So you want to write an epic query letter, hmm?
I queried 24 agents. Those queries turned into 17 full or partial requests. Those requests turned into four offers of representation (and a fifth request for more reading time, but I was so in love with Danielle that I didn’t want to wait a second longer to sign).
I am real heckin’ proud of those stats. So how’d I do it?
Step 1: The Agent Investigation
Figure out which agents represent books like yours. Agents will list their interests on agency websites, Twitter, Manuscript Wishlist, wherever. The point is, don’t submit a YA thriller to an agent who only represents historical romance. There are so many awesome agents out there. Find the ones searching for your book!
Step 2: The Comp Title Exploration
This part is fun. In your query, you’re going to want comp titles, which are basically published books that might sit on the shelves near yours. You know, the whole, If you loved X book, you’ll love Y book! Here are a few quick tips to keep in mind when choosing comp titles:
- Don’t pick an absolute blockbuster bestseller. It’s awesome if your book is going to appeal to fans of The Hunger Games, but if you choose too popular of a book, the comparison doesn’t mean very much. Plus, it makes you sound a little full of yourself. Prove how much you read by choosing a book that didn’t spawn a movie franchise.
- Pick a recent book. Only go back a few years, if possible. It’s awesome if your book has the same vibe as Looking for Alaska, but the industry has changed since 2006. Find something newer.
- Consider personalizing your comp titles to individual agents. If an agent represents (or says they love) a book that’s a little like yours, say so in your query!*
*But keep in mind, an agent will hesitate if your manuscript is too similar to anything they already represent. No hard feelings, but it’s a conflict of interest.
Step 3: Drafting the Query
First off, I should mention that this querying style worked for me and my YA fantasy book. If you’re writing a memoir, a picture book, a cookbook, etc., you’ll need some other genre-specific advice. But here are the questions I asked myself when brainstorming my query:
- What’s the title?
I call it DETECTIVE SHEEPDOG.*
*For the record, my book is not called DETECTIVE SHEEPDOG. There are neither sheepdogs nor detectives in my manuscript. Animal protagonists aren’t really part of the YA market. But hey, if you want to write DETECTIVE SHEEPDOG, I am all for it.
- What’s the genre?
It’s a YA thriller.
- What’s the word count?
- Who is the main character?
Abigail Sheepdog, intrepid adventurer, sniffer of crime, family pet.
- What does the main character really, really want?
She’s tired of being overshadowed by Stephen Calico, her brother, after he gets accepted to Juilliard on a Trombone scholarship.
- What’s been keeping the main character from getting what she really, really wants?
Abigail doesn’t have any splashy accomplishments, and her family accuses her of being jealous and mean to Stephen.
- What’s the catalyst for all the action?
Stephen goes missing and one of the neighbors blames Abigail. Abigail is afraid her family will blame her for hurting Stephen, so she begins to investigate his disappearance.
- What happens if the main character doesn’t get what she wants?
Abigail will never get to mend her relationship with Stephen—and her family will suspect her of hurting him.
- Are there any other absolutely pertinent/exciting details?
Abigail unearths a secret society Stephen was part of. And there’s a romance!
- Which comp titles did you choose?
My manuscript is kind of like THE MURDER GOATS OF MOUNT WHITLEY meets MY KITTEN CABOODLE.
- Is this part of a series? If it’s part of a series, mention this.
No, it’s a standalone.
- Do you have any writing awards/accomplishments of note?
Not really! I don’t know. Is that okay?*
*Yes. You’re fine. If you have short stories published in lit magazines, attended an MFA program, are a member of SCBWI, or something like that, mention it here. If not, don’t stress. If you want to throw a sentence or two together, go for it, but don’t spend time talking about the eight unfinished manuscripts you wrote before this one or how your mom thinks your book is super stellar.
Step Four: Putting It All Together
Congrats! You’ve done the hard part. Now it’s just a matter of putting it all together. Shoot for clarity and concision in about 300 words. You can do it!
Dear Ms. SuperCoolAgent*,
I am writing you because of your interest in haunting, small town settings and complex family dynamics.** I believe you will enjoy my YA thriller, which features sibling rivalries, suspense, and a seemingly bucolic farm town whose mysteries can’t stay hidden forever.
Sixteen-year-old Abigail Sheepdog is tired of being overshadowed by her brother, Stephen Calico. After Abigail loses the state championship soccer game on the same day that Stephen gets accepted to Juilliard, she’s not sure she can handle her family’s clear preference for her brother. But when Stephen disappears and Abigail is blamed, she knows she’ll have to find him if she hopes to mend their relationship—and redeem herself to her family.
As Abigail begins to investigate, she unearths secrets her quiet town has kept hidden for generations. She discovers that her seemingly perfect brother was involved in an underground society, and he’s in more danger than she ever imagined. When Abigail learns that the sheriff may be wrapped up in Stephen’s disappearance, and her own family accuses her of lying to besmirch Stephen’s reputation, it’s up to Abigail to find her brother alone.
Alone, that is, until she meets Cameron Hamster. As the sheriff’s son, he could hold the answers to Stephen’s disappearance. But any missteps and Abigail could put Stephen in even more danger. So when she begins to feel herself falling for Cameron, she has to fight it. If she can. Stephen’s life might depend on it.
DETECTIVE SHEEPDOG, complete*** at 86,000 words, is a YA thriller for readers of THE MURDER GOATS OF MOUNT WHITLEY and MY KITTEN CABOODLE. As per your submission guidelines,**** I have pasted the first ten pages below.
I hold a BA in English and Creative Writing from Awesome State University and am a member of the SCBWI.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Word count: 310
*Personalize the query—don’t actually say Dear Agent, and please don’t actually say Dear Ms. SuperCoolAgent. Use the agent’s name. Spell it correctly, and use the agent’s preferred gender pronouns.
**As you discovered in your research!
***And yes, it should be complete. Finish writing your manuscript! Finish editing it! Then go work on your query. Don’t worry about it until then.
****Check the agency’s submission guidelines! Follow their specifications. They should request a certain number of pages/chapters, a synopsis, whatever. Follow. These. Instructions.
Step Five: Edit! Your! Query!
Look over your query. Go find some friends to review it. Check writing forums. Try to get other writers to read it, but honestly, ask anyone to look at it. Does it make sense? Did you introduce too many characters? Does it seem exciting?
You want your query to be as tight as possible. After you’ve edited it to death, put it away for a few days, then give it another hard look.
Step Six: Send Your Query Into the World!
Yay! Your query is ready for agents. Remember to research the agents carefully, always be polite (agents are delightful people—be nice to them!), and make sure you keep track of who you’re querying. I recommend using a spreadsheet or a website like querytracker.com to keep everything in order.
It’s a good idea not to send a hundred queries at once—if your query and first pages work, you’ll start getting requests after a few weeks (or days!). If you send out, say, ten queries, and don’t get any bites, it may be time to do a little more editing. But if you send out ten queries and get eight requests for more pages, send more queries! This is great news! It means that agents like what you’re putting on the table.
Now, go write that query! You’ve got this.