Query Letters

Query Letters

­ (for writers only)

Query LettersIt sounds innocuous enough. It makes me think of the punch line of a gay joke.  “It was reported this morning that query letters were inadvertently sent to the Vatican.  The Pope was not amused.”

Unfortunately, query letters aren’t all that funny.  They are hugely important, and pound-for-pound, you’ll spend more time on your query letter than any scene in your novel.

There have been entire books (notice the plural) written just on how to write this one letter, and even if you read every one of them…you’re still in trouble, and this is coming from someone who has actually been complimented on his queries.

The query letter has one goal and one goal only:  The query letter that you send to a prospective agent is meant to sell him/her on your book.  The sole purpose of the query letter is to generate a return letter or phone call which says, “Okay, sounds interesting.  Send me the first fifty, or the first chapter, or the first ten pages.” It varies among agents.  …I’m whispering in your ear now.  Send them exactly what they ask for, no more, no less.  It’s part of the test.

The back story on all this is Darwinian.  The gal, who first reads your query, is probably a secretary or an assistant (most likely a former lit. major in college) who has a whole stack of letters, each one competing for the attention of the agent.  Her job isn’t to discover the next Hemingway; it’s to get rid of as many of these queries as she can before lunch hour.  She’s not looking for a reason to pick you.  She’s looking for any reason at all to toss your letter into the trash, because there’s a great big stack below your letter.

The rules are chiseled in stone and abiding by them shows you’re serious and you know at least the first ground rule: play the game.

Send your query on your finest embossed ivory stationery…and you’re sunk.  They won’t even glance at it.

Send it to:  “To whom it may concern” and it will be instantly crumpled and tossed.  You can’t be bothered doing your homework?  Screw you.

Misspell anything, forget a period, a comma, get the margins wrong and you’re out.

Twelve-point Times Roman is a safe font, but don’t get cute or daring. Use single spaces and don’t indent.  Leave a space between paragraphs instead, and…keep it to one page.  A five-page query letter is instant death.   The mechanical list goes on and on.  (Buy one of those books.)

But, those are just the ground rules for setting up the words on the page, with no thought as to what those words are.   Next, you have to realize that you now have to be the world’s greatest salesman, only subtly so.  Are you getting a headache yet?  No?  Keep reading.

Never, ever tell an agent…or anybody for that matter, that you’ve just written a best-seller that is guaranteed to blow Grisham or King, or Steinbeck out of the water.  You’re just setting yourself up and you force the agent into the mindset of, “Oh?  Well, we’ll see about that!”

It helps if you’ve already published a good handful of books, or a short story or two, though that guarantees you very little.  Even well-known writers have to pimp their books and some ideas just aren’t any good.

You’ll need to tell the agent a little about yourself…emphasis on a little.  If you sell shock absorbers for a living, leave that part out, but if you have something juicy or happened to have had an affair with Bill Clinton, or have discovered a tunnel in the back of your property that leads directly to Hell…something interesting, let ’em know.  And if there’s something about your life that directly pertains to your ability to write this book…that should definitely be included.

A couple of last caveats.  If you’re doing it right, you’ll come to a point where you’re out of white space and you’ve already pared-down to what you think are the bones of the letter.  Go back and examine every single word.  When you spot an adverb: Kill it!  Do you like to indulge in subtlety such as, He almost thought he saw, that’s just an awful sentence on so many levels, but you get the idea.  Say what you want…simply.

With all those caveats, you also have to appear relaxed, confident, and a trace of self-deprecating humor is an acceptable seasoning.

What’s left?  You need a hook…something that will make that secretary who just opened your letter, choke on her coffee, cough a bit, and go back to see if just possibly she’s encountered, the real thing…someone who can spin a little magic and excitement into their letter.

A really good paragraph out of your novel can work, though it must be able to stand alone.  It’s best if you can boil down your entire 137,000 words into a short paragraph, two at the most.  That’s a daunting task unto itself, but that’s why you’re getting paid the big bucks…  For a number of years now, it’s been acceptable and helpful if you can couple two movies together to show your concept Yentl was described as Tootsie on the RoofAlien = Jaws in Space. It’s coarse, but it works.

Another highly advisable strategy is to do your homework on that particular agent.  If they just published a new hot-seller, compliment them on something specific to show that you read it and enjoyed it.  Agents, counter to popular opinion, are actually people.

At the end, thank them profusely for their time and don’t forget to give them several ways they can contact you. Finally, don’t call up the following week to see if they got your letter.  You’ll just annoy them and you really don’t want to do that.

Here’s a sample.  No, it’s not perfect, and looking at it several years later, there are some things I’d change but…it worked.


Dear Mr. Jones,

I’ve finished Saphos Assassin, a high-concept thriller.  It’s tight, scary, and utterly plausible.  Here’s a short-take:

Black Jihad, a splinter-group of Al Qaeda, has just recruited a young and beautiful homicidal maniac to carry out a series of focused and hideous assassinations.  Their goal:  To prove that no one in America will ever be safe again.

In Saphos Assassin, the setting is Key West, Florida.  The action spans one week, during which all of the television news anchors have arrived to cover the anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  One-by-one the anchors are being murdered on the air during prime time.  It’s impossible to trace or to stop.

Sylka Gertz, a young Lolita-type, beautiful, but criminally insane, has been undergoing toxin desensitization treatments by her stepfather, Malcolm, using the poisons of the blue-ringed octopus, cone snail, and black mamba, to create the most lethal concoctions on the planet.  Their purpose:  to enable her to wear highly poisonous makeup, lipstick, and lotion so she can kill with just a kiss or the scratch of her fingernail.  Her transformation, however, is unpredictable and goes awry.  Her blood and saliva, her touch, even her tears are now lethal.  She can kill slowly with excruciating pain, or in a single heartbeat.

Saphos Assassin comes out of the starting gate at full-tilt and then accelerates.  There’s an evolving interplay of three forms of evil within the subplots:  Black Jihad is cold-blooded and sinister.  Malcolm, Sylka’s stepfather, displays a sexual perversity which is worse, and as Sylka transforms, she becomes evil incarnate, turning each faction against itself.

I really appreciate your taking a look.  There’s no fat on it.  It leaps and accelerates.  In a world of Kindles, I-pads, and snail-mail, I’ll be happy to send it in any format.



Comments are closed.