The Dreaded Query Letter

By Louise Ure

Since I became a published writer, there are two questions asked of me more often than any others.

•    Readers, friends and family always ask, “Where do you get your ideas?”

•    Beginning writers, however, ask, “How did you get an agent?”

In some ways, I think the agent search is more difficult than actually writing the book. Remember, eighty percent of Americans say they’re going to write a book one day. If even ten percent of them finally sit down to try it and only one percent actually finish it, that still means that 300,000 people are trying to get their first book published. And there are lots more who are trying to stay published. That’s an awful lot of people vying for an agent’s attention.

There are other options than going the traditional get-an-agent-get-a-publisher route. Some small publishers do not require an agent. Some writers choose to use a print-on-demand process and self-publish.

I decided to go the traditional route because I wanted to be published, not just in print, and because I wanted the marketing, editorial and distribution arms of a major publisher behind me.

To do that, you need an agent. And to get an agent you need a query letter.

The query letter is a deceptively simple document, and harder to write than you ever expected. There are several variations on specific formatting. Here’s mine.

A query letter should have four parts to it:

•    The facts

You should include the title of your work, the genre, the approximate word count and the fact that it is completed. (In mystery fiction the book must be completed before you submit your query, you know that, right?)

This paragraph should also include the reason you’re writing to this particular agent. Did you see a blog post they wrote that intrigued you? Have you read every book by one of their clients and thought the agent might also be interested in a similar tone or theme in your work? Did you meet them at a conference? (I will admit that sometimes it’s hard to come up with a believable reason for selecting each agent. I was once tempted to write, “Your middle initial is C and my middle initial is C!”)

•    The hook

The hook is a one-sentence tagline for your book. It’s meant to hook the reader’s (agent’s) interest and keep them reading. It can either go at the beginning of your query letter, or as part of the mini-synopsis.

The hook for The Da Vinci Code might have looked something like this:

“A murder in the silent after-hour halls of the Louvre museum reveals a sinister plot to uncover a secret that has been protected by a clandestine society since the days of Christ.” (From www.agentquery.com)

The hook for my most recent book, The Fault Tree, might be:

“When blind auto mechanic Cadence Moran becomes the only witness to a brutal murder, she sets herself up as the killer’s next target, and she won’t even be able to see the danger approach.”

•    The mini-synopsis

This is an entire summary of your book, in no more than two paragraphs — maybe 150 words – told in the most compelling way possible. You need to lay out the story, and introduce the major characters, the situation, the setting and the era, the motives of the characters and what obstacles they face. And you need to do it in a way that reflects your voice and writing style.

Example:

“Steve Hartz, a postal worker in Miami, has a peculiar talent. He’s very good at sketching, but he isn’t an artist. In fact, all of the sketches are done in his sleep. More disturbing, all of the sketches are coming true. First, there was the portrait of Maria Seever – two days before he met her. And then, more sinister, came the sketches of the crimes, all two days before they occurred. The places in the sketches are all familiar haunts of his, and Hartz begins to wonder if he’s involved in the crimes somehow. Fearful of turning to the police, Hartz determines to solve the mystery himself – with the help of Maria, the psychic from his first sketch, who knows far more than she’s telling.” (From Writers Digest.)

Easy? No, but possible. Keep rewriting the hook and mini-synopsis. Ask your family and friends to read it. Cut out all the flowery language and get down to the guts of what makes this story special.

•    Writer’s bio

If you’ve got writing credentials, this is the place to brag. If you don’t, that’s okay, too.

Keep in mind, this is not a resume. Include only that information that gives the agent a reason to believe that you know what you’re writing about and you’re the only person who could have written this book. If you were in the military and your book is a spy thriller, that’s relevant. If you grew up in Boise and that’s where your book is set, that’s relevant. But if you published two computer-training manuals and this book is a private eye novel, that experience should not be included.

One final example. Here’s the actual query letter I sent out for my first novel. You’ll see that it doesn’t strictly follow all the rules I’ve laid out above, but it worked for me. And yep, that’s how I got an agent.

____________________________________________________________________

Dear (Specific Agent Name),

I have completed my first novel, FORCING AMARYLLIS (approximately 80,000 words), and am now seeking a literary agent. Your representation of (Specific Author Name) and (Specific Author Name) who also set their works in the desert Southwest made me think that you might be receptive to my work.

For this story, I’ve chosen to write about the world of trial consultants and jury selection specialists, a group not widely known outside of legal corridors and the O.J. Simpson trial. My research suggests there is no series and no protagonist in current crime fiction that focuses on this area. It is a garden ripe with stories to be told.

