Wednesday 4 December 2019

Writers’ Questions: How do I write a query letter?

In August 2020, my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, about the older woman who had an affair with Branwell Bronte, will be published by Atria Books. It’s been a long road to getting traditionally published and I’ve had to learn a LOT along the way. So, in this Writers’ Questions series, I’m sharing some advice about the process to help fellow writers. 

Signing with a literary agent is the most common first step if you want a contract from a major publisher. In a previous blog post, I wrote how to find literary agents that might be a good fit for you and your novel. But once you have your dream list, what next? I hate to break it to you, but it’s time to write the dreaded query letter.

Query letters are almost always query emails in today’s digital-first era of communication. Think of them as similar to the cover letters you might write when applying for jobs. The role of a cover letter is to get you an interview. The role of a query letter is to get an agent to read your manuscript.

Different agents may have different requirements for the queries they receive so it’s ALWAYS important to check out their agency website to understand their specific asks, but there is formula that will work pretty universally.

It goes like this:


I am querying you because PERSONALISATION [This is where you can mention how you found them. In Acknowledgments of a book you loved? On Twitter? Via #MSWL? Don’t know what these things mean? Read my earlier post.]

DESCRIPTION OF YOUR NOVEL [This should be similar in length to what you might find on the back of a published book. It begins with the main character vs. a long description of the setting and/or backstory. Who are they and what is their predicament? Don’t give away your ending. This is a spoiler-free zone.]

TITLE, LENGTH, GENRE & COMP TITLES [Unless you mentioned any of these in your personalisation section above.]

DESCRIPTION OF YOU [Don’t overthink this. Your bio should be one to two sentences mentioning anything relevant. For example if your novel is for children and you have children, mention it! If your main character is a cardiologist and so are you, wonderful! If you’ve had stories published in the New Yorker, shout it from the rooftops. Otherwise, simply saying “I live in PLACE and work in THIS DAY JOB” is fine.]

Thank you for your consideration, [Or other appropriate sign off.]

Some common mistakes to watch out for include trying to be quirky (e.g. writing the letter from your main character—don’t do this!), getting the agent’s name wrong (I addressed my letters by first name since I didn’t want to assume whether agents were Ms/Miss/Mrs/Dr etc.), spending too long on your biography (the query letter should be about your novel more than about you), and not leading with character in your novel description.

It should also go without saying that you shouldn’t be rude to or threaten the agent (you wouldn’t threaten a recruiter in a cover letter!), yet agent horror stories pop up about this all the time.

Below, I’m inserting my query letter, which led me to signing with an agent. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it did the job:

Dear Danielle,

I am querying you as we have similar reading taste (I also love Wuthering Heights, Rebecca and anything by Jane Austen) and I thought my historical novel, BRONTË’S MISTRESS, might be of interest to you.

Yorkshire, 1843. Lydia Robinson is mistress of Thorp Green Hall—or at least she should be. But her daughters are rebelling, her mother-in-law is scrutinising her every move and her marriage is hanging by a thread following the death of her beloved younger daughter a year earlier. 

That’s when Branwell Brontë arrives to act as her son’s tutor. Branwell is imaginative, passionate and uninhibited by the social conventions that Lydia has followed without question since her girlhood. He’s also twenty-five to Lydia’s forty-three and oh so very easy to manipulate. 

A love of literature, music and theatre soon bring mistress and tutor together but Lydia is being watched—and not just by her husband. Her servants and the governess (Branwell’s judgmental sister Anne) are starting to ask questions. Her daughters are embarking on romantic entanglements of their own. 

With her husband’s health failing, Branwell’s behaviour growing more erratic and exposure threatened from several quarters, it’s up to Lydia to create a chance for her own happiness. Can she find meaning in her life without losing her children along the way?

BRONTË’S MISTRESS, complete at 80,000 words, is the true and previously untold story of the woman Mrs Gaskell called "that bad woman who corrupted Branwell Brontë". The novel is the result of my meticulous research into the time Anne and Branwell Brontë spent at Thorp Green Hall. I have two degrees from the University of Oxford, including a Master’s (with Distinction) in nineteenth-century literature. By day, I work in advertising. By night, I write fiction and run a successful blog on nineteenth-century literature and culture—the Secret Victorianist.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

You might have noticed that I used a rhetorical question, which some writers say is a no-go in query writing, but I think one can work (though definitely not more than one!).

I also didn’t include comp (comparative) titles as I couldn’t come up with recent novels I thought were a perfect fit. Once we “went on submission” with the manuscript to publishers, we did include comp titles, thanks to my agent’s knowledge and guidance. These were Longbourn (2013) by Jo Baker and Z (2013) by Therese Anne Fowler.

Writing a query letter can be tough but it’s a wonderful exercise in discovering the heart of your novel and how best to sell it to others. It’ll help you answer that dreaded question “what’s your book about?” from now until forever, hopefully without boring those around you. Even if you’re not quite ready to query, starting to draft the letter can be really useful.

Do you have any other questions about finding, querying or working with a literary agent? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

And if you want to learn more about Bronte’s Mistress, including pre-order and order links, launch events and more, sign up for my email newsletter below:

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