1. Get to the Goods.
Get to the goods right away. Genre. Title. Word Count. Bing, bang, boom. Agents want to know immediately if you’ve targeted them correctly, so they’re looking for a genre they’ve specified interest in, a plausible word count for that genre and a kick-ass title (which clues them in to how good you are at stringing compelling words together). You might also include your arresting logline or elevator pitch at the very start of your letter—i.e. a one-line pitch that gives the reader a snapshot of your main character, what he or she wants, the conflict and the world we’re in.
2. Use your Idols.
Comparative titles are books that will compete with yours on a bookshelf. It’s helpful for agents to see, firstly, that you’ve targeted them well by citing great books you’re pretty sure they’ve read and loved as you have. Secondly, comparative titles help agents to get a feel for the kind of book, style and audience you’re going for. A great way to impart comp titles to an agent is this: My Great American Novel is a cross between This Terrific Piece of Literature and This Outstanding Literary Thriller.
3. Summarize Like a Book Jacket Jockey.
Write a brief, pithy, gripping summary as if that paragraph is going straight to the presses tomorrow. I know, I know: If you could say it in a paragraph, you wouldn’t have written an entire book. Get over it! Describe key characters (not too many), what they want, the world they’re in, what or who’s against them and what’s at stake. Read the backs of books like yours, and write a summary that sings!
4. Brag About Yourself Humbly.
Your bio, which should include your publishing history, if you have one, is important. It should be a factual but modest peek at your author platform—which tells publishing professionals what your level of visibility is for your specific audience, how wide your reach might be, and the degree to which you’re able to influence that audience. If you don’t have a publishing history, just make yourself sound like the unassuming yet utterly fabulous person you are.
5. Above All, Act Normal.
A query letter is a business letter. Try not to be cheeky, bombastic, weird or maudlin to capture an agent’s attention. Chances are the agent will just write you off as a loon and move on. What captures an agent’s attention are organized, well-put-together writers with great titles, fresh & compelling book ideas, irresistible language, excellent publishing credentials, and a set of opening pages that hook & hold.
If you’d like a professional assessment of your query letter and first pages, check out this page. I’d be more than happy to help!