Effective Query Letters

Notes on a presentation by the infamous Queryshark, Janet Reid, atWriter’s Digest 2015. The full text of her powerpoint outline with examples is here. The following is a summary and includes salient verbal addendums given during the live seminar.

  • A query letter is a business letter. It must entice the agent to read and demonstrate that you are not looney.
  • This is a good place for ‘show, don’t tell.’ Show your voice with your rhythm, structure, and word choice. ‘My novel is funny,’ is less effective than being funny.
  • Tell the agent what your book is about. Who is the main character (By description. A given name tells me nothing.), what do they want, what is keeping them from it, and what myst they sacrifice to get it?
  • To convey what the book is about, explain the tough choice. ‘The character must decide to… If they do it, the consequences/peril are… and if they don’t, the consequences/peril are…’
  • Do not give backstory. Trust the agent and your readers. Distill your plot to the essentials, not the broad picture. A query is not a synopsis.
  • A query should include: word count, title, pub credits. Have none? Don’t reach.
  • Avoid several instant-rejection phrases: fiction novel, sure best seller, Oprah, film potential, Dear Agent, Dear Sir or Madame.
  • Things to avoid: Don’t beg. Don’t flatter the agent. Don’t demean yourself. Don’t quote rejections. Don’t quote crit groups, friends, paid editors, or conference contacts. Don’t ask rhetorical questions.
  • Don’t offer exclusives. Don’t attach anything unless asked. Don’t be afraid to sound stark–most query letters are too verbose. Avoid sweeping statements.
  • Turn off your spam-filters and auto-responder. Put your contact info at the bottom. Don’t cut and paste–manually duplicate.
  • Expect to spend two months writing your query. Expect to hear no, a lot, or more often, nothing.