Specifics in Query Letters

I love helping editing clients make their query letters shine and a thing I find myself saying repeatedly is that there are more specifics needed. To help make sure that your query sticks in agent’s minds, the letter needs to be snappy and original. The only way to do this is by being as specific as possible about your story, characters, the comparison titles, and you as the writer. Vagueness is easily forgotten, but interesting specifics will stick in agent’s minds.

Disclaimer for my editing clients – I only ever share advice that I find myself giving again and again. I am NOT talking about you and will never reference your stories. In fact, I’m probably going to talk about ME quite a lot!

So let’s break it down. I’m going to go through a query letter in the order that I wrote one and which I feel works well to introduce agents to your story in a fun and helpful way. Starting with…

1. THE ELEVATOR PITCH

This is one or two lines designed to encapsulate the essence of your story. This doesn’t mean they have to tell the whole story, but just give a flavour and hook agents in. Here’s mine:

Note – it doesn’t tell you very much BUT there are some interesting specifics in there to snag interest. We know the victim, that the case is a difficult one, and that the suspects are not going to make it any easier.

Now, this isn’t perfect. I could have rammed even more specifics in there, but hopefully you get the gist. Make sure that this short intro to your story could only ever be describing YOUR story – and pull out as many interesting details as you can. Avoid vagueness at all costs.

2. INTRO TO CHARACTERS AND PLOT SUMMARY

This makes up the bulk of your letter. It doesn’t have to tell the agents everything (that’s what a synopsis is for) but acts more like a blurb – something to capture interest and give a better sense of what the story is about. Here’s mine:

I feel like I should say here that I honestly don’t think that my query letter is perfect, but I hope that sharing it is helpful! I’m such a nosy bean – I love seeing what everyone else has sent to agents!

Anyway, this plot summary is full of more specifics. They are the ones I felt were the most important to know, to both give a sense of the story and the characters, and they would give agents something to think about. Note – I didn’t include everything. There are two suspects that aren’t even mentioned, plus the detective’s histories are only hinted at. There is a fine line to tread between being specific enough that your story stands out, but not getting overly bogged down in the details.

I like to think of this part of the letter as the walk between the elevator to the front door. Your elevator pitch interested them enough that they want to hear more, but you’ve got a limited amount of time before they’ll walk out the door.

Keep it snappy – tell them only what they really need to know and only what is really interesting. Think about what is unique and attention-grabby about your story and make sure that’s included. Make sure the characters, their aims, and the stakes/threats are clear. And again, avoid vagueness at all costs. If your character needs to save the world, then how are they going to do that and what do they most care about saving? If they are looking for romance, what’s different about their search and why to they need a special someone?

Ask yourself why a lot, and try to be as specific as possible in your answers. Make sure that this section is exciting and enticing – leave all the other details for the synopsis. Look at the backs of books and practice writing about your story in the same style.

3. THE BORING BITS

These are the things that agents need to know, and I’d suggest putting them further down in your letter simply because they can get excited about the story first and then read the info they need. Here’s mine:

This is all the junk that agents need to know – how the story is told (if it’s a bit different to the norm), the word count and genre. And, MOST IMPORTANTLY, your comparison titles. Comparison titles are something I’ve harked on about before. They are a great opportunity to show off both that you’re reading in your genre and that you understand where your book sits in the market.

AND they are another chance to get specific. It’s not that helpful to say, ‘my story is cross between The Hunger Games and Pride and Prejudice.’ (SOMEONE WRITE THIS!) What elements of these is it similar too? What bits do you want to evoke in agent’s minds?

If you’re using comparison titles (which can be anything – books, magazines, films, TV series, songs, famous people…), make sure to say more than just the name. Maybe it’s the brutality of The Hunger Games set alongside the miscommunication and family dynamics of Pride and Prejudice?

Note that I haven’t talked about themes at all. This is another area where vagueness is RIFE. What story isn’t about friendship or courage or love? Show these elements in your plot summary with specific details, rather than putting something in your letter that could apply to a hundred other stories

4. THE PERSONALISED BIT

I always feel like it’s a good idea to spend some time researching agents and personalising your letter. This doesn’t have to be much – just referring to something on their wish list or in a recent tweet is great. Here’s mine:

Note – this is also a great place to say specifically why you have written this story. Do you share any characteristics with your main character? Do you have a specific experience that informs your writing? Did something interesting happen that sparked this idea?

5. ME ME ME

The main thing, initially, that you need to sell is the story so make sure that your letter is focused on that, but it’s good to throw in a few specifics about yourself. In the end, agents are signing you as a writer, so they will want to get a sense of your personality. Here’s mine:

There is loads of stuff I left out here – I didn’t chat about my degree or how long I’ve been writing or any awards or my love of cake. Instead, I just picked a few things I felt were relevant and interesting – and mentioning a pet is always a win. Reading is such a big part of my life that I couldn’t resist mentioning it here, and that’s the thing to ask yourself – what defines you and informs your writing? Are you a keen traveller, blogger, baker, or crafter? What makes you tick?

Two final notes:

1. Do be careful not to waffle. Specifics are great, bogging down agents in too many details isn’t. A query letter should be no more than a page long – mine was 487 words (which is probably a little on the long side).

2. This isn’t actually the letter I sent to my lovely agent. Kate Nash Literary Agency asked for things to be done differently, so that’s what I did. So make sure to retain the specifics, but ALWAYS follow agency guidelines.

I hope this has been helpful! If you’d like me to take a gander at your query package or your whole story, check out my editing options. And I’d love to keep you up-to-date with all my editing tips, writing adventures, and editing availability with my monthly newsletter.

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