Elements of a Novel Query Letter

You will see many a frustrated agent harping over and over again that the elements of a novel query letter should always follow submission guidelines. I will be the first to add my voice to the chorus: you should always follow submission guidelines when sending your novel query letter!

novel query letter
Are you confident that the first ten pages of your manuscript are exceptional? If so, they could be a strong addition to your novel query letter submission.

Elements of a Novel Query Letter: Always Follow an Agency’s Specific Guidelines

But…you should always follow our submission guidelines. At ABLit, we request the first 10 pages as one of the elements of your query letter submission. I’m here to say something a little controversial that might raise some hackles. I say, send the first pages to all the agents you’re querying, even if they don’t ask for them. (Sorry, guys!)

Before we proceed, I will write one note of warning here — this advice is for Advanced Users Only. Your first 10 pages have to be solid gold, or you shouldn’t bother with this strategy. Try to take an objective look. Try to determine whether or not you’ve got Conference Polish Syndrome. If your first 10 are a marvel and the rest of the manuscript is even better, send them with your novel query letter regardless of the guidelines. (Check out my post on how to finish a novel for more info.)

Why You Send Your First 10 (If You Know They’re Good)

Here’s why. When I read a novel query letter that catches my eye, I have absolutely no way of knowing if the writing is any good. And that’s all that matters at the end of the day. If I was judging a submission on query only, I’d have a very high chance of requesting something that ended up being totally off-base. Query writing does not equal manuscript writing, the two are completely different by nature. Or I’d request something and wait to receive it and forget what I liked about the query in the first place and so the sample would make no sense and I would’ve lost interest in the meantime or gotten busy with something else, etc. etc. etc.

If some sample pages are an element of your query letter submission, I can look at the writing right away. There’s much less room for error in terms of requesting something that ends up a hot mess, and I have instant gratification. A query intrigues me and I can keep reading immediately. No wait, no chance to lose any enthusiasm. Sometimes, it’s a total let-down. Other times, I like the sample and get even more excited and request the full on the spot.

My Personal Experience With Sending the First 10

Before I joined the agency, I was an agented writer myself. My third manuscript and, hence, my third round of sending novel query letters, landed me an agent (full disclosure: I am no longer with that agent, as that would present a conflict of interest). When I sent out only queries for my first two manuscripts, I got a lukewarm response and it took forever. With my third try, I decided to send 10 pages as an part of my novel query letter submission, whether requested or not. I think Sarah Palin might’ve called that a “mavericky” move. Almost everyone responded right away, the whole process took two weeks and I got offers from six agents. I’m not saying that’ll happen for everyone, but this strategy made it easy for an agent to a) read me right away, b) like me right away, c) get really excited. (Note to writers: I did mention above that this was my third try at getting an agent…that means I’d tried and failed several times. It takes a lot of practice to learn how to write a novel that agents consider publishable enough to offer on.)

That’s why I’m so happy the first 10 pages are part of our submission guidelines at ABLit. And I think there’s a good case for making it your submission strategy, regardless of guidelines elsewhere. Just make sure you paste the text in the body of an email if you e-query. Also, the “No attachments” part of many submission guidelines is one you really shouldn’t ignore. (Check out more of our posts on submission!)

Are you struggling with how to pitch an idea effectively? Hire my query editing services and I’ll guide you through the process.

26 Replies to “Elements of a Novel Query Letter”

  1. Great advice! Can I quote you on that? J.K.

    Serioualy, I think this must be a trend in top agencies, as all the agents on my list allow 5-10 pages pasted into the email. I’m very grateful, for all the reasons you list above. If I move on to agents who don’t allow a small sample, I’ll try to be a brave little maverick and follow your example.

  2. Suzanne — Uh… quote me… er… An anonymous blog might’ve come in handy here, huh.

    Martha — After napping and cuddling the fat cat, it’s what I do best.

