And so, I emailed those same agents recently, asking them, "The best query letter that ever came across your desk did...what?"
Before we get to their answers, we must explore this question: Why do agents tell us what writers do wrong in their query letters?
First off, realize that agents do not have to take the time to tell you even this. But they take the time to tell you so that you can avoid these mistakes yourself - mistakes that are often automatic cause for rejection. It's not that agents are mean, either - it's that agents receive hundreds of letters each week, and if certain mistakes are made, the automatic assumption is, This writer does not know how to write well. The agents are, of course, sometimes wrong about this. But if you know the typical mistakes, you will also know how to avoid them and keep your query in front of the agent's eyes long enough for it to be read.
The other reason agents mention the mistakes writers make is because it is much easier to pick out the mistakes than to pick out the things writers do correctly in a query.
And it is easier to write a bad query than it is to write a good one.
There are no rules to follow in order to write a good query. No rules, at least, besides the one: Write well.
As you will see...
[it's not about the query...]
About forty percent of the agents who responded this time led off with some variation of this: "Oh, wow. That's a difficult one to answer."
Elizabeth Pomada said this: "I can't really remember anything specific. But I can tell you that the best query letter I ever received resulted in my reading and loving the book - and selling it well. And was the beginning of a beautiful relationship."
Not very helpful...right?
Actually, read on - you will realize that this answer is absolutely helpful.
There was a common theme, throughout the responses, that basically said, "It's not about the query at all; it's about the book." In fact, Cameron McClure said the following:
"It's pretty simple. The best query letters make you want to read the book. That's all a query letter needs to do. It doesn't need to be great in and of itself. It just needs to be adequate. It needs to be competent at its job."
You can learn all you want about query writing, but even if you write a knockout query that gets tons of agents to request the book, they still have to like the book.
Pam Ahearn said: "Hard to say - I tend to like straightforward, factual ones which give pertinent info about the book and author's background."
Note: Straightforward. Factual.
Anne Hawkins said this: "Besides describing the project succinctly and well, the best query letters impress me with the professionalism of the author."
Note: Again, it's simple - succinct, professional.
Professional might sound like a funny word to use, but as Kate McKean reminded: "...this is business correspondence. If you wouldn't say it to your boss, don't say it in a query." Kate also provided this: "...the best [queries] get right down to business, tell me about the story briefly, but in an enticing way, and make me excited about reading the pages." Sounds like exactly what a good book would do - doesn't it?
Kimberly Cameron gave a similar reply: "That IS a difficult one, but I can tell you this - the letters or queries that get my attention are serious, tell the story succinctly, and give me the first few pages which tells me whether their writing style might be right for me."
And so it continues: This idea that there is no magic wand to wave over your query. There is only good writing that describes the project succinctly, and that successfully keeps the agent reading long enough that they will read the sample pages.
Farley Chase may have said it best: "I think this would be too hard for me to come up with an example that could be helpful to authors. The quality of the letter comes from the content and the writer’s control over it. And therein lies the point, really. You can’t really prescribe that."
We will call this the intermission. Because it is important for you to pause and digest the things said above. It is important for you to realize that you need only to write well; that the job of your query is to keep the agent around long enough that they will want to read your sample pages.
But a query can also do more than that. A query has the ability to "sell your work." In fact, Mollie Glick said: "[The best queries] summed up what was appealing about the book so well that I cribbed directly from the query when I wrote my submission letter...And then the publisher cribbed from my submission letter when they put together their catalog copy!"
You do not need to write a great query - you need to write a query that is succinct and professional, and that successfully encourages the agent to read the sample pages. But you can write a great query. And this certainly helps. And several agents were able to provide insight into how you can do this...
[...but it is about the query]
Lucy Carson said this, regarding the best query she ever received: "[It] made me laugh, gasp, furrow my brow, and swallow hard - all in the course of four paragraphs. I remember thinking to myself, 'If she can do this in one page, what kind of adventure will I have with the full manuscript in hand?' It didn’t disappoint, and now Laurie Frankel’s debut novel THE ATLAS OF LOVE has just come out in paperback, following its hardcover release in 2010."
Furrow my brow.
All in the course of (note: succinct!) four paragraphs.
In other words, Frankel's query was well-written, but it was more than just passable; it was evocative.
Maybe your query will not need to make the agent laugh. Or maybe it will not need to make them furrow their brow. But if you want to write a knockout query, it should evoke emotion.
Heather Mitchell said a great query letter is "kind of 'I know it when I see it'," but she also added this: "...it must sparkle with the quality of the writing and strength of voice and summary of plot."
