My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, September 13, 2019

Writing Query Letters (The Very Basics)

So today's post is a bit of a hybrid between a frequently asked question and something I can link to when I'm talking about query letters (that isn't part of a longer mailbox question). So here are The Very Basics™ on writing a query letter to an agent.

You should query after your fiction is in its final form, and you can query multiple agents simultaneously, but agents have "brands" and "niches" that they work best in, so think of picking out six or eight that you imagine would be a good fit with your writing and your specific piece rather than spamming all of them. (They are likely to find out, and this is considered a bit unprofessional.) You don't want to send your zombie page-turner query to the agent who deals mostly in literary fiction and poetry.

A query letter should be formal, concise, and impeccably professional. It should never be informal or familiar in tone ("Hi there, brah! Lemmie tell you about your next best seller!" ––ROUND FILE!), and it should never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever EVER be more than one page. (Please fucking trust me on this one. I have known agents who go through their stack of query letters and literally throw out everything with a staple. ––ROUND FILE!) Even in today's market when most submissions are electronic and sans staple, a word rolling over onto the second page is all she wrote. (For that agent, anyway.) Agents get dozens, sometimes hundreds of query letters every week. If you can't even follow the most basic directions, they're not going to want a professional relationship with you. Also, don't get cute with the font sizes or the margins. You're dealing with professionals––they can tell.

Before I talk about the query letter, I want to make one thing absolutely crystal clear. Like mountain lake after a spring thaw crystal clear where there are fucking snow-capped mountains in the distance, your face is about to freeze off, and the light sparkling off of everything is a razor blade across your pupil. Do you get how clear I want to be?


Just don't.

In non-fiction, there is something called a proposal which you can write before you're done if you query with a table of contents and sample chapters, but in fiction, you need to be sitting on a final project––that's "final" as in the most edited, most proofread, most revised project you are capable of creating. Not a few chapters. Not a first draft. Not "still needs some cleaning up." Done. An agent who asks to see more and finds out you're not done will ROUND FILE your query and probably put your name in the "Do Not Reply" section of their rolodex for the future.

The number one mistake in query letters is that the book isn't done. The number two mistake is that the letter is over a page. About 80% of query letters break one or both of these rules. If you follow them, you're already in the top 20th percentile. Rock rock on Cheat Commando.

What do you mean this is from fourteen years ago?
Shut up!

Paragraph one is the hook to your story. Describe your book like you would to someone you met on a subway who was about to get off at the next stop. Or better yet someone who was about to do their first unassisted parachute jump. This isn't the place for plot points beyond the basic description. In storytelling terms, use one clause to describe "the mundane world" and one clause to describe the inciting event. ("Chris couldn't hook up a threesome to save his life until one day he met a pair of gothic lingerie models who loved blogs about writing.") Be careful of making it as formulaic as I have here, but that is the basic idea. This is also the place to mention setting, or any stylistic decisions you've made that you think are very unique. (They won't be–unique that is–which is why I used "very" in front of it, but if you think they are, include that.)

Paragraph two is a brief synopsis. Let me say this again with the proper emphasis. Paragraph two is a MOTHER-FUCKING BRIEF synopsis. Brief. Hear me on this. Brief. If your whole query letter is over a page (which will get it ROUND-FILED) it will probably be because you are trying to introduce too much detail into your synopsis. You don't need to tell the agent the whole story, just get them interested. This may actually be some of the most difficult writing you've ever done, and it matters greatly because this is what the agent is going to focus on. Summarizing is hard. (That's why they still teach it in college English classes.) Don't worry about "spoilers" in this paragraph. Summarize the whole thing (albeit briefly).

Paragraph three is about you as a writer. Degrees you hold. Places you've published. If you don't have a lot of that, increase the length of your synopsis (paragraph two) but don't bullshit your way through this. You're dealing with professional bullshit sniffers who have epic reading skills. Don't even bother. An agent doesn't care about your job (unless you're writing a story about that job). An agent doesn't care about your education (beyond what you got a degree in). If you have a lot of writing accolades, keep it to a few that you're most proud of, and keep it short. Journalism publications, awards or contests you've won, or literary publications.

Lastly, don't forget to thank them for their time and attention and to tell them the full manuscript is available on request. (And make sure that is true.)

It's a LOT of information for a single page, and it will not be easy. Be ready to spend a couple of days on this. It may seem arbitrary and unfair, but it gives the agent a very quick assessment of your story, your writing skill, and your ability to follow directions. Remember that an agent is deciding whether or not to enter into a professional relationship with you where you might need to make revisions on a deadline or approve proofs in a time crunch. If the first thing they see is that you can't (or won't) follow directions, you're off to a poor enough start that they won't proceed.

Oh, and one bit of not-necessarily-vital-but-probably-useful advice: don't query during or right after NaNoWriMo. Basically any time after NaNoWriMo starts until January or February. The market is simply FLOODED with bad queries, early drafts that people think are brilliant, and (though I have mixed feelings about NaNo itself) lots of pretentious writers. NaNo is such a phenomenon that the entire industry reacts for MONTHS by becoming salty and extra cynical, and the last thing you want is to face down a cranky agent who is sick of everyone's shit by 8:07 in the morning. Do yourself a favor and shoot for March at the earliest and October at the latest.


  1. Thanks for this, Chris. I expect to have a complete (and yes, I mean complete) manuscript by the end of October, so this advice is timely. Two quick follow-up questions though.
    1. Is there a bad time to query? (I'm thinking of the approaching festive season.)
    2. Does this advice also apply in the UK? (I suspect it does.)

    Thanks in advance.

    1. That's a great question, and I'm going to add part one to the post here.

      1- Yeah, actually, you don't want to query in the winter. Basically any time after NaNoWriMo starts until January or February. The market is simply FLOODED with bad queries, early drafts that people think are brilliant, and (though I have mixed feelings about NaNo itself) lots of pretentious writers. NaNo is such a phenomenon that the entire industry reacts for MONTHS by becoming salty and extra cynical. Do yourself a favor and shoot for March at the earliest and October at the latest.

      2- Most of the English speaking world is run by a globalized publishing industry and is pretty homogenous. I don't know if specific agents in places like England or Australia might have different querying guidelines, but I suspect that most fall in line with the industry standard. There are a lot of reasons for this (New York City DOMINATES the global publishing industry; one page is really all you need--a lot like a cover letter on a resume; it gives a very quick window into a writer's ability to be concise--which is harder than being verbose--and follow directions; etc...)

    2. Thanks Chris. I remember your previous comments about NaNo, so I'm not surprised. Also, there's a sense of "it's too close to X to start something now", where X could be 5pm or Christmas, or some other major occasion, and querying in November felt like a bad idea. My inbuilt procrastinator welcomes your suggestion and will aim for March 1st. That gives me more time to strive for perfection and a concise query letter... Thanks again!