How to Write a Query Letter

So, the first order of business to get Claire Lawrence’s awesome book, Rooted in the Sky, published is the query letter. I struggled with this more than most writers do, I think, because I was ghostwriting it. Though I read Claire’s book, I didn’t know the plot and the characters inside out and backwards the way I would if I had written it myself. So after rereading the manuscript twice and taking extensive summary notes, I finally pared it down to what, as my boyfriend said, sounds like the blurb on the back of a published book (good foreshadowing sign, perhaps, yes?)

The basic rules for a query letter are this:

  1. It needs to fit on a single page;
  2. It should explain why your book belongs with them (whether an agent or a publisher) specifically;
  3. The BRIEF summary (no more than five sentences!) should provide the title, word count, genre, setting, main characters, and the central plot points; and
  4. Your bio should be short and to the point. No ramblings about your favorite color, or how your dearly beloved pet inspires you to write day after day. Even if you don’t have many (or any) writing credits, you can still write an impressive bio paragraph. If you’re interested, this is my own standard author bio.

A la Nathan Bransford’s guide on how to write a query letter, and his own Query Letter Mad Lib, I’m providing a Mad Lib of the form query letter for Rooted in the Sky. I’d love to hear your feedback and suggestions! If you were a publisher, would this query letter make you want to request a partial manuscript read? Or, even better, would you want to publish it on the spot??

Dear [Name],

I discovered [Name of Publisher] through [website/book]. [Specific reason why this book could/should live happily ever after with this publisher]. Rooted in the Sky is a 70,000-word work of literary fiction that serves as an ode to humankind’s relationship with nature.

Hannah never wanted to be a mother, but in the middle of her husband’s funeral service she gives birth to a daughter who, growing up, wants nothing more than Hannah’s attention. Committed to purifying and detaching herself from all such earthly ties, including her own physical body, Hannah escapes to the Utah desert and leaves her daughter, Frances, to be raised by a Mormon grandfather and a Catholic nun. Neither mother nor daughter, though, can escape the voices of the inanimate world as animals, rocks, trees, and buried bones speak to them, whispering secrets about the end of days.

I am an Associate Professor of English/Creative Writing at Bloomsburg University and hold an MFA in creative writing from the University of Utah and a PhD in fiction from the University of Houston. My fiction, personal essays, poetry, and literary criticism has appeared in Tri-Quarterly, Terra Nova, Connecticut Review, Gulf Coast, The New England Writers Anthology, descant, Crab Orchard Review, Puerto del Sol, So to Speak, and The Best of Writers at Work, among others. My fiction has been anthologized in Terrain and The New Earth Reader. This is my first novel.

I’d be thrilled if you would consider Rooted in the Sky for publication. A few other publishers are considering simultaneously.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Claire T. Lawrence

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21 thoughts on “How to Write a Query Letter

  1. ahamin says:

    I find this to be really helpefull for a new writer like me… I self published and trying to make my best with my new novel to use as leverage if i wrote a Query letter…

    thanks for the pointers… 🙂

  2. Carol Deminski says:

    When you say “a few other publishers are considering simultaneously” it sounds like other publishers are actively reading and wanting the mss, but I think you mean the mss has been submitted simultaneously?

    Also, I’m wondering if you’re trying to pack too much into this sentence:

    Committed to purifying and detaching herself from all such earthly ties, including her own physical body, Hannah escapes to the Utah desert and leaves her daughter, Frances, to be raised by a Mormon grandfather and a Catholic nun.

    For example, I’m not sure what you mean by “including her own body”? It’s also unclear why a Mormon and a Catholic nun would raise a child together.

    It may be that it’s not necessary to explain those things because that should “spark interest” in the mss, but I found myself wondering how these aspects were covered.

    Finally, does a query letter really need to condense the plot down to one paragraph? I thought a novel writer had more space than that… probably because I’ve looked at Janet Reid’s Query Shark website more than a time or three….

    Thanks Hannah, I always find this process fascinating, even though I’ve never written a novel. It’s still instructive for understanding how publishers want to be presented with material.