In FORCING AMARYLLIS, Calla Gentry is a Trial Consultant in Tucson, Arizona. She has been asked to help defend Raymond Cates against a murder charge, but soon realizes that he could be the man who violently raped her sister, Amaryllis (Amy), seven years ago and left her for dead. Calla reluctantly accepts the help of private investigator Anthony Strike, who is also part of the Cates defense team, to discover the truth about her sister’s attack. Through it all, Calla is torn between professionally executing her job – juror selection, strategy planning, witness preparation, mock trials – for the accused man who has put his faith in her, and a growing awareness that he might be her sister’s attacker and must be stopped. When the legal system fails her, she confronts the real villain and he lashes out against her in a battle that ends in a remote desert canyon in the moonlight.

Like my protagonist, I spent years in advertising, marketing and market research. In my case, my experience covers more than two decades and includes work on three continents. I found it fascinating to translate those same communication and research skills to the courtroom through this story. And while I now live in San Francisco, I am a third generation Tucsonan, and have tried to bring the legends, the mystery and the magic of the desert Southwest I love to life in this work.

FORCING AMARYLLIS is finished and available upon request. I’ve enclosed a synopsis, a sample chapter and a self-addressed stamped envelope, as you suggested on your published contact information. Please let me know if you’d like to see the rest. Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to your reply.

Sincerely,

Name
Address
Phone
Fax
Email

______________________________________________________________________

Do’s and Don’ts Checklist:

•    Do make your query letter short, professional and businesslike. That means one page or at most one and a half pages with a 12 point font. No typos. No grammatical errors. No colored paper or glitter.

•    Do address your letter to a specific agent, not just “Dear Agent”

•    Do include all the information on how to reach you, including phone and email

•    Do include a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) with all snail mail submissions

•    Do write your hook and mini-synopsis in the present tense. It gives it more immediacy.

•    Do thank the agent for their time and consideration of your project.

•    Don’t sing the praises of your book like a huckster. (“My friends all say it’s hilarious!”)

•    Don’t compare it to a famous bestselling novel. Let the agent come to that decision on his own.

•    Don’t send anything other than what the agent’s website suggests. If they say “query letter only,” send that. If they say “query letter and first chapter” send that.

•    Don’t include any attachments with email submissions. Include the file in the body of the email, but only if the agent’s guidelines tell you to send something more than the query.

In my next blog post (Tuesday, November 25), I’ll cover the other half of the query question: Who do you send it to?

In the meantime, do any of you have any query letter tips or horror stories? Do tell.

LU

33 thoughts on “The Dreaded Query Letter

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    Reading this, it is hardly surprising FORCING AMARYLLS was taken on and published to such acclaim!

    Just superb.

    Me? I made all the classic mistakes. My book wasn’t finished before I sent out my first query letters – and wasn’t finished for some time afterwards either.

    And then I went with the first agent who offered to represent me, having chosen him for all the wrong reasons.

    It was a disaster from start to finish.

    If only the internet had been up and running, and I’d been able to tap into such excellent advice from a writer of your talent.

    Reply
  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Excellent, LU, I’m adding this to my agent resource list on my own blog right now.

    I am very grateful I never had to do the query thing, but there really are such great resources everywhere on the Net with examples that theoretically no one should have to stress too much about it.

    It’s a writing exercise.

    My only, obvious, advice is – make sure the book is right, first, otherwise the best query letter on the planet is not going to help.

    Reply
  3. Dana King

    Thank you, Louise. This is especially timely for me, as I’m preparing to send a query to a small publisher right after Thanksgiving. It’s good to have these points cemented in my head as I go about it.

    Reply
  4. J.D. Rhoades

    Of course, like most things in my life, the query letter that finally got me an agent violated several of these rules. It was an e-mail for one thing, and it was done totally off-the-cuff, late at night, after I’d had a few drinks in me and I stumbled across a website that listed agents who were looking for new clients and who took e-mail queries.

    I did get in the hook and the mini-synopsis, and I did say thanks, but the tone of the whole thing was less like a business letter and more like one of my blog posts or newspaper columns. I did compare it to writers that had influenced me, and I did include the fact that I’m a lawyer even though the first book isn’t a legal thriller.

    But hey, it worked.

    Reply
  5. Louise Ure

    Dana, I’m so glad it was timely for you! As Kathryn mentions a couple of questions down, there are some great resources out there. (I used to love reading Miss Snark, and was sorry to see her go. She also had some of the best BAD examples around.)

