The Great Query Letter Contradiction

I looked for a shortcut. I wanted a black and white formula that would guide me to writing the perfect query letter that no one could resist. Guess what?

I never found it. (If I do, I’ll let you know.)

And that’s because the truth finally seeped through my thick skull. The query letter is a reflection of writing skill. I didn’t believe that at first. I thought, oh, if only someone would read the first chapter, they wouldn’t care about the query letter. Again, I was wrong. Because skill with word choice, humor, sentence structure, and grammar do shine through in a letter.

So first, I tried the short and sweet approach. If I made my pitch paragraph 3-4 sentences – I’d be in partial-or-full-requesting heaven. Not exactly.

Then I read winning queries and my feathers got a little ruffled. The experts lied! Some queries had 3 or 4 paragraphs to explain their summary. These writers broke the rules! Time to protest! Unfair!

And that’s when I realized that a query letter is no different than any other writing rule. I’d have to learn the rules before I could break them.

Can I write the perfect query letter? No. But I’ve learned not to be so strict with rules. A query letter needs details, strong verbs, word choice that reflects the tone and voice of your story – and of course, the basics: hook, goals, conflicts, and stakes. Yeah, I know. Sounds hard. 

Scour the blogs for information. Read winning queries. And write multiple versions of your query and have your critique group read it. Let it sit. Then try again. Write the best one you can. And then throw into the pot things like market trends, timing, and agent subjectiveness.

What’s one tip you have learned about writing query letters?


17 Responses to The Great Query Letter Contradiction

  1. Heather Kelly February 22, 2010 at 12:09 pm #

    If you want formulaic query letter game, Nathan Bransford did a query letter mad lib in a blog post.

    Fun stuff.

    There is one source on query letters that I really like, I’m going to have dig it up.

    Like writing a book, there seems to be no short cuts in writing query letters.

  2. Laura February 22, 2010 at 2:33 pm #

    Heather, thanks. Yes, I’ve read almost all the normal stuff on query writing out there. Formulas are nice but it really depends on the story. What I really appreciate about Nathan is that the example query letters he posted are all 3-4 sentence summary blurbs. Not exactly his formula but close to it. Where as some say short and sweet and then show really long queries that they loved.

  3. Anna February 22, 2010 at 4:01 pm #

    Laura, I think you’ve discovered the secret of query writing – there is no secret! It depends on the book, the agent, etc. I did a lot of research when I was querying and wound up applying what I thought worked best for me. I think the most important thing is to represent your book as accurately as you can, so that the spirit of it comes across in the query. Good luck!

  4. Karen February 22, 2010 at 4:52 pm #

    Ugh! Query letters. Hates them. LOL.

    One thing I learned when writing query letters is to get straight to the point and keep your bio brief.

    But of course this is just one strategy.

    Still hate the query letters though. Good exercise to strengthen writing. But ugh!

  5. Laura February 22, 2010 at 4:52 pm #

    Thanks Anna, that’s what I’m trying to do. I agree. There is no secret. I still think it’s something most writers search for though. I know I did.

  6. Laura February 22, 2010 at 4:54 pm #

    Karen – My bio is definetly brief. 🙂

  7. Anne Bingham February 22, 2010 at 5:11 pm #

    Send out just one or two to start, because next week you’ll suddenly think of a way to improve the queryletter, and the next week it will be even better, and by the fourth go-round, you’ll suddenly get a request for a partial and even if the agent eventually declines it, you’ll know you’ve finally got a working query.

  8. Tina Lee February 22, 2010 at 6:03 pm #

    I’m not yet thinking about queries. I’m so glad to know of you more experienced writers when I get to that point though. Thanks for your post.

  9. Paul Greci February 22, 2010 at 6:08 pm #

    Good luck with the query letter. When I wrote mine, I ended up with a one sentence tag-line for the book and then a short paragraph following it.

  10. Lisa Green February 22, 2010 at 7:36 pm #

    I hate Queries! To me they are the hardest thing to write. I think you hit on the one tip I would try to impart to others though – let the voice and tone of your book shine through in the query!!

  11. Laura February 22, 2010 at 7:56 pm #

    Anne – Thanks for stopping by. I agree. That’s why I’m trying to do all the different versions before starting. I’m on my 22nd. Though some are similar. I will continue to revise if I get no response.

    Tina – Start writing it now, so you have something to work with when you are ready!

    Paul – Thanks for commenting. That’s good you were able to do that. I have a one sentence tag line and a short paragraph query version. But my husband likes the extended version. Not sure which I’m going to go with yet. We’ll see what my crit group thinks.

    Lisa – Thanks for stopping by.I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned so far – letting the tone and voice come through. And that’s no easy task in one paragraph. Winning queries make it look so easy. 🙂

  12. Sherrie Petersen February 22, 2010 at 8:49 pm #

    I HATE writing query letters. But I’ve found that the stronger my story is, the easier it is to write the query. I guess there’s a correlation there 🙂

  13. Laura February 22, 2010 at 8:52 pm #

    Sherrie – I would also add that the more I write, the stronger query I end up having. The query I have now is better than the one I wrote for my first novel. For sure. 🙂

  14. Kelly Polark February 22, 2010 at 8:52 pm #

    I think query letter writing is really tough. I took the short and sweet approach, but I am second guessing that.

  15. Laura February 22, 2010 at 9:05 pm #

    Kelly – The only time short and sweet doesn’t work is if it’s too vague. But a short and sweet query that does what it’s supposed to do – is the sign of a great writer. Of course, sometimes it has nothing to do with query, but what the agent is looking for at that moment.

  16. Catherine A. Winn February 23, 2010 at 3:34 pm #

    You spend so much time writing the “perfect” novel and then they throw the Dreaded Query Letter at you. After that, it’s the Synopsis…and don’t forget the chapter outline…Aaackk! But somehow we all wind up getting them done because we use the same technique we used in our ms–revision, revision, revision!

  17. Laura February 23, 2010 at 10:39 pm #

    Catherine – Yes. Revision is key!

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