What the Hell is a Query Letter?

A former Literary Intern breaks it down.

I’ve read a lot of query letters in my time. During the year and a half that I read queries as intern to a literary agent, I’ve seen pretty much every mistake that a writer can make when submitting to an agent.

Some mistakes are simple and banal:

  • queries that are long enough to be a novella,
  • writers who CC hundreds of agents in a single message,
  • writers who mis-gender the agent or misspell their name,
  • queries for genres and forms that are wildly outside of the agent’s wheelhouse,
  • queries with several typos that could have benefited from spell check or another set of eyes on them,

And then there are the wild ones:

  • queries written in rhyming iambic hexameter,
  • queries where the writer insists that their book is a work of genius that the agent must represent,
  • queries for books that are long enough to send George R.R. Martin running for the hills.
  • queries where the writer suggests that the entire Caldecott award committee will be talking about their book over Sunday brunch,
  • queries that offer sexual favors in return for representation,
  • queries where the author shamelessly dumps their harrowing life story, and insist on how they deserve to be represented,
  • queries where writers insist that their book, their precious book is going to become a #1 New York Times Bestseller, and that any agent would be lucky to represent them.

I could keep going. But the point is, the average agent’s inbox is filled with people who fundamentally misunderstand the purpose and form of a query letter.

Despite all of the wonder and hype, all of the time and energy that fledgling writers have spent trying to decode the secrets of writing a great query, it’s no great mystery.

A query letter is, at heart, a business letter where you try to convince an agent to continue reading your writing.

That sounds like a “no, duh!” answer. But I promise you, there are so many writers who get so lost up in the myth and magic and possibility of a query letter, that they forget it’s a simple thing.

There is some magic, but the magic isn’t in the letter: it’s in the story that you’re telling.

A query letter is like the beginning scene in the movie of My Sister’s Keeper. (Yes, I know the book is better, but I like the visual of the film.) You, the writer, are Abigail Breslin’s character; the agent is Alec Baldwin’s lawyer character. You’re marching into their office, and trying to get them to take your case.

As in “My Sister’s Keeper”, so, too, with your query: you need a powerful, convincing story to keep them hooked.

But instead of a passionate speech, you’re writing a business letter.

I know that business letters sound boring, dry; the very thought of business strips away the mystical magical wonder of finding an agent that loves your story, of making that connection.

A query letter is simply using the right words. And you’ve got the words.

You’ve sat down, day after day after day, written and rewritten and revised and polished this manuscript until it resembles a bright and beautiful gem. That same passion for words needs to go in to writing your query.

You may be desperate and eager to get your book out into the world — Goodness knows that I was when I first started querying. You’ve reached the first part of the process where your hands aren’t in control of every last detail. It feels like you’re handing your precious story over to Fate. And I’m not going to lie: you definitely are.

But thankfully, there are a few things that you can do to stand out in a positive way, to weigh Fate’s dice just a little bit in your favor. I’ve got something that may help you with that.

I took my query letter for my first novel, Somehow You’re Sitting Here, and deconstructed it, breaking down the format and the successful elements.

As someone who was querying while working as an intern, I had a unique opportunity to sit on both sides of the fence, to see so many queries that weren’t working and some that were, and to use that knowledge to craft a successful query letter.

I didn’t get an agent. But I got requests; I had agents asking to read more of my work. Even if they couldn’t represent my work, for whatever reason, they saw something in my query letter and wanted to read my story.

The query letter was a success, even if the book wasn’t.

Something to keep in mind about querying numbers: they’re a lot like your batting average in baseball: batting a .300 doesn’t sound impressive to the uninitiated, but the fans know that it’s actually a fairly good average.

The bar is even lower for querying. You should be shooting for a .100 average — If you can get 1 in 10 of the agents you query to request pages (or a full manuscript), your query letter is doing its job. Of the 162 requests I sent out, I had 24 agents request more. My “batting” average is a 0.153. More than 1 in 10. Those aren’t wunderkind numbers. For a first time novelist? They’re pretty solid. Or, at least, a good place to start.

My query letter did that heavy lifting. And I think it, and seeing it broken down, will help you. If you’re interested, fill out the form below.

Zach J. Payne writes YA fiction, poetry, and plays. He’s an assistant at Ninja Writers, helping writers find their voices and their tribe. In the past, he read queries as an intern for Pam Victorio, a literary agent at D4EO. He lives in Reno.

If you’d like to support me in my writing, you can contribute to my paypal, or buy something off of my wish list or my book list.