Query Me This: Writing Query Letters for Fiction Writers

Writing a fiction manuscript is a long, hard road—and it only gets harder once you’ve finished! Then comes the editing, the re-working, the sending out of your newborn piece to those all-important “first readers,” more editing, more re-working, crying yourself to sleep, editing, editing, editing, promising the Dark Ones dominion over the post-human world if only they’ll let you be done already, editing, crying, and maybe a nap.

Assuming you’ve cut and prodded your manuscript to within an inch of its life, the next logical step is submitting it for publication. Maybe you’re planning on sending it to a literary agent, or maybe you’d like to apply directly to a publishing house. Either way, there’s one thing you’ll probably need: a query letter.


Most agents and publishers are so inundated with manuscripts that they have stopped accepting unsolicited work, so you need to ask permission to submit. A query letter is the industry-standard way of asking permission. Because it’s so important, and because so many people are in need of genuine guidance on this topic, I’ll set the sarcasm aside for this post.


…well, I’ll try anyway.

Step One: The Heading

Depending on your age, you may never have written a formal letter with a proper heading before. Heck, most letters these days, my own included, start with something like Hey bbz! or Yo, sup! or I humbly come before His Satanic Majesty to beg forgiveness. None of these are appropriate ways to launch a query.


Ideally, you want to include the date, the name of the person whom you are querying, their place of business, and the name of your novel (in all caps or italics). There’s a right way and a wrong way to execute this.

The Right Way

5 May 2014

Ms. Gloria Brooks
Mega Rad Media Group



The Wrong Way

5 May 2014

Lady Jade Butterface
mega RAD media grp


Get the person’s name right, and tack a “Mr.” or “Ms.” on the beginning. This is the easiest part of the entire letter. Whiffing it will bring nothing short of humiliations galore.

Step Two: The Hook

If you’ve ever had a high school teacher harp endlessly on the importance of catching the reader’s attention at the beginning of a piece, then you know what a hook is.

(Note: If you are picturing that thing Batman uses to swing between buildings, please stop. That is a grappling hook. We are not talking about grappling hooks. PLEASE DO NOT ATTACK AGENTS WITH GRAPPLING HOOKS.)

Different writers have different ways of approaching a hook. Some like to start with a cold-open of sorts: Imagine you’re locked in a laundromat, and all the washing machines come to life and there are leprechauns!

Others—if they’ve been lucky enough to meet the person they’re querying—like to mention that fact: We recently met at the Anti-Marmite Convention. In the midst of your heated scree against Marmite and all the irreparable harm it has caused you, you happened to mention that you work in the publishing industry.

If you haven’t met the agent or publisher in person, don’t despair! I find it useful to read up on the person I’m querying and use what I learn in my hook: I read in Publishers’ Marketplace that you are interested in high-concept middle grade pre-Raphaelite post-modern humanist crime procedurals. Subsequently, I read [insert names of books the person has represented or published], which I enjoyed very much.

Let’s take a look at the right way and the wrong way to do a hook.

The Right Way

Dear Ms. Brooks,

A few weeks ago, we met at the 11th Annual Greater Des Moines Area Writers’ Conference. I spoke to you about my novel, LOVE IN THE TIME OF ECZEMA, which I have recently completed. Previously, you represented Rob McRobert’s debut novel, ONE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGITUDE, a work that I love and that is thematically similar to mine. Based on this similarity, I thought you might be interested in taking a look at my manuscript.

The Wrong Way

dear butterface,

do you think about foot? have you ever seen the foot in the place the foot is not belonging? i have writing book about foot, name of book is FOOT. please read and RT

Step Three: A Summary of Your Manuscript

For many writers, this is the trickiest part. You’ve spent months—perhaps years—slaving over your baby, and now they want you to reduce it to a single paragraph? Absurd! Impossible!

You have to do it, though. What’s worse, the agent or publisher has to come through that one paragraph with a firm idea of the setting, major characters, conflicts, and themes of the manuscript. If it helps, you can think of it as the sort of blurb they might put on the back of a novel or DVD case. The only difference is that, while such blurbs refrain from stating the ending outright, you have to do exactly that. Giving the ending away is counter-intuitive, I know, but there’s no way around it.

Let’s look at the right way and the wrong way to do this.

The Right Way

LOVE IN THE TIME OF ECZEMA (65,000 words) is a historical drama set at the time of the Spanish-American War. In the midst of savage fighting and senseless bloodshed, Inez Gonzalez finds herself falling in love with one of Teddy Roosevelt’s “rough riders,” a roguish fellow named Jack Beaton. Though Jack is ten years her junior, Inez chooses to risk it all—her restaurant, her relationship with her father, even her life—to consummate her feelings. As she and Jack abscond from war-torn Cuba, Inez discovers a horrible secret: Jack’s skin is really flaky. Only an iron will and a heart as big as the Gulf of Mexico can allow Inez to see past her lover’s eczema. She buys Jack a bottle of Eucerin, and the two live happily ever after.

The Wrong Way

what is hiding under the stairs? its FOOT. what is dark secret in unmarked grave? FOOT. how can pretty lady escape FOOT and the dark powers? FOOT is everywhere. cannot escape. lady dies so much. the end.

Step Four: Talk About Yourself

Most agents and publishers want to know a little bit about the person whose work they’re reading. Stick to what’s relevant: how long have you been writing? Have you been published before through a traditional publishing house? In a journal or newspaper? On a blog? What sort of writing-related credentials do you have? Do you have a degree in creative writing? Are you the organizer of a local writers’ group?

The Right Way

I graduated from the University of Fiji in 2003 with a Bachelor’s in English Composition. Since then, I have taught creative writing at Vanuatu Community College while working as a freelance editor on the side. I also write regularly on a variety of topics at my blog, allyemerson.com.

The Wrong Way

i am 17 years old. i live with my grandma. she rly likes this story. i like to jog, bike, and play in the tumble dryer. i have 2 dogs used to have 3 but one of them died. 😦

Step Five: Acknowledgment

Thank the publisher or agent for their time and consideration.

The Right Way

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

The Wrong Way

publish my book or you will be the murdered

Step Six: Closing

Say goodbye!

The Right Way


Ally Emerson

13 Pineapple Dr.
Honolulu, HI 98765
(999) 999-9999

The Wrong Way

PEACE OUT!!!!!!!!!


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