Or, as Sally van Haitsma put it: "...generally speaking, the queries that have knocked my socks off have been short & sweet with a kick-ass voice."
Wendy Schmalz added this: "A really good query letter makes me immediately think about where I'm going to submit the manuscript. In a way it makes me feel like I've already agreed to represent the author. By that I don't mean that the author has used some sleight of hand to reel me in. I mean that the letter has truly excited me and made me feel that it's a perfect fit."
Let's add some emphasis to that: "I mean that the letter has truly excited me and made me feel like it's a perfect fit."
As she said, there is no sleight of hand to this; but there is writing well, in such a way that the agent feels connected to the book already. In such a way that emotion is evoked.
Danielle Svetcov put it like this: "The best query letters give me an adrenaline rush by mimicking the tension of the books they are pimping. They are filled with the book's narrative voice (and not the author's voice), the book's scenery, dialogue, even props. It's a bit like reading a riveting page 1, the sort that won't allow you to put the book down."
Pause, Dear Reader.
Read Danielle's thoughts again.
Notice: Filled with the book's narrative voice (and not the author's voice). Notice, it's like reading a riveting page 1, the sort that won't allow you to put the book down.
In the "Biggest Mistakes" post, Daniel Lazar mentioned the importance of showing rather than telling, and he gave a good example of how to do so in a query letter. This time around, he said this: "The best query letters, honestly, did exactly what I said [before]...they were specific and evocative and gave me, in just a line or two, a visceral taste of what to expect from the manuscript."
Notice that Daniel said, "in just a line or two." Don't overdo it. Don't overthink it. Simply transfer the voice of your narrative to the composition of your query. Make the agent "see" it, rather than trying to "tell them" about it.
As a writer, you spend so much time making sure you are showing your reader, rather than telling them. And then, you write a two page query that "tells" the agent all about your book! Condense that thing. And show them what they will be getting.
Take a moment to think over the above ideas.
Below, in Act III, I will be listing the five most thorough, most helpful emails I received. The first email is just plain funny (but what else would you expect from Michael Murphy?). The next three are detailed explanations of what made "the best query they ever received" the best query they ever received. And the final email is from Helen Zimmermann, who provided the most comprehensive response to the last post, and who has come through once again. If you want to know how to write a good query letter, Helen's contribution just might give you everything you need.
[about the query]
From Michael Murphy:
"I hope this does not display a character flaw, but while I can dredge up a handful of WORST EVER pitch letters, I am at a loss to do the same for the BEST EVER.
The fact is, where a bad query letter has the capacity to lead to a quick rejection, a good query letter is never the cause of a quick acceptance. Only the actual writing can do that.
This is just my opinion. Other agents may disagree. But, I feel a good query letter is like a good party invitation. I want to easily access the day, time, and location of the party...and who's throwing the party. An excess of creativity that buries those facts in too many references to the theme of the party, or require me to pop virtual balloons to reveal the details pushes me toward making up an "Unfortunately I can't attend" story about having a dentist's appointment or some other obstacle at the time of the party.
Overall, I admire a query letter that gets right to the point, states clearly & directly what the book is, who the author is, and why anyone would pay $25 to read what this author has to say regarding what this book is about.
I can be drawn in by queries that have listed previous publications in journals I know & respect. If the editors at Tin House, Glimmer Train, or Zoetrope All Story chose the writer's work, I'm predisposed to read further with eyes more open. A list of journals like Zzzygote, Flash Fictionaut, or The Azure Room (I hope all three are made-up names and I didn't just insult some actual journal) do not impress.
Having previous book publication does register as a good thing. Publication as a self-published or POD book is a non thing (not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly not approaching a good thing as anyone willing to spend a few hundred dollars could include the same detail).
Being able to include a blurb by a known and well reviewed author will draw me in. Writing that the manuscript has been "professionally edited" merely confuses me to wonder who and why.
I wish I could respond with a winning TO DO list for query letters. But, as I've written, the actual manuscript trumps the query letter. (To me) the main goal of the query letter is to avoid pitfalls that will lessen the likelihood an agent or editor will arrive at the manuscript in a good and open frame of mind."
From Richard Curtis:
"This one may surprise you. And I'm going to disguise it a bit to protect the author's privacy...
About three or four years ago I received a wrinkled letter from abroad describing a manuscript. The letter was typed on an old typewriter with broken fonts. It described a book about a septuagenarian detective living in an exotic land. The story took place forty years earlier. It was the unlikeliest pitch letter I had ever received. But something about the story intrigued me and I sent for it. I loved it, sold it, and sold half a dozen sequels. It was picked up by a dozen foreign publishers, too.
