Writing a Killer Query

By Elizabeth Heiter

In order to sell a book, first you have to convince the right person to read it.  That’s where the query letter comes in. It’s your first impression to an agent or editor, so you need to make it count!

A strong query letter will garner you follow ups and requests for more.  A less-than-compelling query will just lead to form rejections – or worse, a “no” delivered via the increasingly popular “if you don’t hear back from us in X months, we’re not interested” method.

So how do you write a compelling query letter that will not only get your work read but also get you quick responses?

It’s pretty similar to how authors get readers to pick up their books at the bookstore. 

Pretend you’re browsing and you pick up an unfamiliar book. What makes you take it to the cash register, bring it home with you, and read it? For many, it’s the back cover copy. The back of a published book is exactly what you want your pitch, the main part of your query letter, to resemble.

Let’s back up a step to the basics of a fiction query letter. It should be one page, no longer.  It should start with the title, genre, and word count (be sure you know your genre/sub-genre and that your word count is within publishing norms).  It should end with a paragraph about you, highlighting anything that makes you qualified to write the book or market it to your fans (special research, your relevant degree, your great social media reach, your relevant job, your professional writing organization memberships, etc).  But in the middle?  The meat of your query letter is your pitch.

So, let’s get back to talking about that pitch.  Great back cover copy leaves the reader asking questions (How does she get away from the serial killer? Who really set off that bomb?  How are those murders connected?  What’s going to happen next?).  Your pitch, although it doesn’t need to literally ask a question, should leave the editor or agent thinking: I have to read this story to find out what happens.

How do you do that?  Well, I like to start with a little research.  Pick up a stack of books in your genre, preferably ones you love.  Read the back cover copy of each.  How did the authors hook you?

You might start noticing some patterns of effective back covers that will help you with your query:

  • The tone of the back copy matches the tone of the book. If your book is funny, the query should be funny; if it’s dark, the query is dark, etc.
  • The copy doesn’t give away the ending. When pitching your book, you’ll save that for the synopsis; the query should leave the editor or agent wanting to know more!
  • Only key characters are listed by name. Too many gets confusing when you’ve got about two paragraphs to hook someone.
  • Suspense and thriller novels will focus more on the plot. If your book has a secondary element, like a romantic element, the query will also often get in that conflict: what’s keeping these two people apart?
  • Language choices are appropriate for the story and match the feel of the book. Compare these three authors in three different subgenres:
    • Janet Evanovich writes funny mysteries. Here’s the first line of her copy for One for the Money:  “Welcome to Trenton, New Jersey, home to wiseguys, average Joes, and Stephanie Plum, who sports a big attitude and even bigger money problems (since losing her job as a lingerie buyer for a department store).”
    • Vince Flynn wrote political thrillers. Here’s the first line of his copy for Transfer of Power: “On a busy Washington morning, the stately calm of the White House is shattered by a hail of gunfire.” 
    • I write psychological suspense. Here’s the first line of my copy for Hunted: “FBI rising star and criminal profiler Evelyn Baine knows how to think like a serial killer.”

Now, go back to your own pitch.  It should match the way your book sounds, it should focus on the big-picture mystery and conflict, and it should be dramatic.  Another way to think about it is like a movie trailer: what are the high points you want to pull out and get a reader to pick up the book?

Read your pitch out loud. That will help you hear it differently, and help you tweak the language.  Then ask trusted beta readers or other writers to take a look, focusing on those who don’t know anything about your story already.

Ask them to be honest: Do they want to read more?  Does the pitch make sense to them?  If they read this on the back of a book at the bookstore, would they take the book home?  Hopefully, the answers will be yes, yes, and yes.  If not, ask them why not.  Tweak your query and try again.  And keep going until you have a query letter that makes your readers desperate to know more.

Then get it out there, and let the requests roll in!

Good luck!

Critically acclaimed author ELIZABETH HEITER likes her suspense to feature strong heroines, chilling villains, psychological twists, and a little bit (or a lot!) of romance. Her research has taken her into the minds of serial killers, through murder investigations, and onto the FBI Academy’s shooting range.