Query - the how to
Get ready for the biggest post that I've ever written.

THE QUERY LETTER (dum.. dum.. dummmm)

Good God, I'm not even sure where to start. I guess I'll start with a bit of inspiration:

This shit sucks. It does. But you've gotta keep working on it. You've done all of the hard stuff. You've written your baby, and you want to get published. If you're anything like me, you want an agent, which means you'll have to focus on a damn good query. Guess what? You can do it.

The most helpful piece of advice is to leave your pride somewhere far, far away from your computer. It's easy to get defensive about your work, which leads to you dismissing some really, really stellar advice.

Why? Because your pride took a shot.

Don't be that person. Be thankful. Take all the advice you can. Depict and understand the advice given.

What do you need before you start your query:

  • A polished, completed manuscript.
  • A list of agent(s) you wish to contact for representation, and their specific submission procedure. Every agent is different.
  • Make sure you have your word count (if it's 72,101 words -- just say 72,000) and genre (don't do that confusing shit: High Fantasy Paranormal Romance...)
  • If you have a previously published book, you need to include the title/publisher/year.

The Query Format:

As per Agent Nathan Bransford (if you have any questions about queries that I failed to answer, this is the #1 place you want to look.)

Dear Blog Readers,

This is how you format an e-mailed query letter. Note that I did not begin with the recipient's address or my address or the date, as that is not customary for an e-mail. I also am not indenting because indenting and e-mails do not mix.

I am using block formatting. I double space between paragraphs but otherwise the query is single-spaced. It is written in a default font, it is left-justified, and the font is a normal size. If I have copied from a word processing program or past e-mail I am careful to make sure the fonts and sizes match. I haven't added pictures or tried to get fancy with anything because I want the agent to see that I'm confident in my words and don't need any gimmicks to make my query stand out.

Believe it or not, less than 25% of the e-queries I receive are properly formatted. While you won't get rejected if your query is incorrectly formatted, if you accomplish this simple task correctly you will convey an indispensable aura of professionalism. And remember: the amount of time you spend formatting, coloring, bolding, italicizing, and adding pictures to your query is inversely proportional to how professional it looks when you're finished.

Nathan Bransford (note that I didn't leave space for a signature since it's an e-mail)

My address
My phone number
My e-mail address
(optional: my website/blog)

Where the hell should you begin with a query?

Here's where shit gets sticky. Please note, queries are much like the English language: exceptions are everywhere.

If you're starting at step one, here's where I suggest you start.

  1. Protagonist - name/short description.
  2. What does your Protag want?
  3. What must your Protag do in order to accomplish this goal?
  4. What happens if your MC fails?
If that isn't your thing, Agent Bransford has a format of his own:

[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist's quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist's goal]
**Realize these are mere skeletons. You'll have to add some meat to those bones.

Okay, I've answered the questions. Now what?

Now you add to it. You want to be aware of a couple things while doing this:

  • Add voice.
  • Get rid of anythinggg vague. If it's slightly confusing, the agent will assume one thing and form their opinion on that one wrong assumption. Why? Because you were vague. It's just not worth the risk.
  • Try not to write flowery descriptions. I'm a sucker for imagery; so I have to remember to keep it short and to the point.
  • Write as well as you can.
  • Let's face it, when we hack our lovely piece of art into a couple short paragraphs, it's going to sound a bit cliche. "Oh, sounds like your average revenge plot." "Oh, sounds like the typical end-of-the-world plot." "Okay.. so boy-meets-girl... and how is this different from anything I've read?" Make sure you add the elements that make your story unique.
Here's the hunk of junk I've come up with. Next!

At this point, I'd go have a margarita. Extra shot of tequila. Or if you don't like margaritas, get a good night's rest. You'll probably ignore that bit of advice and go straight back to work. I did. And I'll tell you, obsessing over this... isn't the smartest thing. I wish I would've had that drink.

Anyway, the next step.

