Pete J. Knapp is a literary agent at the Park Literary Group, LLC, focused on middle grade and young adult fiction. He recently held a query critique e-conference where 25 writers were lucky enough to have their query critiqued by him in a public forum, free of charge. Unfortunately, he didn't choose mine. I still came out on top because I synthesized all 25 professional critiques into a list of query letter best practices. I’ve broken it down into three sections: the general query letter, the plot/synopsis, and a list of don’ts. I hope you benefit from this as much as I have. Thanks, Pete!
QUERY LETTER BEST PRACTICES
- Open the query letter with the most exciting part: the story plot. Not the title of your book or how you found out about the agent. The one exception to this is when you have a personal connection to the agent.
- Query letters that match the style of the book are more successful. If your book is supposed to be funny, the query letter better make the agent laugh. Find the voice of your protagonist and pretend that he or she is writing the query letter for you.
- If your story has SciFi or Fantasy elements to it, this should be clear early on in the plot/synopsis. When saved for the end, it comes across as a bait and switch.
- Your query letter should read like a letter. Lists can be risky.
- The most important element to your query letter is your plot/synopsis.
- Sell the story, not why you wrote it.
- Even quiet stories must have something that shows why this is “THE” story worth telling.
- Scientific, medical, or other complex terms used in a query should be explained if they are not common knowledge.
- Break the query into three parts:
- The plot/synopsis
- Your book title, genre, word count, and what it's most like (similar to)
- Personal connection (why you chose this agent) and any relevant credentials
- Keep your query letter between 200 and 500 words, with 350 being the happy medium. Either end of this range can be too short or too long if not done right.
- Pete critiqued more queries for being too short (not enough detail) then he did for being too long.
- Include credentials that make you an authoritative subject matter.
- Why you chose this agent: keep it short and relevant.
- Your book is similar to another book the agent likes (always state which one), we met at a conference, etc.
- Start in the action—what does your protagonist want?
- The first sentence of plot/synopsis needs to excite the agent, set your story apart.
- Explain the extraordinary instead of stating the ordinary (what makes your story different?
- Introduce the protagonist in the opening paragraph.
- Keep your plot points in sequential order.
- Your protagonist must have compelling reasons for the decisions they make—keep motives clear.
- Show how the character arc develops—what are the emotional/physical challenges that develop your protagonist?
- Use specific examples—if you can’t show how they change over the course of the story, then your story isn’t worth reading.
- What’s at stake—low risk translates to low reward for the reader and agent.
- Tell what the protagonist wants, why they can’t have it, and how he he/she gets there.
- Make plot points clear, easily understood. Agents want to know what they’re getting and general statements that leave them guessing don’t help.
- Always explain a character’s importance if you mention them by name.
- Use normal case for character names (don’t use CAPS).
- Everything in your plot/synopsis should make an agent want to read your book.
- Include the emotional state of the protagonist in the plot.
- State the objective/motive of villain or it will come across as flat.
- End plot/synopsis with a punch.
- Let the theme of the story be shown through the plot description rather than telling it up front.
- When using a hook, let it be a standalone sentence/paragraph.
- Some agents, like Pete, prefer you start at the beginning of the plot and let it build rather than throwing the hook up front.
- Choose your plot points sparingly. Trying to explain too much will sink the query letter. Better to have fewer plot points with necessary detail than many plot points and little detail.
- Specifics, specifics, specifics . . . don’t leave the agent guessing.
- Leaving teasers like “family Secrets”, “tested”, “special powers”, etc. without explaining the what or the why will sink your query.
- Make sure your plot/synopsis flows, reads smooth from one sentence to the next. There is no such thing as a scene change in a query letter. Lead your agent from the beginning to the end of the story arc. How they got from point A to point D of your plot points should read logically.
WHAT NOT TO DO – BEST PRACTICES
- Avoid using a quote from your novel in the first sentence – opinions may differ on this, but quotes generally don’t provide any of the vital information agents are looking for about a story.
- Questions distract agents from the story you’re trying to convey - - tell, don’t ask.
- Don’t be presumptuous (I look forward to hearing from you soon).
- No need to state that you are looking for representation.
- Avoid excessive use of adjectives (more than one to describe a noun).
- Don’t ramble on about why the agent will like your book. Let him/her decide for themselves.
- Avoid using headers – paragraph form is preferred – this is a query “letter” afterall.
- Don’t repeat yourself (say the same thing twice in different ways).
If you liked this post, you might also be interested in my BETA READER CRITIQUE GUIDE or my QUERY LETTER SUCCESS site where you can read a collection of more than 25 successful query letters that helped authors sign contracts with literary agents and/or publishing companies.