    Reply
  6. Louise Ure

    Toni, feel free to share it with anyone. The reason I finally put the advice all in one column is that I found myself answering the same question for folks all the time. Hope this helps.

    And dear J. D., why am I not surprised? But the coolest thing about your late night email query is that it was truly written in your voice and the agent saw that and loved it. I would have, too.

    Reply
  7. Stacey Cochran

    The thing that strikes me about your letter, Louise, is its pitch perfect tone.

    It says: I am a someone you want to work with.

    The novel fits a clear genre, has an interesting protagonist, and has an original perspective on a commercially viable setting for a novel (the courtroom). It’s got a great title, and would likely meet reader expectations well in its genre.

    Furthermore, your personal background and experience makes you suitable to publish a novel.

    This is a clinic really on how to write a perfect query letter.

    Thanks for sharing, Louise.

    Reply
  8. Louise Ure

    Thank you, Stacey. The tone of the query is a fine line to walk. You want it to sound businesslike and professional, and yet you want your writing style and voice to come through. Tough to do.

    Reply
  9. JT Ellison

    Just superb, Louise!

    I’d sent a couple of query letters early on, but had all stopped when I came across an agent who was Harvard, Yale and Princeton rolled into one. I knew that’s who I wanted, so I started to craft the ultimate letter (ha! hubris) In the meantime, I put a site on Publisher’s Marketplace, which I heartily recommend to all new writers. Why? Because Harvard saw my site and asked for my manuscript before I could send the query.

    We laughed about this, three years later, when I dug out the unfinished letter and sent it to him. He agreed that it was terrible.

    Moral of the story: you only get one chance to make a first impression. Don’t be cute, be smart.

    Reply
  10. Tammy Cravit

    For me, the query letter isn’t the part of selling my book that intimidates me. I’ve done freelance newspaper and magazine writing for years, and such work is great practice in writing queries. (I highly recommend it). But I know from experience that it is harder than it looks to write a good query letter, at least until you’ve had some practice at writing them.

    A good exercise a friend suggested to me once that I bet would work for novels too: Pick a few novels you know, and try to “reverse engineer” how the query letter might have looked. You likely won’t exactly match what the author’s original query looked like, but after you do a few you’ll get a pretty good feel for how they’re put together.

    Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell’s book “The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock” might be a good resource, too. Again, it’s written for magazine freelancers, but the structure of a query letter is much the same even if the content is a little different.

    Thanks for a great post, though — it’s easy, I think, to forget that the business aspects of being a writer are every bit as important as the creative and stylistic ones. In fact, I’d argue that there are any number of NYT bestsellers whose work proves that the business aspect is MORE important…but that’s another discussion entirely.

    Reply
  11. Louise Ure

    JT, a Publishers Marketplace entry is a great idea, and clearly successful! (Alex, I took the Harvard, Yale and Princeton reference to mean that the agent had every kind of stellar credential JT was looking for.)

    Reply
  12. Louise Ure

    Tammy, your suggestions are fabulous, especially the re-engineering one. Not only would it help you distill the essence of a plot and character, but it might give you more objectivity when the time comes to write your own.

    Reply
  13. JT Ellison

    Yep, Scott was my ideal – he had everything I was looking for in an agent. I always liken the agent search to applying to college – you need your unnattainable dream school, your safety schools, and your I’ve got a real shot at this school. Scott was my unattainable, but I alway figure why not try for the best first.

    And I made the right choice. That’s the other thing – do your research, and know what you’re asking for. An agent is a partner, someone who ultimately works for you, so you need to be sure you have realistic expectations going in.

    Reply
  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I’m just trying to reconcile “Harvard, Princeton and Yale” with “able to trick a client and a top publishing exec to jump naked into a glacial lake.” Maybe I'[m just being obtuse.

    You know, there’s an interesting subtext to this discussion that I’m going to disclose, because Dusty and JT and I are all talking about the same agent.

    But we all came to him in vastly different ways.

    But then, we’re all on Murderati together, and RGB, too, so there is a pattern, here.

    I think that’s relevant.

    Now, I had no idea who Scott Miller was. Because I was already a professional screenwriter, I had a really direct route to getting a lit agent. My film agent gave my book to the agency’s book acquisitions agent, and she sent it to her favorite lit agents. Of course I researched them myself, then, but I knew enough to realize that I wasn’t going to know even the tiniest percentage about who would be a good agent for the book compared to my agency’s rep.

