Sunday, June 28, 2009

Query Letters

Since the three of us are in different stages of submitting our novels to agents, we thought we'd offer some general comments about query letters. As always, these are just our opinions.

Davin: At first, I thought my query letter had to be perfect, which was a very intimidating thought. Now, I think of letters as just the door opener: the objective is to get an agent to request a partial or a full manuscript. After that, it's the actual book that they will pay attention to. To that end, present your project clearly and display some proficiency in your writing. Include a brief biography that explains why you are the best writer for this job. Then, let the agents decide if they are interested or not. If you have done your homework and found people who are representing the type of writing you do, they will be interested, even if you have a typo or two in your letter.

Below, Robyn offered up her query letter for a individual critique. Thanks, Robyn! It's almost always a good idea to get some feedback on how your query letter is working, and The Public Query Slushpile is a great place to post your own letter.

It’s summer, and Anna and Claire head out on their first-ever endurance horseback ride alone on the trails of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Anna is excited that she and Claire will be able to share the beauty that lies in the trails that she and her family have ridden her whole life. But a few hours into their ride, disaster strikes: they become lost. With night fast approaching, the insulin in Anna’s pump is almost gone. How will they survive the next seventy-two hours in the wilderness, fighting wild animals, and Anna’s diabetes?

Horse stories are always popular with girls obsessed with horses, but there are few survival stories with girl protagonists. I have combined those ideas and hope you will enjoy reading Seventy-Two Hours, an adventure story for older middle grade girls. It is complete at 34,000 words.

I have written for our state SCBWI newsletter, The Pen and Palette, and I am a member of SCBWI.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I hope to hear from you soon.


Robyn Campbell

Robyn, overall, I think this is a strong letter. It's simply written and presents the premise of the story clearly. We know the characters, the setting, the conflict and the tone of the piece in just one paragraph. We also get some good information about you. I'm missing the characters' personalities. We get a little bit of Anna's background, but I think a phrase or two about each of them could make the book feel more multidimensional. The sentence: "With night fast approaching, the insulin in Anna’s pump is almost gone" is a bit awkward to me. It implies some sort of causal relationship that isn't supposed to be there. The phrase, "Horse stories are always popular with girls obsessed with horses" also isn't working for me yet. It's a reflexive thought that doesn't feel persuasive.

Michelle: My advice is aimed at Robyn, but most of the things I say here can apply to queries in general.

The important thing to remember is, as Davin says, query letters do not have to be perfect. In fact, the more you revise a query, the more I've seen the author's voice and style simply slip away, leaving nothing more than a formal-sounding business letter that doesn't show the agent or publisher what kind of a writer you really are. The sparkle fizzles out. I can feel the sparkle in this letter, but I think you can give it more. More revision, you say? Well, I don't think it'll take much. This letter is strong already. It is concise and tells us almost everything we need to know. It does lack some focus, I think. Here's what I would do:

In my experience (which is limited, mind you), I've found that the section in a query that focuses on the characters should focus on two things: the main protagonist and the main character or force that is stopping that protagonist from reaching his/her intended goals. This focus is essential. Unfortunately, I've seen query after query slip out of this focus. Too may plot points. Too many characters. A query usually doesn't need all that.*

I think your letter is pretty focused, but I want a little more. It could be a matter of a few words. First, I'm almost certain your main protagonist is Claire - but, as Davin says, I think a phrase or two about Anna and Claire would help establish this. (Although you'll probably want less of Claire). Second, emphasize the main force going against them - the wilderness, the wild animals, Anna's diabetes? See, I'm not sure which one it is. . . . Probably a combination of all three, but usually one trumps the others. Too many villains creates confusion.

Remember, this is all my opinion. I've had a problem of too many villains in my current novel, and I'm sure I'll have trouble with that in the query letter. But if you feel that equally emphasizing all three is essential, you may want to leave it close to what you already have.

