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  • Writer's pictureKeshe Chow

The anatomy of a query letter

Updated: Apr 26, 2023

If you've read my last blog post, in which I describe how I got my agent, then you'll know that the second book I queried did wildly better than the first book I queried. In fact, the second book I queried garnered a total of 52 requests - consisting of 49 full requests and 3 partial requests - and multiple agent offers. And while I firmly believe that the pages, aka writing sample, and the concept are the most important parts of the query package (not to mention a good dose of luck and timing!), having a well-written query doesn't hurt, either.


I'm not really an expert at writing queries, but after querying two books, both of which went through 10+ query drafts, and critiquing close to a hundred of my fellow writers' queries, I've picked up a few things along the way. To the point where nowadays, before I even start writing a new novel, I'll write the blurb/query letter first. Even though I'm no longer querying, this helps me to crystallise the project down to its most important parts, and clarifies three main things: the character, conflict, and stakes. Many of you will know exactly what I mean when I spout those terms, but some of you may not (for those of you in the latter camp, I'll explain more later). So, without further ado, I'm going to dissect my query letter below.




Basics: the rules


If you have any knowledge of how query letter writing works, you can probably skip this section. This is about the basic rules of writing a query letter. Sure, sometimes people break these rules and are successful! But you'll have a much greater chance of getting agent interest if you follow the rules. Agents often go through queries in batches, whenever they get a chance. I've seen agents say that query letters that don't follow the usual format can be jarring when they're in a query-reading groove.


They also usually have hundreds of queries to read through in any given session. So you're going to want to be concise to hook their interest! Average agents receive between 300-600 queries a month, and some agents receive even more - so you have mere seconds in order to capture their attention.


Query letters essentially consist of three parts:

  • The housekeeping (title, age range, genre, word count, comparable books)

  • The blurb (description of the book itself)

  • The bio (a short section about the author).

The entire query letter should be no more than 300 words (350 at a pinch). And every word should count. Trim that extraneous fat, authors!


The blurb is typically written in third person, present tense format. Try not to deviate from this - it will make you stand out, but not in a good way.


You'll ideally want your word count to fall within the genre conventions for debut authors. Some agents have filters set up that auto-reject word counts that are outside of the expected range. Give them as few reasons to reject you as possible!



First section: the housekeeping


FAUNA OF MIRRORS (89,000 words) is an ownvoices Young Adult fantasy with crossover potential. Based on Chinese folklore, it takes the whimsy and romance of Elizabeth Lim’s Six Crimson Cranes and pairs it with the dark themes of Joan He’s Descendant of the Crane.

I tend to front-load the 'need to know' information - i.e. the title, the word count, the genre, and the comps (comparables). Some people prefer to plunge straight into describing their book - if that's you, then go ahead! You do you. Some agents prefer it one way, some the other way, and some don't really mind. Unless you know from seeing/hearing/reading a specific agent state their individual preference, or you are actually a mind reader, you won't know what camp each agent falls into. So my thoughts is it's not worth agonising over.


My opinion is that if an agent loves the concept, voice, and writing sample enough, they're not going to worry about those little details. (I'm basing that on the fact that when I queried my now-agent, I actually accidentally sent her the template version that said "Dear <insert agent name>". ARGHHH. CUE PANIC. Luckily, she saw past my transgression and signed me anyway. Now she's stuck with me, muahaha. But I digress).


A few pointers I picked up along my querying journey:

  • There is no need to specify your novel is "complete at xxxxxx number of words". The assumption is that you are sending a complete version! Saying so is redundant. Save those precious words for something else!

  • Capitalise your own title and italicise your comps. This helps an agent who is quickly scanning to identify your title, and your comp titles, quickly.

  • A quick note about comps (I think I'll write this into a separate blog post): comps tell you more about the audience than the book. You don't need to pick comps that match your plot! In fact, you don't want another book to exactly match your plot! What you want is to know that the readers of those books will also want to pick up yours.

  • A quick note about the label 'ownvoices' - I wrote the first version of this query before We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) stopped using this term. For more context around the shift in terminology, please read the WNDB statement.

  • Some people recommend personalising each query. I only did if there was a very specific reason. For example, I'd personalise if the agent had requested my query through a pitch event, or if another agent had referred me (the latter only happened once and resulted in a full request)! Otherwise I didn't bother. I didn't notice any difference in request rates between personalised and non-personalised queries.



Second section: the blurb


Now we're getting into the main bit of the query, aka the meat of the query, aka the blurb, aka the thing-which-authors-dread-the-most™. This is the bit where you get to showcase what your book is actually about. Exciting! Or... not.


I get it. It's hard to distill your 80k/90k/100k/150k word novel into less than 300(ish) words. But the good news is, you don't need to summarise the whole plot. Really, you don't want to. You're probably only going to cover the first 25% or so. You want to cut it off at the bit that leaves the agent hanging. You want them to wonder what will happen next. Even better, you want them to need to know what happens next!


So, how do we write the blurb? As I mentioned before, the three ingredients for writing a blurb are:

  • Character: who is/are the main character(s)? What do they want?

  • Conflict: what is standing in their way? What is stopping them from getting what they want?

  • Stakes: what will happen if they don't get what they want?

I'll go through these in more details as we continue with our dissection.


When noblewoman Ying Yue arrives at the imperial palace to wed the crown prince, she is crestfallen at his cold reception. Even worse, he locks her up, preventing Ying from hunting, riding, or seeing her family. Trapped in a life of monotonous boredom, she thinks she’s losing her mind when she starts seeing strange movements in her mirrors.