  3. Thanks for more great advice (mavericky as it may be).

  4. Kelly Barnhill says:

    See, this makes total sense to me. As a reader, if I’m going to buy a book, sure, I’ll read the back. But I don’t plunk down my 19.95 until I’ve read the first few pages. Why would it be any different for agents?

  5. Elan Cross says:

    So true, Kelly. This makes sense to me too. We’re not forcing anyone to read the pages, but there they are, just in case:)
    Thanks Mary!

  6. To me, what is the real lesson in this post is less about “sneaking” your sample pages in with your query and more about making sure your work is golden. Only then should you be querying in the first place. But then follows the big conundrum: is it golden? I’d like some expert eyes let me know. 🙂

  7. Bryan — I guess I thought it went without saying but, you know, I should probably say it again and again and again. And yes, if you look at the things people query with every day, things they all decided were “ready,” it’s a huge spectrum of “golden,” from the stuff that reads like a person’s first turn at the typewriter to the precious few things that actually are MY personal definition of “golden”… publishable.

  8. You know, this makes sense. I’m glad more agents are asking for ‘sample’ pages.

    Love your advice! Thanks!

    I do have a question. Can you tell by reading the sample pages if the story delivers or isn’t what the query promises? I know at the last SCBWI Agent Day conference I went to, one of the agents mentioned the whole ‘professional’ query thing. What’s your take on that?

  9. WOW. I’ve never had the guts to send pages to an agency with a query only policy. Hmm, something to think about. THanks for the insights!

  10. Now I’m going to have to write something that I can stick the word “mavericky” in……hahahaha!

    New favorite word.


  11. I really appreciate this advice.
    I’m always careful to read the exact submission guidelines of each agency… this is something to think about!

  12. Thanks for this advice. Most authors I know hate writing queries and/or synopsis, and I suspect these elements don’t represent their best writing. It’s good to know that the writing is what counts.

  13. Thanks for the great advice. I’m in the midst of querying now and this little piece of advice really hit home. I will give serious thought to sending sample pages (no matter what) for my next round of submissions.

  14. Ok so here’s a funny question. When you paste your sample pages, do you mention it, ie, “here are my sample pages,” or do you just kind of stick them there and hope they scroll down?

  15. Haylee — An interesting question. If their submission guidelines don’t call for a writing sample, you don’t want to say “Here’s that writing sample!” When I did it — and I just went back through my email — I didn’t put anything at all. An agent will see the sample, don’t worry. Just paste it below your signature line.

  16. Thanks for the advice! I love it when agents request a sample, no matter how small.

  17. I’ve heard this from a couple of my friends who have been really successful with this strategy. But again, they did have solid gold first 10 pages. But I think this is a testament to just making sure that your first few pages are awesome, and then making sure the rest of the book will live up to what the first 10 pages are.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!!

  18. Cassandra says:

    I see what you’re saying and I think it’s great advice, but my one reservation is that this method will work. As a novice novelist, I want to nail the agent right away…I don’t want to jump in with two feet and hope the water is warm.

    Should I go ahead and send the first 10 pages anyway? Most of the agents on my list don’t request any part of the manuscript. Is that odd for most agencies?

  19. Interesting advice. There ought to be an old saying. ‘Luck favors the bold.’ Or something like that. I wonder if you’ve had reactions to this post from agents outside your own agency?

  20. I’m laughing right now, because I’ve always wondered how an agent can make a decision on a query letter alone (and because I secretly love breaking rules). I will take this advice to heart. Thank you.

  21. Fascinated to hear this advice, as I’ve always felt that a query can’t do justice. In certain cases I’ve added the first two pages of the ms even when the guidelines said to query only.

    Ten pages! Will give it real thought. It’s tough, trying to read agents’ minds, and tougher still to violate explicit guidelines.

  22. i went to an informal lecture where an agent was speaking about a week ago. and he gave the exact same advice. except, he said send a sample page (not 10). i think i will start doing this from now on.

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