Monday, May 23, 2011

Query Letter Do's and Dont's

So I thought I’d start my first post with something close to my heart, or maybe close to my nightmares.  I’ve just finished my second ms and have started the editing process, and it’s time to focus on the dreaded query letter.  Now admit it, who wouldn’t be nervous to rest all their hopes of publishing the next great novel on one short letter?  You’ve only labored on your ms for months and months. Trying to sum up that work in three paragraphs is a painful process.

After much research on agent blogs and writing sites, I reached a scary conclusion—nobody agrees on what a query should be.  From the smallest parts to the main content everyone has a different expectation.  One agent might want you to keep the query to one page, or, even more definitive, 250 words, and another doesn’t care about the length.  Some want to know a little something about you and others couldn’t care less about your past if it doesn’t relate to writing.  Most agents insist you put your first pages in the body of the email, but some demand them as an attachment.  There isn’t even agreement on where to put the word count and genre information, first thing or at the end.  And one and all, they don’t care if you break all rules if your query has that awesome ‘it’ quality of voice.

Where exactly does that leave us poor writers who are just trying to impress?  How do we know if we’ve got the perfect query or a dud in the making?

Here are a few tips that may help. 

Most agents want you to concentrate the query on the storyline of the ms and leave off the personal information.  Don’t tell them your husband dared you to see if you could write a novel. Oops, guilty.  They don’t want to know, and it sounds amateurish.  Don’t include that you have three children and four dogs or that you went to Harvard.  The only personal information should be what is related to writing or publishing credits.  If you don’t have any yet, then it’s better to say nothing about yourself and don’t sweat it.

Don’t include how the novel teaches about friendship and the value of self-esteem.  Agents don’t want to hear what lessons your novel inspires, they want to be entertained and to sell books.  If the ms has lessons that’s great, but it’s not why people buy books.

When writing about the ms, be specific.  Don’t fill up space with a lot of clichés.  Avoid phrases like, "Then Lassie was confronted by more problems."  Instead try, "As Lassie made his way home, Timmy fell in the well."  Which is more exciting?  "Sarah Conner ran for her life pursued by enemies," or, "Sarah Connor fights extinction at the hands of a ruthless humanesque machine."  Putting in those details and making them enticing is crucial, just don’t give away the ending.

Lead with your main character and the hook.  Don’t bury the name of your mc in the third paragraph.  We need to know what your mc wants and what keeps them from getting it.  Motivation is important; it’s what defines your mc.  Are they motivated by pride, revenge, saving a friend, or something less heroic like saving themselves? 

Avoid throwing too many names into a query.  Giving out names for every character or country makes the query confusing.  Limit yourself to the main story plot and avoid mentioning side plots.  You’ve only got one page.

Don’t worry about giving a physical description of your characters.  Again space is important, not the fact that your mc has big blue eyes.  Personality traits trump looks in a query.

Keep your query in the present tense instead of past tense.  Avoid those ‘ed verbs. 

Include your title, genre, and word count and personalize by including why you’re submitting to that agent.   

Don’t forget to include the agent’s name after the greeting.  Put in a simple thank you and avoid gushing.  And for heaven sake, don’t freak if you make a mistake when rushed.  At one time you’re going to forget and put Mr. when you meant Ms. or leave off the requested pages or synopsis.  It happens to everyone.

It’s all right to say your ms’ style is similar to so-and-so’s fantastic novel.  Just don’t write that’s it’s as good as or sound like you’re boasting.

On the other hand, no matter what stage your career is at be sure to sound confident.  ‘I hope you will like this poor ms of little old me’ is a turnoff and putting yourself down.

Use interesting verbs and nouns.  Think of the query as an action scene from your novel.  You want to add emotion and interest. Avoid flat verbs like was/were, are, is and had.  “Kindar is a princess with a disease and she is dismissed by her family,” versus “The gods marked middle princess Kindar with a devastating disease that leaves her shunned by her family.”  

The best advice is to not be in a hurry to get the perfect query.  Take lots of time to write a first draft, put it aside for a week or a month and then look over it again.  Show it to as many people as you can.  Get all kinds of advice on your wording.  There are great sites where you can get review of your query.  Sites like Query Shark and Evil Editor post and comment on queries by industry insiders.  Phoenix Sullivan, a writer and editor, evaluates queries and has great advice at her blog.  At Agent Query Connect, you can get advice from all kinds of writers from beginners to experts.  Nathan Bransford has a forum just for query letters. 

Don’t be frightened away from getting advice.  It’s a mistake not to take advantage of it.  You might not write the perfect query, but it won’t be a bomb either.

Let me hear your pearls of wisdom on queries.  Lord knows help is welcome on this subject.  Anyone know other great sites for query reviews?


  1. This was very well put together, and had just about all the information a writer could ever want on queries. Fantastic first post, Michelle!

    For lots of great examples of queries, as well as what not to do, writers should also check out "Miss Snark," a literary agent. She used to do contests where you could get your queries, synopsis and first pages critiqued by her. She doesn't do them anymore, but the old posts are still there to read. She's brutal, but she knows what she's talking about.

    Love the "Terminator" example. XD.

  2. Another good resource for query letters is, home of literary agent Kristen Nelson.

    And yes, they all do seem to want different things. I'm a firm believer in checking out the website of the agent one is submitting to, and then editing the query as needed to suit the agent one is submitting to.

    But then, I'm not published (yet...) so...

  3. This is a post I will return to when I finish draft 2 of my novel. Granted, I will have a long time before I am ready to send them out, but...something for practice.

    :D Excellent post!

  4. Ever try absolute write water cooler forum? They have a forum called Share Your Work (SYW) under which they have sub-forums. The sub-forum in question is called Query Letter Hell. They critique like heck in there - hence the name - but you come out better for it. You'll need to register to the forum and critique a few queries before you can submit though.

  5. As someone who has a query letter written but needs to perfect it in the next 10 days (deadline given to me by my teenage daughter!!) this has been a well timed blog entry. Thanks... and wish me luck!

  6. Good Luck AlinasVoice! Let us know how it goes.

    I'm going to look up Absolute Write for that site, MsGabe. Thanks!

  7. Very good blog and an excellent companion to the first one I read on here. I'm definitely using this (soon I hope!) and it's so great to know that I'm not the only one who is/has been scared of taking that step. Lol.

  8. Wanted to comment through my profile but it's still not working. Rawr.
    Great job with this Michelle!
    Summing up an entire novel so it fits in a query is hard. I really liked your Sarah conner example :D Terminator is one of my faves.
    Oh yes AlinasVoice! Good luck!

  9. I'm actually dreading the day I have to write one. But this made me feel a little less worried. It's good to know I have something to come back for reference. I love how you tackled the subject with your own personal experience and quips. Great post Michelle :)



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