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The Art of the Query Letter

It’s been years since I’ve done a post on writing a query. Query Shark and others have mastered the art of teaching the query so I’ve been happy to abdicate this responsibility. However, lately, I’ve seen a rash of weak queries. I’m not sure if this is because we use Query Manager so people don’t think they need to write a proper query, or if it’s because people are just so new to the process that they haven’t done the research. Whatever it is, and however the industry changes, the query is always the critical first step to a career in publishing. It matters.

Dear Agent Name: Every query needs an address. It’s formal letter writing 101 and even with electronic forms, you should do this. It’s the perfect opening and, well, it’s just professional. Use the agent’s name (not a generic “agent”).

Introductory Paragraph: Title, genre, word count, comp titles if necessary. Just the facts. Right here. First and foremost.

Blurb:  This is the most critical piece of your letter. It’s often the only thing I look at and it’s the one thing I sometimes feel like authors work the least at. Your blurb is your cover copy. That’s it. If you don’t know what to write, get thee to a bookstore and read the cover copy of every competitive title there is. Emulate that copy. Match the tone and style of your own book and your voice. The blurb never needs to be more than two to three paragraphs long. Two to three sentences is too short.

Bio: I do want to know a little bit about you. I don’t want to know that you’ve been writing since you were 7, I want to know who you are now. If you can, tell me what makes you the best person for this book. Are you a doctor writing about a doctor? Is it #ownvoices? Are you a member of any of the major national writing organizations? Do you blog? Have an active Twitter, are you an Instagram star? If none of these are you, that’s fine too. Just tell me that you’re an accountant from rural Missouri with a passion for writing and who some of your favorite authors are.

That’s it. That’s all a query letter is. Now I know from experience that this letter might take a week or two to write (mine do when I pitch publishers), and if it takes a week or two that’s fine. That might be the time you need to put your best foot forward.

 

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14 comments

  1. Thank you for this sage advice! As they say “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” and the query letter is that first impression! Very helpful insight!

  2. The other day I experienced a fascinating bit: I helped a writer with their query. I suggested trimming a few lines, I added a few more and overall she was extremely pleased.

    When it comes to doing my own I’m pretty sure I’d rather drink a vinegar milkshake instead. My mind shuts down. Nothing happens. After a while I have to have someone else do it. Yes, I probably need help.

    Thanks for this. I’ll never stop trying…..I think.

    1. Yes!! This!! All of this. I’m using this for a future blog post if you don’t mind. Every single author should get critique query partners who are different from their book’s critique partners. People who have never read the book.

      1. Maybe that’s my problem. I know the story to well. It’s my story and because of that I cannot form my thoughts the way I need to in order to create a quality query. You may have nailed it.

  3. Thanks for this advice! I’ve read through queryshark and everything else I can get my hands on before I start querying. The one thing that no one seems to agree on is where title, genre, WC, and comps should go. Janet is adamant that nothing should go before the hook. But, I would never write a formal letter without including the purpose of the communication in the first sentence. In your format above, would you want to see that specific reason (i.e. request at conference, pitch party, MSWL, etc.) included in the intro paragraph? Thanks again!

    1. No one agrees on everything. No one will reject you because you put things in the “wrong” order. No matter what, get the information in there and perfect that blurb. That’s all that matters.

      1. Dear Jessica,
        I found your information very rewarding my current agent/publisher
        had denied me my first novel after a mistake of writing my book without paragraphs, and chapters were missing in this regard I write long and short chapters so it was because of this and wrong formatting in a different sense
        of also asking him for other formats/genres of writing such as flash fiction, short stories, he said no, he would not work with me any longer until I finished my novel “The Bodyguard.” in right formats to set my quotes right etc.
        Mind you he did my first poem book.
        So yes he denied me because I had stuff in the wrong order far as a novel.
        Could be because i am not familiar with g docs.
        so in your blog you say no one will reject you for having things in the wrong
        order but he did because of that, i queried on face book to him.
        Hoping to work with the agency I like the way it presents it’s self.
        Thank you

  4. I’ve had my query critted (a wonderful help). Didn’t occur to me that not everyone would do that. I do the same for my synopsis as well. When you know the story in your head you fill in bits when you read, but others can’t do that so they pick up things I never would and point out things that aren’t as important as I think (removes the guff).

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