Remember, you're wanting to keep your query around 200-350 words. So you've done one of two things:
  1. Over written
  2. Under written
And no, your word count doesn't have everything to do with this. You could be right on the money at 280 words, and still need to edit.

So, scratch out the crap you don't need. (I suddenly wish I didn't save over my original start with my query..) Here's a quick example:

Every Pirate agent has supernatural powers.[I'd delete this sentence. 1.) I would assume there is something "special" about these agents if you're writing about them. 2.) It isn't about the plot/setting/character.] Some agents stop time, some exercise mind control, others manipulate objects with their thoughts. [Once again delete. I'd rather hear about the main character than a vague group of agents.] So, when the agency [I've seen agent/agency 3 times in 3 sentences. Start finding new words.] receives intel on a mystical ancient document rumored to contain the means for identifying, tracking, and [there have been a bit too much description in the paragraph, especially description in 3s. All the literary agent needs to know is that it enslaves.] enslaving people with these powers, Joe is tasked to retrieve it. [Yay! I see the main character finally!] He knows it’s a big deal. [Delete. It's obviously a big deal.] Terrorists could use the manuscript to brainwash an army of paranormal assassins into killing foreign dignitaries, or to identify and imprison innocents [Once again, description in 3s. You've got to mix up your writing.] with supernatural abilities – people like Joe’s mom. [Oh Oh! That's exciting. Plot twisttt.]
As you can see, it's a well written paragraph. BUT, it still needs to be edited through. Add what needs to be added. Cut what needs to be cut.

While in this editing stage, start making adjustments to your query.

  • Keep it between 200-350 words.
  • Write in 3rd person present tense.
  • Make sure you try to avoid using the same word as much as possible. For example, I talk about killing a lot. So, instead of using kill 200 times. I could say slaughter, murder, obliterate, erase, execute, annihilate, liquidate, massacre, slay. You get the point. The dictionary is big! Use it.
The Pitch

Pat yourself on the back. You're working your way there. For this part, I want you to set your query aside. Focus on this. One sentence to tell your entire story.

I wish I knew the secret to an amazing pitch. In fact, I wish someone was there to tell me exactly what angle would make the best pitch.

Since I am really, really weak in this field, I'll give you links to absolutely wonderful sources that can help you much better than I can.
Nathan's first.
Nathan's second.
Nathan's third (this guy is a saint, isn't he?)
Agent Kristin's first.
Kristin's second.
Kristin's third. (If you go to these links, scroll down towards the bottom of the blog, you'll see Pub Rants: Blog Pitch Workshop. There she has many, many examples that might help you.)

Are you bubbling with excitement yet?

If the answer is no, it means you're not ready to take it to the next step. I'd suggest to set your query aside for 2-3 days. Come back to it later with fresh eyes. If you don't feel better about it then, work from a different angle. Try writing it in first person instead of third. Try writing it with a brand new opening paragraph. Something. Mess around until you see what works for you. Don't. Give. Up.

If your answer is yes, good for you! You think that you have the next best thing. You've worked your ass off, and now you're ready to send it to your dream agents, who will all contact you the next day begging to represent you.


I suggest going to a website to get some feedback from experienced writers.

Write Water Cooler's Query Hell (you must have an account to enter.)

Please remember the first piece of advice when entering. Leave your pride at the door. Accept and analyze all pieces of advice. This is going to sting a bit after all your hard work. Unless you're brilliant. If that's the case, you should be writing this! >:[

After you've gotten that damn thing all shiny, you're finally ready to send it out. I really wish you the best of luck. =)

QUESTION: Are other questions which describe things such as your setting and your character's motivation completely irreverent? (In other words, leave most of the meat off the bone in order to keep the query as short as possible?)
ANSWER 1: A query should tell a story. Your setting and motivation should reflect the needs of the story you're trying to sell. For example, the fact that my protagonist is left-handed isn't normally a big deal. But if I mention that my protagonist is the first southpaw to go squirrel hunting, then being a lefty is a big deal. So setting and motivation matter only for the needs of the story. Another way of looking at this would be what does the setting or motivation matter to your character. If it matters to your character that the story is set in Maine, you mention it. If the same thing would have happened to your character regardless of whether they were in Maine or Mexico, then you probably shouldn't mention it.