Nathan Bransford has a great post about the "sweet spot" in query letter word count. He's found that the sweet spot, for him at least, is between 250 -350 words. Yours is 172, so "adding a few phrases about Anna and Claire" shouldn't be a problem. You have lots of room to play around. Although please don't go adding words just to hit the sweet spot. Bad idea, haha. Also, agent Alexander Field over at The Mystery and The Magic recently did a post on 10 things not to do in your query, for anybody who's interested.

Thank you for submitting this! I hope we've helped a little.

*(Lynn, in the Just Ask section, gave you some good advice, but I think the questions she's asking don't have to be addressed in the query. Those are questions you want the agent to ask, in my opinion. All a query letter should do is hook that agent. If they ask for a full synopsis in the query, that's where you might answer those questions)

Scott: I'll repeat what Davin and Michelle have already said about queries not having to be perfect. The query letter I used to get an agent had a typo in it, but my agent never noticed it (or, if he did, he didn't care because he liked what I'd gotten right).

I think that main thing to bear in mind is that a query is a hook, an advertisement for your story. You need to find one or two (but one is better) sentences to "grab" the agent (like he's any other reader) and make him want to read the story. Which usually means showing your protagonist in some sort of crisis. In Robyn's example above, "How will they survive the next seventy-two hours in the wilderness, fighting wild animals, and Anna’s diabetes?" is very nearly a hook, but not quite. I think this would be stronger if it were recast from a question into a statement, something like "Anna and Claire must survive the next seventy-two hours in the wilderness, fighting [really? fighting?] wild animals under the threat of Anna slipping into diabetic shock." Don't make the heart of your story a question, because the reader (that is, the agent) might just shrug and say, "I don't know" and move on to something else. Declare boldly that there is a conflict that demands the reader's attention.

Other things to think about: 1. Your query should be in the same "voice" as your book. If you have written a spare, lean novel, you should write a spare, lean query. If you've written a novel with flowing, beautiful language, your query should reflect that. 2. Don't worry about pub credits and "platform." Just write a good book and be excited about your story when you write your query; let your excitement come through. 3. Be businesslike. This is a business letter. Don't be cute or overly familiar. 4. Don't write a query that doesn't reflect your actual story. 5. Do include the first five pages (at least) of your novel unless the agent tells you not to. 6. Don't query at random; research agents and target them. I only sent out a handful of queries before getting an offer of representation.


  1. Great Advice. I also commented on Robyn's blog about giving a bit more details about what would happen to Anna without her insulin. I think the majority of people have no clue as to the impact of no insulin to a Type 1 Diabetic. This knowledge would add more tension/drama to the 72 hours.

    Thanks for the advice Davin, Michelle, and Scott.


  2. "I'm missing the characters' personalities."

    "Too may plot points."

    In my first queries, I essentially wrote, "Bland Man A meets Bland Man B. They move from Point A to Point B to Point C to Point D." Strange that no agent asked for a partial or full. Gee!

    "Your query should be in the same 'voice' as your book."

    When writing the query letter for my first novel, I thought all queries needed to be lean and businesslike. Where were you?!

  3. I have a few pieces of general query advice:

    1. Make sure you are ready for the next step: manuscript submission.

    Keep in mind that the climate is more competitive now that it ever has been, and many agents and editors want material that is ready for publication. If you have some rough edges in your MS, that should be your focus, not the query. An agent is not a crit partner.

    2. Start with a hook. If you don't, an agent's eyes are likely to glaze over before the end of the first sentence.

    3. Include your word count and genre. Seems pretty self-evident, but it can be easy to forget simple details when you are slaving over your story description.

    4. Many of us have trouble trying to whittle 80,000 + words down to 250, and end up at 500. Then we keep cutting until we get to 250. At that point, it will lack cohesion because what you kept will be disjointed by what was removed.

    Start your description with a single sentence, and then expand from there to your 250 words.

    5. If you submit at The Slushpile...Remember that the comments are suggestions, and you do not have to try to incorporate every single piece of advice into your query. Look for common themes first, the items many people point out consistently. Don't use peoples' suggestions verbatim, rather, use them as examples of how or where to re-word your query. Remember that you know your story better than anyone else, and it's up to you to tell it.

    My input on Robyn's query:

    How old are Anna and Claire? To me this impacts the story and urgency...the younger they are, the more urgent the situation. It also helps to frame the genre, is it truly older MG, or should it be YA? It could be as simple as "It's summer, and seventh-graders Anna and Claire..."

    Scott's suggestion on re-phrasing the rhetorical question as a statement is spot-on. Then again, Scott's suggestions in general are usually spot-on, so forgive any redundancy.

    And speaking of redundancy: "Horse stories are always popular with girls obsessed with horses" is a very redundant statement, and I think you should remove it.

  4. Davin, Michelle, and Scott, thank you , thank you ,thank you. Y'all have given me wonderful advice. Gems of wisdom. I do see what you mean Scott about the hook. That one sentence that should propel my query into orbit with that agent.

    Davin, that's what I thought. Perfect. It must be perfect. Thanks for releasing me from that. I will include a phrase or two about each of them.

    Michelle, I'm so thankful that I have a little breathing room on my word count. I've always heard the more white space the better. The sweet spot gave me a wonderful idea and off I go to write it.

    So put it in the same voice as the novel is written. Do you think a sentence or two from the novel should be included? I owe you all, big time. :)

  5. I love this post. Specific, useful advice. In fact, I'm going to make myself a checklist of these points.
    I also like that the pressure to be perfect is relieved by what you've said. I will be professional, to be sure, but I think now I know to let my voice and my character's voice shine through, rather than being too business-like.
    Robyn is a trooper putting this up, and I think it's a strong query, too. One thing I would do is lose the words "disaster strikes," and instead do as you've suggested and pump up specifics on what that entails.
    Thanks to all of you.

  6. Rick, thanks so much for giving me your advice on my query. When I wrote that sentence, Horse stories are always popular with girls obsessed with horses, I wondered about it. Out it goes, that's for sure. And the ages is important info that I left out. Thanks so much! Robyn is feeling much better. :)

  7. Rick: Good advice. I agree with the horse line... although I think the idea is good. It just needs reworded. I think that would be a good spot to add some voice to the query.

    Yes, word counts should always be included.

    Rick, Middle Grade is VERY specific on ages. See Tess's post on Middle Grade. If Robyn is querying an agent who specializes in middle grade, the agent will know what age bracket these characters fall into. I think it would be redundant to list their ages int he query.

    Robyn: I don't think adding sentences from your novel is a good idea. I am glad this helped, though! It's by no means conclusive, as Rick made clear. We forgot to start with basics of what you should include, like word count. Sorry! But overall, I think you've got an excellent place to begin.

  8. Tricia, Thank you for your input. The disaster strikes really doesn't say anything specific does it? I see these things now. How come I couldn't see them before. :)

  9. Justus, I think you're right about the personalities. Thanks for reminding me of this important part that I left out. :)

  10. Yes, Rick, plenty of really great points here!

  11. Thank you for this post! I've been wrestling with this query all weekend. It's making me so nervous that I freeze and can't write anything that remotely makes sense. I needed this boost more than you know.

  12. Tricia: I agree with the disaster strikes line. I think this where Robyn can mention the force the protagonist is fighting. Glad this was helpful to you too!

  13. Michelle, no sentences from my novel. Gotcha!

    I am now very excited about the querying process. Instead of on pins and needles. Because I have confidence that my query can be tweaked and made into letter that will make some agent eager to read my novel. :)

  14. Robyn: You don't so much have to propel your story into orbit with an agent. You only have to get them to "turn the page" and start reading your sample chapter. It's all about premise and voice. You don't necessarily need to knock them out, but you do need to intrigue them, get them to say, "This looks like a book people will want to read."

  15. Scott, see that's been my mentality on my problem with writing queries. I'm thinking, "knock their socks off." Now I know that I don't have to worry about that. *she breathes a sigh of relief.* :0)

  16. Thank you for this post, you fine trio. The examples and advice here are excellent, and it has cleared things up a little to see the evaluation process in action so to speak. I already have ideas spinning through my head about my own works, so thanks.

