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Autopsy of a Query Letter

Keith Thomas
Oct 8, 2017 · 12 min read

Two words most terrify the beginning novelist: Query. Letter.

In this article, I’ll break down a query letter. A real one, not one invented for demonstration. It’ll be the first query letter to get me an agent. And, indirectly, a multi-book deal with a major publishing house.

To answer the question of “Why should I listen to this Keith Thomas guy about any of this?,” I’ll say: See my bio at the bottom of the page.


I could tell you that a literary agent is going to hear about your newly finished novel — a sure-fire, run away bestseller— from the voices in the ether. That, by a phantom quirk of particle physics, your novel will materialize in her hands during her morning commute on the C train. She’ll read it and she’ll love it. More than that, she’ll need to see it published.

I could tell you this but we both know it would be a lie. Particle physics doesn’t work like that. Truth is, the only way an agent is going to read your newly finished, sure-fire, run away bestseller is by requesting it (or, more likely, the first chapter of it) after they’ve read your query letter.

There are countless resources online about how to write a query letter. Some good, many bad. All you really need to know is that a query letter is an email you send to a literary agent to see if she/he is interested in reading your manuscript. Period.

Despite differing formats, there is always one consistent rule with a query: It needs to be short and compelling. If you’ve written a massive, 200k word fantasy tome about the Ogres of Yaddith, you’re still going to have to pitch the story in three to four sentences. Not seven. Not five. Three to four. If you can’t tell your story in three to four sentences, there’s a problem.

(A note: If you have to pay an agent to read your work, they are not the agent for you. Legitimate literary agents earn money by selling your manuscripts. Disreputable agents charge you before they even attempt to sell your work. And they usually can’t — at least not to reputable publishers. There are certainly 100 really excellent literary agents in the U.S. — the majority in New York, home of the larger publishers — and if they’ve all passed on your book, well, that should be a sign… Bottom line: No matter how desperate you are, never pay a reading fee or evaluation fee or submission fee.)

(A caveat: This article is about signing with literary agents and getting your manuscript to large publishing houses. Small genre presses, self-publishing, vanity presses, etc are grist for another, later mill.)

(An aside: I like tough criticism and I dole it out. To see your manuscript to print, regardless of the size of the publisher, you’re going to have to develop a really tough hide. My first book was rejected by 88 literary agents. I took all of their (mostly) form letters and pasted them on the wall over my desk. That way I could stare my failure in the face every time I wrote. It worked.)

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The Letter

We’ll call my second novel Broken Cassette. (My first book, a YA novel that I wrote in a bout of delirious though deeply amateurish creativity, was mentioned above.) For our purposes, you don’t need to know much about Broken Cassette — it was dark, funny, disturbing, emotional, and raw.

Having been on the soul-crushing, roller coaster of unsuccessfully shopping my first book, I knew getting representation for Broken Cassette was going to be a serious challenge.

Once I’d written the book (for fiction, 95% of the time you need to have a complete manuscript before you try and shop it — non-fiction is a different beast), I started in on my query letter. This was a mistake. I’ve come to learn that you should compose your query letter before you even complete your manuscript. Ideally, you’ll finish it before you write the book. Having a pitch of your story will not only improve your telling it but will also help you focus.

(A final aside: Outlines are crucial. Don’t just sit at your keyboard and let the muse take you. Please. Let the muse guide your outline. If anyone is interested, I can go in depth sometime on outlining for novels and screenwriting.)

So here it is:

Hello, Agent X,

I read that you represent Writer Y and I am eager to speak with you about my project, Broken Cassette. What appealed to me most about Writer Y’s debut novel, ________________, was his savage wit. It was pant-wettingly funny and at the same time painfully caustic. A perfect cocktail!

I think my sardonic and edgy look at late-20 something existence might fit in well with your interests.

In Broken Cassette, Jerry Skelos, a film preservationist and ‘print manager’, has only eight hours to put into plain words his transformation from bookish homebody to cold-blooded killer.

Eight hours to explain how his search for These are the Wild and the Restless, a lost Hollywood debacle reviled by critics as an epic blunder and sought by fans as the Holy Grail of obscure cinema, led to his being trapped in his room missing a pinky toe and a piece of his skull.

Eight hours to tell his story of elderly conspirators, extreme body modification fetishists, severed limbs, Japanese tattoo enthusiasts, methamphetamines, a Hassidic ritual butcher called the Kentucky Slayer, true love and true pain.

I cut out the last paragraph of the letter about who I am and some of my writing experience. All you need to know is that it should be another one or two sentences. Tell them why you wrote the book and who you are. (Doesn’t matter if you’re a bus driver or an orthopedic surgeon, talk a little about it.)

