Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Miriam Goderich's musings on "The Perfect Query Letter."

The perfect query letter does not exist. (Well, perhaps it lives in the fantasy realm of unicorns and dragons, but certainly not in our day-to-day publishing world.) And, yet, everyone seems to be chasing the formula for that elusive, perfect query letter (EPQL) and its pursuit is giving a lot of people agita and heartburn. It's a recurring theme during the Q&A portion of agent presentations at writers conferences. Many internet sites and print publications aimed at writers spend a lot of time on the subject and, in talking with individual authors, it seems that confusion about this subject is universal.

So, I will try to elucidate what makes a query effective -- not perfect, mind you, just effective -- for us here at DGLM:

1. It should be succinct and to the point. The purpose of this missive is to introduce yourself and your project and ascertain if the agent wants to take a look at your proposal/manuscript. It is not the place to go into longwinded detail about the weather, your passion for shell collecting (unless, of course, the book is about shell collecting), or your great-aunt Mary’s faith that you would one day be a published writer. It should, however, be no more than a page long and look and read like a letter not a report.

The first paragraph might mention how you came to query this particular agent and/or agency – perhaps noting that you saw a nice acknowledgement of the agent in a book you admired or you looked on the agency’s web site and identified with the agent’s profile somehow or anything that shows that you did your homework and that this is not just a form letter being sent to 6,000 agents.

The next paragraph should tell the prospective agent what the book is in a couple of sentences. Here is not the place to summarize your entire book. You want to highlight the strongest themes or the elements that make the book distinctive (e.g., “My novel tells the tale of star-crossed teenage lovers separated by their families’ bitter feud.” Not, “Romeo grew up in Verona and was part of the Montague clan. He met and fell in love with Juliet who was a member of the Capulet familiy and who spent an inordinate amount of time on balconies or talking to her nurse….”) Unless you’re very good at writing concise plot summaries, the less said the better. The idea is to get the agent to the actual manuscript.

The final paragraph should tell us anything relevant about you – this is your first novel or you’ve been published in numerous literary journals or John Cheever was your godfather or you’re a neurosurgeon who has an MFA from the Iowa writing program, etc. – and ask if you may send a sample of your project or the complete manuscript.

2. On the technical side of things: Spell check and then carefully proofread the query. We have had instances of great hilarity over a dropped letter in a strategic spot. Someone once queried us for a book about “pubic policy” and, juvenile bunch that we are, we didn’t stop laughing for days. You don’t want the query to go directly to the form rejections pile because of typos, grammatical errors or because you addressed the envelope to one agent and sent it to another.

It’s okay to single space query letters – as you would any other letter – but it’s not okay to make your margins less than one inch wide and your font teeny tiny so that you can fit a three-page description into one page. Ease of reading is half the battle among us bleary-eyed publishing people. (Everything else in your submission package should be double spaced and single sided.)

Finally, unless you’re in prison, type your queries rather than handwriting them. One of my favorite queries of all time was a six-page handwritten saga describing the author’s genealogical connections to everyone from the British royal family to Lassie.

3. Did I mention doing your homework? If the agent you’re querying only represents science fiction and fantasy, don’t send him/her a query for a self-help proposal. That’s a waste of everyone’s time and postage, and there are so many places where you can find information on agents and publishers that it should be relatively easy to identify your target.

4. Use any edge you have. If you met one of us at a conference, lead with that. If your father went to school with one of our spouses, tell us that. Anything that helps us identify yours as something we should pay attention to is fair to include. Ultimately, it’s the actual idea and writing that will determine whether we offer representation, but that won’t happen if your query doesn’t make us request your material.

Caveat: Even if you follow my directions slavishly, there’s no guarantee that your query will be that EPQL we’re all looking for. As with everything else in this quixotic business, you can sometimes do all the wrong things and still end up with an agent and a book contract. And, conversely, you can do all the right things and not get your foot in the door. So, my advice is to better your chances by crafting as good a query letter as you can and then trust that your efforts and the strength of your work will pay off.


  1. I had to laugh. Yes, we writers can be a neurotic bunch. It often baffles me that someone who has written a 300,000 word mega-novel gets in a tizzy over producing a 300 word letter.

    The advice was appreciated. The best rule of thumb I've found: Be professional. Even if you aren't, yet.

  2. I've always found swearing and threatening the agent to be fairly helpful.

    I am without a book deal.

  3. What's your take on writers who have been published for a while (as novelists, say) and are looking for a new agent. Phone call or query letter?

    Mark Terry

  4. Nicely summed up, Miriam. I can remember, twelve years or so ago, trying to write a query for a novel... and couldn't find any information about how to do it well. Now, it's the opposite, I'm bombarded with it. Your 'to the point' comments are perfect.

    Thank you

  5. The query is the hardest thing to write because its like a dog and pony show! Trot on out there and say lookie at me! I wish we could just put a couple of lines; Take a look and give me a call. Synopsis and first 3 enclosed. Thanks for looking.
    Then get down on my knees and say the rosary or light a candle. Do you think burying St. Joseph in under that pile of manuscripts on my desk might help?
    I'm thinking another part of this would be getting out to conferences or any place an agent might be speaking for a talk and meet them so you can say, "I met you at..." Then I have a hook to draw you in and my talent will do the rest! :)
    Great post on the hardest subject!
    Thank you,

  6. Miriam,

    Thank you for telling us that we may single space query letters. Trying to get all the pertinent information in on a single page of text while double spacing seems to be an impossible task.

    Allowing single spaced text allows some flexibility in trying to be succinct yet not be so brief as to leave out important information.

    Oh, and I giggled as well to the "pubic affairs" mention. It reminded me of a beauty shop in my college town named "public hair" which seemed to attract a certain style of vandalism to their mural on the side of a building. People used to white out only one letter creating a different meaning altogether.

    And of course, I giggled at that as well.

    Thanks again for the tip. It's good to know how the other side feels.


  7. Thank you for making me laugh at midnight at
    your laughter at the misspelled word; at your
    'teeny-tiny' letter image describing the required font; and for being so human that now I don't feel petrified at the thought of writing that Query Letter.
    Perhaps writers find query letters difficult because we spend so much time writing and not speaking with people that the thought of such personal communication via the letter is daunting. We
    also create people. That they exist entirely on
    their own and expect cordiality as well as sense
    can be surprising

  8. Thank you for this, because it proves what I've always believed:

    People get too concerned with "process" and lose sight of the desired results.

  9. From the Netherlands, thank you for the concise advice.

  10. The query letter is the first impression. We all know that first impressions always last.

  11. It seems to me that relevant to-the-point practical advice is very difficult to come by - thanks for a great posting with excellent to-the-point practical advice!


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