Taking the Mystery Out of Query Letters

ShhhOne of the most common complaints writers have these days is how hard it is to write a query letter. I agree, it’s a difficult task. You may not realize that agents have to write query letters (“pitch letters”) too. Whenever we send a manuscript to an editor for consideration, what do you think accompanies it?

You’re right—a letter. A letter we’ve slaved over, making sure every word is just right, making sure we’ve done everything humanly possible to GRAB the attention of that editor, make them sit up in their seat and think, “I’ve GOT to read this!”

In other words, I have to do the same thing you do. That manuscript I send to an editor will land on a pile (perhaps a “virtual” pile) of dozens or hundreds more submissions. It’s my job to make them pay attention despite the competition.

So the letter is extremely important. And while it’s certainly not an easy task, it’s not really complicated either.  It’s the ultimate in simple. You may see differing agent guidelines, but we all want basically the same thing, with the only major difference being that some agents want sample pages in the query, and some don’t.

Here’s what we want:

A reasonably intelligent letter, addressed to us personally, that pitches the book in a way that makes us understand it, makes it sound fascinating and makes us really want to read it.

(If the book is non-fiction, then a bit about the author and the platform is also necessary.)

That’s it.

When I keep that simple sentence in mind, it makes the letter-writing much easier. I’m able to come up with ways to make the project “pop” on the page. I can allow myself to brainstorm, trying out various ways of pitching it, discarding and rewriting until I have it just right. Keeping a simple focus allows you to do the job without getting all tangled up in knots over trying to meet every agent’s perfect fantasy of a query letter.

Most of the problems with queries are in the writing itself. This has nothing to do with differing agent guidelines. You’ve got to learn to write a strong letter, as well as a strong pitch for your book. This is all part of being a professional writer!

Sure, every agent has their little preferences and pet peeves. And we DO want you to read our guidelines because the biggest time waster is reading queries for genres we don’t even rep. But basically, if you have a well-written letter that is free of grammatical errors and typos, avoids grandiosity and ridiculous claims, and makes your book sound intriguing, you will get fair consideration.

Stay educated about industry basics such as genres and acceptable word counts, read agent guidelines so you’ll know what they rep — and stop worrying so much.

What do you think makes writing query letters so hard? Do you have any tips or techniques to share with your fellow writers?

For more info, go to “Find Posts by Subject” and click on “Query Letters.” You can also read my list of Top Ten Query Mistakes, or take a look at six queries I’ve critiqued.

Image credit: badmanproduction / 123RF Stock Photo
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  • http://www.aimeelsalter.com Aimee L. Salter

    I think the thing that makes it so hard is that we’re too close to the story. We ‘understand’ everything we say in the stories. It’s impossible to read a pitch / blurb without coloring in the gaps. So we don’t see where fresh eyes get confused or don’t catch the drift.

    To me, this is why it’s crucial having others (who haven’t read the book) read and critique the query letter. They can tell me what it makes them expect from the book – or parts they just plain didn’t understand.

    • http://4broadminds.blogspot.com/ carol brill

      HI, I absolutely agree with Aimee. I think it would have been easier to write the pitch and query before I wrote the novel–when I had the idea of what it was about but did not know every detail of the plot and sub-plots.

    • http://theotherstephenkingonwriting.blogspot.com Stephen H. King

      Spot on there, Aimee. An author writing a query letter is like a new mommy describing her baby.

      • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

        Yeah, Stephen, and we’re told to say how our baby is better than the others who were born at the same time. “I dunno, but it’s a really good baby!”

        • http://theotherstephenkingonwriting.blogspot.com Stephen H. King

          Indeed. And what defines a “cute” baby is as subjective as what makes a “good” book.

    • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

      I’ve shared my query letter with a few people I trust and have learned alot. It’s a great thing to do, even though it’s like showing baby pictures around!

      • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

        It’s funny. It’s like sharing your drawing of a baby. It never feels as accurate as a photograph because there’s just so much. I wanna scream “I make good babies, but I’m not a sketch artist!”

    • Lisa M. Airey

      I couldn’t agree with you more, Aimee. After living within the book for x number of months, it’s almost impossible to see the forest for the trees. I found a good walk quite helpful…and a little distance from the finished product. I took a break for a week or two…then wrote my query. It had a lot more energy than the original effort. Perhaps because I did too!

    • http://www.leighkramer.com HopefulLeigh

      I completely agree!

    • http://kristinlaughtin.blogspot.com Kristin Laughtin

      Very true. I think we also get caught up in the details and have trouble distilling the essence of the story down into an intriguing paragraph. We think too much of the intricacies, minor plot points, secondary characters, themes, and so on. We forget we’re trying to hook someone in thirty seconds or less, not give them a play-by-play.

  • http://ibischild.blogspot.com marion

    Borges (in This Craft of Verse–most of which I don’t understand!) said something about novel-writing being basically the same as poetry. He meant whatever he meant, but I take it to mean that it’s concise. 60,000 to 100,000 words is concise? Yes, when it’s expressing someone’s life.

    And then you have to take that concise novel of tens of thousands of words and encapsulate it into one or two or three sentences in a query letter.

    Now that’s concise. That’s poetry. That’s the impossible dream. That’s terrifying.

    • http://nataliesharpston.com/ Natalie Sharpston

      “The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity: nothing is better than simplicity.”
      —Walt Whitman

  • http://www.jamesscottbell.com James Scott Bell
    • http://www.gabrielle-meyer.blogspot.com Gabrielle Meyer

      Thanks for attaching this link!

    • Jeanne

      Thank you! What a great help!

    • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

      I heart this link!

  • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    For me writing my first queries felt weirdly like asking a woman for a date. In dating, I got a lot of rejections by trying to be impressive.

    When I decided to say the heck with it, and just be me, I got married.

    Same thing with queries. Now I just describe the book as best I can, and talk a little about myself, hit ‘send’ and don’t worry about it. When I find the right agent, she (or he) will pick it up.

    (Funny thing – most agents seem to be female? True?)

    • http://crowproductions.com Joan Cimyotte

      I agree. But I think it is like asking for a job; it is hard not to be awkward and desperate.

  • http://lesleyannmcdaniel.com Lesley McDaniel

    I have a query question that’s been plaguing me: to whom do you address the letter in those odd circumstances when you don’t have the name of the individual who will receive it? “To Whom it May Concern” seems too impersonal, but I don’t want to be cutsie either.

    • http://www.fragmentsandfriends.blogspot.com Christine Dorman

      I also would like to know the answer to this question. Thank you for asking it, Leslie. “Dear Agent” seems cold and impersonal as well.

  • http://swingsandkeyboards.blogspot.com Kirk Kraft

    Rachelle,

    I don’t know if I’ve ever considered query letters mysterious or difficult. To me, I think the issue is writers trying to craft that “perfect” letter. Certainly we should strive to make it as compelling as possible and to make every word count. But I believe many writers get paralyzed when writing a query and then stumble. Aimee is right on about us being too close to the story. It’s our story, we love it! And we want everyone else to love it, too.

  • http://www.radicallynormal.com Josh Kelley

    I have a query letter question as well: I have an agent and editor who have asked to see my proposal. Should I still send a query letter with the proposal?

    Thanks!

  • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

    A friend of mine is a novelist and a one time VP of Thomas Nelson. (No I’m not going to impose on him for help :-P) He has an excellent article that really explains why we should not be stressed out over querying. I highly recommend you take a look at this.

    http://www.markgilroy.com/2009/04/q-why-wont-publisher-read-my-manuscript.html

    • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

      YOU won’t impose? I will!! ha! Does he like chocolate? Cheesecake?? Gum? What?Okay…okay…slunks away….fi-nuh.

      Turns around…sigh.

      :)

    • Jeanne

      Interesting post. Thanks for sharing, PJ. I appreciate gaining a broader perspective on the industry end of this business. :)

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      I so want to just pop my query up here and let everyone have a go at it!!

      • http://bethvogt.com Beth K. Vogt

        And what is stopping you, P.J.?
        ;)

        • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

          Hmm, OK.

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      OK, now that everyone’s moved on, here’s my query for “Angel Blood.” Anyone who wants to help me fix it can do so at pjcasselman at gmail com . I hope this is allowable. I don’t mean to break any rules! Beth dared me! :-D Be mean, just tell me why, please!

      Dear Agent,

      I am seeking representation for my Christian novel and hope that you might be interested. (Skip this, I put something personal)

      Angelic beings aid the Britons in their battle to repel Saxon invaders from their land. History and folklore weave together in Angel Blood: Family Secrets, which is my 75,993 word, historical/fantasy novel intended for the Young Adult audience. It is a family saga full of heart, triumph and discovery.

      Through the clever use of legend, a family of half-breed angels concealed their identity for millennia. Uncle Edric, an elderly member of the family, tests his young nephew, Michael, and discovers he has the family gift. Edric takes him on a trip where he tutors him in the way of the Nephalim. Their time together ends abruptly when they are attacked at Stonehenge by Vortigern’s men. The old man retreats back to Cornwall, where Aurelius, the rightful king, is preparing to war on the Saxons. When the Saxons foist the puppet king Vortigern upon the Britons, the family joins the fight to place Aurelius and his younger brother Uther on the throne. One of the Nephalim, Merlin, must pose as a wizard to protect his family’s secret. He helps destroy Vortigern by burning him alive in his castle in Wales. While his Uncle Edric and Merlin fight the puppet king, Michael is forced to defend his family at the abbey in Avalon. With the help of his three young companions, the young Nephalim fights the Saxons and saves the town.

      I left out the author bio. I’m unpublished except for online short stories. I have an M.Div which means nothing to an agent. I’ve written 4 books which I am not to mention. Basically, all I can say is I am active in social media and I’m willing to work my buns off promoting the book.

      HIT ME!

      • http://bethvogt.com Beth K. Vogt

        Ah, now we’ve upped the ante on this post today!

      • http://www.PitchingPerfectly.com Laura Brennan

        Kudos to you for being brave enough to put it out there. I’ll e-mail you some thoughts privately. But here’s a question – did you double-dare Beth right back??

        Laura
        @LauraPitch

  • Neil Ansell

    The agent or publisher has to believe that your book will sell. You need to ask yourself why a reader should choose to spend their hard-earned cash on your book rather than the 2 million other books that are already on the market, where your book fits in that market, and what you have done that is new and original, its unique selling point. And you have to convey that in your query letter.

  • http://www.christianmamasguide.com Erin

    This is really great… it’s the first time I’ve thought about the AGENT’s querying process… and makes me think that a potential author could also consider how the agent would pitch to publishers as they pitch to the agent….

  • http://kiffstiffs.blogspot.com kiff

    I think nothing more than fear jolts us into thinking we do not have what it takes to write a query letter.

    We make ourselves believe it is something only “experts” do and we convince ourselves that we are not qualified or ‘there’ yet to write it.

    Writing the book proposal by Michael Larsen was truly insightful and engaging. There were samples of query letters and the step by step process of crafting a solid book proposal.

    There is an ebook by Mary de muth that really hit the nail on the head as she also included her personal query letters and book proposals of her actual books that sold.
    Her website is http://www.marydemuth.com/

  • http://www.michaelinfinito.com Otin

    I think the biggest problem with an author writing a query for their own work often boils down to ego. I always find myself thinking, “oh, but I can’t leave that part out because it’s exciting,” or “if I make this too short people won’t realize how complex the story is.”

    I recently took someone elses query letter and edited it for them. I cut it in half and streamlined it in a matter of five minutes. It’s much easier when the work is not your own.

    I love this blog! :)

  • http://www.sharonalavy.com Sharon A Lavy

    Q: What do you think makes writing query letters so hard?

    Reply: A form of stage fright? Back in the day of snail mail, people told me they loved to receive my letters.

    But I wasn’t trying to make an impression. I was just trying to connect to a friend or loved one.

    It is also easier for me to tell you about my friend’s writing, or my daughters awesome cake decorating and why you should hire her, than to tell you I decorate cakes (When we were cake decorators.)

  • http://theartoftoadkissing.com Heidi Lee Munson

    Tips or tricks for queries? The best help I’ve found is through my writing groups. Whether through online writing groups or my community based organizations, members in these groups have Ideas and contributions. They have been supportive and my query gets stronger and more concise with each pass – not because of me but rather because I’ve been able to incorporate their suggestions and best practices :) Thank you to the writing groups! Thanks Rachelle – I always enjoy and learn from your site.

  • http://theotherstephenkingonwriting.blogspot.com Stephen H. King

    What makes query letters so hard to write is the same thing that makes cover letters hard to write. It’s one thing to write a letter/e-mail/pm that carries a message like, “Hey, Uncle John, the trip to the Mojave was great! We saw lots of sand and cacti, and then we saw more sand, and it was really hot.” It’s another thing entirely, though, to go into a writing gig knowing that to be successful you have to sell a perfect stranger on the value of a little piece of your soul.

    “Perfect stranger” isn’t always a great descriptor for our intended recipient, either. Certainly they’re usually a stranger; even when we’re querying on the basis of a positive contact at a conference we still don’t know the person well at all. Doesn’t help when most agents are clear as mud in their “what I’m looking for” sites: “[Agent] is currently looking for Adult, YA and Middle-Grade literary and commercial fiction, with a special interest in SciFi/Paranormal/Fantasy books with broad appeal” (yes, that’s a real agent’s blurb–one whom I’ve met and queried) So what the hell does that mean? I have a book about dragons and Greek gods–does it count? The union of “Adult, YA, and Middle-Grade” is relatively all-inclusive except for picture books, and the union of “literary and commercial fiction” is, as far as I know, all the novels out there. And the rest–broad appeal for sci fi/fantasy/paranormal–you mean my vampires, if I have any, should be twinkly instead of dark? What the hell is broad appeal, and how does one measure it pre-sales-reports?

    So all that being said, yes indeed it’s terrifyingly intimidating to write a query letter.

    • http://www.fragmentsandfriends.blogspot.com Christine Dorman

      I agree with your analogy, Stephen. Both the query and the cover letter are sales letters. You not only have to get the reader’s attention; you have to SELL him or her immediately. While I agree with Rachelle’s point that it’s about good writing, writing a novel and writing sales copy are two different skills. My biggest hurdle is lack of confidence in my ability to write copy that WOWS. However, I keep reminding myself that it is a skill, so I can learn it and learn how to do it well.

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      I often wonder if the only way to sell our books is to create a character- a used car salesman perhaps- and become that character when create our queries. “You got a fever and the only thing that is gonna cool you off is my novel!” :-D

      • http://bethvogt.com Beth K. Vogt

        I refuse to believe that you have a difficult time selling your novel, P.J.
        Refuse. To. Believe. It.

  • http://www.SarahAnneLoudinThomas.wordpress.com Sarah Thomas

    I think writing query letters can be hard because we forget agents are just people, too. One of the most valuable things I’ve learned by attending conference is that agents and editors are a lot like the rest of us. Driving kids to school, figuring out what’s for dinner, dreaming of a REAL vacation . . .

    And my best tip is to write the query and let it sit for a while before sending it. That fantastically cute thing that seemed perfect on Monday has an excellent chance of feeling dumb by Friday.

    • Kathryn Elliott

      Oooo…I’ve had the Dumb Friday experience many times. :-)

    • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

      I think Dumb Friday should be a writer’s holiday.

      “Why aren’t you going to work?”
      “It’s Dumb Friday, I need to rest from sending things with my name on them that have brought crimson to my cheeks.”
      “Uh, okay, can you at least mow the lawn?”

      • http://www.fragmentsandfriends.blogspot.com Christine Dorman

        Love this idea, Jennifer :)
        P.S. I hope you’re feeling better.

        • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

          Thanks, yes I am. I heart Advil liqui-gels with a Diet Coke chaser.

          • http://www.fragmentsandfriends.blogspot.com Christine Dorman

            So glad to hear it. :)

    • http://www.fragmentsandfriends.blogspot.com Christine Dorman

      Excellent advice, Sarah.

  • http://babblefromtheburbs.blogspot.com/ Kathryn Elliott

    I can’t remember where I picked up this hint…but I write a query at multiple points in a WIP. I don’t relish the experience, but it keeps me on track. The first query tends to capture both where I see the story going and the excitement of getting started. The subsequent attempts, well, childbirth is simpler, but it’s a HUGE help in weeding out plot twists or characters that muck up the works and need the heave-ho. By the time the last query rolls around, (*gulp*), I have a blueprint to work from.

    • Jeanne

      I love this idea! Thanks for sharing it.

    • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

      Great idea!

    • http://www.fragmentsandfriends.blogspot.com Christine Dorman

      I don’t want to be redundant…so what they said ^ :)

  • Jeanne

    I think one thing that makes writing a query letter hard is knowing that how I present myself, my book is so important if I hope to grab an agent’s or editor’s attention. I am my own worst enemy becuase I place a lot of pressure on myself to write it perfectly. I need to move beyond the mind games I play, write it, get feedback and send it in.

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      Jeanne, when you have a beta reader view your book, do you ask them what they liked about it? What stood out and makes them go “Yes” as they read it? A collection of this feedback might be a great catalyst for your query.

      • Jeanne

        Thanks, PJ! I like that suggestion. :)

        • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

          Also, find a few beta readers who don’t read or write in your genre. I found that particularly helpful, because they were even more difficult to impress. It also gets your brain working outside your box. Ask them to be honest and tough, and to take notes too. Having to fight for your characters is good practice for trying to query.

          • Jeanne

            Thanks, Jennifer. I’ll definitey consider this. Great ideas. :)

          • Jeanne

            Thanks, Jennifer. I’ll definitely consider this! Great ideas from you both. :)

  • http://www.karenleehallam.com karen

    Maybe the way we approach a query is the problem.
    If we think about it as part of the creative process, and convince on our mind that it’s actually -Fun, maybe that’ll help. It works with kids. . . sometimes.

  • http://deepamwadds.wordpress.com/ Deepam Wadds

    Marie Campbell from The Rights Factory in Toronto, told me that query letters she can write in her sleep. A novel is more than she wants to manage. I was pitching to her at the time, and I so longed to ask, well, couldn’t you just write this one for me, then?
    But essentially, this post distills everything that she said to me. So perfectly succinct: A reasonably intelligent letter, addressed to us personally, that pitches the book in a way that makes us understand it, makes it sound fascinating and makes us really want to read it.
    Love it. Thank you.

    • http://www.fragmentsandfriends.blogspot.com Christine Dorman

      Yes, this post demystifies the process and makes it seem much less daunting.

  • http://thejaimereports.blogspot.com Jaime Wright Sundsmo

    I think I spent more time on my query letter than I did writing the whole book! Ok, maybe not. But I think that query letter is the first impression so that makes it difficult. Aside from the logistics of the composition there’s the questions, “too friendly?”, “too staid and professional?”, “too short?”, “bad elevator pitch?”, etc. And when you get conflicting opinions from crit partners on your paragraph summary of the book or your elevator pitches, then you get really concerned! LOL Although, I found doing a lot of research and studying resources that teach you how-tos helps a lot. In the end, my finger still shook about 15 min. after I pressed “send”.

  • http://annbracken.weebly.com Ann Bracken

    My biggest problem with writing a query letter is being too close to the project when writing the synopsis. I want to tell all about my characters, what they’re doing, who comes in, subplots, the twists and turns, and where it ends up.

    Hmm, maybe I should save that first draft to use when writing the dreaded synopsis.

    The best thing I’ve done is send my letter off to someone who has never read the story. She was able to give an unbiased opinion if the blurb made her want to read the book.

  • http://byline.peterdehaan.name/ Peter DeHaan

    Fear is my biggest challenge. It’s realizing I have one brief chance to grab an agent’s attention and I don’t want to blow it. Completing the project is less daunting then perfecting the query to pitch it!

    • http://www.fragmentsandfriends.blogspot.com Christine Dorman

      “I don’t want to blow it.” You’ve summed it up for me, Peter. In all honesty, I know that my novel is a pretty doggone good piece of writing, but I’m afraid that it will never get published because I can’t perfect the query letter. And that’s what I need to let go of–trying to write the perfect query. Rachelle’s description of a query helps take some of the pressure off.

  • http://www.atlasmediank.com Adam Porter (@AtlasProWriter)

    One of my favorite “query letters” is on the back cover of Jimmy Buffett’s “A Pirate Looks At 50.” Essentially, he writes his life in “400 words or less.” This encapsulates both the drama and the context for the book…and it makes you want to read the rest of it.

