Writing Query Letters

Yesterday I drove up to Annapolis to give my writing workshop on “Finding an Agent” at Anne Arundel Community College. The last hour of the short workshop is devoted to writing a first draft of a query letter for the student’s current work-in-progress.

At the upcoming Balticon, Victoria and I have volunteered to conduct a free workshop on “Finding an Agent” and we’ll be running this query letter exercise there, commenting on what the students write.

So let me speak today of writing that all-important query letter. There are two kinds of query letters that work, basically. One kind, the kind I teach, is a good, workmanlike business letter, and it does the job. It’s short, to the point, written in dynamic, specific language, with NO errors of any kind — no typos, punctuation, spelling, grammatical, etc. All kiss of death, my friends! Query letters must be letter-perfect!

The other kind of query letter is weird, quirky, but so irresistable and creative that it will capture the attention of an agent even though it’s far outside the “accepted” model. This kind of query letter springs from true talent and writing genius, and really can’t be taught. I’ve seen some of them, and they leave me in awe — and they immediately captured the interest of the agent(s) they were sent to. However, since they can’t be classified or taught, I’m going to concentrate today on the first type of query letter.

My suggested “template” for a query letter runs like this:’

1. First paragraph: you introduce your project, give the title, the number of words, and make sure the agent understands that it’s a completed, polished book. If you can quickly compare the book to something the agent would recognize, or give a one-line description that’s bound to capture the agent’s attention, it would go here.

(An example of a one-line description that actually sold a book to an editor while I was waiting in line to get into a restaurant at a World S.F. Convention was when Harriet Macdougal asked me what I was currently working on, and I replied, “Well, Andre and I are writing Witch World: The Next Generation.” Harriet promptly told me to send it to her as soon as we finished, which I did. She bought it.)

2. Second paragraph: here’s where I tell my students to get creative. Here’s where you give the agent a “snapshot” of your book by providing a couple of “sound bites” about it.

Michael Cassutt first described sound bites to me, and I’ll never forget the example he used. He would tell his screenwriting students this wonderful sound bite for an apocryphal television show: “Bongo and the Pontiff. She’s a chimp. He’s the Pope. Together, they solve murders.”

I never forgot it — and that’s the POINT of a sound bite. It’s not a synopsis. It’s a “snapshot” of a book, meant to stick in the agent’s or editor’s head, to interest them in project so much they’ll want to read it — hell, they’ll DEMAND to read it! I haven’t written very many sound bites in my life (my agent handles this stuff now) but retroactively, I came up with one for my first book, Yesterday’s Son: “Mr. Spock finds his son Zar living in a lonely ice age on doomed Sarpeidon, and is grimly determined to do his duty by the young man. Zar has always longed for a father, someone he could love and be close to. When the two must work together to stop a Romulan takeover of the Guardian of Forever, conflict is inevitable — and far from logical.”

That’s a sound bite. A brief encapsulation of the heart of the novel. Not a synopsis, not a summary. Just a snapshot, designed to intrigue, to spark interest in reading.

3. The third paragraph should contain a summary of your credentials for writing the book. If you don’t have any, then don’t try to manufacture some, it looks really lame. Credentials fall into three categories:

a. Best and foremost, writing credentials. You sold your writing somewhere. Cite the venue, and give the title of the article, short story, or book. If you didn’t receive any payment for the writing, chances are you shouldn’t mention it. Things like letters to the editor published in your local paper don’t count. A receipe in a parish cookbook doesn’t count. If you had a letter ON THE SAME SUBJECT AS THE BOOK YOU’RE TRYING TO SELL published in some really prestigious venue, say The Wall Street Journal, that MIGHT be something to mention.

b. The other two categories of “credentials” you can mention would be lifetime experience, and/or academic degrees — IF THEY RELATE TO THE SUBJECT OF YOUR BOOK. There’s no point in mentioning that you have a degree in quantum physics if you’ve written a humorous fluffy unicorn story. Or a romance novel set in the Miami drug culture. Lifetime experience, ditto. If you have written a detective novel, and you can truthfully state that you’ve been a homicide detective for 10 years, that’s definitely worth a mention. If you have a PhD in quantum physics, and your novel explores the “true nature” of dark matter, or something like that, you should definitely mention it in the third paragraph. Mentioning your age, marital status, number of children, grandchildren, whether you have bunions, or gout, is NOT relevant, so don’t include it.

4. This last paragraph is simply your comment that you’re working on a new novel (well, you SHOULD be!, if you’re not, START ONE!) and a thank you to the agent for considering your query. You can mention that it’s available for review either as chapters and synopsis, or as a full ms. Tell them you hope to hear from them at their earliest convenience. Typical business style.

