I recently met with the highly successful literary agent Fiona Kenshole of Transatlantic Agency, and she gave me some query tips that truly blew my mind. I am, unfortunately, no stranger to the query game; I thought by this point I knew how to write a great query letter. As it turns out, I had more to learn.
There are approximately one trillion articles on how to research literary agents and how to write a great query letter. You can also read my article on the number one mistake writers make when querying agents.
So this article isn’t going to cover the basic query tips like personalizing your query to the agent you’re querying. Instead, these are query tips you may not see anywhere else.
P.S. Here’s a BONUS QUERY TIP: Like I did, you can meet with a real, live agent for a conversation about your query and first pages with a Manuscript Academy consultation. I highly recommend it!
#1: Use Arial Size 14 or 18 for your query letter
Agent Stephanie Winter of P.S. Literary gave this advice at the recent WriteOnCon online conference. Agents are on their computers all day, she explained. Make things easier on their poor eyes. She said a query email in Times New Roman size 11 or 12 is so hard to read she may not have much patience for it.
She didn’t speak to the preferred font or size for the sample pages, so I assume it’s okay to keep those in Times New Roman size 12. But do be sure to double-space!
#2: Use short paragraphs in your query letter
Agents are super busy; they are often reading query letters at the end of a long day, or maybe even at night in bed on their phones. When they see a big block of text in an email query, it might be a turn-off. Shorter paragraphs, and a shorter query in general, has a better chance of getting a positive reception. If your query is over a page (single spaced), it’s probably too long.
#3: Take advantage of Twitter pitch events (without actually participating in them)
If you want to participate in a Twitter pitch contest, go right ahead. It can be a great way to make writer friends on Twitter, and you might get lucky and get some attention from agents. But even if you don’t get those agent “likes,” or even if you simply don’t want to participate, you can still make Twitter events work to your advantage.
Go to the Twitter advanced search and put in a hashtag like #PitMad or #SFFPit (here’s a full list of Twitter pitch contests). Search for terms that are similar to your manuscript. For example, if you’ve written a YA novel about queer ballerinas, search for the terms #YA, queer, #LGBTQ, ballet, and ballerina.
When you find some pitches that are similar to yours, see if any agents liked them. And boom— you’ve found some good agents to query! (Of course, research them first before querying.)
#4: The best times to query are January through June and September through October.
Summer and winter holidays are not great times to query. Agents go on vacation and the publishing world tends to slows down during these times. Of course you should always check to make sure an agent is open to queries no matter what time of year it is. Some agents will close to queries for a few weeks so they can catch up on their slush pile reading. They will sometimes say on their agency website, personal website, or Twitter profile when they will be opening again.
#5: If there’s a big twist in your novel – reveal it!
This is one of the query tips Fiona Kenshole told me that really blew my mind. I know most how-to-write-a-query-letter advice says not to give away the ending of your novel. But if the big twist is what makes your novel unique, you should absolutely reveal it, or at least hint to it.
Agents are not reading your manuscript like a normal reader. They are reading it like a business person, trying to figure out, “can I sell this?” and “is there a market for this?” If what makes your book exciting/unique (and therefore marketable) is a big twist or surprise ending, an agent will want to know that up front.
#6: Use comp titles (wisely)
More and more agents are wanting to see comp titles in queries. Offering the agent a few books that are similar to your book not only gives them a quick understanding of your manuscript but also shows that you are reading current books in your genre.
Comp titles should be current (published in the last five years, ideally) and should actually be a comp title– don’t say your book is like something if it’s not. Also try not to use anything too popular. Agents hate seeing manuscripts compared to Harry Potter or Gone Girl, for example.
You can also use movies or TV shows as one of your comp titles. Here are some examples:
- My book will appeal to fans of ______. For example: My book will appeal to fans of Sarah Dessen and Jenny Han.
- My book is similar to _______, except ________. For example: My book is similar to Ed Tarkington’s The Fortunate Ones, except set in outer space, 1,000 years in the future.
- My book combines the _____ of ______ with the ______ of ______. For example: My book combines the locked-room mystery of Lucy Foley’s The Guest List with the steamy historical romance of Bridgerton.
#7: If an agent uses a query submission form, type your answers in a Word doc first
More and more agents are using query manager submission forms. These forms have places for you to paste your query letter, bio, sample pages, and occasionally a place for the synopsis as well. Some writers get confused about the bio section — aren’t we supposed to put our bio at the end of our query? What I’ve heard agents say is that you should put the bio in both place.
And these forms often have additional questions that the agent has decided they want to ask of submitting writers. Some I’ve see are, “what books are you currently reading?” “why do you write?” and “why did you write this book?”
Once you open up an agent’s submission form, scroll through to see what questions are being asked, then prepare the answers in a Word doc. That way you can correct spelling errors and play around with your answers without accidentally hitting submit.
#8 Use your bio to your advantage
The bio at the end of your query letter is a tricky thing. You don’t want it to be too long (2 or 3 sentences is more than enough), but it can also be a good way to explain why you are the perfect person to write this book.
As far as putting personal info in your bio… Most agents say they don’t want it; this is a business letter and you should remain professional. But I’ve also heard some agents say the like a teeny bit of personal info, like that you have two young daughters, or that you live with five dogs.
Honestly, I would err on the side of not including personal info unless it’s both truly interesting and relates to your your novel: “Like the character in my book, I once spent a year living on a house boat.” Or, “I volunteer at a local women’s shelter, which is what inspired me to write this story.” That sort of thing.
Here are a few things you should (and should not!) include in your bio:
- DO say if you have an MFA or other writing degree.
- DO say if you have been published or agented before.
- DO say if you have a degree related to your book. For example, if you have written a historical-fiction novel, mention your history degree.
- DO say if the book is #ownvoices. For example, if you are writing about a character who uses a wheelchair and you yourself use a wheelchair, mention that (if you’d like — you should never feel pressured to reveal that a story is #ownvoices if you don’t feel comfortable doing so.)
- DO say if you are a teacher or school librarian if you are querying with a book for kids or teens.
- DON’T say how many times this book has been rejected.
- DON’T say you’ve always wanted to be a writer or that you’ve been writing since a young age. You and everybody else!
- DON’T say how long it took you to write the book.
- DON’T put in a lot of personal details that don’t pertain to your book.
- DON’T mention your age.
There you have it. Some little-known query tips. Be sure to read sample query letters and go through the posts on Query Shark, as well as read posts about the basic query tips. It’s amazing how hard writing a one-page query letter can be! Good luck!