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  • Writer's pictureLeeyanne Moore

"Uncovering the Secrets of Successful Query Letters: The First Step in Your Publishing Process "

Updated: Mar 1



Could you write an entire book over two years by just writing one hour a week? Yes! Yes.* And then you’re done—right? Right? Why are you looking at me that way? That’s not right?

Actually, finishing a whole book is only one third of the entire process. Then you must get the book published. Then you must market the book and sell it. (Some say selling the book is 50% of the work. Oy!)

For many, seeking publication once the book is ready means stepping into a whole new world. It’s different and scary compared to the snuggly process of writing. While this is all new—keep remembering: this can be exciting! I’m here to hold your hand through the entire process, if you like. Let’s begin!

The traditional route: (Not going trad? See down—waaaaay down—below.)

STEP 1: AGENT RESEARCH:

  • Definitely do your research.

  • Capture any exciting information about her that makes her seem destined to be your agent. (She writes that she loves fantasy books with fluffy dinosaurs. My book is chock full of fluffy dinosaurs! – like that.)

  • Yes, cull exact phrases from her website or “Agent Wish List” and use these phrases in your letter. She’ll know you did your research and by acting in this professional way, you will have cleared at least one hurdle with this agent.

  • Note any terms that may give you valuable info – ‘seeking light commercial fantasy’ the agent says? Yes, my book is light. Yes, it is a quick entertaining read--Hey cool! I’m discovering that my book is a light, commercial fantasy. I’m going to get excited anytime I see an agent looking for this term and I’m going to describe my book this way.##

STEP 2: THE QUERY LETTER:

The query letter is a whole, unique form of writing unto itself. Why is it so challenging? Well…parts of it aren’t. It’s got a very basic format which goes like this***:

  • Opening: Hey agent (I’ve spelled her name correctly here) Here’s why you’re so completely awesome and why we might be a good fit.

  • Middle (this is the tricky part): Here’s who my heroine is, here’s what she wants, and here’s why she can’t get it. This is NOT a synopsis. (A synopsis is a whole other tricky beast that people hate and pay me to write for them.) Instead what we have here is a pitch for your book that’s a mélange of major plot points, feels-laden tropes presented in a somewhat fresh way. It’s a sketch of a beginning, middle, and end. The feels must dominate—that’s what often gets people to buy the book. If there’s romance sub-plot, yes, you gotta slide that in too, because it helps sell a book. Ditto a mystery subplot. Include that too. Also this core pitch (but not the rest of the query) must reflect your book’s tone. If you use saucy pirate language in your book, then query letter must reflect this saucy pirate language when used to relate the story—at least a wee little bit. Feels people! It’s all about feels!

  • Final Paragraph:

Here’s why I’m a serious author, and a few key author-related highlights of my life. And if my story is a thriller about a veterinarian that explores underwater caves, and I, in real life, am also a veterinarian that explores underwater caves, I will make it clear that I have my veterinarian degree, and have explored underwater caves for the last decade or so. (If this is, in fact, true. Always include what speaks to your expertise in writing the book. Never lie or oversell.)

Key Points to Query Better:

  • Your agent is busy, busy, busy and gets maybe 1200 queries a day at certain times of the year. When she looks through her stack of queries, she’s looking to say no. Don’t give her a reason to say no. (But keep it honest.)

  • Yes! Your manuscript is complete at 40k – 80k (for YA books.) You’re at the right length for the genre you’re writing. And the book is done. It’s got to be finished before you submit.

  • Yes, it’s a genre this agent currently represents.

  • Yes, it’s a professionally written one-page query letter in the proper form, with correct punctuation and grammar. Whew! Now she can look at it a bit more closely.

  • Yes, you’ve used language and described the book in a way that provokes a strong positive response in her. Ideally her response is: I want to read this!

I know it seems like the bar is very high here. It is. As I said above, queries are an art form unto themselves. This is why you need to contact me and get my help. I’m a query letter ninja.

STEP 3: LOOK AT THAT QUERY LETTER AGAIN

Once you’ve got a draft of a query letter and you’ve proofread it up, down, and sideways, then you have others proofread it as well.


Every time you send your query to a new agent, you must adapt and tweak your query letter to that individual agent. Track responses as they roll in. What they said. How long it took them to turn it around. The whole process is like a part time job—but again, it can be done in one hour a week. It also feels kind of administrative-y, and very different from how it feels to be writing your story.

HERE’s what an expert – Jane Friedman --- has to say about the query letter process. Moreover, would-be authors, you want to subscribe to her Newsletter/blog. Serious professional authors would be smart to subscribe to her Hot Sheet to stay up on all the latest news in the publishing world.


The Bottom line: Get help! Don’t think you need to do this alone. For some people writing the query letter is sooooo energy sucking.

People who want to self-publish, start HERE with Mark Dawson.

*This is what most of my students do. That said, doing one hour a week is a challenge for many when it comes to writing momentum. Yet spending just two hours a week can create so much more momentum. Strange, but true!


## Don’t try to say that your book is something it’s not. Everyone can be looking for ‘fresh literary language’—but if I don’t have that in my book, or if I’m not sure, then I’m not going to say I do. I’m saving everyone time—because the easiest way to end the agent-author dance is not to meet expectations.


***I’m clearly using a joke-y tone here. DO NOT reproduce this language in your query letter.


NEXT POST: Embrace Resilience! Publishing Query Letters Without Energy Suckage

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