Gif of a cute little girl with pigtails shrugging. The caption reads: what am I even doing?

In these modern, technological days, most query letters are submitted via email. But there are still various formatting and stylistic guidelines to be adhered to. Be polite, profesh, and personable. Your query should contain the following elements, adjusted and amended to suit a) your submission (duh), and b) the agent you’re sending it to:

SUBJECT LINE:

A simple, easily-searchable reference to your submission, such as:

“Fiction submission: The Angst-ridden Amphibian by Newton Frogspawn”

As always, follow the guidelines if there’s a preference stated. Otherwise, make it clear what your email’s about and include your title and name – you never know, they might choose to click on your submission over others because your title catches their eye.

If you’re emailing on a referral, stick that in your subject line to catch their attention and stand out from the rest of their inbox, eg: “Referral from Big Name Agent – Book Title”

#1 – THE GREETING:

“Dear [Agent Name]”

Not To Whom it May Concern, not Sir/Madam, not Company Name of Literary Agency, not Yo Agent-face – find out WHO you’re sending it to and address them politely – and spell their name right ffs. In case you think this is all a bit obvious, let us remind you that the women behind Irish indie publishers Tramp Press got so sick of writers assuming their company was run by men that they now refuse to read submissions addressed to ‘Dear Sirs’ and variations on that theme.

#2 – THE INTRO*:

A personalised, straight-to-the-point explanation of why you’re sending THIS particular book to THIS particular agent, such as:

“I recently read on your Twitter profile that you were eager to read more frog-based literary fiction, and hoped you might be interested in my book, The Angst-ridden Amphibian.”

Essentially, this little intro is there to show that a) you’ve done your research on the lit agent’s likes and dislikes, b) your book might be something that should appeal to them, and c) why you’d be a good fit together. Personalising your queries can make a big difference – agents can generally spot a generic ‘form letter’ from a mile off – and demonstrating you have a genuine interest in THEM as an agent rather than a vague concept of being published will hopefully hook their interest right off the bat.

You can personalise your queries in lots of subtle little ways to show your interest in an agent. It might be because you admire another writer they rep and think you have a similar style. It might be because they’ve explicitly said they’re looking for your genres/style of book. It might be because you’ve actually chatted on Twitter, or met briefly at a writing event, or were referred by another agent/author. Now, you don’t HAVE to put a personal note here, but it definitely adds a nice little human element as opposed to sending off a hundred identical queries like a great big literary robot.

#3 – THE BOOK SUMMARY* (max 3 paragraphs)

A succinct and engaging description of your plot, preferably with a splash of your narrative voice. It might start with something like this:

“Kermit McFrog is one of a multitude of siblings, all vying for their distant father’s attention in a pond that’s growing steadily more crowded – and more dangerous. Caught between the twin perils of a gang of gluttonous goldfish and a merciless heron who has begun picking off Kermit’s family one by one, the young amphibian struggles to discover a sense of identity and the recognition of his father.”

You then have another paragraph or two to expand on your story, and grip the agent’s attention so that they cannot help but flick over to your synopsis and sample pages. Your book summary needs to include your protagonist, their main goal/purpose in the story, the central challenges they face, and an idea of how that affects them. It should also, ideally, reflect the atmosphere of your story and the style of your writing. All in 1-3 paragraphs. Yeah. This is the hardest part. But don’t have a cow, man, we’re going to look into this in MUCH more detail in the next unit.

#4 – THE BIO/TECHNICAL INFO*:

This bit tells the agent a bit more about you as a writer, the influences/experience behind the story, and a few extra details about the finished manuscript, such as:

The Angst-ridden Amphibian is a 70,000 word contemporary novel/work of literary fiction/navel-gazing frog-based story based on my experiences as a swamp-dwelling hermit. My short fiction has been published in Tadpoles Monthly and I was a runner-up in the Frogspawn First Novel competition in 2015.”

Make sure you include the TITLE, WORD COUNT, and GENRE/CATEGORY of your book. It’s also a chance to show off about any publications, long/shortlistings, or writing courses you’ve taken, and explain why you were driven to write this particular book, or any specific expertise that makes you an authority on the subject.

IMPORTANT NOTE: You may not have any publishing credits or relevant experience to put down here – DO NOT PANIC! – that’s fine. You have two choices: either leave it as simple as possible and stop at the title, word count and genre, OR add a line or two connecting your life/passions/experiences with the subject of your book. Maybe one of the locations in your story is based on a place you lived as a child; maybe you’ve studied the historical period in which your story is set in minute detail; maybe some of it is based on real events. In our opinion, it’s always worth saying something to bring a bit of personality to your query here, but if you’re really stumped, keep it short and sweet and just make sure you provide the agent with the essential info.)

THE SIGN-OFF:

As with the greeting, be polite, get to the point, and don’t forget to include your contact details:

“Thanks for your time and consideration.

Yours sincerely/truly/amphibiously,

[Your Name]

[Your contact info]”

Don’t waffle. Don’t grovel. Don’t tell them how desperately you’ll be clicking refresh on your email waiting for their reply. Don’t be arrogant or assumptive and say things like “I look forward to making bucketloads of money when you sell my arse-kicking novel”. Keep it short and sweet. Be polite. You know the drill.

THE ATTACHMENT:

Don’t forget to attach your sample pages/synopsis. Duh.

And also don’t forget to double check the submissions guidelines on how they’d like your submission formatted and delivered – if they want a PDF, don’t send them a Word doc. If they want everything in one document, don’t send them five different ones. If they want it in hardcopy by snail mail then don’t bloody email them.

*A NOTE ON QUERY ORDER:

Did you notice all those asterisks next to points #2-4 above? That’s ’cause there’s considerable (and slightly circular) discourse on what order these components should be in. Some think it’s best to jump straight in with your book summary, while others reckon the technical info is more important to start with. Honestly, it’s really not gonna scupper your chances if you put the story summary before your intro or your bio before your summary, so long as each section is brief and to the point. UNLESS, of course, a particular agent has expressed a preference for a particular format – eg: US-based agent Janet Reid believes vehemently that you should open with your story, while most UK templates will tell you to do a bit of polite introductory foreplay first.

Don’t agonise too much about the nitty gritty at this point – the most important part of your query is your book summary, which is what we’re gonna deal with next…

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