  17. Robyn: Agents are certainly hoping you'll "knock their socks off," but more often than that, I think, they just want someone to come to them with a good story that's well told.

    There is a huge amount of pressure on writers during the query process, but most of it's unwarrented. Yes, we're contacting strangers and asking them to do something for us, to like our work, to validate us even. But from their point of view, I think, they just want to be intrigued.

    Your query is nice and direct, because you have a good, straightforward story to tell. I think many writers have problems with their queries because, honestly, they don't really know what their story is and so can't pitch it in a few sentences because they--as the writer--lack clarity about their own books.

  18. Scott, that's an excellent observation. I'm a firm believer that if an author can't write their story down in 15 words or less, they don't know what it's about.

  19. Scott, today I've realized, that the reason for much of my fear about the query process is from other writers.

    The horror stories they tell. I'd say that much of their distress is of their own doing. Wouldn't you say?

    Because they couldn't tell what their story was about in a few short sentences, they lacked the clarity, about their own words. And an agent will recognize that immediately. :)

  20. Robyn: Yes, I agree. I don't know about Michelle's 15-word limit, but certainly it should be possible to say what your story is about in 150-200 words. And the thing is, even after three drafts of my story, I still wasn't quite sure what it was, whose story I was telling, etc. I did have a story, but I wasn't telling it well no matter how beautiful the writing was. A lot of people simply query too early, as Rick pointed out.

  21. Robyn,

    You asked "Do you think a sentence or two from the novel should be included?"

    Many agents will not frown on you if you include the first 4-5 pages, even if they say "query only". In an email query, just paste it below your signature in the email. Format it like regular text. You don't need to indent paragraphs, but you should leave a line break between two paragraphs to make it easier to read.

    In regard to the protagonists ages, I think listing them demonstrates to the agent that you are labeling the genre correctly; I would imagine there are plenty of queries that are submitted as MG but the protagonists are too old or listed as YA but the protagonists are too young.

    If I were an agent and I saw the hundreds of slushy queries every day, I would not be inclined to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. But I'm very cynical, so it may just be a good thing I'm not an agent ;-)

  22. Scott, I tried Michelle's fifteen word cap. Oh man, I failed miserably. It takes about three seconds to speak that many words. And what I said made absolutely no sense! Maybe I'll be able to develop the fifteen words as I go. :) For now I think I'll stick to two hundred and fifty.

  23. Rick, thanks. I wondered about sending a sample such as a few pages. I want to do that, so the agent can see for themselves how nice the writing is. It never hurts to have your writing stand on its own.:)

  24. Well my opinions seem to be booted out by Rick and Scott! Let's see if I can explain a little more.

    I think being able to describe your story in 15 words or less really lets you focus on what the idea of the story is. And I've found once I can do this with my book, writing something like a query, or even working on the book as a whole, gets easier somehow. It's like I have some sort of compass. But that's just me, I guess.

    Robyn, it took me a solid week to come up with my 15 word descriptions. And I still fiddle with them occasionally as I see fit. It is hard, I agree! And I'm not saying you should STOP at 15 words. It's just a good idea to have that hook sentence for whenever you need it. I've used mine a lot. It's good starting ground, and a good place to start thinking about the meat of your storyline.

    Yes, Robyn, Rick's right in that most agents will take the first 5 pages. I thought the same thing, but didn't explain myself very well. I thought you meant lines in the actual query. I don't see that as working, but maybe it could. Like I warned you about, I'm not very experienced with querying!

  25. As someone who has recently decided to put aside her query and concentrate on the book once more, I appreciate everyone's advice here - not just the trio's but the commenters' as well. Rick, especially, is very helpful - I've found his Public Query Slushpile site invaluable, and yet... I know exactly what Michelle means when she says that "the more you revise a query the more... the author's voice and style simply slip away."