ANSWER 2: It depends. If you are telling an agent something they could reasonably be expected to know, or work out, you don't need it in there. If you are telling the agent something which doesn't show them anything about the characters or which isn't mentioned again in the query, you probably don't need it in there either.

ANSWER 3: Not at all. But you have to decide what aspects of that to share that will give the query the best punch. It's all about making the reader/agent want to read the story. Queries read a lot like cover copy, but instead of glossing over the details (so you don't give them away) you give the details to show your story specifics. If your setting is important, use it.

QUESTION: When cutting your story into 300ish words, it's hard, and there are certainly elements you'll have to skip over. I've skipped over a ton of stuff which I would think of as a huge selling point. Is that normal?
ANSWER 1: Yes. You'll see the forest. You need to bring this down to a little twig. And you should be aiming at 200 words for the story, not 300. But if something is actually a selling point, then it should go in the query. The question is what makes you think it really is a selling point? So often what the writer thinks is important isn't. Writing a query needs to be done from a long distance view.

Yup. This is why we begin with the three questions. It's a simple way of working out what the storyline is at its most basic.
What I'm trying to do with mine (which is a LitFic character study whose MC doesn't want anything), is focus on a particular event which happens about a third into the novel. It's not the most important thing in the novel, it's not an original selling point, but it is a good moment to show the shift in relationship between the main chars. It sets up the MCs problem, again, at its most basic. My pedantic soul cries at the marginal innacuracies suggested by my Q, but...this is how Q's are written.
Work out a progression through your story and try writing the Q around it. What happens which you can use to explain things?

Totally. You're not trying to sell the whole book in the query. All you want is for the agent to get intrigued enough to ask to see more. If there's something in there that would really hook them, mention it, but don't feel you need everything. Usually, it's the set up of the book and why it's important. Your inciting event.

QUESTION: My character's personality feels completely left out of my query. Instead, it feels like I'm going to bitch smack someone with the info-dump stick, but if I don't, it'll just be way too confusing. Any suggestions?
ANSWER 1: Yeah. You figure out the one or two words that will nail your character as he or she matters to the query. You learn how to get to the point, instead of slowly meandering your way there. You'll discover that a picture isn't worth a thousand words, when you can show it in ten.

Show, don't tell, even in a Q. Try and get as much voice as you can into it. Have hankies ready to mop up the blood, sweat, tears and beverages you hurl at your screen.

Edit. Yeah, I know, great advice. But seriously, you can get your voice in there if you work at it. That was critical for my query, and I used phrases she used and pretending she was the one telling the query if that makes sense.

Queries that worked!

Attached are a couple links to queries that worked for published authors.

Janice Hardy.
Her agent's take on her query.
A big thread on it.
Nathan's good examples.

And for every great example, Query Shark can give you thousands of bad. Learn from their mistakes. Learn how agents think. And begin thinking like they do.

Urgh.. back... to work on mine. I'll give you examples of my journey on here. Best of luck with yours!

Remember. You can do it.

3 Responses
  1. Cheyanne Says:

    This is a great, informative post! But I break the first rule because I always write my query before I even start the novel :)

  2. Michelle Says:


    I feel like I just got stuffed with tasty knowledge and I have to keep my hands over my ears so it won't leak out.


  3. Ah Cheyanne! You're lucky. I think I'd never start a story if I had to start with a query, hah. =) It's so great to see how different methods work for different people.

    Hah, Michelle -- yeah, there's lots of information in there. I've been doing research for two weeks. Figured I might as well put the most useful stuff down for a reference.

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