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The Query Letter that Got Me My Agent

Query Letter: a 1-page business letter sent to a literary agent to inquire about that agent representing the writer
Since I first started writing seriously in 2012, I've queried more than 200 agents. Some of these query letters (and rounds of queries) were more successful than others. But I like to think I've learned at least a few things since that first query I sent (and accidentally addressed to the wrong agent - yup, I was THAT person).

In my regular, non-writing life, I get asked a lot about how publishing works, how you get traditionally published, etc. The simplest answer: you write a book, edit that book, get an agent, and the agent sells that book. And expect all that to take years.

There are a lot of great resources out there for getting a literary agent. Susan Dennard's blog is one of my favorites. Writers Digest also has some great tips, and many agencies offer their advice on writing a query letter that shines (and gets an agent's attention).

One thing to remember is that query letters are gonna be written in drafts, just like a book. And while you want your query to sparkle, you also need to make sure you follow the proper formula, as well as agents' rules. Only submit what an agent asks to see.

A good outline to follow for a query is...

Dear [agent],

[Personalization - why you're querying this agent. This is typically more than just saying "because you represent YA" or "you've made a lot of sales in my genre." The agent already knows this. A personalization is something like "I saw on Twitter you're currently looking for Southern gothic stories" or "Your website lists that you're hoping to find a vampire book" or something similar. If you don't have a personalization, skip this part and go straight into the pitch.]

[Pitch paragraph #1 - introduce the characters, world, and plot]

[Pitch paragraph #2 - make the stakes clear; what could your MC lose or gain?]

[Optional: pitch paragraph #3 - wrap up anything]

[Book info - wordcount, genre, theme, comp titles, etc.]

[Author bio - give your credentials and basic information about you, more detail if your bio relates to the subject matter of your book]


[your name]
[contact info]

There's some wiggle room in form, but generally speaking, this is a good format. People disagree about where you should put your personalization, but I personally like it at the beginning, especially if you've got a really strong reason to be querying this agent. Just know that some agents prefer if you jump straight into the pitch.

Okay, I'm getting a little long already, so let me (finally) share my own query letter! My commentary below each paragraph.

*Note: My query is far from perfect, and I'm sure there are lots of improvements I could have made. Also, don't take my opinion as gospel. I just hope something in here helps someone else. :)

Dear Ms. [last name redacted],
Always, always, always include the agent's name, and never, never, never send your query to multiple agents in one email. Some agents prefer first name, but unless you see them say that somewhere, I personally recommend using last name.

I saw your tweet on the #MSWL hashtag today that you're looking for books with spies, so I'm writing to you about my speculative thriller THE THIEVES' WORLD.
This is a specific personalization. My book is all about Cold War Era-spies, so this was relevant. Remember, don't try to force a personalization if you can't find one. You can skip this paragraph altogether!

At the Battle of Berlin in 1945, a mysterious magical force erased key memories from the world's population. Country and culture names, specific artists and historical records - all gone, leaving post-war Europe in chaos. Some people, called Blessed, were granted enhanced, memory-related abilities that enable them to share, erase, or read others' thoughts. Two years later, Western Europe has unified in a Republic, but Stalin's Red State looms, and another war is imminent.
One of the hooks of this book is the setting, which is what fuels the plot. I wanted to go ahead and get this info out there, so the agent could understand the rest of the pitch.

In the Republic's Fifth City, Inspector Andre Labelle holds onto dogged hope. Still haunted by the undercover operation of which he was the sole survivor - and the memories of his late daughter - he's never given up hope that he can bring to justice the dirty cop who got his fellow officers killed, Pierre Moreau. When Nadezhda Krovopuskova, the daughter of a Red gangster with no memory of her identity, is delivered to his precinct by masked men, Andre realizes there might be a new kind of Blessed no one's seen before: someone who can plant false memories in people's minds. Convinced Nadezhda's case is related to Moreau's corruption, he chases every lead he can across the city, from the Louvre to secret nationalist meetings. He won't quit until Moreau pays for what he did.
This paragraph is all about introducing one of my protagonists, Andre. It tells the agent (1) who he is, (2) what he wants, and (3) what's at stake for him personally. I also wanted to slip in some info about the plot.

Nadezhda Krovopuskova has no memory of who she is or where she came from. But when the Republic's Agent Moreau threatens to throw her in prison and kill her sister, Nadezhda has no choice but to play spy in Moreau's plot and go undercover to undermine her father's plans to aid Stalin's Red expansion. Once home, however, as her memories begin to slowly return, Nadezhda begins to see the love her family shared - and how much power she once wielded in the criminal underworld. She must decide what she's more loyal to: her family and its business, or the secrets concealed in her own mind, which seems to be telling her not to trust the man she calls Papa.
Here, I'm introducing protagonist #2: Nadezhda. I'm also hinting at what will become her character arc, which ultimately is a downward spiral. Again, I'm introducing character and conflict, with plot supporting.

Complete at 139,000 words, THE THIEVES' WORLD reimagines the Suka Wars of Russia's criminal underworld in an alternate history where no one can trust their own memories. Andre's and Nadezhda's stories collide as they face government corruption, betrayals, and mafia violence. I believe it will appeal to fans of high-concept speculative thrillers like Man in the High Castle and Tom Sweterlitsch's The Gone World, as well as gangster stories with morally ambiguous characters like Fonda Lee's Jade City.
The kitchen sink paragraph, where I get in all the details of the book. Of note here are the comp titles. I read somewhere that you should have at least 2 comp titles, books published in the past couple years that weren't runaway successes (but were still successful). Mine here are The Gone World and Jade City. I added Man in the High Castle because it's more recognizable right now because of the TV show, and I thought it would be impossible to avoid the comparison with an alternate history set after WWII.

A current grad student in philosophy, I published my YA contemporary Hello, I Love You with St. Martin's Press in 2015. My previous agent at [redacted] left the business recently, and I'm looking for new representation.
Short and sweet. One piece of info about me personally and my previous publication history. I was also in a weird circumstance of having just lost my previous agent, which is important to note in a query.

As per your submission guidelines, I've pasted the first 5 pages of my MS below. Thank you for your consideration,
This isn't necessary, but I just like the agent to know that I read his/her guidelines.

Katie M. Stout

And that's it! Like I said, I'm sure there are lots of places I could have revised some more. But hopefully, there's something here to help someone in the query trenches.

I think the biggest hurdle I've seen with querying is finding the right agent. There are lots of agents who like YA or adult thrillers, but when you're researching agents, you're looking for the one that will connect with you and the specifics of your book. Research, along with a great query, is key.

Good luck, scribbling friends! Querying can be soul sucking, but finding the right agent could be one letter away!
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