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The First Incision

Introduction

So let’s break this thing down.

The query letter opens with “Hello, Agent X.” Never send “cold queries” to a literary agency. It’s like spamming and no one likes spamming. Do your research, figure out which agents at an agency would best fit your work, and address them directly. Be friendly.

I knew Agent X repped an author I liked. I mention it and talk a bit about Writer Y’s work. Obviously, this sort of thing needs to be tailored to each agent individually. If you aren’t familiar with the writers an agent reps — but you just know they’re the agent for you — read some of their writers’ books.

The point of this is simple: You know Agent X reps/likes the work of Writer Y. You think your work is similar to that of Writer Y. So therefore, Agent X would be a good fit with your writing.

The coup d’grace is how it ties together with the sentence before the summary: I think my ________ (book) would fit in well with your interests.

I made a connection, proved that I was familiar with the type of writers the agent reps, and showed how I would be a good match (at least in my mind).

Protagonist and problem

Next, you need to summarize your manuscript in three to four sentences.

Not only do you have to establish the world (time, place, tone) but you need to introduce the primary characters and plot. Not easy. I’ve found it’s often more challenging to summarize a book than it is to write one. In a query letter every word counts, every word needs to be finely tuned and deliberate.

You don’t have to reveal the ending of the book — especially if there’s a twist — but you do need to set the stage. You want the reader to be curious.

In Broken Cassette, Jerry Skelos, film preservationist and ‘print manager’, has only eight hours to put into plain words his transformation from bookish homebody to cold-blooded killer.

Notice the structure to this thing: It opens with the title and the main character, gives his background (it should be directly relevant to the plot and our protagonist’s arc), and then sets up his situation.

Jerry is a film preservationist and print manager — someone, we assume, who works in an academic or business capacity. His job seems rather fussy. The guy preserves old films and manages them. Must be boring, right? We’ll see…

Then comes something interesting. Jerry has:

only eight hours

Why eight hours? That’s the ticking clock. Literally. Framing your novel with a set time-frame, a metaphorical ticking clock, is crucial to ramping tension.

This book is a thriller and most thrillers work best on condensed schedules. A protagonist who has two months to escape a killer is a lot less interesting than a protagonist who has two hours to escape a killer.

However, the key to this sentence is here:

to put into plain words his transformation from bookish homebody to cold-blooded killer.

We can assume (correctly) that the book is in first person, told by the lead character. Saying it’s in “plain words” gives the agent insight into how the story will read — first person, likely past tense, and written in a straight-forward (readable) style. This all sets up the last seven words.

transformation from bookish homebody to cold-blooded killer.

This is the crux of the book — it is a thriller that tells a story of change. How one person (a bookish homebody) became not just a killer but a cold-blooded one. The bookish homebody line tells the reader in a modicum of words who the lead is — bookish suggests smart, homebody suggest someone not used to dealing with violence. Hence the transformation.

This is, presumably, a guy who is pushed by unknown forces to become someone else. The mystery of this story is going to be how. How does a mild-mannered guy who preserves films turn into a murderer?

Plot

The next sentence is the plot, the way the story unfolds, the how and the why:

Eight hours to explain how his search for These are the Wild and the Restless, a lost Hollywood debacle reviled by critics as an epic blunder and sought by fans as the Holy Grail of obscure cinema, led to his being trapped in his room missing a pinky toe and a piece of his skull.

Notice I re-iterated the timing. This is both a stylistic thing (repeating important information in groups of three is a common technique in screenwriting) and a way to continually increase tension.

From this (rather long) sentence we get the events that kicked off our protagonist’s transformation. How does a meek film preservationist become a killer with only eight hours to tell his story? Well, in Broken Cassette he attempts to track down a lost Hollywood film.

If the reader were to guess, she might assume that the search for “The Wild and the Restless,” both a critical flop and a long sought after “lost film,” brought Jerry into contact with some bad people — maybe the same people who trapped him in a room. Maybe even the same people who cut off (?) his pinky toe and caused (?) his skull injury?

It’s ambiguous but the pieces are there to create what we can assume will be a wild story — an obscure movie, a trapped protagonist, and some bodily harm. Notice that the sentence moves from the somewhat abstract (a missing movie) to the tangible (missing toes and skull pieces).

At this point, we can clearly see this book would likely appeal to a particular type of reader. If the query had been sent out willy-nilly, I would have gotten a lot more rejections. This book is edgy and dark and violent. If an agent doesn’t rep that sort of material, well, that’s a form letter rejection.