    My story is rather complicated - and I found it hard to boil it down to a single paragraph. Being a part of Rick's site finally helped me focus the story - that is, who my protagonist is, what her main conflict is, etc. - but I also found that the more I pounded away at it and incorporated other writers' advice, the less the letter sounded like my novel.

    Which is why I've taken a step back for a while... I believe it will be time well spent. At least for my bursting brain cells. :-)

  26. What I like most about the q-letter is the setup. There's the problem of survival. The bit about no insulin makes it interesting. So, I see the big picture conflict. What I am left wondering is how the mom and daughter are in conflict with each other. What's the conflict on a personal level? Does it have both layers and can you clue the agent into that in a quick and easy way?

  27. Michelle, I see what you mean. If that first sentence can be fine tuned to that fifteen words, then you're set. I will be working on that tomorrow. After reading what you said. I had a great idea for that sentence. It is twenty one words, but it is very interesting. And it says a whole lot in those twenty one words. Thanks Michelle. For everything! :)

  28. Dave, the part about no insulin is something that I need to add more info about. I want that agent to understand how dangerous it is for Anna. Thanks everyone. I hope y'all were helped as much as I was through this. :)

  29. What great advice. I have found when I have tried writing queries that I push too many plot points. Now I know that it's just the essence of the story that is important. I don't need to mention the MC's brother in the query. The story is not about him.

  30. I wouldn't boot Michelle's advice. The 15 words is similar to what I wrote, "start with a single sentence and then expand it."

    Two girls get trapped in the wilderness.

    Two girls get trapped in the wilderness, and have limited to time get back.

    Two girls get trapped in the wilderness and have limited time to get back because one of them is diabetic and will die without insulin...

    Start small and build. This way you will include the most important details. This will not have voice; you will need to revise it, but it will help you find what elements of your story should be in there and what is not needed.

  31. Rick, Oh no I would never boot Michelle's advice. I have one similar to the one you wrote. Hmm, great minds must think alike.

    Anyway, this has helped a lot of folks, plus I joined The Public Query Slushpile.

    I think that one important element seemed to be missing from this query, and that is my voice. Now I'll be okay, because it is definitely in the new and improved query that I am working on. Thanks! :)

  32. Michelle: I think your "15 words" is good general advice, but as a very wordy person, I cringe at the challenge. My query letter was seven sentences long, including the "I am querying you because..." and "I am the author of..." sentences. So when forced, I can be brief, and certainly we should all be able to succinctly describe the conflict that drives our story. In other (more than 15) words, you-me-same-same.

  33. Good job Robyn. I think everyone else has offered great advice. But I have some questions for you. Since my daughter is diabetic and on an insulin pump, I am obviously very interested in this topic. I worry about what would happen if we were in a situation such as the one you have written about. And not to imply that you haven't researched, because what author in their right mind would spend thousands of hours writing about a subject they were unsure of, but your query does make me wonder about a few things.

    1. Pumps give you a warning when the cartridge is low on insulin, so you will have time to change it well in advance. Had she ignored this warning before she left on the horseback ride? My daughter can go for a full day after her alarm goes off before we would run out of insulin.

    2. What food do they have with them? I got the idea from the query that they are not prepared to be out in the wilderness for 72 hours, so they must not have much food, right? If that is the case, she really won't need much insulin.

    3. And if she is still able to eat and doesn't have insulin, it wouldn't be life-threatening. Certainly having high blood sugars for three days isn't ideal and she would have side-effects, but it wouldn't be critical. What would make it more dramatic would be to have insulin still in her pump, but no food. If she would forget to turn down the amount of insulin she would normally be using on her basal rate and not eating for that long, she could get hypoglycemic and that could be life-
    threatening. If she was having hypoglycemia and they didn't have any juice, candy, etc. to bring her blood-sugar up, you would have a huge climax in your book, rather than just complications.

    I apologize if this sounds critical. It is so hard to tell the details of the book from a query, so I'm sure I'm telling you stuff that you already know! I just wanted to make sure you have all your bases covered. Good luck with your book. I would love to read it someday!


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