Crafting the almighty query letter

After I’d put my novel through dozens of revisions over the course of many years, I felt confident enough to take the next step—pursuing representation from a literary agent. I combed through stacks of books at the library for guidance. Here’s what some of those books told me about crafting the almighty query letter:

  • Get the agent’s attention with your introduction
  • Reference comparables (books like my book) in the first sentence, but only if the comps help sell the agent on your book and only if the comps were recently published.
  • Explain why you’ve chosen this agent
  • Craft a tantalizing synopsis
  • List your publishing credits (but only if they’re meaningful), your degrees, the writing conferences you’ve attended
  • Personalize each letter
  • Keep it all to one page or shorter, if possible
  • Study other winning query letters for tips

My next step was to hyperventilate. I felt overwhelmed, exhausted from writing the novel and not up to handling this next phase on my own. I enrolled in a one-day, seven-hour intensive on query letters and pitches at Grub Street Writing Center in Boston. The class was called “Query Lab” and taught by Sorche Fairbank, of Fairbank Literary.

Sorche was great. She took the class through the shelf-life of a query, dissected its four most important components, diagramed the essential elements of a query’s synopsis, identified the most common mistakes authors make in their queries, and reviewed a laundry list of query Do’s and Don’ts. She handed back our queries, with notes on recommended changes. We reworked them in class. By the close of the class, we students had query letters strong enough to get an agent’s attention (hopefully). Here’s mine:

The Talking Drum is a work of fiction that would appeal to readers of T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain and House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III. The story takes place in 1971 in Bellport, a fictional Massachusetts industrial city on the decline.

An urban redevelopment project on the horizon is expected to transform this dying factory town into a thriving economic center. This planned transformation has a profound effect on the residents who live in Bellport as their own personal transformations take place.

Sydney Stallworth steps away from her fellowship and law studies at an elite university to support husband Malachi’s dream of opening a business in the heart of the black community of his hometown, Bellport.

For Omar Bassari, an immigrant from Senegal, Bellport is where he will establish his drumming career and the launching pad from which he will spread African culture across the world, while trying to hold onto his marriage.

Della Tolliver has built a fragile sanctuary in Bellport for herself, boyfriend Kwamé Rodriguez, and daughter Jasmine, a troubled child prone to nightmares and outbursts.

Tensions rise as the demolition date moves closer, plans for gentrification are laid out, and the pace of suspicious fires picks up. The residents find themselves at odds with a political system manipulating their lives and question the future of their relationships.

The Talking Drum explores the themes of race, class, culture, and the pursuit of the American dream against the backdrop of one of the U.S. government’s most controversial programs of the 20th century—urban redevelopment. It is an issue that has touched me personally. I grew up working alongside my parents at the business that they opened in the late 1960s, which suffered in later years because of urban redevelopment.

I earned my MFA in creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University and my Master of Science degree in journalism from Northwestern University. I am a former broadcast and print journalist and former president of the Boston chapter of the Women’s National Book Association. I have had short stories and essays published in books and journals, including Vermont Literary Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Clockhouse Review, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. To get a better understanding of my character, Omar, I enrolled in drumming classes and participated in a drumming clinic with a master drummer from West Africa.

My first novel, The Talking Drum, is 90,000 words in length. I would be happy to forward you chapters.

My query letter did get the attention of some agents. Ultimately, I sold my novel through a contact I made at a writer’s conference. But it would have been very hard for me to have come up with this tightly written query without Sorche’s help.

Author: Lisa Braxton

Lisa Braxton is an Emmy-nominated former television journalist, an essayist, short story writer, and novelist. Her debut novel, The Talking Drum, is forthcoming from Inanna Publications in spring 2020. She is a fellow of the Kimbilio Fiction Writers Program and a book reviewer for 2040 Review. Her stories and essays have appeared in literary magazines and journals. She received Honorable Mention in Writer’s Digest magazine’s 84th and 86th annual writing contests in the inspirational essay category. Her website: