Writing a Great Query Letter

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

When I was at the Ocean State Summer Writing Conference this past Friday, I noticed that there were a lot of questions from attendees about how to attract a literary agent/write a great query letter .  Although there is no sure-fire formula for getting an agent's attention or for crafting a perfect query, I figured it might be helpful for me to talk about what appeals to me when I am reading my submissions.

First of all--and I know this is not helpful--there is a certain je ne sais quoi when it comes to query letters.  Several people at the conference asked what kind of topics we wanted to see within a certain genre.  I can't say with certainty what kind of books I'm interested in seeing, although I do have general preferences, i.e. narrative non-fiction, YA, etc.  However, a lot of what intrigues me to a particular submission is the creativity of or approach to the topic. 

On my Prospect Agency bio, it says that I would love to see a book about Lady Dracula or a high school teacher who finds herself falling for one of her students.  You have NO IDEA how many query letters I've received about those topics and not one of them has caught my imagination.  Usually what makes me sit up and take notice is when I read about an idea for a story that I never would have thought of, or for one that approaches a topic from a completely new angle.  Then, regardless of whether or not it has been listed as one of my previous interests, I'm hooked.  For instance, I'm not a big science fiction/fantasy person, but I would have LOVED to represent Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES and ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, because his ideas are sooo incredibly unique and interesting.  When you hear the titles of his stories, you go, "Wait, what?  That's awesome!  I want to read that!"

Soooo cool.

So, when writing your query letter, highlight what it is that makes your novel unique and why it stands out from others in its genre.  It is also important that the writing in your letter reflects the voice and style of your actual manuscript.  I'm not saying to be gimmicky and pretend that the main character is writing the letter or anything like that; you just want the writing in your query to be as engaging as the writing in your book.  Tell me who/what your story is about and draw me into the plot with captivating description.  Do not summarize the entire story, but give me a couple short paragraphs to draw me in and make me want to know more.

Give your query letter as much consideration as you do your manuscript; don't just write it  in 10 minutes and send it without taking time to reflect and revise.  Have other people look it over for you and tell you what they think.  Your query letter is just as important as your manuscript.  Many agents will reject you and not bother to read any of your sample chapters (and I admit, I am one of them!) 
if you don't impress them with your query .

Make sure to include any relevant information about yourself, especially if you are a non-fiction author.  Platform is INCREDIBLY important for non-fiction queries.  Even if you have the best idea in the world for a non-fiction book, I will be hesitant to take you on if you have no related qualifications for writing it.  I received a query letter from someone for a proposal for a non-fiction book on Razia Sultan, the first female ruler of India.  The letter was well-written and I liked the idea, but the author had no background in Indian history or history at all.  I can't remember, but I think he was a math professor.

As you can probably tell, to my mind, a lot of what makes your query great is your story.  You have to have something captivating, unique, and well-written.  Something that will stay with the agent (and the reader) long after they have finished reading.  My favorite books are my favorites because of the impact they made on me and the connection I had with the story or with the characters.


  1. At the risk of sounding a little rude, don't you think it's a bit awful to disregard someone's work because of something so artificial ?

  2. I don't think you're being rude at all, but I'm confused as to why you would think that judging the originality of and approach to a story is artificial. What do you think are the merits I should take into account?

  3. I mean not reading the sample chapters. Rejection based solely on the query? Seems so harsh and yet I'm sure it's the norm. I can't imagine how many submissions you get and I'm sure that to handle your workload you've implemented a system that works for you. I'm not telling you how your job should be done since I have no idea how that side (or really any side) of publishing works but again, it seems like you are disregarding someone's work because they're not a salesman.

  4. If your query makes it sound like your sample chapters are going to introduce me to a story that is not exciting/interesting to me or to something that is just a rehash of your genre, then yes, I am most likely not going to take the time to read your sample chapters.

    After all, publishing is very subjective and an agent is only going to look at the submissions that interest him or her. If I read a query letter where it seems like there might be potential the author isn't clearly conveying in his/her query, I will read through the sample chapters to see if they impress me, and I do my best to give detailed feedback to those from whom I request to see additional chapters or a full manuscript.

    It is a harsh reality of the publishing industry, but writing is a business as well as an art form. You really do need to be a salesman and make your story sound promising and marketable. You will have a very hard time catching the eye of an agent otherwise.

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