Deb Erika Says Don’t Fear the Query

Little Gale Gumbo, by Erika Marks
Rejection. Pass. No-go.

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,
Erika Marks

* * *

(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? 

21 Replies to “Deb Erika Says Don’t Fear the Query”

  1. It’s easy to see why that letter landed you an agent — it’s great!

    Yeah, I can see the focus of LGG must have been a bit different then, but the heart of the book is the same — big and warm and inviting. Dang. Now I want to read it again!

    1. Aw, thank you, my dear. It is interesting how looking at iterations of query letters is like revisiting mini-drafts. The distilling of one’s plot changes with each revision, clearly. Which is usually a GOOD thing!

  2. My query letter was published in a Writer’s Digest blog earlier this year and I cringed sending it in because of how different the book was from its description in that letter! Thank goodness for our agents and editors, right?

    Mine was pretty much the same format as yours – why I’m writing the agent, 2-3 paragraphs of summary, paragraph with bio/writing references, and big fat kisses. I believe in businesslike and direct too!

    1. Oh, but what a good deed you did sending it in, dear! I know when I was querying there was nothing I appreciated more than reading queries of published writers. (But I do hear you on the cringe-factor. Re-reading this one for GUMBO was tough for that very reason. Eeks, the changes that were to come!)

      And always ending with big, fat kisses–yes, yes, yes!

    1. You’re so kind, Tom! They can be such a struggle, can’t they? It can be such a hard balance trying to include enough to suggest the full arc of a novel but still remain brief enough not to bog down the reader.

    1. The Duchess is on the dance floor–yay!

      Thank you so saying so, my dear. I think a query letter can often feel as daunting to edit as the manuscript itself. It seems to take a copious amount of revisions to a query letter to get it where I need it to be–though most of that rewriting is in the meat of the letter, the summary of the novel. Those 2 to 3 paragraphs can be so hard to get right. And of course, there is so much pressure on them, which only makes the task harder.

  3. Love reading other people’s letters. Love your comparison to dating! Also, I would like to read that story about Lucy and Harold please.

    1. You are most welcome, Julia dear–yes, I’ve been thinking your query days are fast approaching. Maybe you’ll come back and let us know how the process is going when the time comes. Are you excited for it–or dreading it? (Or a little of both?;))

  4. Query letters! I have many a writer friend who have stalled because the thought of crafting a query letter intimidates them. Unfortunately, writing a good query letter takes practise–like anything else. I’m much better at it now…but that’s a bummer, because we’d all like our query letters to be right the first time around.

    My query letters are a little different now because I have a few writing credits, so I include a sentence about that up front. I’m very spare. I don’t even include a standard “hello” first line anymore, because I figure the agents know why I’m writing. They have so much to read…

    Dear so-and-so,

    I won an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant based on IMPERFECT MATCH, my finished manuscript.

    Imperfect Match is .

  5. Hey, the commenting software deleted something between “is” and the period. Bizarre!

    An addendum: My query letter style is for e-queries. For a traditional letter I’d probably add more niceties up front. I title my subject lines: “Query: IMPERFECT MATCH.” The literary agent thus already knows what the deal is, so I cut to the chase…

    1. Hi Lisa–I’m with you on the spare. You’re so right–agents know what’s what–they read a gazillion of these so cutting to the chase is key. And such a good point about subject line–keep that simple too.

  6. Love the analogy of the query letter to a date: “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.” Yes! Good to know my past queries were pretty much in line with what you shared … and also very interesting to see that your focus changed after various edit iterations. Thanks for sharing, Erika!

    1. Thank YOU for reading, my dear. Isn’t this a great week? I can never, NEVER, get enough of reading query examples. They always helped me over the years–good ones and ones not so good 😉

      I wish we all still had our FIRST queries ever to post–now THAT would be an education, I suspect! 😉

  7. Erika, You’re so right about the comparison with doing out taxes…it’s an odious chore to face! I really really hate it…and I don’t say that about much! But, it’s gotta be done. Thanks for sharing your winning query. Although LGG is a very different kind of novel from mine, I know the same basic principals must apply, and so I will use this to see if there’s anywhere I can make my query better (I’m sure there is). I think the worst thing I tend toward is trying to fit it all in. It’s just not possible.

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