    I liked Trident best as a potential agency because the agency’s founders were originally top William Morris agents, WMA being one of the most powerful film agencies, and I figured they’d understand my commercial film roots, and also be able to handle the dual nature of my writing career.

    I made the decision about Scott in our first phone call because of what he said about the book and his plans for it and me, and because I liked his style and savvy and knew I could work well with him.

    So it was partly random, just like Dusty’s road to Scott. I think the real point here is – DO all your prep and homework, there’s no such thing as being overprepared – but there’s also a certain synchronicity about finding an agent and you should trust the inexplicable magic of the process.

    When it feels right, it’s like falling in love, there’s no other way to put it – and you BETTER love your agent because it’s a tremendously intimate relationship.

    Reply
  15. Louise Ure

    Alex, that’s a howl. I had no idea you three had the same agent. Clearly it’s proof that agents are looking everywhere for talented writers and the traditional query letter, while still important, is no longer the only way to make that connection.

    Reply
  16. Louise Ure

    I think you’re right about the sense of humor, JT. Don’t get mine started on jokes if you meet him at a convention. It would be an all day sucker.

    And R.J., I found my agent before I started going to conventions but I think I would have been tongue-tied around them in person. You’re a braver writer than I.

    Reply
  17. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Ure,You said, “Do write your hook and mini-synopsis in the present tense. It gives it more immediacy.”

    I’m so glad you did, because that’s one thing I wouldn’t have thought of, but it’s such a forehead-slapping, ‘of course!’ kind of thing. It makes perfect sense if you spend half a second thinking about it.

    As I’m about a week away from the query stage myself, this was incredibly timely. And as Ms. Lilley said, I have read through Miss Snark’s archives several times too. Thanks to you and to her (wherever she is).

    Reply
  18. Hank Phillippi Ryan

    I loved my first query letter. I thought it was charming, intelligent and clever. (Ha. Yeah yeah, I was an incredible blazing newbie. Too new to know.)

    EVERYONE said no.

    I rewrote it, focusing on plot, not character. I sent exactly the same synopsis and first thirty pages.

    EVERYONE said yes.

    Thanks so much, Louise. It’s such an important moment, one full of choices. You put that query into the mail–and it’s your future you’re sending.

    Reply
  19. louise ure

    Jake, that present tense thing was a head slapper for me, too. I don’t often like books written in the present tense but it sure makes a difference in these mini-synopses.

    And Hank, how nice to see you here. I would have guessed that your fabulous writer’s voice would have shown through even in that first query letter!

    Reply
  20. Allison Brennan

    Great post, Louise.

    First, like Zoe, I went with the first agent who offered representation. Disaster, didn’t sell my book–which was no surprise because the book wasn’t publishable. Not horrid, but certainly not ready for the big time. I left that agent, finished the manuscript that I sensed was “it” and sent out twelve query letters.

    (BTW–I firmly believe you need a list of at least 20 agents you think you want based on your research . . . because sometimes you never hear from them. And sometimes, you get multiple offers of representation. And sometimes, you get lots of rejections.)

    When I queried my agent–also with Trident, but not Scott–I, like JD, had a couple glasses of wine, and since they accepted email queries I decided to just go for it even though I didn’t think I had a chance. So I went back and forth between Scott and Kim, sort of like eeny-meeny-miny, because I really didn’t know exactly where my book would fit in. It was romantic suspense, but darker and more suspensy than traditional RS. And my letter was horrid, except for the hook (Ex-FBI Agent turned crime fiction writer discovers her books are being used as blueprints for murder.) I settled on Kim primarily because she said she liked RS and quickly emailed it before I changed my mind.

    Horror stories: I have plenty, as I was rejected over 100 times on my first four books. One agent who requested the full of my first manuscript returned my cover page with one word double underlined: SUPERFICIAL. One agent I’d queried at the same time as Kim requested the full . . . three months after I sold. I had form rejections, detailed rejections, encouraging rejections . . . I’m just glad that Kim decided to read my book instead of watching Law and Order . . . 😉

    And Alex, I don’t get the Harvard comment either, but I think we should start calling him that . . . 🙂

    Reply
  21. Louise Ure

    Allison, your story proves that it’s all worth it, no? All those rejections, even that nasty SUPERFICIAL note, to ultimately find the right agent for your work. Mystery readers everywhere are delighted that you persevered.

    Rafe, I’m glad there was some nugget in there you could use.

    Reply

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