Talking About Queries

I’d like to talk a little bit about queries.

A query letter is a letter (These days, it will almost certainly be an email, but check the guidelines) you would send to an agent that you think would be a good fit both for you (More on that later…) and your story. This will often (though not always) be the first point of contact between you and the agent.

First, if you’ve never heard of the Query Shark, go check out Janet Reid’s website.

Janet is a literary agent who has offered up her blog to query critique. You post your query and she crits it from an agent’s perspective.

She doesn’t pull punches.

There are some brilliant queries in there.
There are some not-so-brilliant queries in there.

Best of all, once your query has been critiqued, you’ve got the option to rework it and resubmit so there are queries in there that started out as…um…less than brilliant that turned into something brilliant, and you can see how the brilliant query evolved.

I read the entire blog…from beginning to end. I recommend that, when you’re ready to start querying, you do the same and, believe me, I know what kind of time commitment this is. I also know that your effort will be rewarded.

Here is what I’ve gleaned from Janet’s website. I would advise against using this post as an excuse not to swim with the Query Shark. You will not only learn the rules, but you will also learn why the rules are there – and you will see instances where folk broke the rules successfully.

I use this for every query letter that I send out. When I looked at the responses I was getting before my study of query letters, and I compared them to the responses I was getting after, I found I was getting a noticeably larger number of additional page requests. Might be that you will too.

Query format:

  • Begin with “Dear Agent Name” – Please make sure you to change this to the agent’s actual name – and get the spelling right…nothing will get you a form rejection faster than botching the agent’s name)
  • End with “Thank you for your time and consideration.” You may be tempted to add more than this…resist that temptation (See the next point).
  • The query should be 250 words – Maximum.
  • Include word count (at the end – This counts against your 250 words)
  • Include the title (at the end – This counts against your 250 words)
  • Titles in ALL CAPS
  • Put your contact info at the bottom (This counts against your 250 words)
  • LOTS of white space. Insert a blank line every 3 or 4 lines.
  • You get an entire page to work with – that doesn’t mean that you should use it all.

Rules for Query Letters:

  • ENTICE the agent to keep reading, request pages, and request fulls. EVERY other point in this list is secondary to this one point.
  • Start with a hook – Start with the stakes.
  • Show don’t tell (Yeah, Y’All knew that was coming).
  • Be specific – Every, single word matters!!!
  • Be Brief – Every, single word matters!!!
  • Use short, declarative sentences – Every, single word matters!!!
  • No “Name Soup” – 2 names in your query letter, tops.


Recipe for a good Query:

  • Who is the Main Character?
  • What happens to them? (What is the immediate problem?)
  • What choice do they face?
  • What terrible thing will happen because of that choice?
  • Plot is NOT what happens – Plot is how your characters respond to what happens.
  • Add a margarita or something because, when you’re finished, you’re going to need one (ok, I confess that I added that last one…).


Once you’ve gotten your query letter down and polished, read it out loud. Take note of any awkward phrasing or anything that makes you stumble and get rid of it. Get rid of anything that sounds clunky.

I was serious about adding that margarita earlier, because you’re going to put some real work into those 250 words (or less…definitely less). This is not something that you’re just going to knock out in a couple of minutes – not if you want to get anywhere.

When you’re done, you’re going to have something that’s going to make an agent want to dive right into the pages you sent. This is what you want. This is where the effort you’ve put into crafting an awesome query letter is rewarded. When the agent finishes your query, she puts all of the other queries aside and starts reading your work.

Which brings me to one last thing about query letters.

You can be “Spot On” with your query letter. You can write the best, damned, query letter in the history of query letters, but…

If your story doesn’t back you up, if it doesn’t walk your talk, you will get nowhere.

Yes, query letters are important, and knowing how to write one is a necessary skill to have, but…

The story has to be ready. It has to be complete (You will *never* query an unfinished story as an unagented author – those are called book proposals, and will require you to have at least a little bit of a track record with the publishing industry). Crafting your query letter and your synopsis (More on that later…) will be one of the last steps before you start submitting your work.

Your effort will be rewarded.

Good Luck!!


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