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The One Right Way to Write a Query

Gotcha. There isn’t one. But as you can tell from the comments on last week’s query post, and several other query posts I’ve written, everyone is still obsessed with query letters. Even after I’ve implied that everyone is overthinking it and should simmer down.

Why are people so obsessed?

  1. Queries are your first contact with an agent, your foot in the door, your first impression.
  2. They have an overwhelming amount of perceived importance: if this letter isn’t awesome, the book won’t get read, I’ll never be published, etc.
  3. There are so many opinions out there about queries…from message threads to entire blogs devoted solely to queries.
  4. Writers don’t have a slush pile to read so they have no context for what a bunch of real, live queries actually looks like (or any idea of how many people they will outshine just by writing their letters in basic, grammatical English).

And I get it. I’m not trying to poke fun at how fixated writers are on query letters, nor to diminish their importance. But I always get really frustrated with writers who start freaking out.

Here’s my take on it: the writing sample is so much more important than the query. The query is a 250 or so word cover letter that is meant to introduce the agent to a writer’s premise and qualifications in a snappy, enticing way. That’s all.

The basic query has the following parts (in no particular order):

  1. Salutation (“Dear Ms. Kole” or “Dear Mary” are much better than “Dear Agent.”)
  2. Hook (A one-line “Hollywood” or “elevator” pitch) optional
  3. Query meat (the good stuff, all about your book…here‘s how to write it)
  4. Biographical information (preferably short, to the point, and full of only relevant information)
  5. Agent personalization (“I’m querying you because…”)
  6. Vital statistics (“BOOK is a 50,000 word YA manuscript. The full is available for your request. This is a simultaneous submission.”)
  7. Your sign-off and contact information (“I look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely,…”)

Some people put a hook at the beginning, then the meat, as shown above. Others put the personalization, omit the hook, and dive into the meat. The salutation always goes first, the vital statistics and the sign-off usually go last. In between? You can make it your own.

Looking at the comments, I’m seeing writers who are so overwhelmed by the different advice available on queries that they’re really frustrated, some almost to the point of shouting “Just tell me the way to do it and I’ll do it!”

Well, I can’t give you the perfect formula for the perfect query. Why? Because:

  1. I’m just one agent…we all have our preferences and mine may not be the same as a colleague’s at a different agency…or even a colleague’s at my own agency.
  2. Not every writer who will ever write a query will read this blog and “get the memo.”
  3. For every person who can think about a task and follow directions, there are a dozen who can’t and won’t and will misspell your name, to boot.
  4. It’s really not about satisfying my tastes in query letters, it’s about writing your own and not worrying whether or not you’ve used my favorite word or formatting quirk. I really don’t care. Honestly. Please believe me. I have many other things to think about.

Every query that I’ve ever loved, for every client that I’ve ever taken on, for every project I’ve sold, has been different. There’s no secret formula that we’re all keeping from you. I’m not staying up at night, tossing and turning, because you put your bio paragraph before your salutation. By the time I’m reading the manuscript and loving it, the query is a fuzzy memory that I usually dig up only when I’m writing my own pitch letter for the project, just for fun. I don’t think I’ve ever read the perfect query, nor am I convinced that such a thing exists. There are queries I’ve loved, like Karsten Knight’s for WILDEFIRE, but copying that query and substituting your own details, like one writer actually did on a message board a few weeks ago, isn’t going to work. It’s his query and shone so much for the exact reason that it had his unique personality in it.

That’s why I don’t like agency submission forms that ask you to fill in all the details of your book according to my preferences. I really do want to see what you do with the query. Not because it will determine your fate or the fate of your book or your life, but because it’s another way I get to learn about you as a writer. I know I’ll get some pushback on this post, but I don’t care.

Write your query, try and follow the advice you’ve read that makes sense to you, put it away, revise it, get some feedback from your critique group, and then go back to the more important thing: your manuscript.



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