Saturday, February 16, 2013

How to phrase my query letter?

Dear Mr. Lukeman, Your books are among my favorite writing references. As I prepare my query letter, your advice on the topic has been particularly useful. I've composed a personal query that I feel reflects the type of novel I have written. Yet, frequently I've come across emphatic advice to place the hook in the first paragraph, leading with such phrasing as "When Jane Doe is faced with (random compelling crisis)" or the like. My tastes lean toward literary fiction, and when I imagine phrasing my query leading with a hook, it doesn't suit my story. In your query letter book, you mentioned how conflicting the advice is on the subject. Is it due to genre preference perhaps? Do you consider this type of format more typically used with manuscripts of commercial fiction?

It is impossible to say, to speak in generalities, without having a chance to read your query letter specifically. In every case it will be different.

The most important thing to realize here is that query letters are limited; you only have finite space. They are also showcases for writers to exhibit their talent with word economy and with their ability to grip a reader in just a few sentences. On any given day at a major literary agency, hundreds of queries might arrive. Yours must stand out. Not in a cheap, gimmicky way. But in an organic way, one reflective of you and your writing. That said, it is not a passive letter--it must be an active one, one that appreciates how much is at stake, and how much must be accomplished in a short period of time. Remember what Mark Twain said:

"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."


  1. Mr. Lukeman, I hate to bring this up, especially to someone whose books have had pride of place in my reference shelf since I began writing, but it was Blaise Pascal who said, "I have made this letter a rather long one, only because I didn't have the leisure to make it shorter."
    But other than that, your advice is excellent (as always). Thanks for sharing.

  2. Richard: Thanks for pointing out the earlier Pascal quote, but while you are correct that Pascal said that, Mark Twain is also attributed with saying: "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." It may very well be that Twain knowingly watered-down the Pascal, but it is still an accurate Twain quote.

    1. Duly noted. Perhaps this goes to show that there's really nothing new under the sun (which, by the way, goes all the way back to Ecclesiastes). Many thanks for your excellent blog.

  3. Dear Mr. Lukeman: Should I query two books at once? Long story short, I will have two manuscripts completed roughly at the same time (a novel and a collection of linked short fiction). Obviously the novel will be more attractive to agents, but is there a benefit is mentioning the other book when I approach agents (and if so, how)? I have previously published three well-reviewed books (poetry) and will have an academic non-fiction book out shortly, and these would be my fiction debuts. A related question: Since 2005, I have garnered $78,000 in scholarships, grants, and awards related to my writing, $69,000 of which directly relates to these two books. This seems like something worth mentioning in a query letter, but I don't know how to do so tactfully and purposefully.

  4. You say to treat memoir as fiction when querying, and that makes sense to me. My concern is, will I irritate agents if I don't follow their specific guidelines for submitting non-fiction?

  5. Mr. Lukeman,

    If I can describe my plot in two sentences, is it okay to use the third sentence in that paragraph to describe the voice in my writing or is that amateurish?

    Thanks a lot,
    Donna Voss

  6. Dear Mr. Lukeman,

    I've noticed a trend in YA books, that many follow the exact same popular formulas and are inhabiting an increasingly narrow scope. I keep hearing literary agents say they're "looking for something different", but I'm starting to doubt the validity of that. Why would you take a risk on something that might not make money in an industry that's becoming increasingly difficult to make money in, when you can just follow a formula that is guaranteed to make you money? I can't for one second believe that something like Watership Down would be published in this day and age, (and it definitely wouldn't be published by an American publisher), despite it never being out of print.
    My question is, when the average attention span of a literary agent is ten times less than that of the average reader, and query letters at best show the competence of a writer, is it more important in this day and age for the story to be well done or for the story to be marketable? Because I'm starting to think they're not the same thing, despite what Stephen King said when he said "If your writing is good, it will sell."


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