QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Writing a Personalized Query Letter

This month, we’re talking about the query process and query letters—and I admit it’s been a long time since I’ve written one.

So, I thought, since I happen to have a completed manuscript sitting here on my desk (handy, right?) but never wrote a query for it, why not give it a shot?

Writing exercises like this are an excellent way for writers to work on their craft. (Another good exercise? Write a synopsis. That’s like a P90X-level craft workout, right there.)

While I had no query written for this particular book, I did have a hook line written (thanks to this article which I keep on my favorites list. This post is part of series that goes on to discuss the set-up and the conflict. If you haven’t yet read those articles yet, do it now).

I took a few minutes to write my query letter using Elana Johnson’s pointers, and clocked in at 250 words.

Not bad, I thought. I opened with the title, word count, genre, and hook line. I described my character in her place and time, I mentioned her internal and external conflicts, and I talked about the man who pushes her through that important doorway in the story, that point of no return. I followed with a little comparison to other books and closed it politely, professionally. Just like Elana taught us, way back with the QTB was new.

That’s why those articles are classic—the advice works just as well now as it did then.

But writing the query isn’t a once-and-done thing—it is and should forever be an ever-changing individual approach to an individual agent.

I wrote my query before even looking at agents because I wanted to capture the essence of my book in a pitch. However, once I started looking at agent profiles, I realized that I’d have to go back to the query and tweak it.

I’d written the query for me. In actuality, I should have written it for the agent.

One Size Doesn't Fit All
A query template is a very good place to start your query, but you can’t stop there. The next reference should be the agent’s guidelines for querying, because what they want trumps all you do. Plain and simple.

The first agent on my list wanted a letter including background and writing experiences, along with three chapters attached.

The second agent on my list should be mentioned as the target for the query, with the actual query sent to another person. She wanted first four pages included in-message as well as a submission history.

The third agent wanted the query emailed to her personal address at the agency, with three chapters in the body of the email. They also provide a file of queries they’ve received in the past with their reactions/reader commentaries so you can polish your query before sending it.

Three agents, three separate sets of guidelines. Why would it even make sense to send the same query to all three?

Make It Personal
Sometimes, writers are so excited to get those queries out that they take shortcuts. Shortcuts are bad. You’ve spent months, if not years, perfecting your novel. Now is not the time to slap a sloppy generic label on it and spam people with it.

  • Start with “Dear Agent”
  • Send query as a mass email (more than one agent in subject field. BCC’ing it does not make it all better.)
  • Send an identical copy to every agent on your list
  • Attach things that are preferred in-message and vice versa
  • Assume that an agent will be overjoyed that you disregarded guidelines

  • Start fresh with each letter. Of course you can keep your hook intact, but starting out the query and finishing up fresh each time gives you the chance to personalize the letter to that individual agent. It will keep you from putting the wrong name on it. It will ensure you have the agent’s sub guidelines open in one window while you email them in another. 

They say a book is never truly finished until it’s in the hands of a reader. I think the same applies to a query. A query is never truly finished until it’s been personally written for a single agent. If you can write a book with the hopes of making one single person happy reading it, then the least you could do is provide the same for an agent on your query list.

For more on the topic of querying, be sure to check out Elana Johnson’s series on writing the query  as well as these five mistakes to avoid when querying.


Linda H. said...

I did the same thing. I wrote my query first and then had to go back and tweak. Now I now better.

Ronald Gagnon said...

I wrote a 400+ manuscript after undergoing a major hospitilization while attending University...it still sits in my bedroom over 30 years later