Tuesday, August 7, 2012

10 Good Things About Writing a Query Letter

First of all, I have to get one thing off my chest -- I hate writing query letters. There's nothing more frustrating than after weeks, months, or sometimes years of writing and perfecting your novel than to have to distill it all down into three or four eye-popping paragraphs. It's almost impossible!

Non-fiction writers have their own set of unique challenges when coming up with a stellar book proposal, but when a fiction writer is faced with producing a query letter that will hook an agent or editor, it's enough to make them want to run up the white flag and emigrate to Samoa.

Though most of us writers understand the practical necessity of a query letter, its a bit like asking the guy who invented Godiva Chocolate Truffles to write a letter to the general public to convince people his chocolate is amazing.

Maybe it's just me, but I would think that giving out small samples of chocolate would hook more people than sending them a letter about it or paying for expensive advertising ever would. I mean, if he makes chocolate and that is what he does best, isn't that more of a realistic representation of the product itself than the letter praising it?

It is possible (and highly likely) that a novelist can write a great book but may not be great at selling it. It makes one wonder how many possible NY Times Bestsellers out there were/are turned down and never published due to the fact that the author was guilty only of concocting a lukewarm query letter. In spite of the fact that deep within most of us our subconscious ID rebels against the very idea of formulating a query letter, believe it or not, there are actually some good benefits that can come from creating one:
  • It could land you that super-fabulous literary agent.

Let's face it -- this is the entire end all, be all for creating a query letter so of course this one's gotta be listed at number one.
  • It can help you establish the book's genre.

This sounds silly, but it's true. Sometimes you start writing a story, not knowing where it's going and you're not even sure of the genre. One very important factor in a query letter is stating the book's genre so an agent can see right away if it's a book they can pitch or not.
  • It helps you decide which agents to query.

In case you didn't already know, not every literary agent represents every genre and most specialize. Don't waste time by querying an agent with a genre they don't represent. There are many web sites out there that can help decide which ones fit the particular genre you are writing. (See web links at the end of this article.)
  • It helps you decide who are the protagonist(s) and the antagonist(s) in your story.

Don't laugh, not every writer is sure about this one. Especially in a story with multiple characters who all may have equal face time, it can be difficult to decide who the main character is. A query letter helps narrow down who the main character is and what he/she/it wants. (BTW - if you don't know who or what the antagonist is in your story, you're in trouble!)
  • It helps you to see whether your novel is "done" or not.

If you have a great protagonist but you can't tell what his/her main goal is in the story, you probably don't have a complete story yet. Or if the character has a goal but there is nothing in the way stopping him/her from reaching that goal, you probably don't have a complete story either.
  • It forces you to step back and look at your novel in an objective manner.

Yes, this is difficult for all of us to do which is why we need beta readers. If you come up with a query letter that does a pretty good job describing the nuts and bolts of the story but sounds pretty dull to you, consider the fact that it just might be.
  • It improves your grammar skills.

Yes, it does. With the hours we spend agonizing over whether or not we can use a semi-colon or a hyphen in the dreaded query letter without scaring off an agent, it teaches us to be critical readers and question the rules we can break, can't break, and ones we can sometimes bend. Query letters are notorious for containing run-on sentences, so if you want to stay out of the slush pile, just keep that in mind. If you can't get the sentence out in one breath, it's too LONG!
  • It helps you develop the all-important elevator pitch.

If you don't have this already, it's something you need to do before your book is published. The elevator pitch. How would you explain to an editor, agent or publisher what your book is about if you shared a quick elevator ride with them? Need something less intimidating? How would you explain to your best friend, colleague, or relative what your book is about? It's gotta punch them in the gut -- make them want to read it.
  • It can help you make new friends.

If you frequent a writer's critique group or an online chat forum for writer's, it is amazing the wonderful people you meet with the same writing interests.  They may not write the same genres you do, but shared knowledge can be a powerful tool and never fail to take advantage of this free resource. Offer your query lettter online for others to read and critique and you will soon have a lean, mean, query machine! Writers generally tend to stick together and although there is a small amount of healthy competition for the limited spots offered by literary agents, most of us just want to help each other do better and achieve success with our novels.
  • It helps you build character.

Rejections are difficult no matter how they come, but by accepting an agent's rejection of your query letter, you are toughening yourself up for those devastatingly tough book reviews when your novel goes on the NY Times Bestseller list!
Agent Query web site for Literary Agent Information: http://www.agentquery.com
Query Tracker web site for recording your queries to agents: http://www.querytracker.net
How to Write a Query Letter: http://www.rachellegardner.com/2011/08/how-to-write-a-query-letter/
How to Write a Query Letter: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/08/how-to-write-query-letter.html


  1. Well said:) Query letters are not my closest friend. They never will be. I. Don't. Like. Them.
    *sticks tongue out at wretched query*

    Anyway, I found your blog through Carey Torgesen and I just stopped to say hi and second the opinion of said query letter. I'm still learning how to get mine right:)

    1. Hi Ink in the Book!
      I don't know about you, but I can agonize for HOURS over a query letter! Pushing those commas around and trying to use the most descriptive verbs can be maddening! But hey, it's all part of the process, right?
      Thanks for stopping by to say hi!

  2. If I end up in hell when I die, I'm pretty sure I'll be spending eternity writing query letters. Maybe by the time everything blinks out of existence, I'll have the hang of it? :P