  • http://rogerfloyd.wordpress.com Roger Floyd

    You hit the nail on the head with the word “really.” You even put it in italics when you said “makes us ‘really’ want to read it. Isn’t that the real problem? How is the writer supposed to know what makes an agent “really” want to read a query letter? If I send out ten (or more) query letters, then I’m supposed to know what makes each agent I send it to “want” to read them. Granted, I can research an agent to find his/her preferences, and spell the agent’s name (and the agency name) correctly, and write a short, concise letter that expresses what the novel is about in an interesting and singular way, but that doesn’t mean I’m writing it so you “really” want to read it. Trying to do that for 10 or 50 or more agents would be almost impossible. I write the best letter I can and I orient it to the agent as best I can, but if the agent doesn’t want to read it, that’s the chance I take. There’s a real subjective nature here that puts the author at a disadvantage. I suspect that when you send a manuscript to an editor at a publishing house, you may know that editor personally, or at least professionally. That’s not true of most new writers. We don’t know most of the agents we send letters to.

    • http://www.fragmentsandfriends.blogspot.com Christine Dorman

      True, and some agents say they are looking for “adult fiction”. That narrows it down! LOL!

  • http://porteranderson.com Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson

    Hi, folks, finding some interesting comments here! Remember, per my guest post here (thanks, Rachelle!) on Twitter handles — http://ow.ly/boMK0 — I can do a lot more for you if you’ll PUT YOUR TWITTER HANDLE INTO YOUR COMMENT WITH YOUR NAME. (One way? See how I’ve done it — that’s right in the name field on your comment, just put a slash, then your @-symbol Twitter handle.) Big help when it comes to moving your good thoughts around to other venues. Thanks!
    -Porter / @Porter_Anderson

    • http://aboutproximity.com Lisa

      Thank you for the tip. (I don’t have twitter yet. It is last on my list of establishing my social media reach. Probably because it seems the most daunting.) I appreciate these kind reminders. There is really so much to remember, but I am finding each small thing you do can really compound.

  • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

    I’ve been through immigration and security checkpoints in 3rd World countries.
    I have given birth to 4 babies.
    I have sent 2 queries.

    Guess what makes me MORE nervous?
    Yuh huh! The Query Letter!

    • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

      @JJumping

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      When all else fails, put your best query down, close your eyes and click send. After you do that a few times, it gets easier. I’ve had more no’s than a steak at a vegan convention. Just keep clicking. Someone’s out there who’ll see your work at just the right time.

      • http://theotherstephenkingonwriting.blogspot.com Stephen H. King

        “more no’s than a steak at a vegan convention” – beautiful, Sir. Absolutely beautiful.

        I sent out 80 queries before I finally got a yes from a small publisher. Then when that tanked, I figured I didn’t have much else to lose by self-publishing. Seems the only people who like my book are my readers.

        • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

          Funny how that works out, eh Stephen?

      • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

        Thanks PJ.

  • http://www.fragmentsandfriends.blogspot.com Christine Dorman

    As I said in a comment above, I keep reminding myself that writing a query letter is a skill, so I can learn it, and I can learn how to do it well. I CAN learn how to do it well. I keep telling myself that. Myself isn’t convinced, but…

    Recently, a couple of things have really helped decrease the anxiety (okay, terror) I feel about writing queries. Michelle Ule wrote a great post on the Books and Such Agency blog on Monday. I know many of you already read it, but I encourage those who haven’t to check it out. Rachelle’s description is a perfect stress-reducer (thank you :)). Also, the website for The Nelson Agency (www.nelsonagency.com/faq.html#7) in its FAQ section has a link “What is an examples of good query letter?” Agent Kristin Nelson shares about seven original query letters from her clients and she adds throughout the letters what she thought as she read. I found this VERY helpful.

    I noticed, Rachelle, that you have a link that says “Six queries that I’ve critiqued.” I’ve clicked on the link a few times, and I keep getting bounced back to this post. I would love to read it.

    Blessings!

    • http://www.fragmentsandfriends.blogspot.com Christine Dorman

      BTW, my Twitter handle is @looneyfilberts. Thanks Porter! My FB page is Christine Dorman (SOBS). Blessings to everyone. :)

  • Craig

    The toughest part about the query for me is that there is so much “expert” advice out there about how to write the perfect query that none of it is relative anymore. I have been reading writing magazines, journals and blogs for 15 years and it is thoroughly confusing.