This is why research is crucial. My query, just like Broken Cassette itself, is aimed at certain genre readers — a Venn diagram of them might include horror fans, thriller fans, and people who love Chuck Palahniuk.

I made sure to target agents who I thought would fit nicely into that Venn.

Stinger

So now we come to the last sentence of the query:

Eight hours to tell his story of elderly conspirators, extreme body modification fetishists, severed limbs, Japanese tattoo enthusiasts, methamphetamines, a Hassidic ritual butcher called the Kentucky Slayer, true love and true pain.

Again, the timing is repeated. Third time for those counting. Tension…

And then we’ve got a list of all sorts of, seemingly, disparate people and things. We’ll start at the top and figure it out:

elderly conspirators, extreme body modification fetishists, severed limbs, Japanese tattoo enthusiasts

A missing film certainly makes sense with elderly conspirators — I’d picture old White Dudes pulling the strings behind the scenes. Extreme body modification fetishists, however, is weird. It’s not a made-up thing though. If you’re squeamish, don’t Google it. Severed limbs likely refers to the fetishists and maybe even the Japanese tattoo enthusiasts.

Notice again the repetition here: all of the people are grouped — conspirators, fetishists, enthusiasts. The numbers increase the tension. If it were only one elderly conspirator, one fetishist, and one enthusiast, the threat wouldn’t be as great. And the severed limbs are outliers, breaking up the flow on purpose.

The next section continues the list but broadens it out:

methamphetamines, a Hassidic ritual butcher called the Kentucky Slayer,

So now we’ve got drugs on board. Meth is bad, as we all know, and might explain some of the craziness going on in the story. Raises the stakes.

A Hassidic ritual butcher called the Kentucky Slayer is very specific. Not only do we know he’s an orthodox Jew and a butcher but we see he’s got a wildly unlikely name. How does this guy fit into the story? What does he have to do with body mod fetishists and the tattoo enthusiasts? All questions I wanted to raise in the mind of the reader.

This last section is really about increasing the mystery and solidifying the tone. How all these things come together is the driving question and, hopefully, something successfully resolved in the actual book.

true love and true pain.

The final two words are crucial. Moving from the ultra-specificity of the Kentucky Slayer to the broadest terms imaginable: true love and true pain. Notice, it’s not “true pain and true love.” Love comes before pain and they are inextricably bound together.

This is the real stinger of the query letter — all the drugs and crazed killers, all the weirdness, all the chaos, it all boils down to the heart of the story: love and pain. A reach perhaps but it’s crucial that a book speak to a larger issue — a deeper, emotional core.

What better than the interplay of love and pain?

Simon

The Result

Of the targeted agents that received this query letter (I sent it to about a dozen in the first and only round), I’d estimate 2/3rds asked to read the pages. From this, I got a handful of offers for representation. One was a lit agent/film producer interested in making a movie based on the manuscript. I chose to go with a rep at one of the larger literary agencies.

And then something happened…

Strange as it might sound, I decided I didn’t want Broken Cassette to be my first published novel. Even though the odds of the book actually seeing print were still under 50% (this is something I can discuss at length another time but even when you have an agent there is no guarantee you’ll sell a book to a publisher), I wasn’t convinced that this was the book I wanted to enter the literary realm with. It was simply too dark, too disturbing.

After all that, I decided to shelve it. My newfound agent moved on.

It took me another six months to write a third book. But I knew the content of my query letter before I even started. I knew what I wanted to do and what my angle was going to be. And I knew I wanted it to be my true first book.

I got an offer for representation on the first query I sent.

I would share that one with you but this — the Broken Cassette query letter — is the one that ended up going to that next level. This letter was the one I learned the most writing.

For me, it was foundational.


My name is Keith Thomas. It’s one of many names I’ve used as a writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker. If you like what you’ve read here, I have a novel, The Clarity, coming out in Feb. 2018. I have published with Little, Brown, Macmillan, and Kensington Books. I’ve written with James Patterson, the world’s bestselling author, and developed film and TV projects with 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, numerous production companies and a few Oscar winning filmmakers. If you visit my website — Night Platform — you can sign up for my newsletter and I’ll tell you more about my work, my thoughts on writing, collaborating, and filmmaking, answer questions, riff on collecting good ideas, and share any worthwhile insights that I discover.

NIGHT PLATFORM

Forgotten stories, hidden ideas, and mysterious beginnings by Keith Thomas.

Keith Thomas

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I am a novelist, filmmaker, and inveterate collector of all things brooding and mysterious.

NIGHT PLATFORM

Forgotten stories, hidden ideas, and mysterious beginnings by Keith Thomas.

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