Friday Writing Tip: The Query Letter

Posted on Fri, Dec 10 2010 9:49 am by Brian Malloy

You’ve done the work: writing, revision, critique, revision, and more revision.

Now you feel your novel is ready to start making the rounds at publishing houses. If you’re interested in commercial publishing, you’ll soon discover that most publishing houses do not accept “unsolicited manuscripts.” In other words, you will need a literary agent to represent your work to publishers. Reputable agents have the access to acquiring editors that the rest of us lack.

How to get an agent? A good place to start is with the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR). Member agents have signed on to the AAR’s code of ethics (anyone can be a literary agent, there are no exams or certifications required) and have successfully sold manuscripts to publishing houses. A directory of AAR agents and the types of manuscripts they represent can be found at

Before you query, make sure the agent is a match for your manuscript! Don’t send your middle-grade fantasy novel query to an agent who represents romance and mystery writers.

Once you feel you have a match—the agent represents the type of books that you write, and he or she is actively seeking new clients—it’s time to submit a query. If the agent has submission guidelines, follow them to the letter. You want to impress the agent with not only your creative work, but also with your professional demeanor.

A standard query letter is one page (never more than two) in which you very briefly introduce yourself, succinctly describe your work in one or two paragraphs, and ask the agent if he or she would like to see your manuscript. Remember, an agent receives hundreds of query letters each month. You want yours to be professional and stand out from the crowd.

Some common mistakes writers make:

  • The letter’s salutation is Dear Agent.

  • The letter makes promises you cannot keep, e.g., here is the next bestseller and movie deal, this book will make a ton of money, etc.

  • The letter contains spelling and grammatical errors.

  • The letter is all about you, not your book.

  • The letter includes irrelevant facts, i.e., your family and friends love the book.

  • The letter’s salutation is too informal, e.g., Dear First Name.

  • The letter reflects your bitterness about how hard it is to get published.

  • The letter bares your soul and/or plays for the reader’s sympathy.

  • You introduce yourself as the next Stephen King, Anne Rice, John Grisham, etc.

If one of the agent’s clients or editors referred you, mention that person's name in the first sentence.

Include any publishing history. Briefly list the names of journals, magazines, newspapers, or publishing houses that have published your work. List any writing competitions or awards you have won.

Limit your novel description to four to ten sentences and just say enough to provoke the agent's attention and curiosity and make him or her want to read more. Think about the short descriptions on the inside flaps of hardcover editions that tease your interest as a potential reader and help you decide if the story is intriguing enough to buy the book.

My suggested format for a basic query (remember to follow the agent’s guidelines):

Dear Mr./Ms. ______:

1. Knowing of your interest in (your genre here) I am submitting the first chapter of my novel, Title, for your consideration.

A single-sentence opening paragraph lets the agent know you have done your homework and that you can be succinct.

2. One paragraph synopsis. Two paragraphs, if you must.

More on this later.

3. Credentials if any.

MFA degree or mention creative writing classes you have taken or writing groups you participate in to demonstrate that you are serious about honing your craft.

4. Thank you for your consideration of Title.

Pretty straight forward, except for the one-paragraph synopsis. Here is an example of a book flap copy (from The Year of Ice, my first novel [not to promote, but because I don’t need copyright permission]). This is the copy that appeared on the hardcover, and was taken directly from my query letter:

It's 1978 and a typical January day in Minneapolis—except for Kevin Doyle, whose mother died two years ago when her car plunged into the icy waters of the Upper Mississippi. A high school senior, Kevin is a marginal student obsessed with keggers, rock and roll, maintaining his place in the pecking order of high school males, and—unbeknownst to anyone else—a boy in his school with thick eyelashes and a bad attitude. As lonely women vie for his father's attention, Kevin discovers his father's own closely guarded secret: At the time of his wife's death, he had planned to abandon his family for another woman. More disturbing, Kevin's mother's death may well have been a suicide, not an accident. In the coming year, a series of painful truths threaten to shatter the tentative bonds between father and son and wreak havoc on the lives of those nearest to them.


It is very brief – just 154 words.

Two secrets are revealed immediately: 1) Kevin is gay, and 2) his father was unfaithful to Kevin’s mother. Is this giving too much away? In this case, no, because secrets are the theme of the book, and revealed in its first act. It raises story questions:

  1. Will Kevin come out?
  2. Will he get the boy with the thick eyelashes and bad attitude?
  3. How will he react when he discovers his father’s infidelity?
  4. How will the father react when he discovers Kevin is gay?
  5. Did Kevin’s mother kill herself or was it an accident?

All these questions serve the central story question: What are the prospects for this small family when the father and son’s first allegiances are not to each other, but to their own secrets?

In the copy, there is just ONE named character, Kevin—other characters are identified by their roles in the story. Too many named characters will confuse the agent.

Remember: The purpose is an intriguing premise that raises questions in the mind of the agent, but does not answer them. That’s what the manuscript does. You want people to want more.

Learn more at the Loft by enrolling in Big Changes in Book Publishing (February 12), Crafting the Nonfiction Book Proposal (February 5), and The Truth About Literary Agents (March 19).