I’m not going to tell you how to write a query letter. Countless websites and blog posts break down the art of querying, so I’m not going to beat a dead horse. Instead, I intend to impart advice on how to stay sane while writing and sending your letter(s).
Querying agents is mentally exhausting. It’s a lot like job searching. Imagine writing a cover letter or resume for your book. Did you imagine it? It felt awful, didn’t it? Trying to summarize your 300-page novel (that took you two or more years to write) into a single-sentence, quippy “hook” may induce many tears. Querying strains patience and punctures confidence, so let’s talk about how to keep it from destroying your hopes and dreams.
Have a Variety of Letters on Hand
Agents generally want to see query letters that stick to traditional formatting, but they might ask for specific extras. Agents also desire interesting query letters. Although an oxymoron, agents truly want to be delighted by your letter’s content and strong personal voice. Basically, agents want tailored query letters.
However, writing a tailored letter from scratch every time you query an agent sounds like a forgotten level of hell in Dante’s Inferno. Don’t torture yourself like that. Instead, write a basic query letter for your novel and use that to make some stock letters of varying styles. Create letters that sound spunky, stuffy, casual, super professional, etc. All of these should still fit within the standard query letter format, though. Writing a spunky stock letter doesn’t mean phrasing your letter in haikus; it means being deliberate with your vocabulary choice and personal writing voice.
Once you find an agent you want to query, pick the stock query letter that best suits what you think the agent wants. Then tweak bits of the letter to include anything specific the agent wants, such as line spacing requirements, email headers, etc. Personally, for me, it’s easier to simply select one of my stock queries and edit it rather than writing a completely new query letter for every agent I choose to query. When I write a completely new query letter, it can take anywhere from three days to three weeks. I think this same strategy might save you time and effort too.
Query letters have to be perfect, so unfortunately, you can’t just send the same letter to every agent if you hope to appease them. However, you, like me, probably don’t have the fortitude or stamina to write The Perfect Query Letter from scratch once a week. I have a life! You have a life! Use stock letters!
Agents are busy, busy, busy, busy people. They receive hundreds of queries weekly. On top of that, they already have clients and books they need to fight for. Fighting takes energy. Agents may appear as heartless fiends who take joy in never responding to you, but in reality, they are just, well, busy.
Logically, I know this, but querying often feels fruitless when I rarely receive a reply. I’ve realized that I need to make sending the letter the victory rather than thinking a reply is the victory. The easiest way to make something a victory is to reward yourself for that victory.
Sending the query letter is your triumph. Writing that stupid thing was hard and sending it was even harder! You deserve a pat on the back. Treat. Yourself. Now. I mean it. You know best how to reward yourself. Cookies? Spa Day? A puppy? Well, maybe give that last one more thought before you act on it. You pick however big or small a reward you want—within reason and budget, of course. I like to treat myself with something sweet.
The point is to associate sending a query letter as a positive thing, not a futile thing. If sending that query letter will get you chocolate truffles, then you’re more likely to look forward to sending it. Mind tricks, people—they are powerful.
Trying to decide whether you’ve already queried an agent or not is a waste of time and annoying. You don’t need that in your life. It will not bring you joy. In contrast, keeping your queries organized will do wonders for your querying strategy. You can do this by keeping track of when and to whom you’ve sent query letters. Doing so will prevent headaches and allow you to spend more time working on your novel.
You also don’t want to get a bad reputation. Agents often have house rules. For example, some are okay with you querying all the agents in the agency; others are not a fan. Some say you can query as much as you want. Others say to wait six months to a year before you query them again with the same novel or a new novel. Agents are serious about these rules. If you break a rule, there’s no way your query letter will be taken seriously. You don’t want to be labeled as the person who ignores instructions and makes an agent work harder.
Before I got organized with querying, I often had to comb through my email history to make sure I hadn’t already sent that agent a query. Don’t be like past-me. Probably the easiest way to stay organized to is to create some sort of spreadsheet or sign up for a tracking system.
I personally use QueryTracker to stay organized. This website lets you search for agents and mark whether you’ve sent a letter, plan to send a letter, or have received a reply. You do have to pay a yearly fee for the premium membership, but it’s pretty cheap. I also like QueryTracker because it’s simple and doesn’t require me to create a tracking system from scratch. But if you love creating lists, charts, or spreadsheets, then now is the time to unleash your creativity for the sake of organization and sanity! It’s hard to beat a tight Excel or Google spreadsheet.
Don’t Get Mad at the System
The querying system is frustrating and seems inefficient. Personally, I think it’s a poor system in many ways. But with how busy agents are, it’s the best system we’ve got so far. Remember that agents are generally doing the best they can. There are countless reasons an agent might not pick your book. Maybe it’s just not their style. Maybe they wanted the book, but it requires more work than they have time for. Maybe they were having a bad day. The possibilities go on and on.
Don’t spend time trying to figure this out. Unless an agent tells you why they rejected your book (which they usually don’t; expect many form rejection emails) there’s no way for you to know. When you spend too much time trying to analyze why agents don’t want your book or why the system is lame, you’re going to get bitter. That bitterness could seep into the tone of your query letters. It could permeate the whole query-writing process. You don’t want to associate querying with anger. Then you’ll never want to query at all.
If querying is depressing you, take a break! You can focus on a new writing project for a while and come back to querying later. Just make sure you don’t take a break for too long. Been there, done that, wasted time. Set a specific time period for your query break, and then jump in fresh.
Querying sucks. I don’t know anybody who likes it, but it’s necessary if you want to go the traditional publishing route. Do your homework on how to write a good query letter, and then follow my tactics—or create your own—to keep from sinking into query despair.
Have any query tips or stories? Share below in the comments!