Top tips on writing a query letter from someone who made many mistakes
I am not going to share my first query letter with you. Nope. No way. That thing was a hot mess. I will, however, share my final query letter with you. I still maintain that it’s a little messy, but thankfully not steaming.
In my first letter I put the boring technical stuff at the start so that agents had to wade through all that to get to my actual story. I was obsessed with a competition I’d won and included SEVERAL quotes from the judges. I spelt one of my comparison title author’s names wrong.
I worked on it, and then I worked on it some more. I read blogs about writing query letters, searched online for any examples I could get my hands on, and eventually created something that sold my book well and worked for me. Because those are the two most important things. You need to be the biggest salesperson for your book ever, but you need to feel comfortable doing it.
Some advice about query letters from a person who has made fool of themselves in front of a lot of agents:
- Follow agency guidelines. Always. This may sometimes feel tedious (or even soul-destroying!) but it is sooooo important. Skip this, and you run a very real risk of your submission not being read. What matters is that the essence is the same – that you’re able to talk about a story you’ve lovingly crafted and tell them a bit about yourself. So, if they tell you to lay out your letter completely differently to how you’d planned, DO IT!
- Keep it professional, yet inject personality. This is a hard balance to achieve, but basically – you’re addressing a stranger in a nice way.
- Address them properly. Get their name right. Spell the agency correctly. This is such an easy win but an almost instant turn-off if you get it wrong. Having been on the receiving end of submissions as part of my work as a generally helpful person at Eye Flash, I know just how annoying it is when people get my name wrong. Even worse is the dreaded, ‘Dear Sirs.’ Just no.
- Do not send to all. No matter how tempting it might be. It is obvious, and it will result in instant rejections. Have a template you work from (I talk more about this in my second post about letters) but put in the time to personalise it to each agent. And remember, almost all agencies only want you to send to one agent at once, so pick your favourite!
- Keep it short. Your query letter should fit easily onto one A4 page. Make sure that all the information included is relevant and necessary.
- Spend most of the time talking about your story. Make sure at least half of your letter, if not more, is detailing what actually happens in your story. This is where you can get an agent wanting more. They are people and so they will relate to your personal achievements, but what they care far more about than anything else is that you can write well. Make sure you show this off as much as you can.
- MAKE IT EXCITING! You probably shouldn’t shout. You should make sure that your love for your story is clearly transmitted though – and why you think this agent would be absolutely mad to pass on it. Like me, you may not find selling your story easy or natural, but push yourself out of your comfort zone. Grab a trumpet and blow it.
When I was querying I loved reading the letters that a real life agent read and liked enough to request a full – so here is the letter that I sent to my now agent, Rachel Mann.
Disclaimer: You will realise quite quickly as you read why this is no longer the story we are working on. And if you’re reading this a while after COVID-19 was a THING, I decided that writing a story about a virus wiping out most of the human race was not what I wanted to work on in the midst of an actual pandemic.
Jay has been living in an abandoned shack with a cow called Lucy since almost all human life was wiped out by a virus three years ago. Gradually, he has found a kind of freedom in being one of the last people left alive, especially in his wardrobe choices, and he tells himself that he doesn’t want anything to do with the other survivors. Then West crashes into his life.
West is everything that Jay is not; logical, practical, and physically fit. He thinks that Jay’s plan to travel to find a peaceful community of survivors is great, and he is ruthless in his commitment to helping Jay achieve his aim. Neither young man is good at handling change, and although they clash constantly, as they plan and travel their friendship blossoms. It could become something more if they realise their plans don’t make sense anymore because they’ve got everything they need exactly where they are.
JAY’S STORY is a contemporary YA novel set against the backdrop of the end of the world, but the focus is on West and Jay’s brokenness and the healing power of their friendship. It explores themes of love, hope, and restoration, with characters who identify as LGBTQ+. The ASD representation in this story is not stereotypical, and I hope will appeal to neuro-diverse young people who currently feel underrepresented in the media. JAY’S STORY is complete at 85,000 words, and would sit well alongside the novels of Patrick Ness and Adam Silvera.
I work in a library and am constantly reading whatever young adult fiction I can get my hands on. Some of my most recent favourites were The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo and Freshers by Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellen. I studied English Literature at university and have previously worked in schools, helping young men with ASD reach their full potential. I live on the Isle of Wight with my husband and our beautiful Labrador, Odie.
Thank you for taking the time to consider my work,