Camel vs. Motorcycle:
The three beats of a good query letter
I once heard an agent say that anyone who could write a novel should be able to write a good query letter…which stuck me as being a bit like saying that anyone who could ride a motorcycle should be able to ride a camel. Yes, they both carry people on top of them, but they’re intended to serve different purposes, and they do so in very different ways. For me the camel in this analogy would be novel writing—lumpy, organic, and with a tendency to wander off if you turn it loose. The query, like a motorcycle, should be designed to get you directly to where you want to go—which is an agent or editor saying, “I’d like to see the first 30 pages.”
However, in one way that agent was right—both novel and query letters require good writing. It’s the informational beats that are different, and once you know what’s required in a query they’re not as hard to compose as you might think. There are three basic beats that make up a good query letter, three things an agent/editor wants to know before she asks to see your story, along with a couple of optional beats you may be able to work in.
And I should warn you, no matter how well you present these beats there’s still an excellent chance the agent simply won’t be interested, for reasons ranging from “I just sold three books on that topic and there’s no one I can pitch it to” to “I hate protagonists named Mabel.” But if you include the right beats, present them well, and it’s a topic the agent is interested in, and they like your writing style, and they’ve had their coffee and the sun is shining…then you should have a pretty good chance of getting to the next stage. I can’t do anything about the agent’s coffee, your writing style, or your topic. And the beats won’t necessarily be presented in this order, but with all that said…
(email subject line reads:) Query: Your Book’s Title, genre
Dear Mr. Agent
This is why I’m the person who should be writing this book. If your novel focuses on some interesting non-fiction topic, in which you’re an expert or have done a lot of research, this beat’s not so hard. But what if, like me, you write genre fantasy and SF? Or if you write contemporary romance, then what do you say? I’ve been a dragon slayer for eight years now, and taught classes in both beginning and intermediate sorcery… I’m married, after all, and I was a teenager once, and I sort of remember what teen romance was like… What I finally figured out is that even if your novel doesn’t involve expertise in a particular field, what you do have is passion for your subject. Think back to why you decided to write this novel in the first place. What excited you about this idea, or these characters? What parts of yourself, of your own psyche are playing out in your romance heroine’s story? You cared enough to write several hundred pages about this—why? Figure out the answer to that question, form a paragraph around it…and that will probably be the first paragraph in your query.
And even if you do have relevant expertise, you still need to let your passion show. I was a trauma councilor for ten years, and have counseled many people about survivor’s guilt. is a lot less compelling than, As a professional trauma councilor I’ve seen a lot of survivor’s guilt. But when, one day in my office, an eight-year-old girl burst into tears and told me that it was because she went back for her teddy bear that her daddy died, I knew one day I would have to write her story—not the story of her past, but of her future. And note that this is where good writing, good storytelling comes in. You’re telling the agent the story of why you had to write this book.
This is what is my story is about. There are sections in two of my other writing tips, And it was Just Right and A Tale of Two Synopses, that are devoted to how to craft this portion of your query—and I say “section” because it may take two paragraphs, or even three, to tell your story the way it needs to be told. What your novel is about is the most important part of the query, even more important than your passion for the topic. But if you focus this beat correctly, it probably won’t take more than one or two paragraphs—because all the agent/editor needs to learn from your query is: Who is the protagonist? Why should I care about her? Is there a plot here? When you come to write this beat, you should find that the answer to all these questions springs from the same source—the major conflicts, both internal and external, that your protagonist faces in the story. As you as you describe the major external conflicts your protagonist overcomes, you’ll be also be describing your plot. As you describe her internal conflicts, the dilemmas, the hard choices she has to make, you’ll be revealing who she is—not her job and vital statistics, but who she is, and why we should care about her.
And the final beat: Yes, I am a good enough writer to bring this off. This is probably the least important beat in the letter. If you’ve gotten your passion for the story onto the page, and summarized your story well enough that the agent can see that it’s dramatic, exciting and has some heart to it—and if you’ve done so with writing that’s solid and professional—they’ll probably be willing to give you a look even if this is the first thing you’ve written. But if you have professional credits, this is the place to list them. Even if you haven’t been paid for your writing, have you had things published you weren’t paid for? Letters to the editor, short stories in your school’s literary magazine? Have you won any writing contests? Are you a member of writing organizations, or organizations relevant to your topic? (And if you haven’t published anything, you should get involved in some writing organizations.) You don’t need more than one paragraph, listing your top credentials-to-write-this-book. But the credentials you list should all be relevant to either your expertise as a writer, or your expertise in your subject matter. If you’re writing a romance about a New York fashion designer, neither your Masters in Egyptology nor your job in an ice cream parlor is relevant.
*Technical Note: In either the first, or at latest the second paragraph, you must mention your book’s title and genre. If it’s not written for adults, you need to mention the age range of your target audience. And you need to mention somewhere in the query that the novel is complete, and your approximate word count—you can round the word count up or down to the nearest thousand.
Optional beat: This is why I’m sending this to you. This beat, if you include it, will probably attach itself to the beat about your passion for the book, or perhaps the paragraph about your credentials. And you may not have any information to fill this beat, but if you can say something relevant about the agent who’ll read this query, you should. This is the part where you tell the agent, not only that you saw him speak at a conference, but that what he said about specific thing he said here has been resonating with you ever since. You’ll have to do some homework to learn about the person you’re pitching your story to…but it will probably be worth your time, and the internet is a fabulous resource. Does this agent/editor have a blog? Do they Tweet, or Facebook? Have they written any articles, or done guest posts on someone else’s blog? You need to be careful not to sound “too, too flattering,” or worse, stalker-esque. Even if their Facebook post about how much they love their hamster Muffy was genuinely adorable, you’re probably better off not mentioning it, unless your protagonist is a hamster. You should keep this on a professional level…but a lot of professionals are working online these days. If they mentioned in a recent blog post that they love seeing historical fiction with strong heroines and your novel fits that description…well, there you are.
If you’ve done your homework, and you can’t find any real reason to send this particular agent your query, then you can skip this information beat. But if you’re firing off queries in the dark, your odds of hitting the target do go down.
The other optional beat: I know some ways to market this book that aren’t obvious. This beat will usually attach itself to the paragraph that talks about your credentials, or maybe the one about your passion for the topic. And if you’re writing genre fiction, or anything else for which there’s no “out of the usual box” marketing hook, then you shouldn’t include this beat—the agent/editor probably knows more about conventional book marketing than you do. On the other hand… Say you’ve written a cat mystery—it’s great if you can tell an agent that you’re a long time member of the American Cat Lover Society, and have written several articles for their newsletter…which reviews books by its members, and has a circulation of over 200,000.
And if you have a large number of followers on any form of social media, that matters too—but it needs to be a large number in order to be worth mentioning. If you’ve got 30 people following your blog, then you don’t have to tell them you’re a blogger. If you’ve got 3,000 followers, let them know.
Then you end your query with something along the lines of:
Thank you for considering Repeat Title Here. (It’s a good idea to mention your title twice.)
If you haven’t worked it in smoothly before this, it’s not too awkward to say:
Thank you for considering Repeat Title Here, a YA fantasy novel complete at 72,000 words.
If you’ve managed to produce a letter that shares your passion for your story, that tells your story in a way that reveals both conflict and a protagonist worth caring about, and if that letter also shows your own professionalism as a writer…then all you can do is hope the agent’s had his coffee. You’ve done your part.
If you’d like to see a example of a “before” and “after” query revision with these beats, we’ve posted a sample on PlotDoctors.com