It’s time, romance author. You’ve worked long. Hard. You wrote the first draft, and the second, and the third and maybe a fourth. You’ve killed the darlings, busted a keyboard or two, and revised until your file folder was filled with FINAL VERSION 11.3 FOR REAL THIS TIME GAWD.docx. But you’re there. You’re done. You’re READY to start querying. Except, what in the world do you put in a romance query letter?
1. The Characters
First and foremost, agents want to know about the characters they’re about to fall in love with! We need the MC’s name, and profession is good too—what makes them unique outside of their role in the romance.
Our characters are more than their eye color and BMIs, so your first paragraph is a great place to shine a light on your external hook: the go-getter businesswoman or dad-joke-telling fireman who’s afraid of heights.
For my own queries, I try for a first paragraph that follows something like this:
Main Character 1 is (unique-to-your-book) description, and trying to accomplish HOOKY EXTERNAL GOAL. But this is affected/complicated/inciting-incident-ed by MC 2, THE ROMANTIC INTEREST with (unique-to-your-book) description, and whatever reasons MC1 has for why their romantic entanglement is complicated.
2. The Reason They Can’t
It’s a romance novel. The agent knows the characters are gonna get together in the end. But our job in the query is to pretend like it’s not gonna work, and make them believe us.
Let’s look again at that first paragraph.
Main Character 1 is (unique-to-your-book) description, and trying to accomplish HOOKY EXTERNAL GOAL. But this is affected/complicated/inciting-incident-ed by ROMANTIC INTEREST with (unique-to-your-book) description, MC 2, and whatever reasons MC1 has for why their romantic entanglement is complicated.
The agent knows, and EXPECTS, there to be problems. Complications. Reasons why the characters don’t meet on page one, realize they are an absolute perfect match, and then live happily ever after the rest of their days. (That would mean your book was over on page one. We’d prefer to avoid that.)
Maybe they swore off romance after a divorce. Maybe they’re work associates, or their families are ancient rivals. Whatever it is, as soon as we know WHO needs to end up together, we need to know why it’s going to take an entire book to make that happen.
Hint: The reason should suck. That, oh man, if only THAT weren’t the case. But it is the case. Nobody would read our books if the characters didn’t have to overcome stuff. Pinkie swear.
3. The Reason They Wanna … Anyway
So we just explained exactly why this romance thing? It ain’t gonna happen. Except . . . it’s totally going to because THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT! The battle. The fight for true love to triumph over all obstacles!
Your second paragraph in your query is where you show those obstacles come to life. What the characters are fighting for, and why it’s gonna hurt so, so good, all the way up to the climax.
MC1 and MC2 embark on a journey of external plot events that are unique-to-your-book-and-not-at-all-vague, but despite previously stated reasons, THEY FALL MADLESSLY IN LOVE. At least until the plot fairy wields her magic wand and EXTERNAL PLOTLINE butts head with ROMANCE PLOTLINE, and they’re now faced with CLIMACTIC DECISION.
That’s a tall order for one paragraph, I know.
Here’s another: Let your external plotline shine, but not overshadow your romance. That’s THE MOST IMPORTANT PART. So don’t forget to explain that while your characters are stealing ancient maps and overthrowing governments, they’re also falling in sweet, sweet love. Until it all goes wonderfully wrong.
4. The Final Choice
So we’ve got our first paragraph: our characters, and the reason the romance is gonna be problematic.
We’ve got the second paragraph: falling in love anyway until it bites them in the butt and they’re at a serious crossroads.
Now, to bring it home.
Your final paragraph is your last chance to wow the agent. Like the last verse of the song you were listening to before you get out of the car, we want this baby to be playing on repeat as the agent makes their way through the book’s WC and genre breakdown, and then your author bio.
(You should totally have a book stats paragraph and author bio, btw. Word count, genre, single title or series potential, single character first person pov or alternating third or whatever. Also, bios don’t have to contain writings creds if you don’t have them—a fun summarization of who you are is great! The agent is signing you, the person, too. Not just the book.)
I usually try to knock them off their feet with something like this:
MC1 and MC2 are caught between EXTERNAL PLOT LINE and ROMANCE PLOTLINE, and to make the world full of rainbows, they’ll have to decide/rely on/overcome BLANK before unique-to-your-book-and-not-at-all-vague-or-cliché STAKES happen.
Want to see that one in action? Oh helloooo, Pride and Prejudice!
Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy can’t deny their mutual respect and attraction for one another, but neither can they escape the societal conventions keeping them apart. To find their happy ending, they’ll have to overcome her wounded pride and his family’s prejudice before the rules governing a handsome aristocrat and an intelligent-but-poor maiden see them wed to persons “more suited to their station.”
Okay, so that’s pretty rough, but you get the idea. It’s a big game of This Versus That, But Before X, OR ELSE!
Polish Your Romance Query Letter
Always do your best to be as specific as possible in your romance query letter, and use details unique to your MS. If it can apply to any other book, it’s not good enough for yours. And don’t give away the ending! That’s for your synopsis. We want to leave that agent breathless, shaking, desperate with the need to find out will they/won’t they DESPITE the rules of the genre, and you can make that happen. You can make them forget that they already know.
Just keep that romance front and center, and you’ll sweep ’em right off their feet.