Query Letter Cheat Sheet For Novels And Memoirs: Pitch Like A Pro

Whether you’re giving your current query letter a final once-over or are preparing to write a killer book pitch from scratch, you’ll want to bookmark this practical and simple query letter cheat sheet for novels and memoirs.

The pros at Writer’s Relief have broken down the elements of a successful query letter into the most fundamental essentials. Use this checklist as a starting point when evaluating your query letter — and for more advanced strategies and explanations, read our many other articles about writing effective query letters.

Note: Since most literary agents accept queries online, we’ve opted to format our cheat sheet for email queries rather than print/snail mail.

The Opening Lines Of Your Query Letter

  • Dear First Name Last Name (don’t use: Mr./Mrs./Ms.)
  • Introduction: Please consider my [word count, if appropriate for genre] [book genre], TITLE.
  • Include a short log line only if your book lends itself especially well to pithy summary.
  • Include book comparisons with care (we find these can easily backfire).

The 200-Word Book Summary For Your Query Letter

This “connect-the-dots” approach to writing a book summary that captures the most important elements of your story might not work for ALL sorts of books, especially those that are experimental, nonlinear, or highly literary. Peruse it, use it, or eschew it — your call!

But first, three important hints:

HINT: Memoir summaries are most often written in first person past tense. If your book is a memoir, you’ll need to decide whether or not you’ll give away the ending of your book in the summary (sometimes, the ending becomes clear anyway in the author’s work/publishing history bio section).

HINT: Novel summaries are most often written in third person present tense. They should tease and tempt — and not give away the end.

HINT: Whatever your genre, resist the urge to editorialize about your own book. Instead, let the facts of your story demonstrate your themes and concerns — and your promises of a thrilling/heartfelt/gripping story — by proving them with the action of your summary. Fewer adjectives, more proof!

Book Summary Mini Checklist

  • Set the atmosphere/scene (if interesting) with local flavor. Just a short phrase will often do the job.
  • Introduce the main character (with a bit of colorful characterization if possible) and point to his/her expectations or desires.
  • Introduce a leading complication. This isn’t necessarily the MAIN conflict, but it should hint at the central issue. Sometimes, the complication is another person’s actions. Or it could be that the other person turns out to BE the complication. Then…
  • BOOM! Wow us with the Big Problem. How are the main character’s expectations/desires affected now that the big problem has arrived?
  • Next, the main character runs into increasing snags that make victory unlikely. The threat level of suspense (emotional or physical) is raised in specific ways.
  • Remind the reader of the high stakes if your main character doesn’t succeed. What is at risk?
  • Finally, hint at what the character will have to do (grow, escape, forget, move on) to succeed/thrive/win/recover/etc.

ADVANCED STRATEGIES: To flesh out the details of your book summary, review our all-inclusive checklist for creating a great book blurb for your query letter.

The Author Bio Checklist

After the book summary in your query letter comes the author bio (though some authors with especially strong or interesting publishing credits might want to open the letter with their “about me”). Again, there’s no one-size-fits-all author bio. But this step-by-step might help.

HINT: Write your author bio in an authentic first-person voice to convey your personality.

  • Put your best publishing credits first.
  • Include self-publishing accolades (if any).
  • List book publications as Name Of Book Here (Publisher, DATE).
  • Brag about social media stats (or focus on your promising activity level instead of hard numbers).
  • Mention your pen name if you’ve already published under another name.
  • Include your current work status.
  • Sprinkle in a little info about your hobbies, family, personal interests — especially if they tie into your writing.
  • Invite the reader to connect with you via your author website or thriving social media profile to learn more.

ADVANCED STRATEGY: Read our comprehensive dos and don’ts for writing the author bio section of your query letter.

The Query Letter Closing Lines

If you think your book’s word count may be a weak point in your pitch (because it’s too big or small for genre standards), you might want to include the word count at the end of your query instead of right up front at the beginning.

  • Say thank you. Offer to send the manuscript or ask for further instructions.
  • Close with Sincerely/Warmly/Cordially/etc.
  • Full Name
  • Street Address
  • City, State Zip Code
  • Phone Number
  • Email Address
  • Author Website URL
  • Social Media URL(s)

Warning: Things Writers Probably Shouldn’t Say Do In A Novel Query Letter

  • I’ve been writing since I was [fill in age here] (unless it’s a *really* unique story)
  • I’ve never written anything before but…
  • I don’t like using social media
  • I had a really disappointing publishing experience with…
  • I hope you can sell a lot of copies of my book
  • If you need me, reach out to my secretary (instead of reaching out directly)

And make sure you don’t promise yours is the best book in the history of the world or the next “insert bestseller title.”

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