Important Preface: There are lots of different opinions about what makes a great query letter and in what exact order you should present the information it contains. This is what worked for me. The most important thing is to always follow the agent's/agency's/contest's submission guidelines. After that, it's a matter of learning and applying the basic rules of a strong query...and then not stressing out too much over a vague definition of perfection. :)
To enter Pitch Wars, you'll need two things: A completed manuscript and a query letter. (If you don't know what Pitch Wars is, go here.)
First the basics: What is a query letter?
A query is a cover letter for your submission. It tells agents (and Pitch Wars mentors) what your book is about, your book's basic information (age group, genre, and length), and a little bit about you, the author. All of this should be contained to one page, single spaced (typically 3-5 paragraphs), formatted with no indentations and double spaced between paragraphs (like this blog post).
Now let's take a closer look...
Always personalize your greeting. Seriously, this is SO important. I see agents mention ALL THE TIME that they would much rather receive a query addressed directly to them than an impersonal "Dear Agent" or even worse, "To Whom It May Concern." When querying, you should be researching each agent, looking at their wishlists and bios and submitting to those you feel would be a good fit for your manuscript. Never query an agent (or mentor!) without first making sure they represent your age group and genre. Addressing your query to a specific agent helps show that you've taken this step. Also, triple check to make sure you've spelled their name properly before you hit send.
"But what about Pitch Wars?" you ask. In cases of contests like Pitch Wars (or the occasional literary agency) where you submit one query to a group of people, rather than one specific person, you can still personalize your greeting with something like "Dear Pitch Wars Mentors" or "Dear [Name of Agency]."
Note: I know some people address their queries to the agent's first name, but I always preferred to use Ms. or Mr. [Last Name]. If I received a reply asking for additional materials, and the agent began with "Dear Ashley" and signed with their first name (which happened 100% of the time, in my experience), then I would use their first name for all future correspondence.
I always preferred to start my queries in one of two ways:
Option 1: Tell the agent why you're querying them specifically. I only did this if I had a reason that went beyond "You represent my age group and genre and you seem like a super cool person." For example, if you've met them at a conference, if they've posted a specific #MSWL, tweeted a want that fits your manuscript, or if you have a referral from one of their clients. If you don't have a super specific reason, or you're subbing to a contest like Pitch Wars, that's okay. There's another option.
Option 2: Jump right into your book's summary.
This is where you showcase your story. Think of it as the back-of-the-book blurb. A good formula is to introduce your main character, place them in the setting, add the inciting incident that thrusts your MC into their journey, the obstacle in their way, the role the sidekick/love interest/antagonist plays, a pivotal moment when the conflict increases, and what is at stake if your MC can't overcome the obstacle.
I prefer to limit my summaries to two paragraphs, but sometimes you may need three. If your summary is longer than three paragraphs, you might be including too much information. Keep it short and punchy! The first sentence or two should hook the reader and pique their interest, enticing them to read on. (Pro tip: Don't start your query with a question. An immediate introduction to your main character/plot will always be stronger than a rhetorical question.)
Here's my successful query for my MG fantasy, FOLLOW ME, showing how I included the points mentioned above:
Twelve-year-old Alivia Hart [MC] knows what no one else would ever believe: The woods took her mother. Now the forest [SETTING] is calling to Alivia with two words whispered on the wind..."Follow me." Alivia tells herself the voice is only in her imagination. But when a letter arrives from the Rose Grove School for Girls, [INCITING INCIDENT] Alivia must decide which she's more afraid of--a dull life of proper education, or the mysterious wood?
Deep within the trees, cats can talk, white rabbits wear waistcoats, and the tea is sweet [SETTING]. But Alivia soon encounters a darkness seeping through the moss and golden leaves. [OBSTACLE] A darkness laced with family secrets and controlled by a woman intent on continuing a bloodthirsty reign. [ANTAGONIST] As Alivia battles the evil that threatens to destroy both her and the forest itself, [INCREASED CONFLICT] it becomes clear victory will not be won within the wood. In order to rescue her mother [STAKES], Alivia will have to travel to the land beneath the Wondertree and fight not just for her family, but for a crown.
The most important component of your summary is stakes, stakes, stakes! Agents (and mentors) want to know who your MC is, what they want, what stands in the way of what they want, and what will happen if they can't overcome that obstacle. Also, don't give away your ending! The whole point is to entice the reader into wanting more — in this case, you want the agent/mentor to be intrigued by your premise and move on to your sample pages.
Some people prefer to open their query with this information, I prefer to place it after my summary. The internet has plenty of examples of both, and both are fine options. Wherever you choose to put it, you'll need to include your book's title, word count, age group, genre, and (if you have them) comp titles. For example: [TITLE] is a [#]-word [age group] [genre] that will appeal to fans of [COMP TITLES]. If you have other specifics about the book that you want to highlight (for instance, if it's #ownvoices, a retelling of a certain folktale, or immerses the reader in a specific topic, like STEM) you could include that in this paragraph as well.
A note regarding comp titles: You don't have to include these. If you do, try to use recent titles published in the last 2-3 years and resist the temptation to compare your novel to blockbuster hits like Harry Potter or the Hunger Games. Also, don't call your book "the next" anything.
This should come at the end of your query and, like comp titles, is completely optional. Don't feel like you *have* to come up with qualifications or interesting things to say about yourself. If you do choose to add a bio, it can include publication credits (no, you don't have to call yourself "unpublished" if you don't have any, or state that this is your first novel), education, career, professional writing organizations you belong to (like SCBWI), contests/awards you've won, etc. But keep it short and sweet; don't end up with a bio that's longer than your summary — always make sure you talk more about your book than about yourself.
Now for my personal opinion on bios: Sometimes this part of your query can feel like the most difficult, especially if you don't have a writing degree or previous publications but you really want to include something. Or maybe the agency you're querying specifically asks for a bio to be included with your submission. What then? Some will say that if you don't have some sort of credentials don't include a bio at all unless you can say something relevant to your book. HOWEVER, I feel that it's perfectly acceptable to include a short one- or two-sentence snippet that gives a glimpse of your personality (something I think is nice to include even if you do have credentials to list). For example, my query bio opened with "Mom by day and writer by night, I am a firm believer in the restorative power of tea and baked goods." So I say go ahead and include a bit about yourself, or mention what inspired your story, like a trip to a certain location, or a personal experience. When it comes down to it, it's highly unlikely an agent that is interested in your book based on the rest of your query is going to get to your bio and say, "She listed nothing relevant to her story! REJECT!"
Finally, I think it's nice to close your queries with a simple expression of appreciation, such as "Thank you for your time and consideration." Then you can sign off and include your contact info (mailing address, phone number, email) underneath your name.
Once you've finished writing your query, it's a good idea to pass it along to a CP for further edit suggestions or even just a friend for proofreading. Another pair of eyes is always a plus before you hit send!
A final note for Pitch Wars participants:
It's easy to stress over your query letter. Boiling the essence of your story down to two or three paragraphs can make you want to tear your hair out. But mentors aren't looking for perfection. We do want to see that you've taken the time to learn the basics of what should go in your query BUT we can always work on improving it if needed. Do your best, focus on making sure that your MC's stakes are clear, and from there hook us with the writing and voice in your sample pages.
And with that, I leave you with a message from Motivational Fox.