Davin: At first, I thought my query letter had to be perfect, which was a very intimidating thought. Now, I think of letters as just the door opener: the objective is to get an agent to request a partial or a full manuscript. After that, it's the actual book that they will pay attention to. To that end, present your project clearly and display some proficiency in your writing. Include a brief biography that explains why you are the best writer for this job. Then, let the agents decide if they are interested or not. If you have done your homework and found people who are representing the type of writing you do, they will be interested, even if you have a typo or two in your letter.
Below, Robyn offered up her query letter for a individual critique. Thanks, Robyn! It's almost always a good idea to get some feedback on how your query letter is working, and The Public Query Slushpile is a great place to post your own letter.
It’s summer, and Anna and Claire head out on their first-ever endurance horseback ride alone on the trails of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Anna is excited that she and Claire will be able to share the beauty that lies in the trails that she and her family have ridden her whole life. But a few hours into their ride, disaster strikes: they become lost. With night fast approaching, the insulin in Anna’s pump is almost gone. How will they survive the next seventy-two hours in the wilderness, fighting wild animals, and Anna’s diabetes?
Horse stories are always popular with girls obsessed with horses, but there are few survival stories with girl protagonists. I have combined those ideas and hope you will enjoy reading Seventy-Two Hours, an adventure story for older middle grade girls. It is complete at 34,000 words.
I have written for our state SCBWI newsletter, The Pen and Palette, and I am a member of SCBWI.
Thank you for your time and consideration. I hope to hear from you soon.
Robyn, overall, I think this is a strong letter. It's simply written and presents the premise of the story clearly. We know the characters, the setting, the conflict and the tone of the piece in just one paragraph. We also get some good information about you. I'm missing the characters' personalities. We get a little bit of Anna's background, but I think a phrase or two about each of them could make the book feel more multidimensional. The sentence: "With night fast approaching, the insulin in Anna’s pump is almost gone" is a bit awkward to me. It implies some sort of causal relationship that isn't supposed to be there. The phrase, "Horse stories are always popular with girls obsessed with horses" also isn't working for me yet. It's a reflexive thought that doesn't feel persuasive.
Michelle: My advice is aimed at Robyn, but most of the things I say here can apply to queries in general.
The important thing to remember is, as Davin says, query letters do not have to be perfect. In fact, the more you revise a query, the more I've seen the author's voice and style simply slip away, leaving nothing more than a formal-sounding business letter that doesn't show the agent or publisher what kind of a writer you really are. The sparkle fizzles out. I can feel the sparkle in this letter, but I think you can give it more. More revision, you say? Well, I don't think it'll take much. This letter is strong already. It is concise and tells us almost everything we need to know. It does lack some focus, I think. Here's what I would do:
In my experience (which is limited, mind you), I've found that the section in a query that focuses on the characters should focus on two things: the main protagonist and the main character or force that is stopping that protagonist from reaching his/her intended goals. This focus is essential. Unfortunately, I've seen query after query slip out of this focus. Too may plot points. Too many characters. A query usually doesn't need all that.*
I think your letter is pretty focused, but I want a little more. It could be a matter of a few words. First, I'm almost certain your main protagonist is Claire - but, as Davin says, I think a phrase or two about Anna and Claire would help establish this. (Although you'll probably want less of Claire). Second, emphasize the main force going against them - the wilderness, the wild animals, Anna's diabetes? See, I'm not sure which one it is. . . . Probably a combination of all three, but usually one trumps the others. Too many villains creates confusion.
Remember, this is all my opinion. I've had a problem of too many villains in my current novel, and I'm sure I'll have trouble with that in the query letter. But if you feel that equally emphasizing all three is essential, you may want to leave it close to what you already have.
Nathan Bransford has a great post about the "sweet spot" in query letter word count. He's found that the sweet spot, for him at least, is between 250 -350 words. Yours is 172, so "adding a few phrases about Anna and Claire" shouldn't be a problem. You have lots of room to play around. Although please don't go adding words just to hit the sweet spot. Bad idea, haha. Also, agent Alexander Field over at The Mystery and The Magic recently did a post on 10 things not to do in your query, for anybody who's interested.
Thank you for submitting this! I hope we've helped a little.
*(Lynn, in the Just Ask section, gave you some good advice, but I think the questions she's asking don't have to be addressed in the query. Those are questions you want the agent to ask, in my opinion. All a query letter should do is hook that agent. If they ask for a full synopsis in the query, that's where you might answer those questions)
Scott: I'll repeat what Davin and Michelle have already said about queries not having to be perfect. The query letter I used to get an agent had a typo in it, but my agent never noticed it (or, if he did, he didn't care because he liked what I'd gotten right).
I think that main thing to bear in mind is that a query is a hook, an advertisement for your story. You need to find one or two (but one is better) sentences to "grab" the agent (like he's any other reader) and make him want to read the story. Which usually means showing your protagonist in some sort of crisis. In Robyn's example above, "How will they survive the next seventy-two hours in the wilderness, fighting wild animals, and Anna’s diabetes?" is very nearly a hook, but not quite. I think this would be stronger if it were recast from a question into a statement, something like "Anna and Claire must survive the next seventy-two hours in the wilderness, fighting [really? fighting?] wild animals under the threat of Anna slipping into diabetic shock." Don't make the heart of your story a question, because the reader (that is, the agent) might just shrug and say, "I don't know" and move on to something else. Declare boldly that there is a conflict that demands the reader's attention.
Other things to think about: 1. Your query should be in the same "voice" as your book. If you have written a spare, lean novel, you should write a spare, lean query. If you've written a novel with flowing, beautiful language, your query should reflect that. 2. Don't worry about pub credits and "platform." Just write a good book and be excited about your story when you write your query; let your excitement come through. 3. Be businesslike. This is a business letter. Don't be cute or overly familiar. 4. Don't write a query that doesn't reflect your actual story. 5. Do include the first five pages (at least) of your novel unless the agent tells you not to. 6. Don't query at random; research agents and target them. I only sent out a handful of queries before getting an offer of representation.