Anatomy of a query letter

Writers tell me that they are inspired by my story on how I published my first novel, so much so that they take me for a pundit. I’m not sure about that, but let’s say that I’ve seen my share of rejections, which allowed me to make some observations. So here’s to all who sent me their query letters in the past week: there is no magic formula, just basic dos and don’ts when it comes to crafting a query letter.

An ideal query letter will contain everything the recipient needs to asses whether the book meets his or her requirements:

  • Title

  • Genre

  • Word count

  • Protagonist’s name

  • Description of protagonist / his or her objectives

  • Plot

  • Setting / Location

  • Writing credits (optional in case of debuting writers)

  • Platform (all this activity that makes you a known expert)

  • Writer’s name

Always address your query to a specific recipient (name), rather than Dear Agent, or Dear Editor. Agents are notoriously stressed out folks, so try and appease them. Some agents are so stressed that they demand that writers include something personal, such as a reference to a comment the agent made in an interview (this may seem laughably outrageous, since a rejection will be anything but personal, however it does enhance the chances of receiving a reply, which is becoming a collectors’ item these days).

Target the recipient carefully and according to the genres he or she represents (not an easy task since many are remarkably sloppy when it comes to updating their requirements).

Now, here is something that is absolutely crucial, and what most writers (who sent their queries to me) missed: format your emails properly. Some queries that I found my inbox were impossible to follow because all formatting was lost, they arrived as one block of text. This severely limits your chances of finding someone who will struggle to read a letter without line breaks and paragraphs. Do not take it personally (I've been there too), and consider that it's infinitely better that you hear it from me rather than wonder later why your queries are not being answered.

TIP 1: Copy-pasting text from WORD often results in the loss of formatting (partial or full, depending on the email client). Either format your text within the email program, or copy it first from WORD to NOTEPAD, and then from NOTEPAD to email.

TIP 2: Also worth keeping in mind: many agents disable HTML formatting in their email clients in order to protect their computers from malicious content. Messages sent in an HTML format will therefore be stripped of formatting, which in turn may result in all kinds of strange looking characters. Send your mail as plain text.

Finally, for those of you on the verge of depression following a long string of rejections (or receiving no replies whatsoever): write several different query letters. There is no magic formula, what works for one recipient may not work for another. So, write a second, or a third query, which looks at your book from a different angle. For instance – one query letter will concentrate on the plot, whereas another will give prominence to protagonists. Re-query those agents who declined your first offer, as well as those who think that it is an acceptable business practice not to reply at all when they do not like a particular offer (you don't know why you receive no reply, so assume that it is the query letter, and therefore send another one...).

Spell check, format properly and fire away. Do not be discouraged by rejections – all writers receive them. Rejections are a part of every writer’s life. Accept them and move on. Never beg! Do not forget who the employer is.

Best wishes.

Sometimes you only get one chance. Don't blow it. Learn from my mistakes:

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  1. Thanks for this. I too am guilty of 2-sentence queries, which explains why I received no replies.

  2. Your site is very helpful. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for sharing! You went through the process and did not forget the rest of us.

  4. I am sure glad i came across you pages of wisdom on here, it has made me, and i'm sure others stronger. We will press on. No surrender! Thanks!

  5. Milen (Bulgaria)26 May 2009 at 03:51

    it helped... a lot

  6. Thanks for some useful tips

  7. You've actually got genuinely good advice. I've been struggling enough long enough to tell the difference. Thand you.

  8. Thanks for sharing. This is very insightful and as a writer myself in the frustrating pool of trying to find an agent for my novel and waiting for agents' replies...or lack thereof, this is VERY helpful.

  9. You're welcome, Tammi! I hope it helps. Someday be sure to share your own experiences - these are always welcome by new writers.