this story, it was important for me to mention that Dylan is a bisexual woman and that, as a bisexual woman myself, I wrote her from my experience. if you’re writing someone who has the same identity, the same/similar job or a similar unique experience, that’s something that might be worth mentioning! it adds to your ethos (…. not to sound like an English teacher)
Closing – nice sign off
you can use any sign off that you prefer: for a long time, I used ‘cheers’ because that was my preferred sign off for all my emails, but I’ve recently switched to ‘kind regards’. honestly, whatever you want to use is probably fine as long as it’s reasonable. after my sign off, I include my name, my pronouns, and, for email queries, a link to my website. if you’re writing with a pseudonym, you can include your real name there, too, with ‘writing as: PSEUDONYM’.
writing the query
once you’ve got all the details, you’ve obviously then got to… write the query. you’ll see in my query below that I structured my query in the order of the ingredients I mentioned above, but my pre-Pitch Wars query (a query that got me into Pitch Wars and got me a good number of requests) led with the pitch and then had the other details at the end. there’s no right order for a query — read queries from other writers and see what you like and see what works best for your particular story.
the thing I think makes the biggest difference to your actual query is the voice and tone of your pitch. I love my current query, and, yeah, it has all the things it needs, but that isn’t why I love it. I love because it matches the tone of WANDERLUST perfectly. Dylan’s voice comes through loud and clear and the agents that were drawn to it would then necessarily be ones that enjoyed the writing style of the actual novel. I think my earlier queries were a bit stiff, but there is a lightness and an energy, particularly to the pitch piece, that I think makes the query more fun to read. find what that means for you and your story — I’ve found it helpful to think about how Dylan would have described her story and writing it almost like I was writing it from her point of view. how would your main character tell their story? how can you bring their voice into your query materials?
I’ve always found the BookEnds youtube channel particularly helpful — they have loads of videos about querying and also videos about other aspects of publishing. other books/resources I’ve enjoyed:
- The Forest for the Trees, Betsy Lerner
- The Business of Being a Writer, Jane Friedman
Get a Literary Agent: The Complete Guide to Securing Representation for Your Work is also, if memory serves, very detailed.
before sending out my queries, I found it helpful to share my materials. I asked betas and CPs to look at the query (especially because they were also writers who were querying or looking to query) and I asked non-querying friends to look at my query from the standpoint of ‘tell me what you think this book is about’ — if they could tell me what my book was about (and it matched what it was… actually about…) then I knew my query was working.
I recently saw on twitter that people are apparently saying you should shelve a book after 30 rejections, and let me say (again) that that’s genuinely absurd. it is absolutely worth a pause in querying every so often, especially if you aren’t getting the requests you’d like or if you’re getting actionable feedback from agents, but you absolutely can get more than 30 rejections. and you should! maybe there are people who can get signed in fewer than 30 rejections, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever heard of them.
now to finally get to why you’re here! the query I sent that led to Jill’s offer:
I am thrilled to be submitting WANDERLUST, my 2021 Pitch Wars manuscript that was mentored by Courtney Kae and Jenny Howe. Thank you for being so understanding when I was accepted to Pitch Wars and had to retract my full manuscript last autumn – I am excited to resubmit this manuscript for your reconsideration.
Dylan Coughlan has far too many things going wrong. She’s in the midst of a nine-month-long argument with her parents, her editor has her writing quizzes (and only quizzes) at the magazine she works for, and, uh, people on the internet are still sending her very threatening DMs. If her parents are to be believed, Dylan is entirely responsible for the chaos – she was the one, after all, who decided to write an article about her past abortion and then had the audacity to layer in support for abortion access while she was at it. Dylan doesn’t regret it, though she does wish that her boss would give her another opportunity to pitch a column of her own.
That opportunity comes when Dylan, on an impulse, rings a radio station and wins a global travel contest. But there’s a catch: she has to go with a random phone contact. That contact ends up being Jack, the uptight, unbearably posh guy she accidentally ghosted. Jack seems like he’d sooner fling himself into the sun than have a conversation with her, but when her boss offers a permanent column if her travel series numbers are good, Dylan is willing to do anything to make it work, even if it means ignoring Jack for the next fifty days.
To Dylan’s surprise, travelling together brings them closer rather than making her want to ditch Jack like lost luggage, and it isn’t long before their initial animosity edges into something like feelings. But when Dylan kisses and tells in one of her articles and sets off a firestorm with a very private Jack at the centre, she’s forced to decide if securing her column is worth capitalising off their budding relationship… especially if it means losing Jack for good.
WANDERLUST is a 95,000-word adult romantic comedy that combines Talia Hibbert’s voice with The Unhoneymooners and a touch of social media chaos. It also features a bisexual protagonist, and many of her experiences are drawn from my own experiences as a bisexual woman.
Thank you very much for your time and consideration, and I hope you have a lovely day.
I’ve also marked up the query letter so you can see the balance/where I’ve put the query pieces:
the largest part of this query, obviously, is the project pitch. I said earlier that that is my favourite part of this query and I really think it just… sings. I can hear Dylan’s voice in my head as I read it. I’m by no means saying I have the most successful query in the world, but I think that getting the voice down made all the difference.
this balance might look different in your query (and it might look different in queries for other agented writers), but I think that the balance that works best for your book is the one you want to strike with your query. this feels unhelpful to say, but I feel like you’ll know when you’ve found it. you’ll read your query, and you’ll feel excited just hearing it. you’ll get excited and want to read that book (even though you’ve definitely already read it a thousand times). if you get excited and you get joy from your query, agents definitely will, too.
I hope that you found this helpful! if you have questions, please please do let me know! sending lots of love and good vibes
if you’re prefer to watch a youtube video where I go through my query, you can find my query video here!