Confession: I find the idea of posting my agent query letter to be completely mortifying. I wrote it more than four years ago, and I basically had no idea what I was doing. While you’re at it, would you like to see the cover letter I wrote to get my first job? (Don’t get your hopes up!)
But I’m gritting my teeth and posting it anyway, because I remember scouring the internet for examples of other people’s queries when I was struggling to write my own, and I’m still grateful to the brave souls who posted their queries online.
At the time, I didn’t know any other writers and knew almost nothing about the publishing industry, beyond what I’d managed to glean from reading the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market cover to cover and then obsessively googling “How do you write an agent query letter?” I’d never attended a writer’s conference or participated in a “pitchfest.” I didn’t have a dream agent or even a list of top picks — I only marginally understood what agents even did. I just knew that you were supposed to have one, and so I set out to tackle the task with the mix of blithe ignorance, cheerful willingness, and occasional neurotic panic attack that I’ve brought to every step of the publishing process since.
I started by sitting down in front of my bookshelf with a notebook and pen and searching every single book to see if the author had thanked her agent in the acknowledgments. After I’d exhausted my personal library, I went to a local bookstore and expanded my list until an employee asked me why I was sitting on the floor and if maybe I might like to either buy a book or go home. Preferably both.
So I headed home with my list of books, authors, and agents, and created an excel spreadsheet with the following columns:
AGENCY | AGENT | ADDRESS | PHONE | EMAIL | BOOKS/AUTHORS REP’D | SUBMISSION INFO & MISC | SENT (METHOD) | DATE | REPLY
This was back in the dark ages when email submissions were still somewhat uncommon. I made a long list of agents based on my tattered copy of Children’s Writer’s Market and the list I’d created from searching my own books. And then I spent a bunch of time playing with colors and column size in excel, because that’s way less scary than actually, you know, sending query letters.
But eventually, I braved rejection (and even more terrifyingly, the possibility of success!) and sent this:
Dear Ms. Agent,
It wasn’t that I didn’t care, exactly, I just had other priorities. Like my friends. And my boyfriend. And making princess.
Paige Sheridan has everything: popular friends, a great boyfriend, and a strong bid at becoming Homecoming Queen. But everything begins to fall apart the summer before her senior year, when an accident lands her in drug rehab an ocean away from everything she cares about. Suddenly, perfect doesn’t seem as important, a lesson reinforced by the sexy new (and posssibly gay?) Creative Writing teacher and the classroom family he creates. When her old friends accuse her teacher of something unconscionable, Paige must choose between her perfect old life and the possibility of an imperfect new one, infinitely messier and more real.
At 81,400 words, PAIGE, TURNING (1) deals with issues of identity, sexuality, rape, homophobia, power and privilege, trust, fear, and friendship in a small town. It takes a realistic view of the ways teenagers often conflate sex and power, and addresses questions of sexuality without being another coming-out novel. As an English teacher, I see how thrilled my students are when they find books that speak to them without speaking down to them, and have written PAIGE, TURNING with such readers in mind. (2) In addition to eight years of teaching, I have worked as a freelance writer for such publications as Ins & Outs and The Grinnell Magazine, and have had stories and poems published in The Grinnell Review and The Chautauqua Literary Journal. (3)
Given your work with [other author(s)] (4) , as well as your interest in young adult fiction with a strong voice and great story (5) , I believe this project might be a good match for you. I am interested in your evaluation of its commercial potential and any recommendations that you might have on how to make it a better book. A full manuscript is available upon your request. This is a simultaneous query.
Thank you for your time and assistance. I eagerly await your response.
M. Molly Backes
(1) Paige, Turning = original title of The Princesses of Iowa. I like them both, but I’m happy that we ended up with Princesses. Also, the published version is way, way longer.
(2) Lame. This seems only slightly less lame than saying “I read this to my grandchildren and they really liked it!” Ugh.
(3) These are all college publications. Also lame, but I’d taken a break from publishing while I was teaching full time.
(4) Fill in the blank according to extensive excel sheet notes.
(5) And WHO ISN’T?
But as cringe-worthy I find elements of my query letter now, I must have been doing something right, because I got my first positive response 13 minutes after sending off my first email query. (The first round of queries were all to agents who accepted e-queries, mainly because it was August and the post office was a mile away and I was too lazy to walk all the way there.)
I actually signed with my agent (the amazing Becca Stumpf with Prospect Agency) about a month after I sent my first query letter. Note: this is not normal. “Well, that was easy!” I thought. “I bet my book will have sold by Christmas!” Note: it did not. In fact, it was more than two years between landing an agent and actually selling my book, years filled with more revisions, title changes, and my special blend of ignorance, panic, and occasional spurts of hard work. (To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson: I wouldn’t recommend blind ignorance and neurotic panic attacks for everyone, but they’ve always worked for me!)
