Start with the “hook”
Keep in mind, editors and agents read dozens of query letters each day, so it is important to get their attention right away with a one – two sentence hook. But what IS a hook? It’s that jaw-dropping, breath-taking, goose bump-raising idea that makes someone want to know more! It’s the juiciest teaser you can offer that will leave editors with only one thought on their minds – your book. In short, a hook is the primary selling point of your story.
(please note – simply claiming “my book is the next best seller” is not a hook nor is it a statement that should ever appear in a query letter)
I will admit – for me, this is probably the most challenging element of the query letter and I am not shy to admit that I don’t always come up with the best hooks; but once you figure out what makes your story compelling and what makes it stand out from the rest, generating your hook shouldn't be too difficult.
(Tip: when coming up with your hook, think about the main character’s struggle, the thickest point of the plot and what ties them together. Some people write the hook as a statement, others pose a thought-provoking question. Use whatever is most comfortable for you.)
Sum it up
While you don’t need to go into great detail, offer a brief summary of your book. You’ve got them with your hook, now tell them what to expect with the rest of the story. While you don’t want to commercialize your summary too much, think of it a little like what you would find on the back cover – short and to the point, informative but enticing.
Offer more info
Now that you’ve snared an editor’s attention with an amazing hook (no pressure, I swear – ha ha) and given them enough to wet their appetite, let them know more about some technical aspects of your story: word count, genre, audience, similarities your book has with other popular titles, ways that it stands out on it’s own, how it fits a need in today’s market and why you think it is a good match for that publisher/agent. This section doesn’t need to be long, but it does need to be informative. After all, you want them to be able to see at a glance that your book fits their needs on a mechanical level.
Don’t forget to tell them a little bit about yourself, too. Mention your credentials as a writer (if you have any) or why you are an expert on the subject matter of your book. They don’t need a memoir, but enough to let them know you are a serious author and someone that they would like to work with (because this could be the beginning of a long relationship). Be unique and personable throughout your query, but do your best to remain professional as well.
Formalities are a must
In closing your query, be sure to THANK them for their time. Let them know how to get in touch with you and what materials you have enclosed for them (again, stick to what they request in their submission guidelines). Another bit of information that editors and agents appreciate knowing is whether or not your submission is exclusive (for their eyes only at this time) or if it is a multiple submission (sent to more than one publisher/agent). This is a courtesy to them, but also could be an advantage to you – if someone is interested in your book but knows you have it out to others for consideration, it may encourage them to respond in a more prompt manner.
So, there it is - the meat and potatoes of a query letter. It may seem like a lot to cram into one page, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll discover what works and what doesn’t work for you. Please note that this is just a guide to help get you started. You may want to arrange the elements in a different order, or add something else to the content. Unfortunately, query letters are subject to trial and error – so I definitely recommend having friends and family read over your letter to make sure it flows well and lends a good impression of you and your book – because that is what the query letter is – it’s the first impression and you want to make it a lasting one.