If you can extract a moral from this story be my guest. The only one I can think of is, Go Know!"
From Alice Martell:
"This is tough, because I can instantly tell you the best letter I've received, but it wouldn't work for most books and in today's difficult climate, it probably wouldn't work at all. I received a letter from a psychiatrist recounting a case he had. A man, who went on a rampage on a highway, killed several people, was charged with murder and was adjudged not guilty by reason of insanity. By order of the state, he was institutionalized and the doctor was assigned his case. After a few years, the doctor recommended the man be released only to learn from the patient himself, that this was a deliberate rouse to cover up the contract murder of one of the people he killed on his rampage. By law, the patient/murderer could not be tried a second time and went scott free. (An unfairly truncated summary). It was a brilliant scheme, totally credible and incredibly powerful, the guilt carried by the doctor was palpable. At the end of this letter, on a third page, was a very short note stating this was in fact not true and was an outline for a novel, written by a therapist. I was stunned and wildly impressed - in less than two pages the author had laid out a complex, totally fresh and compelling plotline and showcased his writing style perfectly in the process. I couldn't wait to read 300 pages and neither could the publisher of Warner Books; I sold the book overnight, albeit a first novel based on a one and a half page pitch."
From Amy Boggs:
"When I saw 'The best query letter that ever came across your desk,' my first thought was Tom Pollock. Now, this might not be true. I might have seen better queries. But I didn't end up signing those people, so I don't remember. Tom, I remember. Heck, Tom's query makes my breath hitch every time.
So what did this BEST. QUERY. EVAR. do? It created a microcosm of the book. It had the two major characters, some secondary characters, the setting, the main plot, some vital themes, and the tone, all in 10 sentences. Yes, 10 sentences. Not long ones either; a couple of them were even fragments.
How did Tom do this? Magic. Also, he's a brilliant writer. He does not waste a single word. That's how he fit so much into such a small space. I think it's a good rule of thumb in fiction that every sentence should address at least two things, but this is particularly vital in a query. All those things I listed above are intrinsically tied to each other: themes are the interaction of character and plot, characters create setting, tone encircles everything like bubblewrap. Instead of separating those things into a checklist, good queries meld them together in a fondue of words.
That is what makes queries so simple and difficult. They are a reflection of your book and your writing. Not a perfect one, mind, but when you find yourself not liking your query, it pays to carefully analyze whether the trouble is with the mirror or with what it's reflecting.
Got a bit carried away with the metaphors there. I'm a fiend for metaphors.
As for Tom, I asked him once about his awesome query, whether he'd studied up on query writing or agonized over it for ages. He said no, that he'd simply written down what the story was about.
Like I said. Magic.
Of course, should anyone wish to grill Tom about his wizardry, he's got a blog and a twitter."
And from Helen Zimmermann:
"The best query letters do the following:
1. Open with the person's strength. Their bio, an award they've won for the work, an endorsement they've already procured, excellent character development...it doesn't really matter, but what they don't want to do is bury the best part of the project at the end of the email.
2. Mention past books if they have them.
3. Explain why they chose to submit to me. This doesn't mean they have to get all personal, but if there is a connection (a book I worked on previously that they loved, something that they read about me that made them think I was appropriate) it usually helps hold my interest. This does NOT include saying things like "I see you are a very powerful agent...."
4. Simple: put the word 'query' in the subject field. None of this 'The best book you'll ever read' stuff. The perfect subject field says simply 'Query: Historical Fiction' or 'Query: Non Fiction'
5. Include a THREE SENTENCE description of the book. What we call an 'elevator pitch.'
6. Include contact information. (You'd be surprised)
7. Come from a professional sounding email address. For example, if your name is Juliet Low, the email shouldn't come from MOMof3@aol.com or JohnLow@aol.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
8. Essentially, the best queries are simple, succinct, and to the point. I know they've been told to grab the reader's attention, but when they try too hard (with creative fonts, blue fonts, all caps, a picture of them, etc.) it never works for me. The material should speak for itself."
When it comes down to it, Dear Writer, writing a good query requires simply that you write well. There is no magic to it (unless, of course, you are Tom Pollock).
If you know your manuscript is good, do not tell the agent; instead, show them through the writing in your query. Evoke emotion. Make the story come alive. Compel them to read.
And then, of course, show them in your sample pages just how good your story and your writing are.
And keep writing.
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