    “Spend most of your query showing you can have a good story to tell.”
    “Spend most of your query on your marketing ability.”
    “Spend most of your query on your bio/platform.”
    “Tell the ending.”
    “Don’t tell the ending.”
    “Picture the query as your book jacket copy.”
    “The query is not your book jacket copy – don’t tease the agent you’re querying.”
    “The agent is evaluating your long-term viability as an author.”
    “The agent is looking strictly to see if the specific book you’re querying is marketable.”

    In the end, I’ve adopted the approach that a query is essentially a cold call. Which is why it’s so difficult for an author to put one together – it’s business writing, which is different than the 90,000 words you’ve just written. And whether you’re trying to sell a novel, a vacuum or life insurance, cold calls are not the optimal way of doing business. Do they work? Sometimes. But as well know from our boxes of rejection letters – most of the time they don’t.

    That’s where relationship-building, marketing yourself, developing your platform/product all comes in – just like in any other business.

    So, I’ve got my theories – I just have to make them work. :)

    • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

      GAH! No kidding!! One agent says “attach it all in a Word doc” another says “attaching is not needed, just put it in the email”. Oooookay?

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      That cold call comment just flipped a switch in my head. I’m a public speaker and people person. I query like I’m trying to write the Gettysburg address. That’s it, I’m getting out a tape recorder and just yacking about my book. Maybe then I’ll get some starch out of my queries. :-)

  • n

    Rachelle, the links to past posts on this subject don’t work because they lead to your old website.

  • http:www.mymotherthinksimagoodwriterblogspot.com Sandra Rose Hughes

    Simplicity, clarity and focus are some of the most difficult skills in writing. I try to teach 9th graders how to write essays and keeping their thoughts clear and concise is the biggest challenge. I think it’s a challenge for us really old 9th graders, too.

  • http://www.pointdeception.com Jim Gilliam

    Query letters seem hard only to anyone who does not do their homework on the agent that they are querying. In an earlier post I said that the “perfect” query letter is like the Unicorn, it is a myth. That is true, but you can write a compelling query if you research the agent that you are sending the query to. Here’s my list of the things that make up a good query letter. Keep in mind that I’ve made most of the mistakes that I’m advising you not to make. That’s how I know they don’t work.

    1. Write a great book and have it professionally edited.
    2. Put some thought into who you want to publish your book. If you want Doubleday to publish your book, since they won’t even look at an unagented MS, you need an agent. If you are thinking small press, Indie, or POD then you don’t need an agent.
    3. If you decide that you want or need an agent don’t just buy a copy of 2012 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market and randomly query a whole host of agents.
    4. Remember, not having an agent is preferable to landing the wrong agent. Pick an agent that you think would be right for you.
    5. Now that you’ve made the decision to try and hire an agent (that’s right, you are the employer and the agent will be working for you) take into consideration, however, that the agent doesn’t get paid if she can’t sell your book. Refer back to 1. Write a great book and have it professionally edited.
    6. So now the prospective employee (the agent) is interviewing you (the writer) using the only means at her disposal, the query. All the more reason to craft it like a fine violin.
    7. Do go to the agency website and pick an agent who represents authors that write the same kinds of books that you do. You might want to look at a few of them in your local Barnes & Noble or check some of them out on Amazon and read some of the reviews.
    8. Your query letter should NEVER be longer than ONE page single spaced with one inch margins all around! Agents read pages upon pages everyday so no funky fonts. Twelve point Times New Roman is pretty much standard.
    9. In real estate the watch word is location, location, location. In your query it is professionalism, professionalism, professionalism. An agent who receives over a thousand queries a month has no time to waste on amateurs. She will stop reading at the first hint that you are an amateur, even if you are the next James Joyce.
    10. Agents realize that you are probably making multiple submissions, but you MUST convey the impression that she is the only agent in the world to represent your work. Makes sense, you wouldn’t go on a first date and keep looking at every other man or woman in the restaurant, would you? Not if you want a second date. So, something like: While every other agency in New York has turned my novel down, I know you’ll just love it. Sounds silly doesn’t it? Yet agents see this or worse in query letters all the time. What do you think happens to the query when the agent reads something like that? Round file! Dear author, this just isn’t right for us. Please excuse this cold form letter.
    11. If you’ve met the agent or heard her speak at a writer’s conference open your letter with a brief reminder, no more than one or two sentences. If not go directly to the meat and potatoes of the book. Be specific (professional), not vague (amateur).
    12. Start with the word count, the title, genre, and a comparison with the work of a well known author only different. My 75,000-word novel (Title) is a psychologically complex suspense thriller in same style as James Patterson’s Alex Cross novels. It has a slightly different protagonist, Tim Kelly is a rebel with a tortured soul.
    13. Follow your introduction with three succinct paragraphs that you could use for your book’s back cover copy. If you are, for instance, comparing your book to Michael Connelly’s THE REVERSAL your book’s back cover copy should read like his: “Longtime defense attorney Mickey Haller never thought he would cross the aisle and work for the prosecution–until imprisoned child killer Jason Jessup is granted a retrial based on new DNA evidence….” There’s more, but you get the idea. THE REVERSAL is a great read, by the way.
    14. Let the agent know you’ve done your homework by telling her something like: Book title should fit in with your other titles, such as (title), (title), and (title), although it has a slightly different twist. Your website mentions that you are currently looking for suspense thrillers with a different twist, and I hope you will find my novel (title) to be a good match.
    15. If you have CURRENT writing creds mention them now. If not don’t. Don’t say this is my first novel and my Uncle Fred, he’s read a book or two, thinks it’s pretty darn good. Dear author this just isn’t for us. Please excuse this cold form letter but the overwhelming number of queries we receive makes it impossible to answer each one personally. I wish you luck in your writing career. And the beat goes on.
    16. The end should be a short polite thank you for considering your work.
    17. In summary your query letter should be about your book not your family, pets or hobbies. Don’t waste the agent’s time with those things. If you do. You guessed it: Dear author please excuse this cold form letter …

