Writing a query letter

Before we begin, an announcement. If you preordered my book, firstly: THANK YOU. Secondly, you can get a free signed bookmark! All the details are here. Again, THANK YOU.

I get a lot of tumblr asks with questions about how to write a good query letter, so I thought I’d make a blog post with some advice. There are lots of other similar posts out there with probably better advice; I highly recommend googling round.

  • Don’t just send your query letter out to all the agents you can find. Sometimes you’ll get given feedback with rejections, and you can make changes to the manuscript based on that. Then you can send the new version to other agents. You can’t do this if you’ve already sent it out everywhere. Send it out in groups of 6 or 7.
  • Don’t bother printing out your manuscript- there’s plenty of agents that accept electronic submissions and it’ll save loads of money.
  • Don’t be upset if you don’t get replies immediately. Agents are very busy, and it can take weeks before they even look at submissions. It has no bearing on the manuscript. Honestly, do not take this personally.
  • Try to find agents who represent books in similar genres to yours, or ones who say they like specific things on their websites. I applied to my agent because she said that she liked humorous stories, so I knew there was a chance she might like mine. It worked!
  • Don’t give in after a few rejections- it doesn’t mean your MS is bad. It can just mean their list is full, or they already have something similar, or they just don’t fully fall in love with the story. It’s a huge commitment taking on a new client, and they have to absolutely love it to do that. Everyone has different tastes, so keep trying.

How can you get your manuscript read by an agent? I can only tell you what my agent told me about why she read my work. I include little funny messages at the start of each chapter, which I formatted to look like this:

Basically I tried to make it look as much like a book as possible, to trick agents into thinking it was publishing worthy.

When my agent was skimming through a huge inbox full of manuscripts, this apparently caught her eye as something original, that she’d not seen before. It wasn’t enough to persuade her to represent me, but it gave her a push to read the whole thing.

So I would say that you need to find something that makes your writing unique, even if it’s only a small element of the story. Make sure it’s in the first few chapters, along with all of your very best writing, because when you’re querying that’s what agents will read.

Read your favourite books, and try to narrow down a few reasons why you like that book so much. For example, my favourite YA book is probably Sabriel by Garth Nix. I love it because:

  • unique portrayal of the afterlife
  • talking cat
  • shy adorable boy and powerful confident girl
  • secret royalty
  • magical paper flying machines
  • zombie monsters

That obviously isn’t a full list of the great things about the book, but those are the things that I think about when I get the urge to reread it. Try and make a list of the things that you like about your own writing in the same way. If you love a certain element, make sure there’s more of it! Give it the space it deserves. If someone reading it likes talking cats as much as you, then your work is going to stand out to them.

(This is also a good way to brainstorm if you haven’t started writing yet. If you make a list of your favourite things from your favourite books, then those are things you should try to include in your own writing. For example, try and combine a dystopian storyline with something from your list of favourites that’s never been written about in that genre before – like with STATION ELEVEN, where a post-apocalyptic world is combined with a Shakespearian travelling theatre group. If you love theatre, and you love dystopia, that mix is irresistible. In the same way, if you love secret royalty like me, then maybe writing about what happens to the Royal family after an apocalypse would be fun.)

When you’re writing a query letter, make sure you mention all of these irresistible elements. Read some blurbs from your favourite books, and try and copy how they write. How did they drop in the details that first made you pick up the book? That’s what you need to do! Remember that an agent is a reader, just like you, and they are going to pick up books they want to read, not the books written by people who can write the fanciest query letter. Don’t get too stressed out about it. Just write the best representation of your book that you can!

You’re not trying to write the perfect query letter that any agent won’t be able to resist. You just need to make sure that the one agent who will love your book reads the manuscript. Once they start reading, the book will speak for itself! You just need to hook them.

There are loads of examples out there, but here’s my query letter as an example. I sent it to 6 agents along with the first 2 chapters of The Next Together (then called The Red Earth Rolls). I had one request to read the full manuscript. She accepted me as a client!

Dear [Agent],

The Red Earth Rolls is a completed 120,000 word young adult novel based on the idea of reincarnation, and encompasses genres such as dystopia, regency, romance, science fiction and thriller. An adventure spanning three hundred years, this story has something to interest every reader.

Katherine and Matthew have done this before. They keep being brought back to life and every time they do things seem to be getting worse.

In 1745 Katherine Hallward is spending a little too much time with her coachman, Matthew, when the Jacobites attack the city of Carlisle, on the border of Scotland and England. Somehow the city has to defend itself against the feared Highlanders, and Katherine is determined to help in any way she can, regardless of the consequences.

In 1853 Katy, an orphan girl, is running from the police in disguise when she accidentally gets stuck on board a steamer bound for the battlefield of the Crimean war. Luckily a journalist is there to take her under his wing; although there is the slight problem in that he thinks she is a boy. Together they try and help the war effort as much as possible, despite the hostility of the soldiers.

In 2090 Kate meets a new researcher in her biology lab and discovers that together they bear a startling resemblance to her mysterious great aunt and uncle. Meanwhile, Kate keeps recalling memories that aren’t hers: the siege of a castle, a kiss that never happened on a battlefield from a history book.

In each lifetime they are fighting for what is right, but however hard they try to help, will it ever be enough to stop them being brought back once more? Revealing the power of love regardless of circumstance, this book looks at the determination of two people in the face of growing turmoil.

This book should appeal to students; people who grew up speaking the language of the internet, who enjoy science fiction but also have a soft spot for Jane Austen. The Red Earth Rolls was written by a teenager, for teenagers: I’m currently in the third year of a Chemistry and Physics degree at the University of Nottingham. I wrote this novel after becoming increasingly frustrated by the glamorised science often found in media. This prompted me to write a more accurate story about scientists, and my love of history and genealogy brought forth another element.

I would greatly appreciate any advice you could offer me about my manuscript. Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

I hope this helped a little. Good luck!

A rebloggable version of this post can be found here. 

Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is a RLF Royal Fellow, freelance editor and screenwriter. Lauren is the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League, and on the board of the Authors & Illustrators Sustainability Working Group through the Society of Authors. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide and been translated into six languages. The Quiet at the End of the World was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2022. She has taught creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands.

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