As Deb Erika said yesterday, there are many ways to get the job done, and everyone’s path to agented bliss and/or publication is different. And though query letters can be intimidating, you shouldn’t let them stop you — after all, writing a novel is way harder, and you’ve already done that part, right? And if not, may I suggest going back to the whole cheerful ignorance thing? Finish your novel first. Don’t even start worrying about query letters until you have a finished draft!
And when you do get to the query phase, I wish you a quick, not-too-quirky query quest with few questions or quarrels. (I know, I know — I can’t help myself!) Good luck!
We all know those are words that instill dread in the hearts and minds of most writers.
But there is another word. And don’t let its jovial pronunciation fool you. It’s a killer.
Yes, I’m talking about the Q word.
Personally, I’ve decided that queries are kind of like taxes. You have a great year at your job, maybe even get that promotion, but you know at the end of it, no matter what, you’re going to have to file those papers.
It’s no different with your manuscript. When the book’s done, assuming you want to see it published and assuming you need an agent to do so (which as we all know, most of us do), you know you’re going to have to write the query.
So what’s the big deal? It’s just a letter, right?
No, it’s not just a letter. It’s THE letter! The one where you, you know, condense one-to-two-years of blood, sweat and tears into a single-page, single-spaced summary that won’t even begin to touch on that really great scene you wrote on page 312 where Lucy and Harold find that old car and Harold reconstructs the engine with the paper clip Lucy has been carrying around in her purse that her best friend gave her in 1975!!
Yeah, that letter.
But what if we thought of the query letter like a first date with someone you really, really like? (Bear with me, I think this has legs.)
Oh, yes, you like this person, and you think: This is your big chance! You have their attention, now you want to show them everything in your arsenal (And you thought only Deb Linda made those kinds of jokes, didn’t you?) but wait! Slow down. Pace yourself. Leave the story about how your ex commissioned a naked ice sculpture of himself for your Great-Grandfather’s 90th birthday party, and oh, did I mention it was a nude, for a later date. MUCH later. On that first date, you want to intrigue. You want to attract. You want to reveal just enough to pique your date’s interest and have your date hope to, well, see more of you.
Query letters are much the same. Don’t get overwhelmed thinking you have to fit everything into this letter. You can’t, you won’t—Dear God, you really shouldn’t. Because you aren’t writing a query to fill Agent A in on every facet of your manuscript or your writing life, any more than you might do so in a cover letter for a job opening. You are introducing your work. Not you, but your work. That’s not to say you can’t infuse your query with your voice—quite the opposite, that’s exactly what you want to do—but keep the focus on your project, the one you want them to want to read and represent and hopefully, finally, sell.
So when it comes to writing queries, I say: K.I.S.S. Keep It Short (and) Sweet.
The following query is the one I used for LITTLE GALE GUMBO and the one that eventually led me to my agent, Rebecca Gradinger with Fletcher & Co.
* * *
Dear Ms. Agent,
I wish to submit a query to your attention for my manuscript of women’s fiction, 75,000 words in length, entitled LITTLE GALE GUMBO. (A concise intro to specify genre, length and title.)
The Bergeron sisters have always been different. Different from each other, different from the world. No wonder Matthew Haskell fell deeply in love with them when they appeared with their mother Camille from New Orleans on a raw November day, looking to rent the other half of his single father’s two-family Victorian on Little Gale Island, Maine.
Daring and tempestuous Dahlia, fragile and beautiful Josephine, their lush and mysterious world was nothing like the stark landscape Matthew had known growing up on the Atlantic coast and the three quickly grew inseparable, riding out the storm of young adulthood together, sharing everything, except the one confession that would most certainly tear them apart…
But that was years ago. Now forty-three and a guidance counselor in Miami, Matthew is recently separated from his girlfriend of ten years when he learns that his father has been found unconscious in his island home next to the body of Camille’s estranged husband. Going back to Little Gale to help solve the mystery of his father’s attack will be more than a bittersweet reunion between three old friends. It will be a collision of hearts and souls. Because like Camille’s famous gumbo, the stew of their secrets has been simmering too long. Now the truths must be revealed, even if doing so means forever changing the lives of two sisters and the quiet, tender man who loved them both in very different ways. (The summary of the novel; 2 to 3 paragraphs, enough to suggest the plot, tone and characters of the book—and why the agent—and reader—should care.)
LITTLE GALE GUMBO is a sensuous and heartfelt story of the first loves we can’t forget and the truths that will set our hearts free.
