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How To Write a Query Letter to a Literary Agent

how to write a query letter

Far too often, the query letter to a literary agent is treated as a personal letter. This is often a critical mistake that will lead to a rejection. When you’re pitching a story to a literary agent, you’re pitching the idea of forming a business relationship with you. This means you don’t need to tell your life story. What you must do is convince the literary agent that you’re ready to enter the business world of writing and stay there.

Here’s how you can draft the best possible query letter.

#1. Do your homework. When you’re writing a query letter, you must make it absolutely clear to the literary agent that you’ve done your research on the industry and that you’ve chose this particular agent for a specific reason. Be deliberate about discussing why you’ve chosen this literary agent. This shows that you’re committed to the process and it bodes well for a future partnership.

#2. Brag about yourself. If you have literary achievements that can capture the attention of a literary agent, then by all means talk about those accomplishments. Just make sure that what you include is a positive thing. Accolades are a great thing. Deciding to self-publish 20 books, however, might speak to an attitude of impatience that could turn the literary agent away from a business relationship.

#3. Set up your manuscript. This is where you get the opportunity to discuss the thesis of your work. Who is your main character? What are your main facts? Structure your manuscript setup in such a way that it makes the literary agent want to know more about what you’ve written. Sum up your story in one highly descriptive sentence and you’ll often hook the literary agent right here.

#4. Continue the setup process. But sometimes a literary agent wants to see more from a query letter. That’s why you need to continue the description of your manuscript after you craft one powerfully descriptive summary sentence of it. Pretend that you’re writing the summary of your story for the back of the novel to entice a customer to purchase it and make that be your follow-up paragraph in your query letter. Show the literary agent who your characters are instead of just talking about them.

#5. Include a plot element. This is a make-it-or-break-it moment. Pull out one plot element that really defines your lead character. What has made them become the character they are in your manuscript? A good paragraph here will likely sell the literary agent on your skills as a writer or will result in a rejection letter. Put in strong actions, strong consequences, and tie an emotional response to each.

#6. Avoid the ego. Many writers talk about themselves a little bit more than they should in an attempt to “sell” the relationship with a literary agent. In a query letter, it is your manuscript, research, and creativity that will form the foundation of a business relationship. You don’t need to try to sell the literary agent on what you believe readers will get from your story. Let the literary agent discover that on their own. You wrote the manuscript. Of course you think people will read it.

#7. Summarize your manuscript statistics. This is where you put in the facts about your manuscript for the literary agent to consider. Who do you think your target audience is going to be? What is the word count of your manuscript? Are there comparable books that are on the market right now that could help the literary agent get an idea of what your writing style happens to be? You’re not John Grisham meets Stephen King. Pull out a specific manuscript that is similar in tone and mention that.

#8. Sign off. Did you graduate from a writing program? Have you been previously published by a recognizable publisher? This is your chance to offer your credentials. Keep this section short and sweet and you’ll get your point across.

As a final touch, you’ll want to include a short portion of your manuscript with your query letter in case you do what you can to attract attention to your work. That way the literary agent can determine if they want to see more or that they’re just not interested in representing your work. At this point, you’ve done what you can as a writer and the rest is up to the literary agent.

If it seems like you’d be a good fit, then you might be on your way to publishing your manuscript. If not, you can always try again.

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Melissa G Wilson

Melissa has been a leader in the book writing, publishing and marketing arena for the past two decades. To date, she has helped more than 100 thought leaders write, publish and market their books. Her clients include executives such as Dan Weinfurter a seven-time Inc 500 winner and Orlando Ashford, President of Holland Cruise Lines.

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