    Carol

    • hannahkarena says:

      Publishing professionals understand that “simultaneously considering” means there’s multiple queries out and the queries are under consideration; it basically means that you’re shopping your book and this is not an exclusive submission. The language would only change if someone went from considering to making an offer. If an agent/publisher actively wanted a manuscript, you would use much different language: that you’ve “been offered agent representation,” or a “book contract.” But honestly, that kind of language would never show up in a query letter because if you’ve been offered one of those two things, you don’t continue to send out queries (unless you turn down those offers, and then it isn’t appropriate to talk about it in a query letter to someone else).

      I would say “a few other editors are considering simultaneously,” on a short story cover letter, instead of “I’ve submitted this simultaneously,” because according to Submittable.com, my submissions are pending decision. Other places are considering it. The wording is a personal preference, I guess though.

      I definitely put the Mormon and Catholic parental figures in their to “spark interest,” so I’m not going to dive into how it happened, but I think I agree with you that it’s off-kilter enough that it might be worth offering an extra sentence detailing how that strange relationship worked (or didn’t work).

      The query letter shouldn’t condense the plot down to a paragraph. I guess I really shouldn’t call it a summary, exactly, more like a project overview. This paragraph, in talking about the content of the book, should cover these things: 1) word count; 2) genre; 3) main characters; 4) setting; 5) the main conflict and a hint of the journey the characters will take to solve it. The beginning, middle, and end should NOT be completely covered in the query letter.

      A novel writer doesn’t really get more than one paragraph in a query letter, if they’re going to make everything fit onto one page. This length requirement (one page) is an industry standard and, unless the agent/publisher states otherwise (sometimes they’ll ask for a query letter and a two-page summary, for example) these query letters get trashed. Literary. I’ve seen it done. If an agent/publisher wants to read more than that one page, they’ll ask for the first couple chapters, or maybe even the whole manuscript to read. They just want a taste, a snapshot, to see whether they agree it’s a book up their alley or not. It’s a submission guideline–and disobeying it would be like sending a 2,000 word story to a 100-word or less flash fiction magazine. The editors won’t look kindly upon it.

      • Carol Deminski says:

        What a great and comprehensive reply – thanks Hannah. You know, it’s funny – I had been putting (when requested) “this piece is submitted simultaneously” but not your wording because it never occured to me to say it that way! I like how you have it worded and I may have to lift that sentence and use it from time to time. 😉

        I knew that the ending of the novel shouldn’t be tidily presented in the query letter, I’d heard that before, but honestly this is the first time I’d seen a query with the one paragraph description. Since the book is 70K words, that’s a LOT to fit into a few sentences, so like you say, you wind up having to hint at stuff. And yes, it’s possible that adding a sentence or even continuing to play around with the wording of what you’ve got will make things a teensy bit clearer but without giving too much away.

        Thanks!
        Carol

  3. jpbohannon says:

    Thank you for this. It is extremely helpful to see someone else’s querry letter. I felt as if mine were getting a little stale. Again, thank you, and congratulations.

    • hannahkarena says:

      You’re so welcome! It’s always great to update the query letter…especially when you can add a new publishing credit to the author bio section!!

  4. thewitcontinuum says:

    Thanks for this post! I’ve actually been working on query letters for my novel and this presents a perfect outline. And thanks for your visit and comment on my blog also! Appreciated!

    • hannahkarena says:

      Speaking of formatting other query letters, I’m thinking about posting example cover letters for short stories and poems submitted to literary publications. Care to share your own cover letter format?

    • hannahkarena says:

      How timely! And what a good idea to practice it in the classroom! I was so nervous when I pitched to agents in person for the first time at a conference; nobody had ever prepped me for it before.

  5. Lauren says:

    This is SO GOOD. I had a hard time writing mine, too. I mean, it’s so hard to pitch yourself and your book in less than a page. My suggestion is definitely read up on the agent/publisher you’re pitching to. They may have specific recommendations or requirements in query letters. But other than that, just try. Your mad lib one is fantastic. 🙂

    • hannahkarena says:

      I’m so glad you approve Lauren! Some of the best example query letters I’ve read on blogs and elsewhere online definitely puts a super personal touch in their letters–they show that they’ve done their research. One publisher I’m looking at right now doesn’t want much of anything in the query letter, but wants a two-page summary. AH! A whole other thing to write and rewrite and stress over!

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