I was raised in Maine and lived for several years in New Orleans where I married a native New Orleanian who, like the characters in my book, cooks a mean gumbo. (Some personal info, but only because it is relevant to the story—in general, I think less is more.)
I would be most pleased to forward the completed manuscript for your review and I thank you in advance for your time and consideration.
With best wishes,
* * *
(What I find so interesting about reading this letter now after so many revisions is how the thrust of the book changed and the query reveals the earlier draft’s focus. Curious.)
Now this example is only to suggest one way to write a query–of course there are many, many ways to get the job done–but it is a format or template (for lack of a better word) that I had grown comfortable with and one that didn’t make me pull out my hair—which if you’ve seen how thin my hair is, is a very good thing.
Does anyone else have a favorite format/template when it comes to query writing?
Welcome back from Thanksgiving, everyone. Hope you all had a wonderful holiday with friends and family! But now it’s back to the harsh reality of how to get your book published: and that harsh reality means you’re probably going to need to write and send out query letters to make it happen.
Oh, the dreaded query letter. Who here loves writing and sending queries?
I know, I know.
No one is this happy about sending queries. We’ll assume she just got a full request from her dream agent. Congrats, Stock Photo writer lady!
Well, I’m here to tell you that although writing them kind of sucks and sending them out and then waiting for responses (which may end up being rejections) kind of sucks, they can and do work.
I’m living proof. Well, sort of.
What I mean is, that although I have been successful in using queries to land agents to represent me and my work, I did not have the experience of query = agent = book deal. It wasn’t that tidy for me. But in the end, it all really did start with cold queries.
And I’ve sent out hundreds and hundreds of cold queries. Actually, I figure I’ve sent probably a thousand or more queries in the many years of trying to get published. None yet have killed me or caused me real harm, other than the odd paper cut (back in the day before I stopped sending out snail-mail queries), so they can’t be that bad. Yes, there is a lot at stake and yes, it’s a different skill set than writing a novel, but I’m sorry, you’ll just have to deal with it, because that’s how most agents find a lot of their clients. AND most agents are lovely, generous and understanding people who relish finding great books in the slush pile, so if you write a decent query and act professionally, you have nothing to fear. There is a very good chance you will be rejected, but I can assure you, you will not be decapitated. See how everything is relative?
I don’t have a query for SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE to share with you because it is the one book that I never queried agents on (this is what I was getting at above). Even though the agent who sold it was not the first to shop it, I had signed with both of those agents on other books, proving that nothing in my journey has been a linear progression, nor made any real sense, but in the end, it did all work out. However, I did send out queries on 12 other books and had a fair bit of success with them, so I do know a little something.
There are lots of great and very comprehensive query resources/blogs out there, so I’m not going to make this into a ‘what to do’ post. But if you are querying or soon to be querying, I can’t say enough about these two online resources that I used extensively in my agent hunts:
Agent Query – a searchable database which also has plenty of great resources and articles about the business, including what to do when you get an offer (I used this myself).
Query Tracker – this one is an online database where you can search for agents according to genre/agency etc and sign up to use the tool to keep track of who you’ve queried, along with the results. I found this to be an invaluable resource, replacing my onerous spreadsheets. It is always very up-to-date and even includes agents’ clients (not all, but often enough names to be representative) and links to their agency pages and searches.
So that’s pretty much all I have to say on the topic of queries, but I’m very happy to answer any questions about querying, the process or whatever. I’d also love to hear what YOU think of querying: anyone want to share stories or thoughts?
Deb Joanne is pleased to announce that she has almost lost all the excess weight that she gained on her cruise, and is thankful that she didn’t have the setback of a huge Thanksgiving meal this week. Although she does hope all of her American friends had a wonderful holiday!
Deb Erika has been off the grid for a few days and hopes that everyone has had a wonderful holiday break with family and friends, and hopes too that our Deb friends will share what they enjoyed at their table!
Deb Linda is happy to have survived the Thanksgiving weekend, and is hoping for a brief period of normalcy before the Chanukah/Christmas craziness descends on her household.
Deb Rachel is recovering from a weekend of too much food. She needs to fend off the holiday weight gain in advance of MWF Seeking BFF‘s release in just three weeks!
Deb Dish — What is your favorite leftover from the holiday feast?
Deb Joanne – is it wrong to say EVERYTHING? I love a leftover plate almost as much as I love it on the actual holiday, but I guess that isn’t really what we’re going for here. That said, my mom, as you can imagine, is an amazing chef, so pretty much anything she cooks makes for an excellent leftover. Her soups, from matzo ball to beef barely, to my favorite, cabbage borscht, are awesome and many dinners end with attendees bellying up to the stockpots for a take-home handout (me included). But maybe my favorite take-home treat is kugel, a noodle pudding made with apples and a sweet, crunchy coating. I don’t make this stuff myself, so to be able to take it home to enjoy for several meals to come, is always a special treat.