Then you write “Sincerely,” and sign your name. Don’t forget your business-letter-sized SASE. I’ve noted that Miss Snark says it’s not a bad idea to include just the first five pages of your ms. with the query, on the grounds that most agents are curious creatures, and will glance at them.

Hope this little summary has been helpful.

Write on!

-Ann C. Crispin


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  2. I know this is an older post you referred us to, but someone may read this comment:

    Thank you for detailing the query letter. I always read opinions about query letters with great interest, in my quest to perfect them. However, I (and I’m sure others) have been shown many different ways to write such letters.

    One thing everyone is in agreement on is that they should be “good”. But then everyone goes in different directions. Last year I was completely caught off-guard when a seminar I attended by a literary manager in Los Angeles told us: “Don’t include SASE. That is a waste of time and money. Nobody uses SASE anymore cause of email.”

    So, for awhile, I stopped using SASE. Until I was asked to use it again.

    The point is not whether my writing is any good or not, it’s that I want to be consistent. I want to write the same, good query letter every time, without worrying “was it my query, or did they just not like the story?”

    So, I have chosen to be creative.I start with a short paragraph simply saying that I have a story and this is what it’s about (in one or two sentences). Then I add a paragraph about who I am; maybe name some places I’ve lived, foods I like, surgeries I’ve had, presidents I’ve voted for. The final paragraph quides you to my web-page where you can see countless photos of my family, friends and pets.

    After I send it off I realize that it will not garner a response, so I make some coffee and start in on my next story. It makes me happy 🙂

  3. Just checked back from amid the stacks of bills and bank statements (I hate tax time!) to see that there were a couple more questions.

    Here’s my response:

    1. Regarding why I tell students to say they’re working on their next book, I know from talking to agents that they really want to represent writers that are looking to have a CAREER as a writer, not just people who want to sell a single book and then stop.

    I didn’t say to DESCRIBE the new book, or give a synopsis, or anything of the sort. Just note that you’re working on a new book.

    (Besides, if writers can start in on their next book, it makes the waiting times easier to get through while they’re waiting for responses from agents or editors.)

    2. Regarding the journalistic experience counting as a writing credential…well, it depends on what’s being submitted, and what kind of journalistic experience.

    If you’ve written a novel, and you were a sports writer for your local paper, that doesn’t really say much about your storytelling skills.

    On the other hand, if you are trying to sell a nonfiction book, or creative nonfiction, and you wrote the kind of “human interest” or “investigative” stories that involve that type of journalistic skills, then I’d say they would apply.

    For fiction, it all depends on what kind of journalism you did, and what genre your book is. Obviously, if you were a journalist covering a crime beat, and your book features a reporter/detective, then that’s applicable.

    Does that make things clearer, I hope?


    -Ann C. Crispin

  4. Ann, I agree with Anonymous #1: I’ve also never heard that we should mention the next books we’re working on; in fact, I’ve heard time and time again that we should ONLY be talking about the book we’re trying to sell.

    Can you speak a little more to this…
    – isn’t it assumed you’d already be working on other pieces?
    – what if your next book is in a completely different genre?

    … thanks!

  5. Thank you, that is very useful.
    Now if I could only find a way of making my snapshot more interesting than the version I tell friends and family when they want to know what I’m working on.
    Of course, my story’s not finished by half, but I know what’s going to happen anyway.

  6. Great post. But there’s one question that no one’s ever been able to answer for me and that I’m dying to know: I have writing credits from work as a journalist for a few national magazines and an editor for a fairly prestigious set of travel guides. None of my writing credits are related to the subject about which I’m writing, but would including them in a query help suggest that I’m not a rank amateur with absolutely no experience writing for publication? I don’t want to waste the agent’s time, but I want all of the relevant facts on the table, too.

  7. I’ve never seen the bit of advice about saying you’re currently working on another novel before. How do you say that without seeming to imply that if they don’t like the one you’re querying, they might like the next one better? Or is that the point?

    (Because, er, of course I am. And I do hope it will be better, because otherwise, why write it?)

  8. You’d be amazed at how many people think having some kind of physical handicap or illness will excite the sympathy of an agent, and help motivate the agent to offer representation.

    So I used “bunions” as a way to discourge aspiring writers from including irrelevant info about their physical well-being.

    And yes, I was trying to be just a little bit funny. Wish I could do it as well as Miss Snark. She makes it look easy.

    -Ann C. Crispin

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