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Demystifying the Query Letter

Pam Claughton, Guest Author

Query letters probably cause writers more angst than just about anything else they write. Even writers with beautifully written books often find writing the query letter to be the most stressful part of the publishing process.

The best advice I can give is to keep it simple. As a former writer and now agent, I have dealt with queries on both sides and can share with you what works.

First of all, think about what an agent or editor cares about. Do you think it's your reason why you wrote the book, or the fact that your writing group and family think it's the best thing ever? No, they don't. All they care about is,

Is it an interesting story, and is the writing compelling?

Agents and editors review many query letters. Think of your query letter almost like a resume. With a well written resume, your goal is to get the interview. With a well written query letter, your goal is to get a request for a partial or full manuscript. That's it.

The biggest mistakes I see with query letters are that they are too long, and beat around the bush with all kinds of information, except what the book is about.

That's all the agent or editor cares about in a query letter. What is the book about? What is the story? Why are you especially qualified to tell it? And don't let that last part scare you. If it's fiction, your only real qualification needs to be that you finished the book, and it's written well. Don't apologize for not having writing credentials, or that it's your first book. Just tell us what it's about and offer to send it to us.

The best advice I can give you with a query letter is that the only thing that really matters is the writing. So, don't send a synopsis along with your query letter. If you are going to send any additional material, send the first five to twenty pages. Whatever amount will best represent your writing and leave them wanting to read more.

As a writer, this was tremendously effective for me with e-queries. I would paste in the first ten to twenty pages of my story, and it often resulted in a request for a full. The reason agents or editors will request a partial from a query is to see how well you write. If you give that to them with a query, then you may receive a request for a full manuscript and essentially skip a step.

So, what goes in the query?

Well, a common complaint I've heard from editors and agents is that people somehow feel that e-mails give people the right to be more casual, and start out with Hi, Mary Don't do it. Act as if it's a regular business letter, and write Dear Ms. Jones..

Then, if there's a particular reason why you have targeted that agent/editor, mention it. It shows that you have done your homework, and will also let them know that they are not part of a huge e-mail blast. Something like, "I am writing to you specifically because I understand that you represent Veronica Wells, and she is one of my favorite authors." And it helps if the author you mention writes in a similar genre or style to yours.

Then, a line or two that sums up the essence of your story, a 'high concept' summary. I just finished Jodi Picoult's bestseller, My Sister's Keeper, so will use that as an example.

My Sister's Keeper is about Anna, who was conceived to be a donor for her dying sister Kate. But, at thirteen, Anna has had enough and does not want to donate the kidney that may save her sister's life. She sues her parents for the right to make decisions about her own body.

Then go into a brief summary of the story, a back of the book blurb that shows the highlights and what makes the book stand out. Mention that it is complete, and also what the approximate word count is. Most importantly, mention what the conflict is. Don't be afraid to mention how the book ends. Giving an agent or editor a real feel for the overall story may actually help them want to read it, often more so than not giving the information.

If you have writing credentials or specific experience that relates to the story, mention it. Like if your main character is a lawyer, and you are too, mention it. But if you're an engineer, or anything but a lawyer, don't mention it, or any other personal information.

End simply, by saying, "Please let me know if you would like to see a partial or full copy of the manuscript."

If you are especially confident that your opening pages are strong and will give a good sample of your writing ability and style, then I would suggest including the first 5-20 pages. Just paste them right in.

You can also take this same approach to sending queries by regular mail as well. No one is going to rule you out because you included sample pages. They may rule you out because the story idea or the writing doesn't excite them, and that is just part of the process.

As a writer, I always preferred e-queries, because of the immediate gratification. As an agent, I also prefer them because they are more efficient, and timely, but, you do need to recognize that not all agents share this love of e-queries. Check their stated preferences and then follow them, and if there is a choice, go with what you are more comfortable with. There is no right or wrong here, just personal preference.

So, to e-query, where do you start? Where do you find those elusive e-mail addresses?

Well, it's surprisingly simple! First, I'd join even if it's only for a month, at $20. It's an amazing resource, and you can search all the deals listed for agents and editors. What this allows you to do is a very well targeted search for people that have sold the kind of story you write. Often you'll find the agent or editors e-mail address listed or under contacts.

If it's not there, then you could look first at Gerard Jones excellent web site, and it will probably be there. If it's not for some reason, you could also try a google search. If you can't find it this way, then regular mail is probably your best bet!


Copyright © - Pam Claughton. - Reprinted with permission. Pam Claughton is a literary agent with Cushman Literary Group in Boston. Her focus is commercial fiction, especially suspense and medical/biotech thrillers, legal thrillers, and women's fiction/chick lit. - Contact Pam at:


  If you would like to talk one-on-one with Larry James about issues related to this article, you are invited to arrange for a private coaching session by telephone. Go to Author & Speaker Coaching for specific details and fees.

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