Writing Excuses 6.5: Query Letters

Dan and Howard had the recent opportunity to interview Dan’s agent, http://saracrowe.com/index.html, who works with the Harvey Klinger agency. We decided to address a topic that is by far the most-requested (and under-addressed) topic on our list: query letters.

Dan begins by reading the query letter he sent to Sara four years ago. Sara then explains why she accepted him as a client. The letter had something to do with it, yes. Sara talks a bit about what she likes and doesn’t like in query letters, and this leads us into a nice discussion of what does and doesn’t work, and why.

We then further deconstruct the letter, and Dan’s decision-making process in writing it. We discuss the synopsis he included, and how well the hook of the novel was presented. We then distill this into some basic points for query-letter writing.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences, by Brian Yansky, narrated by Alexander Cendese

Writing Prompt: Write a query letter based on your current project.

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25 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 6.5: Query Letters”

  1. That’s a great topic, and about time. I have to ask a chicken/egg question though, because in Dan’s case he had an offer already; is it better to query an agent and then hope to sell the book to a publisher, or try and sell before submitting to an agent?

    It was mentioned by Howard and Sarah that having “I’ve sold a book” obviously helps in the query letter, but is it necessary?

  2. Interesting topic. Will have to keep it in mind.

    I guess this taps into one of my great fears, though. Is my book going to be interesting enough for someone else to want to read? How do I make it sound interesting?

    It’s not such a big deal if a reader looks at the book but doesn’t pick it up further based on description, but if an agent does that, or worse, an editor, then there’s a problem.

  3. @Rob: Of course it’s not necessary, otherwise agents would never pick up authors before they’d made sales.

    It is, however, one of the few “my book is awesome” external data points that you should always use (assuming it’s true.) It accomplishes two things: first, it lets the agent know that an existing gatekeeper has already vetted the book, and wants to spend money on it. Second, it lets the agent know that there is money on the table and the clock is ticking.

    As Sara pointed out, however, it’s not a guarantee. If the book or author aren’t a good fit for the agent, the agent may pass even though the book has sold.

  4. What level of humour would be appropriate in a query letter? Any at all? Is it preferable to just be straight-forward and professional?

    Also, Dan started his letter with Sara’s first name. Is it preferable to use first name or last name, both or title and last name? How formal should it be?

  5. I love humor, I’m a professional humorist, and I’d be terrified to try being funny in a query letter. Self-deprecatory humor and megalomaniacal humor are both guaranteed to backfire, making fun of the industry is going to go over poorly, and really, what else is left? Making fun of your book? Your addressee?

    Maybe some subtle wordplay, but only if it’s so completely natural, coming organically out of the text of your query, that you don’t even know you’ve done it.

  6. I’m horrid at query letters, but I have read some with humor or strong voice that seemed to work well (http://queryshark.blogspot.com/2010/08/172-ftw.html; http://queryshark.blogspot.com/2010/12/191.html). It seems like if the book is light and fun, the query should be, too, or if the book’s serious and dark, the query should be too, or romantic if it’s that, or whatever.

    But I second Howard. If there’s something funny or absurd about the plot itself (“Young girl joins up with blue, drunk leprechauns who swords glow blue in the presence of lawyers to save younger brother, armed with only a frying pan”), I think that could show in the summary, but humor for it’s own sake (as opposed to showing off the book) seems hard. I’ve only read one query where the funny wasn’t book-related (http://misterkristoff.wordpress.com/the-query/).

  7. In Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’, he talks about a fictional author (a composite of several) named Frank. A sample of Frank’s query letter is provided, and there is an easy, casual tone to it, and a bit of a joke.

    The joke?

    “I’m particularly proud of ‘A Long Walk in These ‘Yere Woods’, which won the Minnesota Young Writers’ Award. The plaque looks good on our living room wall, and the prize money – $500 – looked excellent for the week or so it was actually in our bank account.’

    The story then goes on to say that it took Frank four drafts and two arguments with his wife to get the casual tone just right.

    Humour’s not impossible, but be very, very careful with it. In this case, it’s subtle, easygoing, and it’s a very, very neutral topic.

    Then again, ‘On Writing’ is 11 years old now, and that story would be older than that. I have no idea how the market and the people in the industry might have changed since then, if they have.

  8. I’m getting to a point where I want to try sending query letters again and this podcast pushed me a step closer to going after that goal. It’s nice that we didn’t get a lesson about query letters, but actual advice from an agent and hearing how she approaches letters.

    Thanks for this one, guys, and thanks for getting Sara Crowe to take part. I feel like I got something good out of this–but that’s usually the case.

  9. Thanks for this podcast. I’ve actually been thinking about sending out some query letters. I may be doing some writing for hire soon, and I’ve been thinking that I should have an agent to help me with the contracts and such like.

    Speaking of which, do you all have a podcast already up that discusses when an author needs an agent? Because if you don’t, I wish you would do one. And is there maybe one about doing work for hire? I know there was one with Kevin Anderson about writing in someone else’s universe, and I plan to reread that one.

    And as long as I am making wishes, I might as well wish for a podcast on psuedonyms. Since I publish under my real name for my day job, I thought a nom de plume might be good. So I’m trying to figure out how a writer picks a pen name, and what the conventions and customs are. I bumped into Brandon a few months back and we talked about this for a while. He said he would try to do a podcast on this subject for me, but my guess is that you all have a list a mile long of good podcast topics. So I’ll just put in one more request. Can’t hurt, right?

  10. Good podcast…I definitely see why Dan was able to get noticed with that query. (Having an interested editor doesn’t hurt either!). The format I used on my last novel is very similar to Dan’s as far as intro paragraph, paragraph about plot, paragraph about morals/themes, etc. It seemed to work well.

  11. And for all those listeners who say that they don’t need to worry about query letters because they are going to self-publish (and there may not be any, but just go with me here): you still need a hook for your novel that you then build a killer synopsis around. You need it to build your jacket copy/marketing copy/Amazon listing copy and for your pitch emails/letters requesting blurbs, reviews, bookstore signings, etc. It’s not going to be the same exact piece of writing for every single pitch/listing. But if you hone the basics, you’ll then find the key descriptors and approaches that you can then use in your marketing/sales and publicity campaigns.

    Note how Sara alluded to the fact that some of what Dan wrote in his query letter found its way in to or at least informed the jacket copy.

    And now I have a question: how do you know if the difficulty you’re having with your hook and synopsis is due to your lack of experience in writing a pitch/query or the possibility that the book itself needs work?

  12. @Wm Henry Morris: Your question’s a good one. Given those conditions, the only answer I’ve got is to have somebody else read the book and tell you what they think. If the book doesn’t have a hook then yes, it probably needs one, and hopefully a beta reader can figure that out for you.

    A good beta reader might also be able to tell you what the hook is, or at least what they would say to get a friend to read the book. Where you’re thinking “it’s an epic in a world where magic comes from bodily fluids” (conceptual, milieu hook) your readers may say that the conflict implicit in having a vegetarian, pacifist hero is what really drew them in.

    (No, I haven’t read nor written this book. Yes, you folks may run away with the idea if you want.)

    Finally, to people wanting to self-publish: if you can’t write a query letter and successfully pitch your work to one person, what makes you think you’re going to be able to pitch your work to hundreds, or even thousands of people? This is a skill you absolutely have to have if you’re publishing yourself. Absolutely.

  13. @ Howard

    I have the same question for those who want to self publish. I’ve spoken with many aspiring authors who seem to believe that the query will never be read so there is no point. I have to admit thinking that a time or two myself (alright, every time I got a form rejection :-) ) before I began getting interest. That’s when I realized how much my query letter writing had improved and that before I was not experienced enough.

    The bottom line with self publishing is that if you can’t get noticed by agents and editors, you probably won’t stand out amongst the myriad of other self published debut authors. We all hear stories about how many times famous authors were rejected, but what we don’t hear about is how many times they receieved attention before finally being signed. It’s been my recent experience that rarely does one go from nothing to everything. Usually you progress from form rejections to personal to full manuscript requests until eventually an offer.

    Right now I’m in no man’s land between full requests and offers. It’s scary, but I have no doubts that if I tried to self publish I would go nowhere. There’s too much debris amongst the flotsam to stand out. All in my own opinion of course.

  14. I have what feels like a silly question: is it too bold (or perhaps too stupid) to write a query letter to an agent for a book you haven’t yet finished? I ask because I have 50 great pages of a novel and am working to finish it, but I feel this urge to write to agents.

    Thanks! And thanks for all the great podcasts, I’ve been listening for a year or so and have learned a lot from you guys!

  15. @ Hrothfar

    If you’re writing nonfiction you can sell on proposal. If it’s fiction then yes it’s too soon. Agents will want to see an entire novel before offering representation.

  16. Just a note to say that I just discovered your podcast and absolutely love it. I was up late last night and wanted to do some studying on writing, but I was tired and my eyes were irritated from my contact lenses. When I discovered your podcast, it was exactly what I was looking for and I listened to three episodes!

    Thank you so much for sharing your collective insights.

  17. Question on querying for a series:

    I understand that queries should usually deal with the first book – sell the first book and then worry about the sequels. Does that change when the inspiration for your book is in and of itself a series? For example, the Seven Deadly Sins, or the Young Women values, etc. When the topic is serial in nature should the query be written from a direction of a series? How do you handle that? I’m having a hard time tracking down any advice from a reputable source.

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