    That’s my little blurb on querying, yet I’m still trying to secure representation. To all of you out there who’ve tried and failed, keep trying and above all else keep writing.

  • http://www.joanneguidoccio.com Joanne Guidoccio

    Excellent post & tips! Jim, thanks for your 17 suggestions. I will certainly keep them in mind. I am just starting to query and find it so challenging, much more so than applying for a job. I can easily identify with those of you who feel the need to create the “perfect” query letter. Does such a thing actually exist?

    • http://www.pointdeception.com Jim Gilliam

      Like I said, the “perfect” query letter does not exist, but if you customize it to the specific agent you are writing to you will have a better than average chance that she will want to see more of your work. Personally, I don’t do email queries or queries to agents who say they want query letters and an SASE only. The first line of those three succinct paragraphs should hook the agent and the follow on should set the hook and reel her in. Like the first line of Les Edgerton’s short story The Bad Part of Town: “He was so mean that wherever he was standing became the bad part of town.” After an opening like that, I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to read more. However, if you said: My character is a really mean man who lives in a bad section of Chicago, the agent is going to yawn and say who cares as she drops your letter in the waste basket. Please read Les Edgerton’s really neat book: HOOKED, you’ll be glad you did.

  • http://jackiesbackporch.blogspot.com Jackie Layton

    I think it’s the pressure. So much rides on the query letter, I tend to panic at the thought of writing one.

    Thanks for sharing. I’m headed to your query letter link.

    Have a great night!

  • http://www.luxeboulevard.com Stephanie

    The truth is, I’m terrible at form writing. If I have to send a “business” letter of any kind to anyone, I have my husband proofread it. Even things like getting dismissed from jury duty. My husband proofread my email to county offices.

    The one thing I worked hard to do was keep my entire query, from Dear Mr./Ms. all the way to my signature, under 300 words. Previously it was 367 words, and even reading it out loud to myself, I felt it dragged on. I kept hearing myself going on and on and on …

    After six rejections came back, I decided it was time to get straight to the point (I.E. These are the people, this is their relationship [I write romance], one of them does this and this is what happens.] Add a brief hint at the ending, then close with word count, my bio info, and thank the agent for their time.

    The revision is 243 words, start to finish.

    I’ve only just begun sending out the revised version, so we will see if it gets a bite!

  • Melissa Baker (@Melissb1 – twitter)

    How about imagining a movie trailer for your book? You only have a couple of minutes to captivate the audience, what snippets of story will you use?

    Or… we could all try to sum up our book in a twitter comment (wouldn’t that be interesting?) If anything teaches us how to get to the point with little words it’s Twitter.

    Confession: I’ve never written a query letter so this may be terrible advice. I’m going to give it a try :)

    Melissa

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