The Query Letter

by Salvatore Pane

The query letter is the bane of my existence. Distilling a 300 page novel that I’ve spent untold days, weeks and months writing down into a few paragraphs seems so reductive as to actually harm my soul. So far, I’ve avoided writing such a document by having mentors recommend my manuscript straight to agents. But lately, I’ve been worrying whether or not that’s enough, and I’ve decided to query some agents just to shore up my chances. Because you only need one agent to say yes, right?

What follows is not patented advice. I’ve found out most of this stuff from people who’ve worked in agencies, other writers and a few helpful websites. I’m not claiming this will get you a partial request from the agent of your dreams, but this is what I did.

Step One: Find Some Agents

I’m sure that most serious writers could name the top lit journals or publishers but very few could name a ton of agents. I certainly could not. And when I began the querying process, I first had to do my research. Mostly this consisted of reading the acknowledgments sections of books I like and seeing who the agents are. Also, Query Tracker, the Duotrope of Agents, has a great feature called “Who Reps Whom”. Check it out.

Step Two: Writing the Query

Ugh. Ok. Here we go. All in one page. Get ready.

Paragraph One – Personalized Introduction

This means addressing your query to a specific agent and explaining why you want to work with them. This usually means bringing up one of their clients you admire. In this paragraph, you should also introduce yourself and the title/length of your book manuscript.

Paragraph Two – Synopsis

You know those paragraphs on the back of books? Write one. About your book. Don’t hit every beat. Don’t hit every character. Make it snappy. What are the major thematic concerns? What’s the plot? Who is the protagonist? You only have one page so don’t waste space.

Paragraph Three – Market

What is you book’s role in the marketplace? What book is it similar to (hopefully that sold well)? Is it voice-driven, plot-heavy, a generational anthem in the vein of Bright Lights, Big City?

Paragraph Four – Who the Hell Are You?

Give your writer’s bio. Degrees. Publications. Teaching appointments. You know the drill.

Paragraph Five – Personalized Conclusion

Restate why you want to work with this specific agent. Make this seem as little like a form letter as humanly possible.

Step Three: Agony

Now you wait.

This isn’t the only way to write a query letter. Different formats can be found at Agent Query and other online resources. I culled most of my info from an amazing panel I attended at AWP (Grants, Proposals, and Queries: How to Write about your Writing with H.M. Bouwman, Swati Avasthi, J.C. Hallman and Matt Rasmussen).  Hopefully this helps.

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