Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Query Letter Post: Hints For Writing Them, and the One That Got Me Represented

This week at the Houston SCBWI
It feels exactly this awkward to ask.
But if they like it, they'll put a ring on it
meeting I did a brief presentation about writing query letters, and was asked afterward if I'd send my own query letter from CHAINED to the group's listserv so members could have it as an example.

It occurred to me on the way home that it'd be better to include it in a blog post so I could share it with whoever would like to see it, and SuperAgent Joanna kindly agreed to add her own comments about what she thought when she first read the letter!

First, a quick definition of a query letter and a few do's and don'ts of writing them:

A query letter is a one-page letter that a writer sends to an editor or agent, asking to submit a completed manuscript. The goal is to concisely describe the manuscript in a way that will entice them to request it.

What to include in your query:

- A hook: one-sentence tagline to spark the reader's interest
- Genre and age group of the book: middle-grade fantasy or young adult contemporary fiction, for example. (But don't say "fiction novel" or you will get a punch in the throat)
- A mini-synopsis: a paragraph or two about the book, including the main characters and their problem
- A little about yourself: This is hard to write if you're unpublished, but mention if your line of work somehow has to do with your subject matter, or with writing or literature in general. Or just let them know you're in a writers' organization like SCBWI, for example.

What not to do:

x Mass emails. Of course you should be querying more than one person at a time; agents and editors often take a long time to respond, and you're not expected to wait two months or more to for a response before you send your query to someone else. Just don't fill the "To:" field of your email with every agent you've ever heard of. Select a few appropriate agents for your work, and if they accept email submissions, send them one at a time, personalizing the email to avoid a generic "Dear Agent" letter. (And check before clicking "send" to make sure the name in the "To:" field matches the name in the greeting).
x Mention that your kids loved your story. Of course they did. They depend on you for food. Telling the editor or agent that your children, grandchildren, the neighborhood kids, or your horde of cats love your book will not impress anyone and will mark you as an amateur.
x Fancy fonts or paper. You're probably emailing your query, but if you're submitting to someone who accepts snail mail, use plain white paper that you have not sprayed with perfume. However you send your letter, use a readable font like Times New Roman. I know, your letter written in Curlz font on purple glitter paper is adorable, but there'll be plenty of time for annoying your agent once you're represented.
x Compare yourself to J.K. Rowling. Another thing that will scream "I have no idea what I'm doing and I've done zero research." Let your work stand on its own and let the agent/editor judge the writing. You're not J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer; you're you. Also, don't insult other writers and everyone in the industry by trashing existing books.

I think I can sum up what you should do by saying "Do a little research and follow submission guidelines." Submit to editors and agents who are a good fit for the kind of work you're doing, and always check the agency's or publisher's websites to see if they're accepting submissions and how they want you to send your query. Most accept queries by email now, but some do not. Some want the query letter only, while others ask that you include some manuscript pages.

Here are a few resources to check out for more information, though a Google search for "query letters" will give you approximately a kajillion thousand eleventy-pants more results, so there's plenty of information out there:

- Query Shark
- Querytracker
- Writer's Digest (examples of query letters with agent comments)
- Harold Underdown's The Purple Crayon

And now, the query letter for CHAINED! I sent this to about thirty agents in all, and had several requests and eventually two offers of representation. Agent Joanna Volpe's comments are in blue:

Dear Ms. Stampfel-Volpe,

I have written a mid-grade novel of about 50,000 words that I'd like to submit to you if it sounds like something you'd be interested in reading. CHAINED is the story of two captives-- one a boy, one an elephant.
[This line already had captured my attention. I've been a long time animal lover (I had a subscription to Ranger Rick's well into my teen years. Don't make fun!) I don't typically see stories starring elephants, and I really liked the title.]

To work off a family debt, 10-year-old Hastin leaves his desert home in Northern India [Something else that piqued my interest. India! A fascinating and different setting than I'm used to seeing. My heart also went out to this kid immediately at having to work off a family debt.] to work as an elephant keeper. His new boss, Timir, plans to revive his old circus, starting with the elephant act. Hastin's new workplace is as strange to him as the green and humidity of the nearby rain forest. Why was this circus, which used to be the best around, forced to close down years before, only to be abandoned until now? How does the cook know everything there is to know about elephants? How does a person free an elephant from a trap, and how in the name of Ganesh does he take care of her when he does?
[I don't typically love when questions are posed in queries. More often than not, it feels like a forced way to catch an agent's interest. But in this case, there was something so innocent and naïve about the way the questions were asked. I just had this quick thought of "Hello, Hastin." I knew it was him.]

Surviving failed escape attempts, stolen money, an elephant hook, heat stroke, and a shared stable, the friendship between Hastin and Nandita the elephant grows stronger with each passing year, until they discover that the bond that links them together is stronger than any shackle, lock, or chain.
[This whole paragraph is great because it gives me a taste of what's to come, but that final line…I think we've used that in one way or another straight through to publication. I know I added it to my pitch! It's SO good. This might be the line that really captured me 100% because it really cuts to the heart of what this story is about.]

Author Uma Krishnaswami critiqued the manuscript and has been kind enough to offer to answer more questions about Indian culture if needed, and to read the story again to vet it before publication.
[This was just the icing on the cake to show me that she did her research—it certainly would have been one of my first questions when we talked.]  

A few editors have requested the manuscript, and I have listed them here, along with where I met them. :

·  [Awesome Editor A]  - First pages workshop
·  [Fabulous Editor B] - Highlights conference at Chautauqua
·  [Rock Star Editor C] - Houston SCBWI conference
[Since I had no writing credits or anything, this was sort of my "bio" and a way to show that I was actively participating in SCBWI events, for example, and getting my writing critiqued by editors, and to let them know there was some interest in the manuscript. ~Lynne]

Thank you so much for your time.


Lynne Kelly

Hope these tips and the example help those of you who are working on your queries. Have any other helpful hints? Please share in the comments. Thanks so much to Joanna for taking the time to look over the letter again and adding her feedback!


  1. I loved rereading this, Lynne! Makes me want to pick up the book this weekend, just to get that feeling again.

    CHAINED is brilliant. I'm so lucky you queried me!

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. It's a beautiful query. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Great letter and great post. I'll be linking this one on my blog. Thanks for posting it.

  6. Great share, Lynne. And I'm go glad for you that you got an agent with this letter.