Deb Erika loves leftover Brussel sprouts (no, that is not a typo). Oh, and pie!
Deb Molly goes straight for the leftover stuffing balls.
Deb Linda loves it all! (Mmm…turkey sandwiches with cranberry sauce!) But of course, the desserts are the best. This year’s pecan pie was especially tasty. As were the pumpkin pie, the pumpkin chiffon pie, the apple pie, and the brownies. Pardon me while I have a moment…
Deb Rachel eats leftover mashed potatoes for every meal.
What about you all? What is your favorite leftover?
Today, The Debutante Ball welcomes Tess Hilmo, debut author of the wonderful middle grade novel, WITH A NAME LIKE LOVE. About Tess: Tess Hilmo grew up belting out classics like Amazing Grace and Swing Low Sweet Chariot in the shower. There was a power about those songs that made her feel she could accomplish anything her heart desired. With A Name Like Love is a tribute to those rich, African-American spirituals that shaped so much of Tess’ childhood. She now lives at the base of jagged, rocky mountains with her husband, three children and adorable poodle, Daisy. If you stand outside her bathroom door, you will still hear her singing. Visit Tess at www.tesshilmo.com
WITH A NAME LIKE LOVE: When Ollie’s daddy, the Reverend Everlasting Love, pulls their travel trailer into Binder to lead a three-day revival, Ollie knows that this town will be like all the others they visit— it is exactly the kind of nothing Ollie has come to expect. But on their first day in town, Ollie meets Jimmy Koppel, whose mother is in jail for murdering his father. Jimmy insists that his mother is innocent, and Ollie believes him. Still, even if Ollie convinces her daddy to stay in town, how can two kids free a grown woman who has signed a confession? Ollie’s longing for a friend and her daddy’s penchant for searching out lost souls prove to be a formidable force in this tiny town where everyone seems bent on judging and jailing without a trial.
Tess takes The Deb Interview:
What is one book that made an impact on you? I have this memory of my twelve year old self. I was up past bedtime, secretly reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond by nightlight. The main character, Kit, was so intriguing! The plot was amazing! I couldn’t put it down and read until I finished the book at 3am. That book started my love affair with historical, middle grade fiction.
What is one thing that is making you happy right now? I can’t tell you all what an amazing feeling it is to have your story out in the world. It is like you have a little, precious treasure in your heart and then you get an opportunity to share that with others. Not every story is for every person – I get that. Still, having someone from across the states tell you that they read, and LIKED, your story is the most amazing feeling in the world. Happiness abounds.
Which talent do you wish you had? Easy peasy – I wish I could sing. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a Broadway star soooo bad! I scrimped and saved my money to go to New York City and I told everyone that was my dream. Then I realized I couldn’t carry a tune to save my life and, apparently, that matters on Broadway. Sheesh. Picky producers.
Share one quirk about yourself… When I was a child, I was terribly superstitious. As a little girl, I wouldn’t step on cracks or even look at a black cat. I went so far as to separate the utensils in the dishwasher because I was afraid the knives would hurt the forks and the forks would hurt the spoons. It may sound crazy, but it was for their own good! I put a little bit of superstition in With a Name Like Love and also in my new novel…just to honor that silly part of my child-self.
What is your advice for aspiring authors? Believe!
We are so pleased to have Tess with us today – thanks for spending Thanksgiving weekend with us, Tess!
Tess has generously offered to give away a copy of WITH A NAME LIKE LOVE to one of our commenters (US and Canada only, please). To be entered, leave a comment about a talent you wish YOU had.
I know today is (in the States at least) traditionally Shopping Holiday Insanity Time. (Hmm. Now, there’s an acronym just waiting to be adopted…) But I’m afraid I won’t be participating in the madness.
Not that I don’t love tradition — just not nearly as much as I hate shopping. Even on the non-insane days. So here’s where I won’t be:
So, to all you crazies out there courageously acquitting yourselves on the retail battlefield today, I salute your bravery. May your elbows be sharp and your haul be bountiful.
As for me, I’ll be sitting here sipping tea in my pajamas, making my online shopping list for Cyber Monday. Which, coincidentally, will also find me in my PJs, sipping tea, while “shopping.” No sharp elbows necessary.
What’s your stance on Black Friday shopping? Dive right in and win those bargains? Or throw a blanket over your head and hide until it’s over?
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