Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Writing the Perfect Query Letter

It's been a while since we've done this. But we have so many new visitors that it's time once again. We're going to talk about the bane of all writers, the horror of horrors in the world of writing, the DESPICABLE QUERY LETTER.

Oh, we hate them. Yes. We do. But they are a necessary part in the wooing of an agent or publisher. So, since they are so important, we need to be able to do them well. We need to be able to do them so well, in fact, that the agent or publisher simply MUST request a sample of our work.

This is not virgin ground we're covering—not by any stretch of your so-very-creative imagination. There are tons of resources on the web dealing with how to write a query. And, for the most part, they all seem to regurgitate pretty much the same lecture and repeat that there are specific formats and rules for content that writers need to follow. And if the neophyte writer should carelessly wander off that straight-and-narrow path, they better have a really good reason for doing so.

So, let's take a quick look, once again, at the query letter. We'll break it down to the skeleton and start with that. Here's a shopping list of all the items you need to include:

Make sure to say "Dear" and make doubly certain you have the agent's name spelled correctly. Failure in this initial area can result in an instant trip to the circular file, regardless of how well the rest of it is written.

This is where you tell the agent the genre, the word count and the title. Here's an example.

Since you have an interest in middle grade fantasy, "Parry Hotter and the Half-Baked Prints" should be right up your alley. It is complete at 1,000,000 words.

Any creativity you can add to this section without over-reaching and ending up too cutesy can help encourage the agent to read on.

This is the meat and potatoes. This is where you really need to get the agent's attention. Even though you mention supporting characters, this section needs to be centered around the main character. All events should relate to that character. Also, keep the stages of THE HERO'S JOURNEY in mind as you write this part. (Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Martyr). For a more descriptive explanation of that, check a previous blog post HERE.

As Steven King said, "The road to hell is paved with adverbs." Keep that in mind and don't overuse them in the query, just as you don't overuse them in your writing. Avoid cliches, too. An agent can spot those as if they were printed in red ink, in bold type, italicized and underlined. Also, since the query isn't a synopsis that lays everything on the table, you want to end with a cliffhanger of sorts so that the agent simply MUST find out what happens next. That will encourage a request for a sample, which is the sole purpose of the query.

If you are published or have other notable accomplishments, this is the area to list that information.s.

This is where you hurry away by simply saying thank you and that you will be happy to send a partial or a full at their request. Then you say "Sincerely" and type your name. You're done.


Go fix yourself a cup of coffee or a glass of iced tea. Have a Dove bar or a Ferero Rocher, a Ghiradeli square, or a Lindor Truffle. Wait five minutes or so and then go back to that document and read it from beginning to end. Correct any typos, grammar, phrasing, order of sentences, adverbs, cliches, punctuation, word choices, whatever you need to fix to make it The Perfect Query Letter.

Once it's perfect, check the word count. If you're over 250 words, you need to compress things a bit. Total word count for a query is typically around 250 words. If your novel is over 70,000 words, you can expand on that number a bit, but 300 words is typically the point of no return.

After fixing everything and making it absolutely perfect, do not send it to the agent of choice. At least not yet. Send this version to a writerly friend, or post it on Absolute Write for other writers to pick apart. Whatever you do, don't be in a rush to send it until it has been given the seal of approval by at least two or three other writers. Then you can send it. But check it again before you do and run that spellchecker program on it one last time.

And that's a summary of How To Write a Query Letter.

Feel free to leave a comment below. And speaking of below, don't forget to enter our contest to have your book featured on this blog at the top sidebar position for the rest of the month. Scroll down to check it out.


  1. Thanks for the query reminders! This post made me revisit my own current attempt :)

  2. Ugh! I hate query letters. They are the bane of my existence. They are worse than synopses. But that's just because they intimidate me. I've actually written a couple that got several requests for fulls, but only after much help from many knowledgable people. Great reminder, Michael. I don't know what this Karma score thingy is to the right. Care to enlighten me?

  3. Great summary! Love the part where you tell us to chill a sec, spoil ourselves for a sec, then go back and look at it again, then send it to a writer friend who can critique it before we send it out. Saving this!

  4. Diane S. -- So glad you stopped by and took the time to read it. Also happy that you enjoyed it. I hope you'll return and click on that "Join the site" button so you can get an email alert when there are new posts. Thanks for your comment.


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