The most important part of the query letter isn't a fabulously twisty plot, or clever language, or an impressive list of author credentials. It's the character. The number one reason a reader (or an agent) will continue reading a book is because they care about what happens to the character. So it makes sense to open your blurb with the character! Tell us what's interesting about them. Tell us what their internal and/or external conflicts are. Make us care what happens to them.


She isn’t. The truth is, she’s inadvertently opened a gateway through the mirrors—conduits to another world. In the mirror realm, she finds love in the arms of the prince’s reflection. Their love transcends universes, as though the mirrors themselves opened just to unite them. But the mirrors also house an army of reflections that, wanting freedom from eternal mimicry, have waited centuries for the chance to emerge. And now?
Now they’re preparing for war.

Uh-oh. Now we get to our character's conflicts. My main character, Ying, has several. We already knew she was being locked up by her future husband. We know she doesn't love her future husband, but has instead fallen for his reflection. But also - oops - she's accidentally unleashed a terror of epic proportions.


I tend to employ the use of lots of white space in my query letters by breaking up the blurb into lots of smaller paragraphs. This is because I think it makes it easier to speed-read. Agents have like, 30 seconds or less to decide whether they're interested. Make it easy for them. Also, alternating between long and short sentences helps to control the pace, and emphasises any particularly important sentences.


Instead of opening the gateways, Ying must learn to hold them shut. Shutting them means cutting off her one chance at love. But leaving them open means destroying the world. Meanwhile, Ying is forced to question whether there really are monsters in the mirrors… Or whether they’re just reflections of herself.

Now we have the really fun stuff - the stakes! What will happen if Ying does or does not get what she wants? In this story, a decision must be made between true love... or humanity.


It's worth mentioning that my first iterations of this query letter didn't reference Ying's dilemma over her love life. Initially, I'd only mentioned the larger stakes - that if she didn't close the gateways, it would effectively destroy the world. However, a wiser and more experienced author gave me this gem of advice: make sure the character has personal as well as universal stakes.


Don't just make their motivation "be a hero, save the world". Give them something they care about. Personally. Deeply. Something that motivates (or demotivates, in this case) them in their quest to achieve their goal. Give them that push-pull, that element of vulnerability, that humanistic side, that angst. That's what readers will relate to.



Third section: the bio


Author biography goes here.

I'm not going to put my author bio here, because what I wrote in mine is not relevant to you. Also, I think it's probably the least important part of the query letter. No, you don't need to have author credentials, fancy contest wins, a huge social media following or preexisting industry contacts. I know plenty of debut authors who have signed and gotten book deals without any of those things.


For the bio, just... keep it simple. If you do have any of the above, by all means include it. If you don't (which is the case for most debut authors), just say where you're from, what you do for a job, what your hobbies are, whether you have pets/kids/a haunted dining room table - that sort of thing. You don't have to disclose anything you're not comfortable with, either.


If you are writing about a marginalised community and you belong to that marginalised community, or if you have a qualification/extensive experience that gives you authority over your subject, then you can include that too (if you want to). Just keep it brief. A few sentences is all you need. And yes, you're allowed to show your personality here (but stay professional)! Remember this is, first and foremost, a business proposal.


In case it helps, here is the query letter in its entirety (remember to replace the <agent name>! Don't be like me):


Dear <agent name>,


FAUNA OF MIRRORS (89,000 words) is an ownvoices Young Adult fantasy with crossover potential. Based on Chinese folklore, it takes the whimsy and romance of Elizabeth Lim’sSix Crimson Cranes and pairs it with the dark themes of Joan He’s Descendant of the Crane.


When noblewoman Ying Yue arrives at the imperial palace to wed the crown prince, she is crestfallen at his cold reception. Even worse, he locks her up, preventing Ying from hunting, riding, or seeing her family. Trapped in a life of monotonous boredom, she thinks she’s losing her mind when she starts seeing strange movements in her mirrors.


She isn’t. The truth is, she’s inadvertently opened a gateway through the mirrors—conduits to another world. In the mirror realm, she finds love in the arms of the prince’s reflection. Their love transcends universes, as though the mirrors themselves opened just to unite them. But the mirrors also house an army of reflections that, wanting freedom from eternal mimicry, have waited centuries for the chance to emerge. And now?


Now they’re preparing for war.


Instead of opening the gateways, Ying must learn to hold them shut. Shutting them means cutting off her one chance at love. But leaving them open means destroying the world. Meanwhile, Ying is forced to question whether there really are monsters in the mirrors… Or whether they’re just reflections of herself.



So that's about the gist of it! That's essentially how I approach writing a blurb/query letter. If you find my approach doesn't suit you, that's totally fine! Everyone is different. This is just a quick rundown of what worked for me. Just in case you're looking for more (or something better, lol), here's some additional resources to check out:

And the websites I used to find agents and work out what they were looking for were:

  • Query Tracker: essentially a big database of (mainly US-based) literary agents. I highly recommend splurging for the premium version if you can afford it. At the time of querying, it cost me around $25 USD per year, and allowed me to effectively stalk - I mean research - the agents I wanted to query.

  • The Official Manuscript Wishlist site: many (but not all) agents have profiles here which go into more detail about what they are/aren't looking for (known as their manuscript wishlists or MSWLs). There are also some acquiring editors on this site.

  • The agents' own websites/agency websites: some agents have personal websites that have detailed info about their MSWLs and personal tastes. Some agency websites also have this, so it's worth looking.


And that's it! I'm happy to answer any questions about querying - just head on over to my contacts page and shoot me through a message.



Happy querying!







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